Hong Kong

Reluctantly, but because my expiring visa, I had to leave Bali and make my way to my next destination: Hong Kong. I had a connection in Singapore, and I don’t know what it was, but I was really tired when I got on the plane in Bali, but I just passed out. I haven’t slept like that on a plane, and when I woke up, we were already docked at the gate in Singapore. I quickly got up from my seat, picked up my bag from the overhead bin, and got off the plane: WITHOUT PICKING UP MY BELOVED KINDLE FROM THE SEAT POCKET! 😦

As you all know, I was travelling during my birthday this year, and obviously haven’t received any gifts from pretty much any of you. I am willing to forgive the delay in return for a Kindle (not the cheap one please) from any kind soul who feels like getting me one. Please do text me separately and let me know.

Now, Hong Kong is not part of the banana pancake trail, and rightly so; it’s almost like a European city with European city rates. Hostels are tiny and expensive, and they’ve got 3 tier bunk beds in an already cramped space. The food is amazing though, and there’s malls everywhere. In fact, there’s only malls. It was hard to hold back because Hong Kong does not have any sales tax, so clothes, shoes, perfumes and electronics are cheaper than pretty much anywhere else . I was there for 10 days, and I felt like it was a few days too much for Hong Kong. Most people stay for no more than 2 or 3 days. But there’s something about big cities that I just love. I like staying in small towns and villages, but for the long term, it’s always going to be a city for me.

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In terms of the touristy stuff Hong Kong has a few things to offer, and they are all quite nice. But even though I had 10 days, I didn’t get to Victoria Peak / the Peak Tram – the lines were just insane – and I’ve been there many years back already. The captions with pictures below are sufficient explanations for the tourist spots.

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Victorian era cannon that’s fired at noon everyday.
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Cable car in Tung Chung.
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Big Buddha.
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Cable car views on the way back.
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Temple Street night market.
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Lovely Chinese temple.

Hong Kong has dim sum shops (obviously), and dim sums are my favourite things to eat (right after pasta). I had loads of them. There’s a bunch of Michelin star restaurants in Hong Kong, and some of them are surprisingly cheap! By Michelin star restaurant standards anyway. But something all the restaurants in Hong Kong do, much to my chagrin, is serve tea with every meal. If it were free, I wouldn’t care; but it’s not. You need to shell out anything between HK$ 3 to 15 for the tea – whether you want to drink it or not. I don’t drink tea, so it was a few HK$ wasted with every meal. But I think the food made up for it.

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Noodles at Din Tai Fung

Later at night, the pier on both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon have some nice spots, and it was calming just sitting by the water and watching the beautiful city by night. It would have been a lot nicer if I had a Kindle to read a book on while I sat there, so in case you skipped paragraph 2 of this post, I repeat: I am accepting Kindles as gifts.

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Looking at Hong Kong Island from Kowloon.

For my last few days, I also ran into this goofball, who brought me some delicious wine from Australia. And in spite of her bellicose nature, I think overall she was tolerable.

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I guess she’s trying to tell me it’s time for food?
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Airport goodbye… no ragrets.

From Hong Kong, I have now made my way to Vietnam (without leaving anything else behind on the plane – thank God), and it’s been such an adventure already; so more on that soon…

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Bali and the Gilis

After the emotional rollercoaster of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, my original plan was to visit Malaysia to dive in the Sipadan, but ridiculous Malaysian visa restrictions required me to apply for a visa from India / Thailand / Singapore only, which was cost prohibitive to do. So after $400 lost in flights in and out of Malaysia + internal flights to the Sipadan + non refundable Hostelworld booking advances (should have paid the $1 for flexible bookings!), I decided to make my way to Bali.

Now, Bali is, undisputedly, Indonesia’s most famous island destination. What the map doesn’t tell you though is how huge that island is. I spent close to a month on the island, and I couldn’t even visit the major areas of the island. I remember when I was still home and planning my trip, I had decided to give Indonesia 1 month where I would start in Jakarta, and then visit Yogyakarta, Bali, the Gilis, Lombok, Komodo, Florence, the Java islands, Sumatra, and maybe a few other places I can’t recollect. It all seemed doable looking at the map, but the truth is far from it. Indonesia is an archipelago of over 17,000 islands – and it would take a lifetime to visit them all. What’s more, the islands are spread out, like really really spread out, and though Indonesia has good and cheap internal flight connectivity, trying to visit Indonesia’s top spots in 30 days would be a ludicrous idea.

I started off  time on the island at the luxury tourist spot of Seminyak. I stayed at a hostel that had capsule beds (my favourite kind of dorm), and although the hostel had a party vibe that’s usually not my drift, I had a pretty good time in Seminyak. There’s the famous Potato Head Beach Club, my personal favourite: La Favella, and a bunch of other nice (and expensive) clubs and pubs. My friend Jack, who I also ran into at the start of my trip in Bangkok, was also in Bali for most of my time there, and with him, it’s always a party. We visited a few gay clubs in Seminyak as well, and I even had a Balinese Beyonce try really hard to make out with me, in spite of my resistance and polite refusals. One of they days, I even made my way down to the Single Fin sundown party all the way in Uluwatu (2 hours drive south of Seminyak), which was really nice overall.

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Jesus watching over your drinks at La Favella.

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After Seminyak, I went slightly south and stayed at the most touristy beach in Bali – Kuta Beach. While I did spend a few nights there, they were mainly to rest at night after my advanced open water qualifications dives in Nusa Penida (for manta rays!) and Tulamben (for the USS Liberty Wreck dive – a ship that was hit by a Japanese torpedo and beached near Tulamben during WWII). The dives were spectacular and definitely one of the highlights of my time in Bali.

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Shipwreck dive.
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Nusa Penida.
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Getting my tan on. 

From there I met up with Jack again and made my way to Ubud – the hippy town in the middle of Bali. Eat, Pray, Love is based in Ubud, and besides the acres and acres of rice fields (no beaches here), there are oodles of yoga centres and vegan restaurants. There’s a monkey sanctuary that I didn’t go to, but it’s probably pretty fun on the inside. I also attended my first ever yoga class (you read that right) in Ubud, and it was pretty calming and relaxing.

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Toilet in Ubud spitting truth bombs. 
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Road near the monkey sanctuary. 
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Sexy yoga pose. 

On to the Gilis from there, where we spent a few nights in Gili Trawangan – the party island of the Gilis: super trashy, followed by a few nights in Gili Air – the relaxing island of the Gilis: super nice. I also did a few fun dives while I was in the Gilis – I saw sooo many turtles – and also managed to catch a few good sunsets.

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Evenings in Gili Trawangan.
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More Gili T.
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Sunset in Gili Air.
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Last night with Jack in Gili Air.

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Dropped by Mr. Turtle’s for breakfast. 

I went back to Kuta from there where I met up with my friend Niharika who flew down for her birthday weekend. I did another couple of fun dives, went to surf school, and even visited the most famous bar / pub / club in Bali – Sky Garden!

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After Niharika left, I went to Canggu Beach, the surfer beach of Bali, and after perhaps Gili Air, this would be my favourite spot. The beaches were far less crowded and the waters were perfect for surfing.

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Overall, I really liked my time in Bali (and the Gilis). The beaches are beautiful, the food is delicious, and the people, like most of Southeast Asia, are super friendly. I hope to return some day.

Honorary mention: AVOCADO. Bali (and I think Indonesia in general) is really big on avocado… and it’s cheap! If you love avocado, and pay a mini fortune for below average avocados where you live (like I do), that’s probably added incentive to make that trip to Bali.

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Best brekky. 

PS – I realise that this post was quite drab, and that’s mainly because so much happened in that 1 month in Bali, and I’m writing about it a whole month after I left, so the stories aren’t that fresh in my mind, and it’s hard to condense it all in one post anyway. Bottom line, need to post more often.

 

Cambodia!

I’m running out of words to describe all the beautiful places and temples I’m seeing, but I’ll give this a shot.

I took the bus to Siem Reap from Cambodia and did my first ever land border crossing: it was a fun experience, and the Cambodian side has some really nice looking entry point art.

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Siem Reap is the gateway to the famous Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples, and this place alone made my trip to Cambodia worthwhile.

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The famous Angkor Wat.
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Bayon temple.
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Bayon again.
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Entry point to a cluster of temples.

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Tomb raider temple.

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I stayed at the Siem Reap hostel, and I can’t recommend them enough. It’s a lovely hostel, and pretty much everything you need is taken care of by them. They have an arrangement with the tuk-tuk drivers, so you can just tell the reception the kind of tour you want to do, and they will have a tuk-tuk driver waiting for you the next day, no price negotiations necessary. The food was amazing, and they even have a pool! I think it’s a Cambodian hostel thing, but literally all the hostels I stayed at had pools.

The Cambodians suffered a lot under the Khmer Rouge rule, and the Siem Reap hostel, as well as a lot of restaurants I went to across Cambodia, employ and help victims of the land mines, their children, etc.

Cambodians eat insects as a part of their normal life, and it would be a shame if I came all the way to Cambodia and didn’t at least sample some of them. I found a place called Bugs Cafe that was very well rated. I got the platter, which consisted of: spring roll with ants, a feuillette with red ants, a tarantula samosa, crickets and silk worms wok, and an insect skewer consisting of a scorpion, a tarantula and water bug that looked like a cockroach.

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From Siem Reap, I went down to Kampot and spent time at a hostel that doubles as a water park. They had those massive water slides that throw you a few feet up in the air!

And then my final stop: Phnom Penh. The capital city of Cambodia. I’ll keep my description of Phnom Penh brief because of the strong emotions I felt while I was there. The Khmer Rouge was a communist party that governed Cambodia in the 1970s under the directions of their leader Pol Pot. Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge committed mass genocide. They followers of the Khmer Rouge believed (or were led to believe) that the main cause of suffering of the Cambodians were the educated class and the people who lived in cities. Armed by their leaders, they arrested, tortured and killed anyone who was educated or lived in a city. A large number of people fled the cities to avoid being slaughtered. The ones who were captured were made to work in the rice fields. The Khmer Rouge government made absurd demands in the amount of rice that these workers had to produce – a feat not possible even if they actually knew how to work in the fields. People were randomly arrested, tortured barbarically until they signed confessions naming other people they had no links with – just so that the torture would stop.

They even had killing fields… a few hundred of them across Cambodia. I visited the killing fields of Phnom Penh, where they found mass graves of hundreds of people, including women and children. Since this was mass genocide, they didn’t have enough bullets to kill all these people. Plus bullets were expensive. So these barbarians had victims kneel and smashed the back of their heads with axes, swords, sticks, poles, and basically anything they could find. They would then slit their throats to make sure they were dead, and then toss their bodies in a pit filled with dead bodies. For the children, they held them by the ankles and swung them so that their heads smashed against a tree and they died. They were then tossed in the mass graves with the others. It was terrible. They say that 1 in 4 Cambodians were killed in that brief period of the Khmer Rouge rule. That’s millions of people killed for living in a city or having an education. They even arrested and killed you if you wore glasses!

The Khmer Rouge was finally overthrown with the help of the Vietnamese, but internationally, and even in the United Nations, the Khmer Rouge was recognised as the ruling party for many many years after that. That’s world politics for you. The leaders of the Khmer Rouge are still under trial, and it seems very unlikely that any of them will be brought to justice while they are alive. They’re all very very old now. The leader, Pol Pot died under house arrest, and it’s very unlikely that he was made to suffer even a little for his crimes.

I was so emotionally overwhelmed that I didn’t even bother clicking pictures at the S21 (high school converted to a jail and torture chamber) or the killing fields. Besides, I don’t think clicking pictures at places like these would even be appropriate. They exist today as a reminder of what happened, as a memory of the millions that lost their lives, and as a warning of the horrific consequences of genocide. But is the world really listening?

Bangkok (again), Ayutthaya (again), and Pattaya

After Myanmar, I spent another week in Thailand, meeting friends and eating a lot of delicious Thai food.

The whole monastery experience left me skinnier than I started out, and I needed new clothes – Bangkok being the obvious place to shop. I did sample some new restaurants, my favourite being the Veganarie Concept. I’m not vegan, nor am I usually a fan of vegetarian food, but this place was amazing. They prepare their food with vegan ingredients that appear and taste just like meat. It was so so good. If they made all vegan food like that, I’d be happy to go vegan. Definitely going back the next time I’m in Bangkok.

While walking around Sukhumvit, I also chanced upon the best cafe in the whole wide world. A cafe with coffee and fluffy dogs! Exactly like the cat cafes I’ve visited through this trip: you buy a drink, enter the cafe, and play with the animals, only this was better because it had dogs. It was just like heaven.

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I did have a few nights out, and strangely, Khao San Road seems to have changed in the few months I was away. A crackdown at one of the bars on Khao San led to the cops discovering a lot of drugged tourists (like they didn’t already know), and they are now enforcing an old law that only permits establishments registered as a night club to be open beyond 12 am. Most establishments only have a simple restaurant licence, and save a few places, Khao San Road is now pretty dead by 12 am… bummer.

I then visited a super fun friend I made earlier in my trip, who now works in Ayutthaya, and checked out the temples I couldn’t get to the last time. I also managed to see one of Ayutthaya’s giant lizards – who happened to cross the road while I was on a scooter. It took me a while to register what I just saw and I obviously forgot to click pictures. But he was huge. Like a dinosaur.

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Friend + fluffy cats.

I also visited Pattaya – a place I had visited when I was 9 years old – to see what the place was like now, and also to go to the Ripley’s museum that I couldn’t go to when I was a kid. The museum was amazing, as were the rest of the malls and the little sliver of a beach that Pattaya has. What wasn’t amazing was the constant accosting from Thai hookers. I only had some memories of Pattaya from like 17 years ago, and they were all pleasant. What I saw was nothing like it. Lines and lines of bars, each riddled with hookers trying to get you to their bar for a drink (and more). They even have something called go-go bars, where you can get a beer, have the company of a female who works there, and if you like her, pay the bar the price of a beer, and take her away for a few hours. What you pay her for her services is directly to her and extra – but it’s a fully established sex racket, and old men from all over the world were aplenty. I spent both my nights there by getting to my hotel room relatively early because I was neither interested in being catcalled (they do that), dragged by my arms to a bar (they also do that), and groped (yep, they do that too).

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One of Pattaya’s bar streets – picture from a distance because I’d get grabbed by hookers if I were closer.

This visit was supposed to be a transit, but it ended up being so much more. Onto Cambodia…

Yangon

If you want to see the day-to-day struggle of the Burmese, go to Yangon. For a city this bustling, and that is so full of people, it’s a bit surprising that they are still more or less in the British era. The buildings in downtown Yangon seem old and worn out (with the exception of a few government buildings, banks and courts – which have well maintained British built buildings), the roads are dirty and crowded, and the electricity lines are archaic. Yangon suffers massive power outages – it consumes 5/6th of the total electricity generated in Myanmar – and even then, the supply hardly matches demand. There are massive generators on the streets to help this, but it’s just not enough. It’s the worst during the night when it’s very, very hot, and for some reason the hostels in Yangon (like most of Southeast Asia) have no fans – only air-conditioning – which can’t run on a generator all night long! They are progressing though… I guess when you’ve been suppressed for so long, first by foreigners and then by your own people, it takes time to recover – and they only just opened their borders to tourism a few years back. It can only get better from here; I just hope they don’t sell out to tourism like Thailand did, and still retain some of their Burmese charm.

A funny thing I learnt about the Burmese is that when the British left, and the military junta government took over, they decided they needed change of any kind from the British. Top of that was a change in the side of the road they drive on – just to make sure they’re doing the opposite of what the British do. What they didn’t change however, is the side of the steering wheel in their cars – both old and new. So now they still have right hand drive cars, but they drive on the wrong side of the road. That tells you all you need to know about how the military junta ran the country.

The city centre is marked by the Sule Pagoda, and the area surrounding it is bustling! It’s full of government buildings, offices and betel leaf stains on the road. I don’t know what it is about the Burmese, but they really love chewing the betel leaf (it’s a leaf stuffed with tobacco and some other herbs and leaves you with blood red saliva that you spit constantly, anywhere you feel like spitting). Their red teeth, one local told me, was something Burmese women find attractive in the men. Apparently the ‘red smile’ is a turn on (YUCK).

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Sule Pagoda at night

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There’s the famous Shwedagon Pagoda; which is the highlight of the city, and it’s absolutely beautiful around sunset. The history to it is that two merchant brothers met the Buddha, and the Buddha was so pleased with them, that he gave them 8 of his hairs. These hairs are enshrined in the Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s of great historical importance to the Buddhists, and the Shwedagon is also likely to be the most famous Buddhist pilgrimage site in Myanmar.

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Lighting of lamps at the Shwedagon around sunset.

There’s a looping train you can get onto which takes you all around the city including some exteriors) and it’s a great way to see the real Burmese way of living (basic, and to put it crudely, primitive – also, a lot like rural India).

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They have a lot of cheap bars and restaurants and some newer, fancier restaurants serving international cuisines at international prices. My only complaint – the food is guaranteed to be oily all over Myanmar. Not a few extra drops oily, but floating in oil kinda oily. I don’t know if it’s because the food stays out a long time in the heat and they use the extra oil to stop the food from spoiling, or if they are fond of the taste, but it’s quite disgusting. I did love the taste of this dish called Shan noodles though – really flavourful noodles topped with relish, chicken and some broth.

All in all, from all the places I visited in Myanmar, Yangon was my least favourite, mainly because of the crazy amount of people everywhere. Yangon is no longer the capital of Myanmar. It used to be the capital under the British rule – under it’s old name, Rangoon – but the military junta government changed that as well. Their current capital is a place called Naypyidaw, where literally no one ever goes. Google it – it’s a ghost city. Yangon is still the de-facto capital city of Myanmar, and definitely worth a visit anyway.

The monk experience

I spent 10 days in Myanmar staying at a forest monastery, a few hundred miles south of Yangon, trying to experience what it’s like to be a Buddhist monk.

The monks live a simple life. They eat 2 meals a day, and spend their remaining time meditating, reading and practicing mindfulness. The monastery I was at hosted a few hundred monks, and foreigners were allowed to stay along with the monks free of cost, and for as long as they like. I met some foreigners who had been staying there for a few years. They give you a room (called a kuti), which you share with other monks / foreigners. The room itself is basic, it has a small bed with a thin mat (no mattresses), and a fan. You go along with the monks for alms during meal times, and eat the same food they eat. A typical day at the monastery went something like this:

3:30 am – wake up

4:00 am to 5:30 am – meditation

5:30 am to 7:00 am – breakfast

7:00 am to 7:30 am – personal time

7:30 am to 9:00 am – meditation

9:00 am to 10:00 am – personal time / interviews with the teacher

10:00 am to 1:00 pm – lunch and personal time

1:00 pm to 2:30 pm – meditation

2:30 pm to 3:30 pm – walking meditation

3:30 pm to 5:00 pm – mediation

5:00 pm to 6:00 – evening juice / personal time

6:00 pm to 7:30 pm – meditation

7:45 pm to 8:45 pm – Dhamma talks (talks about Buddhism, in Burmese (exempt for foreigners)).

What I liked about this monastery though, was that they didn’t force you into their routine. That really helped a beginner like me, who would have found it impossible to stick to a rigid routine. If you didn’t feel like going to the meditation hall, you could meditate in your room, or not at all. The only thing that was forced on us was the food timings. And strangely, even though my last meal was at around 10:00 am, I was not as hungry as I thought I’d be by evening, and they did give us some juice at 5 pm to alleviate any evening hunger. The food was vegetarian, since not harming animals is one of the precepts to being a monk, but it was some of the most delicious food I have eaten in my life. I got to talk to a lot of monks and learn about their experiences and views (there were many Indian monks who recognised me as a fellow Indian, and were more than happy to talk to me about literally everything).

For the uninitiated, Buddhism teaches you to try and achieve the status of Buddha. How one does that is by following the teachings of Buddha and reaching a state of enlightenment. Enlightenment is when you understand the purpose of life and its sufferings, and develop the skill to break away from it – kinda like divine knowledge. Suffering is a very loose term in Buddhism that includes everything that a person goes through in life. Attachment to things, emotions, love, anger, hatred, and the never ending circle of life. The meditation helps you rest your mind, improve concentration, and better understand the meaning of life. And the more you meditate, the higher level of understanding you achieve, and the closer you inch towards enlightenment. Overall, your life is the sum of your good and bad deeds, and how good or bad you are at the end of this life will determine both your life form and your sufferings for the next. Meditation gets you a few good karma points, but living a life as per the teachings of the Buddha get you a lot more.

One of the most important and difficult aspects of this path though is true faith. It’s what both, the books I read, as well as the teacher at the monastery, suggested. This was, however, the trickiest one for me. I’m generally rational and believe in things that science can prove. It’s hard for me to put all my faith in something like this without actually seeing or experiencing any of this divine knowledge. But then, the only way to see it, is to truly believe it exists. Quite a catch 22 situation. The meditation did, however, help me learn how to clear my mind, and for me, that’s enough to take back with me to the real world. I also got an insight into the monk way of life, and that’s a life experience that will always remain with me.

There’s no cellphones or computers allowed while you’re at the monastery, so I have no pictures of anything. The monastery does have a website that has pictures and a lot more information: http://www.paaukforestmonastery.org/

Inle Lake

Inle Lake is a freshwater lake in eastern Myanmar. The village with the hotels and hostels is located in the Nyaungshwe township of the Shan State. It’s a beautiful little town with lovely restaurants.

Unfortunately, my time in Inle coincided with the rains, and I didn’t get to see any sunrises or sunsets on the lake. And since there was no worthwhile sunrise or sunset, I didn’t take the effort to make it to the lake to watch the local fishermen at sunrise – something which is apparently worth checking out at Inle.

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Boat ride on Inle Lake.

I did however go down to the Indein Village, which hosts temples from somewhere between the 12th to 14th centuries. No one knows when exactly, and there’s a debate on who built them as well. To reach the village, you have to travel an hour by boat through the lake itself. There’s farm lands all around, and you can see lots of flowers, rice and whatever else grows in marshy lands.

My problem with Indein though is similar to the one I have with Bagan. There’s restoration work underway, and they are simply replacing the old bricks with newer ones, and sealing them with cement. Some even get painted for a nice polished look, making them look like they were built a few months back, and not hundreds of years ago. A girl from the hostel I was with on the tour to Indein told me about how the place was described in an article she read: beautiful temples, being restored, they’d give an archeologist a heart attack. I agree with those words.

It’s unfortunate, but for what it’s worth, a lot of the original and crumbling stupas still exist, and while they’re a lovely site, they are in desperate need of restoration. I just wish they restored them by reusing the bricks rather than replacing them.

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Crumbling stupas.
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Only the headless Buddha image from the stupa remains.
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The tree is growing out of the stupa!

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Some of the original Buddha images from the inside of one of the many pagodas.
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Cluster of stupas.

From the many restaurants (all of them were excellent), Innlay Hut Indian Food House was my favourite. It’s run by an Indian origin guy who’s heavily influenced by Eminem. He raps as a part of his normal speech and has the mannerisms of a rapper you’d see in a music video. He calls himself Stan (from the song Stan, obviously), but his real name is Kumar (can it be more Indian?). The restaurant also has Eminem lyrics painted all over its walls, and the entertainment value alone made it a worthwhile visit.