Kindness on the Road

Our jeep broke down in the middle of nowhere as we journeyed to the White Desert of Al Farafrah in Egypt. The sun was fierce, beating mercilessly on us. The air was so dry that I felt I was breathing in an invisible thread of fire. I looked around me and all that met my eyes were mountains of golden sand that stretched far into the horizon on one side, and, running in parallel on the other side, acres of date palm farms.

Being stranded in the middle of nowhere was definitely not part of my travel fantasy of the White Desert, the images of which were enough to invoke the imagination of being in a land of fairy tale where chalk-white rock formations in a multitude of shapes, forms and sizes occupied the landscape, where countless twinkling dots would decorate the clear night skies, and where I would spend a night in the midst of the desert’s rare wonders.

I waited for a miracle to happen so our jeep would come roaring back to life. My travel companion, my sister, was as quiet as a rock. I supposed in a situation like this, sometimes it would be best to let silence comfort us.

Our guide and driver were putting in every ounce of energy into reviving our jeep. I started to wonder if they actually had the knowledge of what went wrong, let alone fixing it. Deep in my thoughts, I was quite oblivious to a man, who looked to be in his mid-40s, of the Arab lineage, and was clothed in the traditional long tunic, approaching us.

Seeing him, a negative thought was quick to creep in my mind “Oh no desert bandit! We’re doomed”.

Imagining the worst case scenario, I felt tightness in my throat. The man spoke to our guide and driver in what I supposed to be the Arab language. Watching them was like watching a twisted silent movie, twisted as there were actually words exchanged, silent because not understanding a single word of what they were saying was a deafening experience for me. Not understanding a single word being thrown in the air also made me feel powerless, as if all I could do from this moment onwards was to surrender to whatever would come next.

The trio threw their hands up in the air. Their heads shook. Their eyebrows narrowed. The unknown man then turned to look at me and my sister. No words came out of his mouth. I was so focused on my fearful thoughts that I did not even dare to look at my sister — dreadful headlines like “two Malaysian girls were human trafficked and were nowhere to be traced”, “two Malaysian girls being found lifeless some distance away from the White Desert” splashed all over the newsroom of my imaginative faculty.

What our guide told us next, however, was such a great relief that I almost collapsed on the desert floor “He wants to invite us for some tea while a “desert mechanic” fixes the jeep”. Sweet tea we shall have then!

My tension melt into nothing. My body slumped, losing its stiff posture. This must be the sense of relief that any innocent individuals wrongly charged would feel when the judge announced they were found guiltless and were to be released immediately.

So off we went to the place of this stranger — whose name I later discovered was Tariq — located some distance away from where we were stranded, in the midst of a date palm farm. Walking side-by-side with my sister, silence still filled the air between us, I was tempted to, and could, continue to imagine more bad things “What if this is a trap?”.

But I decided to let go of my fear and have a little faith in human kindness.

Mt. Kailash: Keep the Faith!


Walking beside a local family performing their Kora together. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

“Are you a Buddhist?” that was the very first question my friend asked me when I enthusiastically told him about my plan to do the three-day Kora (pilgrim circuit) around Mt. Kailash in Tibet.

“You know I am not.” I replied simply.

“Why would you want to do it then?” came his follow-up question; this time, he asked with a degree of curiosity.

In response to his second question, I gave him a raised eyebrow and a twisted lip. On the one hand, I was a bit annoyed by his limiting presumption that the Kora would attract or would be for pilgrims only. On the other hand, I was questioning my own keen interest in partaking in the spiritual circumambulation. Why would I want to do it, exactly? Deep down, was I in search of some spiritual blessings or awakening like most of the Kora pursuers were?

Also known as Kang Ringpoche (translated as “Precious Jewel of Snow”) in the Tibetan language, the 6714m-high pyramid-shaped Mt. Kailash was revered not just by the Buddhists, but also by the believers of three other faiths — Hinduism, Jainism and Bonism. They believed in the sacredness of the mountain for different reasons. For instance, the Buddhists believed Mt. Kailash was the holy abode of the wrathful manifestation of Buddha Sakyamuni named Demchok while the Hindus believed the mountain was the sanctified domain of their God of Destroyer called Shiva.

During my visit most of the people I encountered outside of my small 6-person trekking group were Buddhist pilgrims from areas as near as the Ngari prefecture that was home to Mt. Kailash and places as far as Tibet’s capital of Lhasa. It had come to my observation that the devout and faithful pilgrims were of different age groups. Apparently I was mistaken to think the Kora would be physically impossible for the young children, or the elderly for that matter. Equipped with my limited Chinese language proficiency, I made light conversations with some of the local pilgrims who spoke the language in addition to their own Tibetan native tongue. One family told me their two little boys were as young as 6 and 7 years old and that it was their first time doing the Kora together. One young man told me he and his friends were from an area far away from the Ngari prefecture but their work brought them to Mt. Kailash so they grabbed the opportunity to circumambulate the holy mountain.

Despite their differences in terms of age, gender, place of origin or the number of times they had completed the Kora, they shared (very) strongly one thing in common: the firm belief in the religious significance of performing Kora to gain blessings — the more Koras one did, the more blessings he would receive, and the greater his chance of being reborn in a better state or form in the next life would be.

Tashi, our local Tibetan guide whose short, curly black hair caught my attention the first time we met at the Lhasa Gonggar Airport, informed us that there were two types of Kora: inner Kora and outer Kora. He shared that in Buddhism beliefs one must perform the outer Kora at least 13 times before she would be allowed to do an inner Kora. At the age of 30, Tashi had done 3 inner Koras and completed his 57th outer Kora with us. I pictured his pool of blessings from all those Koras he had performed and would most certainly do more was getting deeper and deeper.

Most of the Buddhist pilgrims either had a Tibetan mala (prayer beads) in their left hands which they gently rolled with their thumbs or they carried a handheld prayer wheel in their right hands which they spun clockwise (in the same direction as they, and we, walked around Mt. Kailash) and murmured Buddhist mantra. It was also not uncommon to see the hardy souls perform the Kora by repeatedly prostrating themselves along the 52-kilometer outer circumambulation path. I observed that this devotional practice entailed some steps or patterns performed according to a particular sequence — raising the hands which were clasped in the prayer position to the sky; touching the hands to the head, mouth and heart; kneeling down; dropping the body forward; and lying face down on the ground at full body-length.

Watching the pilgrims, I was profoundly moved by their strong religious faith. How could they be so devoted to something that was intangible or unprovable? Watching them also compelled me to look within myself. I was once quite a believer in my own religious beliefs. However, as I grew older and became more exposed to the multitudes of spiritual concepts or systems outside of my own, my grip on my own faith began to loosen. I had great respect for people who were devoted to their faith. I could become curious about different religious traditions or systems, or even be fascinated with them. However, when it came to my personal religiosity, I had simply become distant and uninvolved.

The thought about my own spirituality was interrupted by the humbling sight of local pilgrims who chose to walk instead of prostrate sharing their drinking water with those who did the latter. Kale, one of our trekking group members, also stopped to offer some of his water and food with most of the prostrators whom he walked past. Witnessing first-hand this gesture of kindness I was moved and inspired to show similar kindness to some of the pilgrims I encountered along the way. I supposed there was much truth in the saying that kindness was contagious.


The Kora was much more arduous than I thought it would be. Day 1 was a trek of 20km from Darchen (4575 meters) to Dirapuk (near 5000 meters); Day 2 covered 22km with the highest elevation of 5630 meters at Dromala Pass; Day 3 was a relatively short and easy trek of 10km back to Darchen. Although I had been taking Acetazolamide faithfully since a few days prior to arriving in Tibet, I still experienced some physical discomfort related to altitude such as chest tightness, bleeding nose and headaches. At such high elevation of the Kora, the weather conditions could be extreme.  On the one hand, the oppressive heat not only tired me out easily, it also burned my sunscreen-applied face. On the other hand, the biting cold and strong winds chilled my covered-with-thermal-gloves fingers and wrapped-in-layers-of-socks toes into clumsy numbness. We occasionally stopped at tea houses along the way for some much-needed rest. Holding a cup of hot salted black tea or sweet tea in my hands, I felt a tingling sensation in my numbing cold fingers. I also made sure I warmed my toes and socks by sitting as close to the traditional fireplace as possible before continuing on the journey.

My legs were wobbly after having covered some great distance of constantly walking uphill and downhill. My knees and thighs were especially sore. The muscle in my right calf felt so tight that I might have a calf strain anytime. At one point of Day 1 and much of Day 2, I experienced sharp pain in my lower back which I assumed was the result of carrying my backpack for hours on end. Going uphill was particularly difficult for me. I practically had to stop after every 10 steps. Every time I stopped, my heart beat so fast and loud that I could almost hear it. My breathing became more labored.  No matter how hard I tried to inhale a great amount of air into my body, there just seemed never enough air entering my lungs. At that very moment, I thought how I had taken breathing/air for granted all this while in my usual environment.

At the end of Day 1, I experienced a throbbing left-side headache. The pain was so intense that it felt as if my eye would pop out of its socket. I broke down for the first time. Tylenol and hot ginger water helped reduce the pain. But the stubborn headache attacked again around midnight. In cold darkness, I lay wide awake in bed listening to the haunting sound of the fierce wind. The hours seemed extremely long and lonely. Thoughts were my only friends — hot chicken broth, hot latte, warm toes and fingers, hot shower that would thoroughly clean me from head to toe, my dusty thermal pants and trekking shoes that I had worn for a few days and would wear until the last day of the Kora, abandoning my Kora mission, my wonderful trekking group, the kind, generous and friendly local pilgrims I met along the way, how flexible and adaptable I could be outside of my comfort zone and without all those modern conveniences back home, how fortunate I was to be in Tibet, and to be still alive!

I prayed my bladder would hold until the day broke. There was no way I was going outside in the bone-chilling penetrating cold and howling wind for a washroom visit. As the washroom facility was too rustic and exuded a stench so repulsive one would crinkle her nose, I had developed a preference for nature peeing. I supposed exhaustion eventually reigned over the headache that I drifted back to dreamland.

Day 2 was the most challenging. At the end of it I got a blood-shot left eye which caused a blurry vision. I felt as if there was a very thin layer covering my eye. I couldn’t help but keep wiping my eye with a clean tissue in an attempt to remove “it”. Not being able to see clearly was definitely frustrating. One of my trekking group members, Karina, kindly offered me her eye drop. Tashi also squeezed a couple of drops of some Tibetan natural eye liquid (said to be very effective) into my eye. I hoped with some good night’s sleep and the magic of eye drops, the vision of my left eye would return (it did on the following day).

Day 1 and Day 2 were so challenging that Day 3 was a piece of cake. The terrain was mostly flat. I walked at a leisurely pace. I stopped numerous times to take in the beauty of my surroundings. The mountains loomed large. The sound of flowing river was peaceful. The winds had calmed down. I did a large chunk of the walk back to Darchen with Mayan, the beautiful 5-foot, long-black-hair fashion designer from Israel, who taught me a great deal about Buddhism and such important-but-often-overlooked concepts as self-understanding, self-compassion and the power of living in the moment.

As we were getting closer to Darchen, I stopped in my tracks and looked back at where we came from. Mt. Kailash had disappeared from my sight. The circumambulation path seemed very long and distant again. My mind drifted back to the day when my friend asked me why I would want to pursue the Kora around Mt. Kailash. If there was one thing that I could be certain of, it would be that the Kora neither drew me for a spiritual goal or purpose nor it helped me rekindle a fire for my own faith.

However, it helped me discover another kind of faith. On the one hand, it was the faith in myself — faith in my physical capability when pushed to its limits; faith in my ability to adapt myself to new surroundings; and faith in my ability to be flexible.

On the other hand, it was the faith in human kindness which was prevalent throughout much of the Kora — Kale and some of the local pilgrims who shared their water and food with those prostrating pilgrims; the woman who offered her handmade bread to two of our group members whose stomachs could not handle instant noodle soup; Chris (another group member) whom I would describe as a walking coffee shop as he always had hot coffee and was more than willing to share some with the group; Karina who offered me some eye drop when I got a blood-shot eye; the two elderly pilgrims who voluntarily helped me during a descent on a loose and slippery section of Day 2’s trail — one held my hand and arm to make sure I would not fall and the other helped carry my Nikon D90 to reduce the weight on my shoulders; the kind and motivating remarks that Tashi and the group members told one another so we could keep going; the constant exchange of “Tashi delek” greetings and warm smiles between those who were present. Those small acts of kindness were absolutely priceless.

Kindness was a form of spirituality, was it not?

With those thoughts swirling around in my head, I slowly covered the remaining distance back to Darchen. When I finally hit the first shop of this small, isolated town, I looked back again at where we came from. Mt. Kailash was visible again, and from where I was standing, it loomed large and powerful. But this time I felt I had gotten to know it a little bit more compared to the days prior to the Kora, a journey that not only strengthened my faith in myself, but that also inspired me to keep the faith in human kindness.



Prayer flags and local pilgrims offering a prayer to Mt. Kailash.


The South Face of Mt. Kailash.


The West Face of Mt. Kailash.


Part of the Kora trail. The sun was intense, and the winds were strong.


Part of the Kora trail. We appeared ever so small in comparison to Mother Nature!


Some local pilgrims performed the Kora by prostrating.


Part of the Kora trail. Icy and absolutely slippery.


Part of the Kora trail.


Feasted our eyes on stunning views along the trek.


My wonderful trekking group members from different countries and our dedicated guides. Absolutely loved them.


The woman who offered her bread to two of our trekking members. I offered her my medicated spray and patch for her injured knee.






Fall back in love: Gaya Street Fair

20180909_214126It could be difficult to miss the Gaya Street Fair when you were in the heart of Kota Kinabalu city on any Sunday. It was a good place to stop by if you were hunting for some tacky souvenirs ranging from trinkets that had a feeble local flavor to them, to those items that could momentarily transport you back to times when you walked down the streets flanked by touristy shops in Bangkok or Bandung. If you were a keen people-watcher, the Gaya Street Fair allowed you to catch a glimpse into the ordinary lives of the local people or the predictable behaviors of tourists without being noticed.

As a matter of fact, you wouldn’t need a single specific reason to be at the fair. While the ceaseless chatter and chaos could be pretty daunting at times, it could be fascinating to feast your eyes on the wild assortment of items for sale at the Gaya Street Fair —ranging across the edible and the non-edible, big and small, sturdy and fragile, colorful and monochrome, brand new and decade-old. You would be bound to be surprised with what you could find at the fair.

I had probably visited the Gaya Street Fair a hundred times. As a young girl, the fair was a food sanctuary where I could indulge in assorted pickles, smooth chilled tofu pudding, traditional cakes, and the list went on. Years went by, and without much realization, I couldn’t even remember the last time I was at the Gaya Street Fair. I wondered what happened.


Perhaps the time had arrived for me to rekindle my relationship with the Gaya Street Fair. After all, a large slice of my childhood memory pie was founded there. A couple of weeks ago I finally went back to the fair after all these years.

It was quite a mix of feelings to be walking down the market street again. On the one hand, things were pretty much the same as they were years ago. There was still a wide variety of items one could possibly find at the fair, if not more. Crowds and their endless chatter were still a defining character of the fair. Tofu pudding and pickles were ever-present, though they seemed to have lost their gastronomical appeal to me. On the other hand, I sensed some changes, whether they were good or otherwise. For instance, I came across such keepsakes as elephant-loose-long-pants, dream catchers, wooden masks that seemed to have taken off along with souvenirs that were more reflective of the true colors of the Land Below the Wind.

There was something else that was new to me. Or perhaps it had always been there; it just didn’t pick up the interest of the younger me. It was that side of the Gaya Street Fair that witnessed the gathering of men and women from the Sabah Society for the Blind. I learned that they would be at the fair every Sunday to offer their affordable, said-to-be-effective foot and shoulder massage therapy.

I decided to give my sore feet a moment of pampering. After all, RM25 for a 30-minute foot reflexology would probably be a worthwhile investment knowing whose pocket the money would go into. I awkwardly picked my massage therapist — a woman in her late 40s. I sat down on the plastic chair across from her and, as instructed, put my feet up on the wooden low stool placed between us. As if doing some sort of preliminary assessment, she asked if I had previously done foot reflexology to which I answered “yes, many times”. She then wrapped my right foot in a towel, applied lotion to my left foot and began to rub, knead, push and massage pressure points on the bottom, top and sides of my left foot. When she sunk her fingers into my foot arch, I gasped in agony which soon faded to a dull throb. As foot reflexology was an ancient healing practice based on the principle that there were reflex points on the foot that corresponded to the body’s different organs and glands, could my sore arch mean my kidneys were in need of some kind of medical attention? A thought that sent chills down my spine.

My massage therapist was friendly enough to start a conversation. I was not in a cheery mood for it but what would be ruder than being ignorant to someone apparently trying to be nice? I learned her name was Lina, from the small town of Malangang, had grown-up children whom she had not seen for who knows how many years, and that she had been with the Sabah Society for the Blind for a long time. It was such a pleasant conversation that I began to divert my attention away from the pain of the foot massage.

When we were not talking, I took the liberty of stealing a glance at her and her belongings — her black flat shoes, blue collar t-shirt, thick sunglasses, hair tied back in a ponytail, visible wrinkles on her face and hands, her seemingly battered sling bag, her packed breakfast of fried noodles and milk coffee. Suddenly I felt a hot flush of embarrassment flooding my face. What was I doing? Looking beyond Lina’s role as my service provider, I began to see her in different lights — someone’s mother, sister, daughter, friend. At that very instant, my heart was softened for her and questions started pouring in — what happened to her, where her children were…how life had been treating her.

I paid greater attention to my immediate surroundings. I listened more attentively to the conversations going around me. An elderly massage therapist probably in his 60s, who was sitting just a few feet away from me, caught my attention. He was making a joke about something that happened in his morning, which apparently made his friends laugh and to which they responded by intensifying the joke. They then all burst into laughter. When he was not making a joke, he would be calling for the public’s attention by yelling out “come, come, massage, massage”. The way he said the word massage — ma sa ji — was the cutest sound to my ears that morning.

Watching them, a sense of calmness and inspiration coursed through me. I got the impression that these men and women from the Sabah Society for the Blind shared a close bond with one another. They could have known one another for a long time, becoming family-like. One might mistakenly presume they sought sympathy from the public, but they struck me as some of the strongest, most independent and most dignified individuals with whom I had crossed paths. They worked hard to financially support themselves. They certainly didn’t ask for handouts. It might, too, be a mistake to assume they were sad, pathetic and suffering because they had some form of visual impairment. Nevertheless, judging from what I had seen and heard, they seemed happy and content with what they had. They connected. They told stories. They made jokes. They smiled. They laughed. What was their secret ingredient of happiness, if such thing even existed? Would it be appreciating and making the most of what one already had? I wouldn’t and couldn’t know for certain. Nonetheless, if they were judges of the day, they could have easily charged me with the crime of ingratitude, a crime that an 18-century philosopher David Hume described as “the most horrible and unnatural crime that a person is capable of committing”.

Suddenly I felt a repetitive tap on my right ankle, awakening me from my deep thoughts. It was Lina signaling the end of my session with her. Feeling embarrassed that I might have taken her time longer than I should have, I hurriedly paid her. I did feel a bit more relaxed and lighter. As I was getting up to leave, I gently squeezed Lina’s left hand and said “I will come back for more, Aunty Lina”.

Will I come back for more, to Lina or to the Gaya Street Fair? I thought as I made my way back to the parking lot. I might have fallen out of love with the fair a long time ago. Could I, however, find a reason to fall back in love with it?

Perhaps I had already found that reason — the down-to-earth side of the Gaya Street Fair where, despite being surrounded by strangers, I felt I was already home —relaxed, connected, inspired, and most of all, grateful.


Trusmadi: a journey of personal growth

image2What if I got lost? What if the road was inaccessible to my small car? What if my car broke down in the middle of nowhere and I didn’t know how to fix it? I could go on with the list of what-if questions that haunted my mind a few days prior to my adventure to trek Mount Trusmadi, the second highest mountain in Borneo and Malaysia at 2642 meters.

I have usually traveled with my best friend Jason or my oldest sister Shuzy. But this time I would be going alone. I had never been to Keningau town that acted as the gateway for trekking Mount Trusmadi via the Sinua trail, let alone having been to Sinua Village where Base Camp 1, Tainiskon Camp, was located. As someone who got anxious pretty quickly when faced with uncertainty, it was only normal for me to have all those what-if questions and to do whatever it took to alleviate my anxiety. I read extensively. I asked millions of questions. The wife (Veronica) of the camp’s operator (Denis) sent me their location so I could track them via GPS; she also convinced me that the 2-kilometer gravel road to their camp was accessible to even small cars like mine.

The only thing I was quite sure of was my physical fitness to trek Mount Trusmadi. I thought I should not have much difficulty in reaching the mountain’s highest summit considering its lower altitude compared to Mount Kinabalu’s (4095 meters) which I had conquered three times. Of the three trails to trek Mount Trusmadi, I chose the longest one (Sinua Trail) which was about 12 kilometers from the first base camp to the highest summit.

A day before my adventure, I happened to be talking to a girl who was from Keningau Town. Once again, I asked my biggest anxiety-laden question: is the camp accessible to my small car? to which the girl answered “the place is only accessible by 4×4 vehicles, especially when it rains a lot like these days. You’d better double check with the camp operator”. A wave of panic washed over me. It even crossed my mind to cancel the trip. However, all of a sudden, I felt exasperated by fear or anxiety being in the saddle. So I literally said out loud (pardon my language) “fear, go f*** yourself”. I didn’t bother to double check with Veronica regarding accessibility. I mean what’s the worst that could happen?


The following day I left home for the trip at 11am. My usual anxious self would have left much earlier, say at 6am…just in case! According to Google Maps, I should arrive at Base Camp 1 in 4 – 5 hours. I actually felt excited, happy, fearless and adventurous about whatever that was ahead of me. The first day’s goal was to get to Base Camp 1. I followed the mountainous Kimanis-Keningau route. I had read that the highway was “notorious for its very steep gradients along the way, ranging from 10% to about 25%, making the Kimanis–Keningau Highway the steepest highway in Malaysia”. Although my small car moved ever so slowly on uphills, the drive was truly gratifying. I rolled down my car windows, enjoyed the cool air, feasted my eyes on the breathtaking mountainous scenery; the wind was blowing through my hair, and the sun felt nice on my skin. I felt complete freedom. I really couldn’t ask for more. I would definitely not use the word “notorious” to describe my drive along the Kimanis-Keningau highway.

After driving for about 5 hours (with a lunch stop at KFC in Keningau), I came face-to-face with the last 2-kilometer gravel road that would take me to Base Camp 1. Was it as bad as I had imagined? I must say it was nothing like what I had feared. My small car made through it just fine. I also found the camp without any difficulty despite having turned off Google Maps. As I walked toward the reception area of the camp, I thought to myself “I had feared getting lost for nothing”.

The next two days were dedicated to trekking: day 2 was to get from camp 1 to camp 2 (8 kilometers), and day 3 was to get from camp 2 to the highest peak of Mount Trusmadi (about 4 kilometers) and then all the way back to camp 1 after lunch. Trekking with me were a group of 5 fellow trekkers from Germany and 2 guides. Uncertainty aside, I could also get anxious in social situations. Although I would not be obliged to socialize with anybody and I had always felt comfortable being on my own, I still had concerns “what are my fellow trekkers like?”, “is it going to be awkward being in the same trekking group with them?” As it turned out, my fellow German trekkers were some of the friendliest, funniest, most generous, and most humble individuals I could ever meet. They were mother and son, Connie & Marius; a lovely couple, Sylvia & Tobias; and a solo traveler, Tiud. Our guides were Shed and Mac.

Day 2’s trekking was quite easy for me. We started out around 8am. We crossed a suspension bridge. We crossed a river. We went uphills and downhills. We went from lowland forest to mossy forest. We occasionally stopped for a break. As we went up higher and higher, the temperatures dropped, the air became cooler, the forest floor became softer and spongy.

By the time we reached camp 2 around 2pm, I already felt relaxed and comfortable socializing with my fellow German trekkers. I became especially close to Tiud, who was a psychotherapist and at 58, I must say she was such a strong and fit woman to be trekking Mount Trusmadi. A bitter wind was blowing hard, giving a numbing chill to our extremities. The warm sun felt extra nice on my skin. The surrounding scenery was remarkably beautiful — nature in its most intact, undisturbed, wild state. Sitting under a little hut, we had a pleasant chit-chat over coffee/tea and biscuits. I enjoyed getting to know my fellow trekkers – what they did for work, why Trusmadi, about their 3-week Borneo holiday, about Germany…such conversations always reminded me of part of the beauty of travel — how it makes people from different parts of the world cross paths, though only for a short period of time.

Shed and Mac pointed to us the three peaks for tomorrow early morning (1.30am)’s trek. From where we were standing, the peaks seemed impenetrable. For the first time in this trip, I doubted my capability “will I make it?”. All, except Connie and I, decided to abandon their attempt to conquer Borneo’s second highest peak. Personally, I felt I would feel incapable and even regretful if I gave up before I even tried it. As Shed said “just give it a try; we can always go back if you think you can’t go on any longer”.

We all retired to hammock-and-sleeping-bag dreamland when darkness fell. I had trouble falling asleep. The sound of howling wind in the trees and rustling of leaves was rather creepy, the night was freezing cold and I could not shake off the fear of tomorrow’s trek. I was questioning if I should do it at all. Despite the chaos in my mind, I noticed just how magnificent the clear night sky was when decorated with jillions of twinkling dots. The charm of it all must have been so enchanting and calming that I finally fell asleep, before being awaken by our cooks’ loud, passionate he-deleted-me-on-FB conversation while they made our breakfast slightly after midnight.

We (Shed, Mac, Connie and I) started our trek a few minutes before 1.30am. Darkness engulfed us, reducing our sense of sight and increasing our senses of hearing, smell and touch. We could only see as far as our headlights. The ghostly howling noise of the wind sounded more eerie. When it calmed down, we could hear the ambient sound of birds and insects. When they were not singing, the silence of the forest was almost deafening. The night air felt colder but as we went further and higher it felt warm. The mosses that had grown on rocks, fallen trees and living roots on the forest floor felt soft and damp to the touch. A part of me was glad that it was dark all around us except the spot illuminated by our headlights for I would/could not know if the object of my phobia was present or not — soft, fuzzy caterpillars that wobbled, crawled and crept on the forest furniture and fixtures.

For the most part we trekked in peaceful silence. Our pace was slow and steady. The trail became tougher and harsher as we went further and higher. My breathing became more labored. My legs felt heavier. At different points of the trail, we crawled (Shed called it the 4×4 technique); we grabbed tree roots for support; we overcame the steep, almost 90-degree uphills with the help of a rope, a steel ladder, or a wooden ladder; we stretched our thigh muscles as far as we could to make huge steps; we extended our arms as far as we could to hold onto the nearest tree root. We must stay alert and focused at all times as one misstep could lead to a sheer drop into the abyss. With his machete, Shed sometimes cleared the low-hanging or protruding tree branches obstructing our way.

After what seemed like eternity, we finally reached the first summit (2 kilometers from Camp 2). We took a little longer than the planned 2 hours. From the summit, we could see small villages and even Keningau town that appeared as little pulses of light against the dark backdrop. I looked up to the sky and felt lost in the beauty of the stars-dotted night sky. I thought just how small we were in comparison to the whole universe. Perhaps Mother Nature was kind to me for once again I felt energetic and determined to reach the highest peak for sunrise.

The trail from the first summit to the third was as tough and harsh, and mostly watery and muddy. The muddy ground squished as we treaded it. It wasn’t long before my shoes and the bottom part of my long pants were covered in mud. Connie joked that we were dirty like pigs. At one point she turned to me and said “you are crazy” to which I laughingly replied “we both are!”.

As we were approaching the second summit (1.2 kilometers from the first summit), a shimmering grey fog was quick to descend on the area, reducing our visibility and possibly ruining our chances of catching sunrise. Against all odds, we pushed on. Though there was a sense of hurriedness to reach the highest third peak for sunrise, we did not forget to stop and look at the different types of plant species. We saw quite a variety of nepenthes or pitcher plants that I thought the trip might as well be a nepenthes-education trip for me — nepenthes macrophylla, nepenthes lowii, nepenthes tentaculata (which I thought was extremely cute being so small) and nepenthes × trusmadiensis (which was endemic to the upper montane forest of Trusmadi). We were also fortunate enough to spot a Banded Linsang.

As we were closing the distance to the highest peak (800 meters from the second peak), immense satisfaction, an incredible sense of achievement and heartfelt joy and gratitude rushed through me. We arrived just as the sun was rising at 6.10am. Unfortunately, the thick fog stole the spotlight. It effectively blocked the view of sunrise with its ghost-grey, lifeless, noiseless presence. Was I disappointed that we didn’t see sunrise from the top of Mount Trusmadi? Absolutely not! Well, the uninvited presence of the fog was beyond our control. More importantly, we persevered through trials and challenges that we made it to Borneo’s second highest peak. Although being enveloped in fog, the entire area was still absolutely breathtaking. I actually thought the fog added to the splendor as it rendered the entire surroundings with a certain degree of mystery, silence, tranquility, ancientness. Plus, we had the highest peak to ourselves.

The descent back to Camp 2 was, honestly, much of a hell for me as my knees were in excruciating pain. Now that I could see my surroundings clearly, I became sensitive to the possible presence of the object of my phobia. I felt we were on some never-ending journey of pain and exhaustion. When I thought we had walked far enough, my heart sank to see the distance marker that we had just covered another 100 meters. We pushed on and on and on. I kept telling myself that the only way out was through. I made little targets (OK, just get to that weird-looking tree; now, the goal is to get down to that flat moss-covered rock). Sometimes I counted my steps 1, 2, 3, 4, 5….

After what seemed like eternity, Camp 2 finally came into sight again. The positive emotions I felt were so intense that I “forgot” about my exhaustion — joy, relief, satisfaction, gratitude, pride… It was like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Our fellow trekkers cheered for us when they saw us coming. It felt good to be supported. As soon as we reached the little hut, I took off my jacket, dirty shoes and socks. The chill air felt good against my skin. It also felt immensely good to stretch my legs. The best part was treating myself to a cup of hot black coffee. I felt almost like in paradise! For the record, we checked back in to Camp 2 at about 11am, recording the total time of 9 hours 14 minutes for the entire trek. I looked up to the peaks and thought in disbelief “was I really up there just a few hours ago?”. From a distance, they seemed impenetrable again.

After lunch, it was time to walk back to Camp 1. 8 kilometers was the distance. 4 hours was the targeted time. My initial plan was to drive back to Keningau town as soon as we arrived at Camp 1. However, the pain in my knees had become rather unbearable. Every step hurt. I also felt dull with sleepiness given the fact I had been awake for more than half a day now. I would most probably have to stay for another night. And I did. By the time we finally got back to Camp 1, it was near 6pm. It would be very unwise to drive even for just 1 kilometer in the state I was in — stiff and painful knees, sleep deprived, absolutely exhausted, and stank!


It felt like a long time ago since we left Camp 1 when it was just the day before when we started. I was glad I stayed for another night, not for the unpleasant state I was in but I had another night of savoring the 5-star dinner prepared by Veronica, of chatting and laughing with my amazing fellow trekkers from Germany, of being charmed by the stars-filled night sky, of the tranquility of being in a rural area, of being away from the modern conveniences at my fingertips.

I was already up at 5.30am the following day. Not wanting to wake my fellow trekkers, I tried to be as quiet as I could. I could see Denis and Veronica’s mother at the reception area. Veronica must be in the kitchen making breakfast. Carrying my backpack and sleeping bag, I walked toward the reception area. My plan was to leave right after settling the remaining payment. However, Denis insisted that I had breakfast before hitting the road. So I did. Chatting with Denis was a pleasure. Without much realization, my time was showing a few minutes before 7am. I’d better get going. Just before I left, Tiud appeared at the reception area to say goodbye. I had never thought that saying goodbye to her and to Denis and family could be a moving moment for me.

Feeling rather adventurous, I decided to follow the alternative Tambunan route back to the city. The scenery of a large part of the route was stunning — mountain views, lush green paddy fields, small villages, roadside stalls (I stopped at one to buy a bag of fresh mushrooms).

I looked back on the last few days prior to the trip. A lot of the times I was gripped by fear-based what-if questions. I definitely had imagined some worst-case scenarios. If I had succumbed to my fearful voices, I would not have such a challenging but satisfying trek up to Borneo’s second highest peak; met people that made my trip more meaningful — amazing host family, wonderful fellow trekkers, patient & knowledgeable guides, 5-star cooks, strong & fit porters.

By not letting my fears win, taking risks, having a little faith in the uncertainty, I felt more confident about myself, about my capability and worth, about trusting. I didn’t know how adaptive I could be in social interactions. I just needed to be myself, be open-minded and be grateful for the chances of crossing paths with beautiful strangers. I was also inspired to explore more of my homeland’s precious natural resources and engage in more solo travel undertakings. I had underestimated the challenge of Trusmadi. Now it made sense to me when people said “never measure the height of a mountain until you reach the top”. I will certainly keep this in mind for future trekking adventures.


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The last 2 kilometers to Sinua Village from the main road.


The last 300 meters to Tainiskon Camp, the first base camp to trek Mount Trusmadi via Sinua trail.


Parts of the trail from Base Camp 1 to Base Camp 2.

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Parts of the trail from Base Camp 2 to the highest peak of Mt. Trusmadi.

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Parts of the trail from Base Camp 2 to the highest peak of Mt. Trusmadi.

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Parts of the trail from Base Camp 2 to the highest peak of Mt. Trusmadi.


The breathtaking, fog-enveloped, views from the second peak of Mt. Trusmadi.


With Shed and Connie.


Top: rhododendron; Bottom (left to right): rhododendron, blue mushroom (how unique!)


Top (left to right): nepenthes macrophylla, nepenthes × trusmadiensis, nepenthes tentaculata; Bottom: nepenthes lowii


The second peak and highest peak of Mt. Trusmadi seen from the first summit.


Porters, cooks, guide, and trekkers.


With the host family Denis, Veronia, and her mom, Aunty Kilina (who happened to be a childhood friend of my mom’s. How small the world can be!)


The beautiful views of small village, distant hills and lush green paddy fields on my drive back to the city.

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?

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.


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!


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.


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.


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”.


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.


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.


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. 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.


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


The Bridge is a lot more quiet in the morning.


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.


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 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.


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.