Thinking back to the moments that made up 2016 makes my heart swell because they were filled with adventure, laughter, travel, family, new experiences, delicious food, friends, and all of the things that make my soul happy. Kim and I were lucky enough to start our third year living abroad as I continued to teach High School Art as well as starting as a Technology Integration Specialist at the elementary level of an International School in Yangon, Myanmar. We spent the first half of the year in our apartment we shared with two dear friends, then I spent the beginning of the summer becoming a certified yoga teacher before sharing the rest of the summer with my family in Maine, and returning to Southeast Asia in the fall, traveling in bits throughout the whole year. I still enjoy going back to visit my 14 Adventures of 2014 blog post as a little peek into that year of exciting changes so I thought I would return to the idea and create another reminiscent post for 2016. So here it is, 16 Epic Parts of 2016:
Kim and I woke up on the first morning of 2016 to the sound of the ocean lapping against our boat as we cruised through Halong Bay, one of Vietnam’s most beautiful landforms. The limestone crests jutted out of the water to every side of us as we peacefully sailed along into the new year. After that we found our way up into the mountains of Sapa and spent days motor biking the chilly twisting mountain roads. What a way to start out the year!
15. Biggest Buddha in the World
When we do my dream road trip across the US I am going to have to plan lots of extra time because I am a sucker for “biggest in the world” things. Let’s be honest here, who isn’t? Okay, maybe it’s just me. Nonetheless, when we visited the quiet Myanmar town of Hpa-An I heard that there was the biggest reclining Buddha in the World just a short ways away and I was sold. Of course we HAD to go see it. I also thought it was a great idea to take the scenic route which ended up being a very long, very dusty, dirt road. Our motorbike was not impressed (nor was the driver – Kim). Just as the sun was setting we managed to pull into Win Sein Taw Ya and it was quite the spectacular site. This paired with a weekend of cave exploring and motorbiking with friends made for a memorable time.
14. Our First No Plans Trip
10 days and no plans, that’s how our trip to the Philippines started in April. With nothing booked besides our plane tickets, we backpacked our way through the Philippine island of Luzon where we hiked to see hanging coffins, ate empanadas on the cobblestone streets of Vigan, and enjoyed to waves of Pagudpud. Although it was not the “perfect” vacation that I could have neatly planned, it was worth it in so many surprise ways.
13. Solo Art Exhibition
In May I completed one of my top artistic goals, to host my first Solo Art Exhibition. The body of work was a series of digitally manipulated (glitched) photographs of Myanmar culture. Since this country is still not completely free (earlier this year a man was imprisoned for using an image of Buddha in a bar advertisement), I held the show in a private location as invitation only. The completion of the show was also intended to model the process of exhibiting your work as a working artist for my advanced art students who also had to host similar shows on their own.
12. Yoga Training in the Indian Mountains
I’m not sure how to summarize the life-affirming experience of yoga training in one simple paragraph so please head over a read the long version of my month in India learning the traditional and modern approaches to yoga. After a month of practicing, learning anatomy, questioning everything through philosophy, and more practicing, I accepted my yoga teacher certification as a full fledge yoga instructor.
11. Megan’s Nashville Bash
Directly after yoga training I flew from India straight to Nashville, Tennessee where the beautiful Meg was parting away with her fantastic gang of girls. It was a weekend of cowboy boots, honkey tonks, and tons of drinking. Unfortunately for me it also included catching some sickness on the plane and being in bed for a good chunk of the time. Nonetheless, it was a time to remember, cowboy hats and all.
10. 2 Weeks (2 Short) in Maine
Such a short amount of time but in just two weeks I squeezed in SO much love, laughter, and memories. For what felt like a blink of an eye, I was surrounded by all of my favorite people and just thinking about the long summer days we spent camping, BBQing, lounging around, and just hanging out fills me with so much happiness.
09. Meatless Me
Okay, this one is not one moment in time but it is HUGE and deserves a slot; half way through the 2016 year I decided to no longer eat meat. It is something that I have considered for some time for many reasons, health wise, ethics wise, and environmental wise. It has had its challenges but for the most part has been rather easy thanks to the goddess that is my wife who has taken on my vegetarianism as inspiration and is constantly concocting delicious new meatless creations. Mainly I feel like I am living less in duality now, that my beliefs match my actions, and that makes my soul happy.
08. Maine Island Clam Bake
Cabbage Island is a small piece of land just of the coast of Boothbay harbor, Maine. It is also the location of one of the oldest Clam Bake traditions in the North East. Kim and I spent an afternoon with her family, Robin and Steve, sailing about the coast before enjoying lobster, clams, corn, potatoes, onions, and other goodies that were cooked under a blanket of seaweed. Nothing tastes more like Maine than that!
07. Road Trip Around Israel
What is better than a summer road trip? How about a summer road trip with three of your favorite people!? How about a summer road trip with three of your favorite people discovering a new country!? On our way back to Southeast Asia in July, Kim and I stopped in Israel to visit my sister Amanda and her husband Josh (who were there while Amanda completed a summer program and internship for her Law degree). Our short visit brought an overflow of fun as we road tripped around Israel. We explored the city of Tel Aviv, walked through the streets of Jeruselum, stopped to ride a camel in the Judaian desert, awed at the mini grand canyon in Ramon Crater, and took a mud bath in the dead sea. I don’t think there were another four days this year that were filled with more fun, exploration, exciting new things, adventure, or love.
06. Meandering Through a Japanese Garden
I did not expect to find peacefulness when I went to the giant city of Hong Kong for a work conference in September, actually I didn’t expect to like it all that much. Fortunately, both of those were way off. Hong Kong is a fascinating city with so much uniqueness, all of which I enjoyed very much. My favorite part of it though was not the huge shopping centers or the bustling streets, but rather a quiet little park called Nan Lian Garden which echoed that of a Japanese Tea Garden. I had learned about these in my college Asian Art History class. The pathways are twisted and uneven to purposefully induce slow walking. Landscapes are created to produce the most picture perfect views with every branch and stone as an intentional brushstroke in the most stunning painting. Water is trickling and soft music is drifting through the leaves adding to the meditative atmosphere. Asian gardens are not manicured pieces of land, they are living art work experiences.
05. Snorkeling in the Andaman Sea
With such an exciting year, Kim and I decided to take our “fall” break and chill out on some of the best beaches in the world. Lucky for us these are found right next door in southern Thailand. We spent the week snorkeling off Koh Phi Phi, enjoying the sunset on Railay beach in Krabi, soaking in the natural hot springs, and adventuring around. The most memorable time for me being the spectacularly turquoise blue waters that were so stunning in color it was almost unbelievable.
04. Half Marathon Trail Run
Sometimes I get some crazy idea in my head and it just sticks. I’m trying to go along with my life and it is sitting over in the corner of my brain tapping its fingers, waiting for me to pay attention to it. This was one of those ideas. On a warm November morning I spent 3+ hours running 13.1 miles through the mud on trails in the Myanmar mountains to complete my first ever half marathon. My legs were shaking but my smile could not have been bigger when I crossed the finish line to a greeting of friends and congratulations. It took a lot of hard work, early mornings, and focused training, but I did it!
03. Yee Ping Mass Lantern Release
When I first decided to move to Asia I began a list of interesting places to visit and three years later I have forgotten everything on that list except for this one. It took a few years to manage the timing and to get ahold of tickets but it was worth the long wait. On the November full moon I joined hundreds of others on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, Thialand, in a mass release of sky lanterns and it was the most breathtaking sight I believe I have ever seen.
02. A Month on the Indonesian Islands
I didn’t have a lot of expectations, or plans, when we got on the plane for our winter vacation in Indonesia but by the time we left three weeks later I was head over heals about the string of islands. Starting off on Java we adventured to the highest peaks at the top of Mt. Bromo, an active volcano, then down into the blue lake Ijen Crater to view the blue fire alight from the sulfur gases. By the time we got to the island of Bali we more than enjoyed a much needed rest at our friends Ashley and Matt’s villa. The day after Christmas we grabbed a motorbike and hit the road to spend two weeks cruising along the coast, up the mountains, through the rice terraces, and by the temple towns of Bali. We spent New Years at a black sand beach, saw dolphins, got drenched in a mountain down pour, enjoyed mornings of yoga and monkey walks, and so much more. I can see now why Bali stays in the heart of so many, it has a way of rooting down into your soul.
2016 was a year of epic proportions filled with more adventures than most people get to experience in a lifetime and I am so very grateful to call this my life. Yet, not one of these moments would have been half as amazing if I didn’t have my beautiful wife by my side. Her constant encouragement and support through all of my dreams, big and small, makes my life so much fuller. Whatever plan or crazy idea I conjure up is always met with a Yes! My travel companion, my fearless motorbike driver, and my goddess of a chef; the one who always makes me laugh (even when it’s the last thing I want to do) I am so thankful to have celebrated two full years of marriage this year. I read somewhere once that if you love someone, travel with them, for then you will know their true self; happily I can say that I have found someone who loves my truest self right back and that is the most epic part of them all.
Legend has it that two Mon princess saw a female Hinthar standing on the back of a male Hinthar on an island in a huge lake. A Hinthar is a kind of bird like a goose that is a mythical creature similar to a phoenix. They took this as a sign to settle here and thereafter built the town of Bago. Bago is a town about two hours outside of Yangon. Well actually it is only around an hour outside but with all of the Yangon traffic it takes twice as long to get out of the city itself. Kim and I took a trip to Bago a couple weekends ago with our friends MeMe and Alex. Lucky for us, Meme knew what there was to do and see in Bago so I didn't have to do any planning. We just hopped in the car we rented for the day and set off!
Our first stop was more by happenstance, I spotted an awesome looking temple on the side of the road and we wandered around what turned out to be a Chinese temple. There were golden dragons on every inch of it, lots of Buddhas, an eccentric old woman who took to following us around, and ornate detailing on every surface.
As we walked in Alex spotted this tube of sticks and got very excited. "You wanna? You wanna?" He asked us giddy as a little kid. Meme, who was just as enthusiastic, replied with a bubbly "Yes!" Then they both turned to us with expectant looks. Kim and I turned to each other a confirmed that neither of us had any idea what was going on and finally Alex began explaining.
The tube of sticks turned out to be Kau Cim, Chinese Fortune Sticks. It is a chance for you to ask God or Buddha or the Universe (whichever suits you) a question and get an answer. Alex demonstrated the process for us. You first have to think of a really good question that is not too broad or too specific then you kneel and you concentrate on that question with all your attention. When you are ready you begin shaking the tube of sticks back and forth in a steady motion. If you are holding it at the right angle then the sticks will jump around and at some point one stick will come all the way out. You pick up the stick and before checking it you have to make sure it is the right one. You do this by taking these two rounded blocks of wood (I think they were wood) and dropping them on the ground like dice. If they fall in opposite ways (one face up and one face down) then it is the wrong stick and you have to start over. If they fall the same way then it is the right stick. At this point you have to find the number on the stick which corresponds with a number of a paper in a cabinet (seen behind us in the pictures below). When you retrieve the paper it will have the answer to your question on it.
One side of the paper was written in Myanmar and one side was written in Chinese. Alex was able to read the Chinese and Meme the Myanmar so they both helped translate our answers. I had to try mine a couple times because the stick wouldn't come out. At first Alex said it was because I was asking the wrong question but then we realized (on the third try) that I was just holding the container wrong.
Also known as The Four Seated Buddhas, Kyaik Pun Pagoda stands at 88 feet tall. Each of the four Buddhas which are seated to face the four cardinal directions, represent the four Buddhas that have reached Nirvana. One legend relating to this Paya involves four Mon sisters who, when helping to build this, pledged to never get married or shall the Buddhas come crumbling to the ground. When one of the sisters broke her vow and married it is said that one of the Buddhas did in fact collapse.
This spectacular place was built in 1553 by a famous Mon King, King Bayinnaung, founder of the 2nd Empire. Most of the area was destroyed in a foreign attack but has been under excavation since the early 90's. The originally walled palace contained 4 square miles of land and 76 buildings. I could not believe how much gold there was, it was literally covering every inch of the palace. The details were unbelievable and the throne room was just spectacular.
The Beehive is another building on the grounds of Kambazathadi Golden Palace. I was surprised at the amount of people just hanging out at this building. Apparently sleeping, kissing, chatting, and just general meeting up is what this building is good for.
Okay, so I kind of lost track here and I can't seem to find the name of this pagoda anywhere. It was all under a covered roof and had different covered stairways. The most interesting part of this pagoda was the lady boy.
While we were visiting this pagoda we stumbled upon something very interesting: a drag queen. Okay, that may not be exactly what this was but it was pretty darn close. It was a man dressed up as a woman dancing and singing. He had his own band and people were watching and cheering him on. The audience also provided alcohol for him and tucked money in his clothes. I have heard about so called "lady boys" here who have a connection with the ancient Myanmar religion that believed in spirits. The idea is that sometimes, especially on special holidays, men can become possessed with a spirit and this will cause him to act like said spirit. Hence you find men dressed up as woman, dancing and acting out of character. I'm not sure if that was what was going on here but either way it was really interesting to see and I would love to learn more about this custom.
I tried to find the name of this pagoda but all of the information about it just refers to it as the snake pagoda. Well, you can't say that the name isn't accurate because what this pagoda is best known for is housing a GIANT snake. We took a few dirt roads in the general direction that we were pointed in but our driver had to continue stopping to ask for directions because there were nothing posted to guide people here. This was very off-the-beaten-path. When we arrived we saw a very small golden pagoda that was only 10 or so feet high but we were pointed to a small building right next to it where we walked in to this:
The story behind the snake involves a ancient monk who had a vision that Buddha was sending a snake to live at the monastery with him. I'm unclear if the snake was just sent there from Buddha or if it was a part of Buddha or . . . I don't really know how the snake was connected to Buddha. Anyway, sure enough a snake showed up so they build a house for it and so it came to live at the monastery. It now lives in it's own building where it has it's own Jacuzzi sized pool and lots of bedding. There are people who sit with the snake (to watch him/her?) and you can give them a donation and they will pray to the snake for you.
Another golden pagoda stands in the center of this town. Shwemawdaw is actually the tallest pagoda in Myanmar (although Shwedagon in Yangon claims to be). It is 375 feet tall and has been rebuilt multiple times due to earthquakes and other natural disasters, with it's origins dating back over 1000 years. It is said to enshrine 2 hairs of Buddha and at least one sacred tooth. What I found out recently was that things like sacred teeth may not actually be from Buddha, rather they are someone else's teeth that were placed next to one that is from Buddha to gain it's energy or merit or holiness or whichever.
Although it is larger than Shwedagon it is certainly not as popular, in fact it was almost completely abandoned while we were there. It was strange to walk around this ginormous space practically alone. There were fortune teller shacks that were closed up (above) and community water bowls available (below). Just like most everywhere in Myanmar, there was a confusing juxtaposition between the glittering, glitzy gold and jewels that adorned the pagoda and it's surroundings and the warn, decrepit, aging, falling apart as the general state of many things throughout the area.
Above is a sort of game that I found at the pagoda. You make a wish then throw a folded dollar into the area trying to get it into one of the bowls. The whole contraption spins. If you get it in then your wish will come true.
Our last stop of the day was to Shwethalyaung Reclining Buddha. This Buddha was built by the Mon in 994 but it was lost to the jungle when the town of Bago was destroyed. It was rediscovered in 1880 and restored several times. It is 180 feet long and 52 feet tall. It claims to be the second largest reclining buddha in the world but I know of a few others just here in Myanmar that are bigger. The feet and the pillows are adorned with mosaics and jewels and the entrance to the hall is lined with souvenir shops.
There is also another reclining Buddha right next to this one that is outdoors. We could see it from the car and decided not to go up close because we were thoroughly exhausted at this point. What an amazing day visiting Bago! It was so nice to get outside of Yangon and see life outside of the city. Looking forward to our next day trip already.
A Punk Rock Photography Exhibition in Myanmar? Of course I had to check this out when I was invited by a friend and fellow teacher. Her boyfriend is a part of a Myanmar punk rock band. This band along with a number of others makes up a movement called Jam It! Completely made up of independent bands, Jam It! started as a small group of musicians getting together and playing their music and now they play in public venues for free to promote their music and create a scene.
It was a small space on the fourth floor of some unmarked building but as soon as you stepped into the stairwell you could hear the music streaming down below. Along with acoustic performances by members of various bands, the space was filled with huge prints of photojournalistic photographs that were taken at the different Jam It! events. It was an interesting night, defiantly not my usual scene but defiantly worth it.
On Saturday we wanted to stay close so we decided on an adventure in our own neighborhood. I had heard about a giant reclining Buddha that was near us. After investigating further I found out that not only was it near us but it was just a short walk away. With the help of three different Yangon maps and Google maps I set on a route in my head and we headed out. After turning down a side street off of a busy main road and before we knew it we were in the middle of nowhere. We found ourselves on a dirt road with tropical foliage on both sides. We past a meditation center and a monastery, we stopped into an art gallery inside someone’s house and found some crumbling structures. We saw monks collecting their Alms (donations from neighbors) and lots of beautiful tropical flowers. It was a very interesting walk.
People who don't have the money to put up razor wire to protect their houses will spread broken glass on the ledges of the surrounding walls. I loved the juxtaposition with the flowers growing right next to the glass.
It was a very cool walk and nice to be out and about without seeing any vehicles. As abruptly as the country scenery started, we turned a corner and were right on the heels of a crazy busy road. I wasn't really sure where to go at this point but luckily enough there was a picture of a reclining Buddha just ahead of us so we followed the sign and easily found what we were looking for.
Monday was Kim's first day of work. The restaurant is still being put together but she went in to start arranging the kitchen and develop the menu. It was very stressful for her to see all the work that had to be done with such a short deadline (they want to open in a week!). But she also really enjoyed beginning a job that she knows she will love.
It was also the first day of us having a cleaner. Kim made arrangements with a lady named Saroja who cooks for some of the other teachers, Kim will be giving her cooking lessons once a week or so in exchange for her doing our laundry and washing dishes (our two least favorite chores). It was very strange to come home to someone else in the house since Kim has greeted me at the door almost every day since we have been here.
Changes are difficult when you are trying to get settled still but luckily these are all good changes.
With Kim working late to get ready for the opening at the restaurant I was left to the task of making my own dinner on Wednesday. If you know me at all you know that this is a BIG challenge for me. There is a reason why I married a chef after all. Usually for dinner I would just eat whatever I could find in the cupboards or order something in. Kim had been trying to teach me some easy dishes that I can make for myself for dinner before we moved but it is so difficult here because we don't have our usual pantry of ingredients and it is really overwhelming. But I had a couchsurfer over named Emi who convinced me that we could make our own dinner. So three hours later we enjoyed a chicken, roasted veggies, and rice. I was pretty proud of myself.
The restaurant was certainly coming along but there was still a bunch to do.
Only 24 hours after the kitchen was put together Kim was asked to create a tasting for the owners of the restaurant and their staff. Needless to say it was a miracle all of it came together due to the crazy circumstances of having to shop for and stock a full kitchen, teach the sous chefs (who don't speak any English by the way), and prepare a meal for a dozen people in such a short amount of time. On top of that this was the first time any of these people would be tasting her cooking so needless to say it was a bit stressful. But if anyone could pull it off that would be our lovely Chef Kimmi.
The tasting was delicious of course, she served us chicken tenders, onion rings, french fries, sweet potato fries, three different kinds of sandwiches, and fresh pasta and marinara sauce. Yum yum yum.
Just a short walk down the street from us is another amazing Buddhist site, Chaukhtatgyi Reclining Buddha. The story is that fifty years ago there was a giant standing Buddha statue that towered above the trees on this spot. One day it got tired and crumbled to the ground. So they decided to build a laying Buddha in it's place. This is actually not a very touristy site, it is not listed on many of the places to see in town yet it is a stunning site. I think what was most surprising was the very simple surroundings of the Buddha. You would expect a place this important to stand out but the entrance looks similar to many other pagoda entrances that aren't nearly as spectacular.
The Buddha itself is over 5 stories in height and about 219 feet from head to foot aka it was HUGE! It was shimmering gold all along the robe and glittering with jewels.
The feet were especially interesting. There are 108 images on the soles of the Buddha that represent the three worlds. "59 indicating the inanimate world (Okasaloka), 21 indicating the animate world (Sallaloka), and 28 indicating the world of the conditioned (Sankharaloka)." We got a pamphlet that showed the meaning of each of the symbols and it was fun matching them up to the soles. Some of the symbols included the sun, the east island, the cup full of water, the white lotus, the white parasol, the ruby, the mountain of the universe, among others.
I heard that almost directly across the street from this Buddha is another seated Buddha that is one of the largest in Myanmar so we will most certainly have to head down to this area again to see another spectacular site.
Alisa & Kim
Two expats living, teaching, and eating their way across this beautiful world