Bucket List #22- Ride in a Hot Air Balloon

March 24, 2009- I’m excited to be able to check off multiple bucket list items on one trip. While I was researching this adventure, I spent a lot of time reading hotel reviews and travel forums, trying to make my tight budget stretch as far as possible. Luckily, traveling in Southeast Asia is notoriously cheap and there were plenty of options that wouldn’t break the bank. One thing I knew I was going to have to make room in the budget for as soon as I saw it was a hot air balloon ride over the temples of Bagan. Balloons Over Bagan is a UK company with an impeccable safety record, and even though flights were pricey, it immediately went on the itinerary.

I have to wake up at 4:00 a.m. for the sunrise flight. This trip is a lot of things, but relaxing isn’t really one of them. Note to self: try to build in more leisure time in future. I’m picked up in a rickety old red bus at 5:30 and we drive to an open field next to a golf course. Two other buses have already arrived with other passengers and the crew is unfolding our balloon. Three European couples and two monks, my fellow passengers, are having tea and coffee while the balloon pilot, a funny little British man, runs around the crew, giving orders.

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The balloon flight itself is absolutely magical. Floating through the air over these temples that look straight out of a movie set is an otherworldly experience. The valley is hazy with fog, which is a shame for photos, but feels like a dream. The occasional burst of noise from the burner is the only sound- everyone in the balloon is mesmerized into silence and the world below is still asleep. I know this is going to be the absolute highlight of my trip, and probably one of the travel highlights of my life.

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The flight only lasts about 45 minutes, which is far too short. I’d like to stay up there all day. Our landing is relatively gentle, for a basket full of people dropping out of the sky. The crew serves us champagne and pastries before the buses take us back to our hotels. As we’ve landed in a field right next to mine, I could have walked (along with all the local women carrying baskets on their heads).

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More than seven years after this experience, I can confirm- this hot air balloon right was easily one of the highlights of my life. If you find yourself in Burma, don’t miss this!

A 15 Hour Bus Ride to Bagan

There is really no such thing has high-speed travel in Burma. Infrastructure is spotty and unreliable, no one puts much stock in punctuality, and it’s just assumed that every journey is going to take a lot longer than you planned. The ancient kingdom of Bagan, home to thousands of picturesque temples, is less than 400 miles from the capital city of Yangon. The bus ride, however, takes 15 hours. Yes, you read that correctly. By hour five I am composing a love sonnet to the travel agency that booked me two seats next to each other so I could sort-of stretch out and sleep. The only other American on board (the only other American I would meet on my entire trip) is not so lucky. He sits wedged between an extremely large and sweaty Burmese man and a young boy squatting in the aisle. (Just because all the seats are taken doesn’t mean the bus is full- if you can find a spot to wedge yourself, you can come aboard.) A saintly woman across the aisle with a face heavily caked in thanaka paste does her best to fan the wilting foreigners until the driver finally allows us to crack the windows in the sweltering bus.

It seems to take days to reach Bagan, as we make countless “dinner breaks” at roadside food stands, and pass through several military checkpoints. The other American, two Indian tourists, and I are taken off the bus to have our passports and visas examined at each one- the military junta insists on knowing the whereabouts of all foreigners every night.

Riding in style.
Riding in style.

We finally pull into Bagan at 5:30 a.m. and a driver is waiting to take me to my hotel, which is a pleasant surprise. Not a hotel at all, it is a private bungalow on beautifully landscaped grounds overflowing with tropical flowers and plants. Fighting the urge to shower and go to bed, I tell Zaw, my eager to please driver/tour guide that I’ll be ready to begin sightseeing in about two hours. I can’t even remember how many temples we rush through as I’m struggling to stay awake. By lunchtime I tell him that I need to go back to my room and sleep for a few hours.

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When the alarm wakes me up at 4:00 p.m. I wish I had just called it a day, but we press on through a few more temples. I wish I had weeks to spend in fascinating Bagan instead of just two days.

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Government Spies and a Monk With Crazy Ear Hair

Next on the itinerary is a trip to 2000 year old golden temple Sule Paya, said to contain one of the hairs of the Buddha. My driver parks in a lot about a block away and tells me to “just cross street!” Easier said than done- this is the busiest intersection in Yangon and crossing the street looks about as easy as running with the bulls. I duck into the road behind a group of nuns and hope people will at least swerve to avoid them. 

At 9:00 a.m. it’s already boiling hot and the marble pavilion burns the soles of my bare feet. I’ve made my customary counter-clockwise loop around the jumble of golden Buddhas, neon lights, and praying, chanting Buddhists and am about to leave when a shriveled old monk calls out to me from a tiny alcove. “Hello! Where do you come from?”

“The United States,” I answer, somewhat hesitantly.

“Ah!” He throws his hands up with obvious glee. “Barack Obama!” He motions me closer and I notice he has more ear hair than anyone I’ve ever seen. He scoots into the shade and offers me a seat. He holds up a small transistor radio in a pink plastic bag. “I love Americans. An American gave me this radio.”

My new friend immediately wants to know anything I can tell him about the outside world, American politics, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, JFK, and, oddly, whether Pirates of the Caribbean was based on a true story. Within minutes I realize that this elderly monk from a third world country knows as much about American political history as anyone I know. I ask him where he learned so much and he points to his radio. It’s contraband, and there are no real radio stations in Burma anyway, but he says sometimes at night he can pick up BBC broadcasts out of Singapore. He also talks to every white tourist he sees and asks them for their old newspapers and magazines. The conversation turns to why I have come to Myanmar. “Are you a journalist?” he asks hopefully. He seems disappointed when I say no.

He tells me that many people come to Sule Paya to worship because it contains a hair of the Buddha, but the hair is sealed up inside the golden zedi. “Botataung is better. You can see the Buddha’s hair.” I nod. Maybe I will go there later, I tell him. He stands up and motions for me to follow him back out into the heat. A woman is chanting as she pours small cups of water over the head of a Buddha with a tiger in front of him. I ask my new friend what she’s doing and he tells me she was probably born on Monday. “People born on Monday are ruled by the moon and the spirit of the tiger.” I tell him I was also born on a Monday, and he says I must always pray at the Monday area when I am at a temple. The woman finishes, and he motions for me to approach the statue. A small girl with a bucket darts in front of us and the monk explains, “Many people in the city have no running water, so they send their children here to take some, for drinking and bathing.” The tiny girl finishes filling her bucket, flashes us a big smile, and ambles off with her water.

The monk tells me, “You take the cup, fill with water, and pour over the Buddha’s head once for every year of your life, to acknowledge all of the blessings you have received, plus one more time for a long life. While you do this, you pray silently for peace and prosperity.” As I pour my 30 cups over tiger-Buddha’s head, the monk chants quietly beside me. Peace and prosperity sound great, but I think the cold water splashing down on my feet is the best part. When I finish, the monk nods his approval and says, “I would have guessed you were born on Monday. You look like a tiger!”

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He starts out of the Paya onto the sidewalk where little girls are selling caged sparrows and he motions over his shoulder for me to follow him. I do, and it never occurs to me to ask him where we’re going. He immediately turns down an alley filled with huge piles of garbage and that open-sewer smell I’ve come to associate with Yangon. I see motion behind one of the trash piles and realize people live here. As my eyes adjust to the semi-darkness, I realize a lot of people live here. A man with vacant eyes rubs the legs of his sick, moaning child as she lies on a towel in the street. Nearby a dirty, naked baby picks up bits of trash from the gutter and puts them in his mouth.

I look at the monk and he says, “Every alley in Yangon you will see this same thing. Many of these people were forced into slavery by our government, and when they became injured from building roads and such, they were sent back here to starve, unable to work.”

We leave the alley and continue to walk as he tells me his thoughts on Barack Obama (“I liked him very much at first, now I still like him but I’m not sure about Joe Biden.”) and the United Nations (not doing enough for the people of Myanmar) to NASA (“Very impressive that they can send things into space like that. It hardly seems possible that one nation can be so advanced when others cannot even feed their children.”) He is very vocal about the way the Burmese government abuses and mistreats the people, and, like July, asks me if I am aware of The Lady and her struggle for democracy. I tell him I am, and he says many of his friends and brothers were among the 4000 monks slaughtered in the streets in 1988 during a peaceful protest. He only survived by covering himself with the bodies of his dead brethren and lying motionless for hours until it was safe to flee. Thousands more were arrested and taken to Insein Prison, but have never been seen or heard from again. “This is why we need the United States and United Nations to speak for us. We speak for ourselves and we are killed.”

I ask why he is so comfortable speaking about these matters in the street with so many people around, and he shrugs. “Let them arrest me or kill me. At least I won’t die sitting around like a sheep, as so many of these people who have no hope left. I am a very old man and will die one day soon anyway.”

I finally think to ask where we are walking, and he says, “Botataung Paya. So you can see the Buddha hair.” And then we arrive at the small temple, surrounded by the usual throng of vendors and taxi drivers and small kids hoping for candy to materialize from foreign pockets.

Inside the star-shaped pagoda is a maze of mirrors with the faithful hunched down and praying in corners, chanting and counting their mala beads. The monk, whose name I never learned, points me toward an excited mob of people gathered around a tiny window. “Buddha hair. Go look. I’ll wait.” It takes me ten minutes to work my way to the front of the crowd, and when I finally stand on tiptoes to peer into the window, all I see are dusty flowers, gold and ivory carvings. It’s so hot I’m getting dizzy, and someone is grinding their elbow into my ribs. I’m happy to take their word that there’s a sacred hair in there somewhere if it means getting out of this mob.

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My self appointed tour guide then leads the way into the mirrored maze and finds a cool place for us to sit. I tell him my driver is still waiting back at Sule Paya, and he asks why we walked if I had a driver.

 

As he continues to talk politics, I ask him if I can take his picture. This attracts the attention of two young monks who immediately charge over and ask my name. I tell them, and they want to know where I am from. One walks away immediately, but the other stares at me suspiciously before stepping away and continuing to watch us out of the corner of his eye.

The old monk leans over and says quietly, “Don’t tell them anything else. Those are not monks.” He gets up and motions for me to follow him outside, where he continues, “Did you notice how forcefully they spoke, and with such loud voices in a temple? Also that they did not greet me even though I am their elder? Because they are not monks, but spies for the government.” I look at him in surprise and he laughs. “Oh yes, they are in every temple and tea shop. Who would watch what they say around a monk? But they are watching and listening all the time.”

At this point I am more than ready to go back to my driver before the pseudomonks come chasing after us with one of the armed soldiers who stand on every corner. I tell the monk that it will be faster if we take a taxi back to Sule, and that I will pay for it. “No, no,” he protests. “This is far too expensive. It will cost a thousand kyat!” (Approximately one US dollar.) I tell him that is OK, but he persists. “The bus will only cost 100 kyat!” Again I tell him that I can pay the 1000 kyat and he marvels at my apparent wealth. “And I can ride with you? I have never been in a taxi before.” I marvel right back at him. I assure him that he can come along for the ride and ask him if he will get us a taxi from the row of cars and drivers waiting in front of us.

I watch, puzzled, as he moves from taxi to taxi, speaking in rapid Burmese to the drivers, who simply look away and shake their heads ‘no’.

“Don’t try to negotiate with them- I’ll pay the 1000 kyat!” I call.

He shakes his head. “You don’t understand. No one will take a monk and a western woman together in the same car.”

Just as I am about to apologize for leaving him behind and getting my own cab, a man runs up and says he’s found a driver to take us. He turns to the monk and tells him in Burmese that there will be an additional 500 kyat fee for the unseemliness of the situation. I’m already in the back seat before my monk can  protest.

On the way back to Sule Paya, I ask why monks were the ones who protested against the military rulers, rather than ordinary citizens. The old man smiles. “Many people just think of us as scholars, and very religious, but they forget. When I was a young man, we were trained as warriors.”

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A Reclining Buddha and a Monk Named July

Not being keen on trying to navigate my way around Yangon on my own, I had arranged in advance to have a driver pick me up at my hotel and ferry me around to the places I most wanted to see. This turned out to be a fantastic idea, because Burmese traffic is absolutely terrifying. Our first stop is Chauktatgyi Paya, home of one of the largest reclining Buddhas in the country. Leaving my sandals (and driver) in the car, I enter a building that is little more than a metal roofed shack over the enormous golden statue. This is not a tourist destination, so all of the signs are in Burmese and all heads turn to stare at me when I enter. (Soon I will get used to this.) Hundreds of Burmese are kneeling on mats in front of the Buddha, and when a bell chimes 8:00, they all begin to bow and chant in unison.

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“Hello!” comes a cheerful voice from my left. “Hello, you speak English?” This is July, a young Burmese former monk, looking very western in Levi jeans and a shaggy haircut. Anxious to practice his English, July spends a lot of time at the Paya and other religious sites, looking for the rare American visitor to interact with. He tells me he was a monk in the monastery behind Chauktatgyi for seven years, but left because he wanted to be part of the modern world, dress in western clothes, and, maybe, one day visit the United States. He knows all about California, Brooklyn, and Miami, and is very impressed that I live in Florida, near Mickey Mouse.

When he left the monastery, July could not find a job (there aren’t many jobs to be had) or afford to live on his own. Returning to his parents was out of the question- they were so ashamed of his having left the monastic life that they would not allow him to return home. I asked him how old he had been when he joined the monastery. “Fourteen,” he tells me. I am shocked that his parents sent their fourteen year old son off to live with strangers and wouldn’t take him back when he wanted to come home, and tell him so. He shrugs, clearly unbothered. “I knew they would probably not take me back, but I had to try. It is such an honor for a family to have a son become a monk, I shamed them by leaving. But I had to try to be myself.”

July had returned to the monastery and asked if he might continue to live there until he could find a way to support himself. The monks agreed, but said he must keep to their schedule: rise at 4:00 a.m., pray for one hour, eat at 5:00, no food after 12:00 noon, in bed at sunset. He had been keeping to this arrangement for two years. He takes me on an impromptu tour of the monastic complex behind the paya. There are many different  monasteries jumbled together- the different races of Burmese people all have their own buildings within the complex and they do not mix. He shows me two monasteries that sit empty. “The monks who lived here were part of the group who supported The Lady.” (Aung San Suu Kyi, democratically elected political leader who had been under house arrest for 20 years.)

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“200 of them disappeared and now their monastery is closed.” He asks me if I know about The Lady, and I tell him yes- I have read her books and am familiar with Burma’s political upheaval. He is happy that I refer to the country as Burma, not Myanmar, and that I am better informed than most English-speaking tourists he has met. July tells me that apart from practicing his English, he also likes to talk to American tourists to spread the word about what is happening in his country. “I wish more Americans would come here. You are the only people who can help us. We cannot help ourselves.” This is a theme I will encounter throughout my trip.

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Back inside the Paya, a line has formed of women and girls passing buckets of water from a well. These are dumped on the floor in front of the giant Buddha and more women push the water around the dirty floor with long-handled mops. July says they do this all day, every day, as a way to obtain merit for their next life.

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Good Morning, Yangon!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

33 hours of travel have completely discombobulated my internal clock, so I’m awake hours before dawn. My hotel doesn’t start serving breakfast until 7:00 a.m. and I’m eager to start exploring, so at 6:00 I go for a walk with my camera to see what Yangon looks like at this hour.

Street vendors are already cooking on small fires along the side streets. This stuff smells better and better all the time, whatever it is.

Packs of wild dogs roam the streets along with the ubiquitous monks in their long red robes.

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Women walk around with baskets of produce on their heads and trucks are already full of people, stacked three deep and hanging off the backs, on their way to somewhere. This city wakes up early.

Back in the hotel, my favorite discovery of the morning is that the giant windows in my 9th story room don’t lock. I slide one open and pull up a chair to watch the city come alive.

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A young monk is running from a playful pack of dogs. Trucks full of the local faithful trundle up the hill to Shwedagon. Longyi-clad men perform basic grooming tasks outside. One brushes his teeth on his front steps, another is bathing shirtless with the aid of a garden hose. I can hear chanting from the monastery next door, and frequent wake up calls from the rooster population. Hundreds of pigeons and sparrows add to the soundtrack. I could sit here all day, but I have adventuring to do.

First Impressions of Yangon

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  1. Oh, yeah, I’m in a third world country.
  2. Nothing is as easy to find as the guidebook makes it seem.
  3. People are really nice and helpful to a strange foreigner who doesn’t speak their language.
  4. Monks are EVERYWHERE.                                        446
  5. $10/minute seems like a bargain when you really, really need to call home.
  6. The sidewalks are piles of rubble with patches of open sewer. No one seems to mind.
  7. I’m not sure most of these people have ever seen a white woman before. At least, not one traveling on her own. People stare openly.
  8. The food stalls on the street smell amazing, but I haven’t been brave enough to try anything yet. I’m starving.
  9. It’s hot. Really, really hot.
  10. I have no idea what time it is.
  11. Shwedagon Paya, covered in 11 tons of pure gold and thousands of carats of diamonds and rubies, is right outside my hotel room window. Next to it are shacks without electricity or running water where people sleep on the floor.

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The Debut of the Random Bucket List Picker

October 18, 2008- the Random Bucket List Picker debuts. My divorce is final, I’m sitting on my new couch in my new apartment in my new life, holding my purple bucket list notebook and summoning my courage. I’ve been postponing this moment for a few days- partly because I enjoy the delicious anticipation and partly because I’m nervous as hell. I’ve been collecting daydreams for 13 years at this point, and there are some pretty outlandish adventures on my list. I have promised myself  I’m not going to chicken out, though. Whichever number is randomly chosen is the first solo adventure I’m going to take, no matter what. And the winner is…

#279- Travel the Road to Mandalay

I vaguely remembered adding this entry to the list after reading a collection of Rudyard Kipling poems in school. Palm trees, temple bells, lazy seas… well, maybe this won’t be so bad. You may already realize how little I knew about the country whose place I wasn’t entirely sure how to find on a map. I don’t speak the language. What am I going to eat? Wait, is it Burma or Myanmar? By the time I boarded the Singapore Airlines flight to Yangon five months later, I was well versed in the horrors of the military junta, widespread poverty, government censorship, and the house arrest of the democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Everyone I knew was convinced I was going to meet an untimely death or similarly horrific fate and never make it home. Inwardly, I wasn’t 100% sure they were wrong.

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Spoiler alert: I survived. I gained intimate knowledge of a part of the world I had only ever dreamed about, and not all of it was pretty. I gained intimate knowledge about myself, and not all of that was pretty, either. I decided letting a random algorithm choose my adventures was the best possible way to put myself wherever the universe thought I needed to be at that time. I didn’t come home the same person I was when I left, and I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.

What am I doing here? How a bucket list was born.

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Hi! I’m Leslie, I’m a 37 year old funeral director-turned-travel writer, and my whole life has been leading up to my new nomadic lifestyle.

I was not what you might call a ‘normal’ child. I taught myself to read at the age of three by studying the piles of old Good Housekeeping magazines behind my mother’s recliner. Other children felt alien to me and I spent as little time around them as possible. Every day I rushed to my grandparents’ house after school and sped through my homework so I could spend the rest of the afternoon reading the encyclopedia. My uncle’s old 1959 Golden Book encyclopedia, no less. What it lacked in actual in-depth information it more than made up for with an abundance of color illustrations. Laughably hokey and dated now, but at the time they were pure hand-colored magic. I never tired of reading about all the places  I was going to go one day, from Argentina to Zimbabwe. I kept packs of tracing paper handy so I could recreate the country maps into my own imaginary travel guide.

I was a purple-haired 16 year old the first time I left the United States. Three years of high school French class allowed me to travel to Belfort and Paris with a school exchange program. The student I stayed with was a terrible match, I had multiple panic attacks, and got the worst case of food poisoning ever, but Paris was magical and I never wanted to leave. My fledgling wanderlust was born.

When my AP English teacher assigned the task of writing a list of things we wanted to do before we died, it was the easiest A+ I ever turned in. Italy. Scotland. Haunted Irish castles. Watching the sun rise from the Great Wall of China. Standing on Antarctica. Long after graduation, I kept that sheet of yellow legal paper, and kept adding to it. Soon it became a notebook, and then a Google Doc. My list replaced the old retro encyclopedia volumes as my daydream fodder of choice. The more I daydreamed, the more anxiety I felt about not actually DOING anything on the list. Following a brief marriage in my early 20s that left me convinced I was squandering the best years of my life, I vowed to start checking things off my list as soon as I possibly could. Unable to prioritize a list that was well over 300 items by then, the Random Bucket List Picker was born. I left my travel fate in the hands of an online algorithm for that first trip and every one since. I only plan one trip at a time, and fire up the random picker when the current adventure is over. Maybe not the most efficient way to do things, but it certainly has been a lot of fun.

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Over the last 9 years or so, my random list of adventures (now well into the 600s with no sign of letting up) has sent me hot air ballooning over breathtaking Burmese kingdoms, tracking wild mountain gorillas in Africa, exploring ancient temples in Indonesia, riding a train across Canada, and myriad other unforgettable experiences. In that time, nearly every story I’ve told, photo I’ve shared, or social media update I’ve posted has been met with the same response from friends, family, and coworkers: “You should be a travel writer!” 

As it happens, being a travel writer is really all I’ve ever wanted to do. I don’t know why it took me so long to take the plunge, but here we are. I’ll be blogging all of my upcoming adventures here, and making up for lost time with some great stories that have, until now, never seen the outside of my stack of travel journals.

The positive response I’ve received from friends has encouraged me to take the plunge and quit my day job to become a full time travel writer. I’ve been a funeral director for 14 years. I love what I do and I think I’m really good at it, but it’s time for a change. The stress of this job is making me physically ill, and it’s time to do what I love full time, instead of cramming my adventures into short breaks from my usual 70+ hour a week schedule. I’ve set my retirement date for the end of March 2017 and I’ll be a nomad almost immediately thereafter. I think having been a funeral director for so long is part of the reason traveling and telling people’s stories comes so naturally to me. I’ve spent my entire career listening to the sweet and heartbreaking stories people seek me out to tell me, and sharing stories is one of the best ways we bond with each other as human beings.

Thanks for following along on my journey!

-Leslie

Let's go adventuring!