Yangon Travel in 200 Words / 5 Pictures

E-visa Tourist 28 days
Yangon International Airport (RGN); Present PRINTED COPY of approval letter @customs

Main city is walkable; also use public busses, train, pedi-cabs and taxis

Chan Myaye Guesthouse: So nice, I stayed there twice! 
(in private room $20-$22 USD per night)
Dorm beds (fan only), singles with A/C en suite or shared bathroom
Great location, yummy breakfast included, sweet staff
So many stairs

 Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

Must-See: Shwedagon Pagoda

8,000 kyat entry, huge complex
No shoes, floor gets very hot mid-day
Keep shoulders, knees covered
4 entrances (north, south, east, west)
Contains Buddhist relics, possibly the oldest stupa in the world (2,600 years old)
Walk clockwise, Know your birth day of the week so you can stop at that section of the stupa

 Shwedagon Pagoda Complex

Shwedagon Pagoda Complex

Also:
Sule Pagoda: Downtown near city hall, Ancient Buddhist stupa, site of 1988 Uprising

 Sule Pagoda

Sule Pagoda

Bogyoke Aung San Market: Jewelry, arts, crafts, clothing (closed Mondays)

Circle train: 3 hours, under 500 kyat, see a lot of scenery and locals

 Snacks for sale on the Circle Train

Snacks for sale on the Circle Train

 The view outside the city on the Circle Train

The view outside the city on the Circle Train


Kandawgi Lake - FREE, nice green space, playgrounds (east of Shwedagon)


Peoples Park - west of Shwedagon, green space with museum, 5,000 kyat entry


Botahtaung Pagoda - Near Yangon River 3,000 kyat entry
(The rest of the river is mostly industrial.)

 

Feel free to ask more specific questions or for advice in the comments. 
Much Love,

Painting Tibetan Thangka in Kathmandu, Nepal

If you've been to Nepal, you will see some beautiful, incredibly detailed paintings for sale everywhere from the urban capital in Kathmandu to the rural villages. Thangka (also sometimes spelled tangka, thanks or tanka) is a traditional Tibetan Buddhist art form. Paintings of Buddhist deities, scenes or mandalas are painting on cotton or silk and used to be displayed only in monasteries and during religious festivals. They can be also be used as teaching tools or for meditation, but nowadays are mostly sold as souvenirs to tourists. (And they are worth every rupee, by the way.) 

But wait, why are they all over Nepal if they are Tibetan? Ever since China annexed Tibet in the 1950s, many refugees, including the Dalai Lama, fled the country and many ended up in neighboring Nepal. 

Many of the galleries that sell these paintings had signs advertising schools so I assumed that they would accept foreign students, if for nothing else than the money. Many of these studios were understandably clustered around Boudhanath, the famous Buddhist stupa on the outskirts of Kathmandu which is one of the largest in Nepal. It's normally a very impressive structure but it was under renovation, partially due to the earthquake last year so I mostly saw scaffolding during my visit. I inquired about painting at one of these schools and was advised that it would take 7 days and cost 5,000 rupees (about $50 USD). This was a bit out of my budgets for both time and money and was too far to travel from my home stay in Swayambhunath (aka the Monkey Temple). 

 Swayumbunath Stupa (aka the Monkey Temple) near Kathmandu, Nepal

Swayumbunath Stupa (aka the Monkey Temple) near Kathmandu, Nepal

When I got back to my home stay, I explored the immediate area hoping to find another Thangka school since Swayambhunath is also home to a Buddhist stupa. I found no schools but I did discover Swayambhu Environmetal Park, which was free to enter and enjoy and boasted three huge Buddha sculptures representing (left to right) Avalokiteshvara, Amitaba Buddha and Padmasambhava (aka Guru Rinpoche) all over 19 m (60 ft) tall. 

 Swayumbh Park (or Buddha Park) near Kathmandu, Nepal

Swayumbh Park (or Buddha Park) near Kathmandu, Nepal

The next day I searched the internet and found a supposed school located just inside the city and well within walking distance at around 3 km/1.8 miles (one way). After walking the dogs, I headed into town in search of said school. When I arrived, I found it boarded up so I kept walking and ended up at a school in Durbar Square. I was thrilled to find a secret entrance where I wouldn't be hassled by the tourist police to pay the 10,000 ($9.50 USD) rupee World Heritage entrance fee, which I had already paid upon my first visit during Holi, but no longer had my ticket to prove it. 

The owner of the shop, Dev, gladly agreed to let me paint my own and we bargained a price of 3,000 rupees ($28 USD) for the process and supplies. After I looked at a few paintings for inspiration, he agreed to prep a canvas and sketch out a simple mandala shape based on what I liked. I agreed to come back the next day at 10:30 AM.

 Day One

Day One

When I arrived the following morning, my canvas was waiting and the pencil-sketched skeleton on it was about 20" x 20". (I actually still haven't measured the full canvas.) I could tell he used a compass for the circles but freehanded all the straight pieces so I had to spend a little time erasing and realigning parts of the sketch with a ruler. 

I had an assortment of acrylic paints but kept a limited palette of blue, orange, green, red and black. I sat next door on a cushion on the floor of a shop that sold masks and singing bowls. Everyone was very friendly, not to mention curious about what I was doing so I frequently had an audience of locals watching me paint, all offering words of praise and encouragement. I painted for five hours that day, stopping only for a quick lunch break from a nearby vendor who make me a fried egg sandwich which others called a 'Nepali Burger.' I finished the first layer of colors (phase 1) and most of the '[out]lining' (phase 2). 

 Day Two

Day Two

On the second day, I arrived around the same time and painted for six hours. I got through the majority of the gold detailing. This color was literally powdered 18 karat gold mixed with a bit of water. I wanted a gradient of blue rings around the main image so Dev MacGuyvered a compass together out of string and pushpins and penciled in some perfectly circular guidelines. 

One day three, I walked to town with two other girls from my home stay. I showed them my painting-in-progress and Dev bought us all tea. We all chatted for a bit while I started working and once their cups were empty, they headed off to find the Horse Festival. Gotta love Nepal! Another day, another festival!

 Day Three / The Finished Product

Day Three / The Finished Product

It took me about three more hours to design & paint the outermost gold border and paint the blue rings and the background. I was so thrilled to paint those final few brushstrokes around the edge of the canvas. Even though I knew I had just spent days doing it, the painting still didn't feel real. All the locals that I got to know over the past few days complimented me on my work and one even volunteered to take pictures of me holding the finished product. 

The painting process itself was somewhat meditative - especially the intricate detail work with the tiniest of brushes. It's complete focus and concentration, trying to translate the design from my mind to the paper. Maybe one day I'll be able to return to Nepal or Tibet and study at a proper school with a Lama. In the meantime, I'm going to keep seizing every opportunity I have to be creative. 

Thailand Temple Time: Part II

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS

 The border mountains with Burma

The border mountains with Burma

Thailand is the cleanest Asian country I’ve visited. (Well not counting Singapore which is almost sterile since everything is concrete or indoors.) In the past few countries, there is rubbish everywhere and people tend to put it in piles and burn it from time to time. Bleh - the smell of burning plastic is the worst. But not Thailand - they even have recycling! And I didn’t believe this at first but there are also people that make a living by going through the bright blue garbage bins and taking out anything that is recyclable as well.

 Recycling makes me happy! 

Recycling makes me happy! 

I was surprised  that the traffic here is pretty much a parade of pick-up trucks. While waiting at a bus stop one day, I counted and there is literally about one sedan for every 20 trucks. Then at the other extreme lots of people buzz by on motorbikes as well. Maybe it’s just Fang but I just expected mostly motorbikes with some small cars mixed in and even tuk-tuks.

 image source: thaizer.com

image source: thaizer.com

There are pictures of the royal family everywhere. On calendars in shops and restaurants, framed in the middle of street medians, on giant billboards. But most of them are not current and show especially the king in his much younger days. Not that I would have any reason to, but I’ve been told on multiple occasions not to insult the king as Thai people are very patriotic and hold their king in high regard.

THE TEMPLE TOUR

I thoroughly enjoyed the little temple tour that was arranged for us on Sunday. Oui, a Thai lay person that runs a canteen at the nearby school and helps out around the temple, drove us around in a truck to three very different temples north of Fang. The first was a traditional Chinese Buddhist temple which is not out of place since there’s a pretty significant population of them in Northern Thailand. It featured the traditional style architecture with the sloping roofs, lots of red and gold, paper lanterns and dragons draped over everything. There was also a ginormous Budai statue, or the Laughing/Fat Buddha that most people recognize in the West because they are always in Chinese restaurants and nail salons. Budai was a Chinese monk who was so well liked and admired that the Chinese consider him a Matrea or Future Buddha. Not the same at all as the original calm, cross-legged, meditating Buddha that lived in India 2500 years ago.

 Budai 

Budai 

 Chinese temple

Chinese temple

The second stop was an immaculate meditation retreat (open to Thai only) with a golden pagoda that you could see shining amongst the green mountains from far away. As we were driving up the last incline to the entrance, the left and right sides of the road were lined with adorable, lotus-shaped huts that house the resident nuns and guests. The circular temple was gorgeous inside and out and had a series of paintings of the Buddha’s life and legends on the inner walls and a lotus mural carved and painted all along the outer walls. In the center of the temple was a delicate looking glass structure that made me feel like I was looking at a scale model of the Emerald City from Oz. Strategically placed throughout the property was a collection of statues of Buddha, devas and nagas like an outdoor art gallery.

 Golden pagoda

Golden pagoda

 Mini Emerald City? 

Mini Emerald City? 

After this we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch and I had pad see ew - the closest thing they served to pad thai. It was basically big, flat noodles with veggies. I was craving a salty snack while they prepared my food so I perused the racks of potato chips that they had to offer - and even 90% of these were meat flavored! There was pork, shrimp, chickend and even cuttlefish flavored crackers or chips, along with like two regular potato flavors and one bag of Thai Cheetohs. I ended up skipping the junkfood appetizer.

 Cuttlefish Crackers, anyone?

Cuttlefish Crackers, anyone?

Our last stop was an impressive, seven level Forest Temple that was about as close to the Burma border as you can get. The mountains to the west form a natural border with Burma and Graham even pointed out a military base in a clearing atop one of the peaks. I was probably way too excited to see a cat which was pretty scraggly looking and was missing an eye, but still… kitty!

 Forest Temple Meditation Trail

Forest Temple Meditation Trail

There was an amazing little meditation path the wound through the woods and ended at a giant concrete ‘boat’ overlooking the Me Kok river. The panoramic views of the landscape were incredible from this vantage point. As we walked along the path, Graham told us that some of the older monks can recall the days when wild tigers and elephants used to roam the area but of course they have long since disappeared. The trees would be gone too if it wasn’t protected temple land, and even then some loggers still try to force their way in sometimes.

 Wat Thaton

Wat Thaton

This is also the location of Wat Thaton, an impressive, rainbow colored temple that houses a variety of Buddhist relics, so it’s kind of like a museum too. There are even ornamental baby Buddhas outside. We took a break here before heading home and I indulged in ice cream, thai iced milk tea and had a cup of traditional hot tea.

FRIDAY FEELS

So many feels today! I decided to have lunch at the canteen that Oui and his wife manage at the school. Yesterday he invited me there for lunch and said his wife would cook me something vegetarian but I wasn’t feeling great yesterday so I just had toast here instead. Today I walked over at a quarter past 11 and all the monks were heading to lunch as well. Oui wasn’t there but his wife was and she was very cute and very pregnant. She offered me iced thai green tea which is very sweet and loaded with condensed milk. Then she cooked me a simple meal of some sort of greens and sprouts with sauce on a bed of rice. I covertly added my usual handful of peanuts for protein and flavor. (I always do this at alms breakfast as well.)

I sat by myself at the end of a picnic style wooden table. It was just like sitting in a cafeteria back home except the students were all boys with shaved heads, wearing bright orange uniforms. One monk cautiously walked past me and said hello. I responded “hello” enthusiastically and eventually he sat down at the table - as far away from me as possible on the other side, but still. He had pretty good English and I found out he was 18 and his name is Kon. After a few moments, another monk shyly approached, said hello and politely asked permission if he could sit across from me. “Yes, of course!” He was very eager to practice his English and was so honest that he admitted he was nervous to practice with me and that he needs to work on his confidence. I assured him that his English was very good. His name is Long and he is 17. He practices a lot because he wants to study English at University and I don’t blame him. It will definitely open up a lot more opportunities for him. The two boys were in the same class and they have been monks for 5 years.

By this time, it was time for them to go back to class so they excused themselves and I thanked them for talking with me. The temple gets plenty of guests but I doubt most of them interact with the monks so much. I really hope I gave those two kids some confidence after our little chat!

 School for Monks

School for Monks

When I was finished with my meal, Oui’s wife offered to refill my tea and I asked her how much for lunch and she insisted it was free. I had a 100 baht note (about $3 USD) in my pocket and tried to hand it to her but she refused until I insisted she take it for the baby (in her tummy). She finally accepted it with a wide grin and I walked away with a smile, myself. It can be a bit intimidating being the totally obvious, odd person out but all the Thai people I’ve met so far are so nice so it really hasn’t been bad at all.

Another English-speaking monk actually added me on Facebook last week which I thought was a bit strange at first but then I thought they are just people that want to make connections like everyone else. I'm pretty sure he's going to University soon and may not even be a monk after that. Who knows? 

 Longtail, our resident roadblock

Longtail, our resident roadblock

As of today everyone else is gone, even the coordinator, Graham (but he has a good excuse: he’s getting married.) So it’s just me and Longtail, our resident temple dog who I sometimes prefer to call Roadblock because she is always laying across one of the top stairs so that we have to step over her completely. She rarely moves - I think because the other dogs tend to bully her but she’s got it made and gets her own food and water and far more attention than all the others.

I'll be leaving on a mini bus to Changmai city on Sunday but I'm super thankful for this incredible, unique and inspiring experience.