Nature

Kachin State — Myanmar’s Christian North

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

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Confluence of the N’mai and Mali rivers. Both originate as small streams on the Tibetan Plateau, and draw their waters from Himalayan-range glaciers. My tuktuk driver explained that N’mai is coming from China and Mali from India. Its not entirely clear wether the source of both rivers are in Burmese side or not. Judging the maps, some small streams indeed seem to come across the borders. The confluence is the origin of Irrawaddy River, Myanmars main waterway that flows through the country, all the way to Bay of Bengal.

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June 2015

Train to Myitkyina. We leave squeaking and shaking from Mandalay station into the night. Watching out into darkness, communities are living by the faintly lit street. Smart phones and TV screens are glowing back from there. Next morning we should be well on the way to north and after 24hrs should arrive to Myitkyina, Kachin state of Myanmar.

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Train traveling.
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Morning. Last night went without a sleep, not even the lightest dozing, ride is just too jumpy. Locals didn’t seem to mind much and kept sleeping. Outside our wagon, day is slowly opening. Clouds are looming low, and fields are wet. All the windows are open, sudden shower could wash us all inside. Farmers with their oxen are already plowing the paddies. “Iron-buffaloes” that are a norm in neighbouring Thailand, can be seen also occasionally. Change is coming also in remote parts of Myanmar. On railroads no such luck, except least were using steam locomotives like when British built the tracks 100+ years ago. Burmese trains defy the laws of gravity, to be put mildly.

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Ages old scenes meet today in north Myanmar.
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Myitkyina. Wide Irrawaddy is quiet. Night is coming and different shades over blue are descending over it. Due to the military restrictions, there is no traffic in the river. Water is plenty and level high, it would be easy to sail to Bhamo in south. Christian churches are everywhere, outnumbering the Buddhist temples in the city. A work of European missionaries in 19th century, who converted the local animist population to followers of Christ. Still, when looking the statistics, Buddhism is dominant religion also in Kachin state like in the rest of Myanmar.

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Street market in Myitkyina.

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Bhamo-Katha river boat.

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Two pranksters in Myitkyina.

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View from U-Bein bridge Mandalay, April 2013 & June 2015.
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South Myanmar in Photos

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

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Moulmein.
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June 2015

Most travelers head north from Yangon, Bagan and Inle-lake especially. But south-east of the country offers fascinating sights to see as well. Here are couple photos from Moulmein and Hpa-An.

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Moulmein. Worlds largest reclining Buddha at Mudon.
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Moulmein.
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Moulmein.
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Hpa-An.
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Hpa-An.
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Hpa-An.
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Hpa-An.
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Hpa-An.
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Amazing cloud of bats going for eat, every sunset.

Cuban Reflections

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

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March 2016

Here are twenty photos and some reflections from the trip to Cuba. Because its tropical flora and fauna, couldn’t help comparing the country to South East Asia that has become familiar in past years.

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Malecon, Havana.

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Havana.

What can I write about Cubans? They are music lovers and party people more than anything. Salsa is in their DNA. So are their love for fat cigars and rum. The liquor is even sold in small tetra packs. I spotted often guys sipping innocent looking small boxes and wondered whats the sudden juice or soda passion for grown up men. But no it is Ron Planchao, 40% alcohol. That explained! People are not proud but self confident. Locals often greet foreigners and welcoming them for happy holidays.

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Havana.

From the trio of countries that I’ve been documenting, Cuba is by far most touristy. Ocean cruisers bring hundreds at a time, and so does the busy Havana airport. When hearing the news that Cuba is opening to international community and blockades are history, many wont realise that in tourism industry that happen already 20 years ago. After fall of Soviet Union, Cuba lost not just an ally, but main customer for its agricultural products. From then on, tourists from Canada and Europe brought desperately needed foreign currency. Venezuela provided cheap oil that prevented economic wheels from stalling completely.

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Havana.
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The island is flat, Cuba’s highest peak does not reach 2000m. Scenes from bus: Sugar cane fields and rice paddies. Small sloping hills, palm trees and more fields and greenery.

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Vienales in west of island has landscape that remind scenes from South East Asia.

Farm animals are everywhere. It’s nice to see cowboy slowly riding to the fields in the mellow evening light, to return livestock back after grassing the day out. Condors gliding lazily with air currents and screening the world underneath. Another common bird that can be seen in shores is the pelican. Edit: related to farm animals, here’s link to a discussion on a web forum about Cuban “pork economy”, and some discussion as well as controversies related to situation in the country and its past.

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Trinidad.

Ride paddies are not worked as meticulously as in Asia, where rice has always been backbone of feeding populations. Burmese or Thai farmer could be shocked to see how temporary the mud walls that form the pools are. They seem like pulled up quickly with tractor, not carved to the soil in shape that farmer passes on to his son.

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Trinidad.

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Havana.

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Cienfuegos.

Streets are in pretty good condition, although street lights at night are dim. Lack of light pollution means bright night skies even in city centers. Traffic culture more expectable than in Asia, car drivers and pedestrians respecting each other.

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Santiago.

Shops and markets lack the endless variety and full shelf’s like in more prosperous countries. There were some queues occasionally, but in general shops always have least one brand of product’s on offer, and shelf’s were never completely empty.

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Trinidad, locomotive drivers.

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Camaguey.
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Weather in March has been really a dream. Constant winds, especially in Havana and northern side of island are refreshing. In south side, and especially Santiago, air was more stale and walking around in mid day not as nice.

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Camaguey.

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Santiago.
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Santiago.
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Viazul is Cuban hard currency bus company. Many tourists are using their busses while traveling in Cuba. Drivers are pretty well motivated, but are making bit extra on their own. Busses always have front seats that passengers cannot use. Those are for people that are picked up from hitching by the road side, and pay directly to drivers.

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In a bus. Co-driver relaxing, texting and chatting with the driver.

They are funny blokes to watch, wheeling and dealing their own along the way. When they feel like a juice, for instance, they stop by the shop, all passengers watching and waiting. Or when the other one knows a good basket shop on the way. The duo again disappear to a road side shop for a minute, and return smiling with nice new baskets in their hands. Chinese made busses are in ok condition, and schedule holds pretty well. That ensures no big protest arise when another surprise stop happens. Things run, but bit differently in Cuba.

Songkran Ride: Mae Hong Son loop

Mae Hong Son loop is name for set of scenic serpentine roads crossing hills and valleys of north west corner of Thailand. Loop starts and ends to Chiangmai, the second largest city after capital Bangkok. There are several route options one can choose. This link describes the loop more in detail. I followed Pai, Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang route with a friend year ago, but switched Mae Sariang this time to Mae Chaem. This turned out to be good idea as views were better and could more easily visit Doi Ithanon, the highest point in the country.

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Route as my phone recorded it (for some reason Google had determined farthest distance being 88.095 miles. Route in total is about 500-600km)

Infrastructure is well developed and guesthouses can easily be found all along the route. And, occasionally fascinating restaurant or coffee shop too. These services are best in Pai and Mae Hong Son, but are not nonexistent elsewhere either. Compared to its neighbours, Thailand have had more time and better resources to improve its road network. For most part road was in good condition. Driving style is “interesting” to be put mildly. Car drivers generally consider bikers as their inferiors, that stay away and give way when needed. This can be seen especially on big highways, but sometimes on smaller roads as well. After 10am to around 4pm, especially now when rain season had not started yet, sun can be tormenting. Good sun glasses and lotion are a must!

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What is Songkran, is best illustrated with photos 🙂

Songkran

Am big camera and photo nut and would normally take real camera with me. But as it was Songkran, the Thai new year, the water splashing is guaranteed everywhere from big cities to small roads in the middle of nowhere. So decided to keep electronics at minimum, and just use smartphone for everything. Same device is invaluable these days with maps, routes and location tracking. And searching information about guesthouses.

Honda and road

For the transport, chose my 150cc Honda PCX. Its not torque oozing touring bike, but rather just a big scooter. I found it enough for one person to pull up the mountains. Tank is big enough for about one to two hundred kilometres, while the engine is not as thirsty as in bigger bikes. Compartment under the seat takes helmet plus stuff such as clothes, sandals etc. Dedicated box behind the seat wound improve the storage abilities even further. I tried 300cc “jumbo scooter” Honda Forza few months ago, and for two persons would not choose anything smaller in Mae Hong Son. Many locals and tourists alike wont care, and storm around with their 110cc Scoopy’s and Fino’s. Going by car would obviously be safest, and with aircon, one does not have to care about scorching sun. But because road is so curvy, one has to have a good stomach. Knowing breaking techniques is also mandatory, as overheated breaks loose their grip. Least on personal preference, good curvy roads on nice warm weather are so much more enjoyable on two wheels that decision was easy.

Views at Mae Hong Son

Region is Himalayan foothills that span across North Burma, Thailand, Laos and Yunnan in South China. Region was largely unknown to the world until 19th century, and plurality of ethnics that populate region is stunning. Different hill tribes live in countryside, their remote villages can be accessed by hiring a local travel agent or self-searching the information. I did three village trips to Kayan (Karenni) villages. They are also known as “long neck women”, because of their custom for women to wear brass rings around their neck. There are several theories why this became to be. One is that rings were intended to make women look less attractive, for raiding parties from neighbouring tribes. Other is that rings were intended as protection against tigers, the beast biting to neck of its prey. Third is that they were meant as protection against evil spirits. Am sure there is also fourth and fifth theory at least. Before there were any border demarcated between Burma (Myanmar) and Siam (Thailand), hill tribes moved freely in the region and Thailand has its own ethnic minorities. But today most Kayan people here are refugees from purges by military junta in neighbouring Burma.

Sign to Kayan village

Crossing the river to Kayan village

Crossing the river to Kayan village

Huai Sua Tao is most easily found and accessible, south west from Mae Hong Son centre. Only about 20-30 minutes drive. Its also smallest and most touristy, entry fee is 250 Thai Baht at the time of writing. Women are selling souvenirs for visitors.

In Kayan village

In Kayan village

In Kayan village

Second village is more genuine, and north west of Mae Hong Son centre called Ban Nai Soi. Drive there takes bit of road manoeuvring skill. Road is usable only with dirt bikes during monsoon season. Some locals felt even surprised me showing up one late afternoon.

In Kayan village

In Kayan village

In Kayan village

The best experience was to village of Nam Phiang Din, further south west from first village. It stands beside river Mae Pai that crosses the border nearby. To visit the village, one has to cross the river with help of locals. Entry costs 200 Baht plus 20 Baht for the boat men. Village is biggest than two earlier, has genuine feel in it. People are doing other things there, rather than just wait tourists to show up. Dogs seemed to roam everywhere, which at night time can a surprise. Children were playing on mud streets, adults minding their businesses such as fixing boats, carrying fire wood and caring their young ones. Chicken and pigs were doodling about as well. This meditating place would be good choice, when wanting to escape hectic city life for a moment.

In Kayan village

Village church
While Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, work of Christian missionaries in 19th century can still be seen in hill tribes

Had strong rain shower when heading up to Doi Ithanon, as last part of my trip. While feeling wet and cold, rain also cleared temples from tourists and had nice moments reading about Buddha in silence.

Doi Ithanon

Patagonia: Torres del Paine and Perito Moreno

Spring 2011, exploring Chilean and Argentinean Patagonia.

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April 5 2011 — Arrived ok to Puerto Natales before noon, by boat from Puerto Montt. Weather was more sunny today, it was quite misty and rainy boat trip. But views and trip in general was memorable. There were not many signs of human settlement along the Chilean coast. At one part of the way, boat exits from protecting archipelago to open seas of South Pacific (Golfo de Penas). That happened in the middle of night while sleeping. I woke being inside giant washing machine. My cabin mate was lifting our bags from floor that had buckets of water rolling. Nice wakeup! @ Puerto Natales

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Puerto Natales, Chile

April 7 2011 — Went to Torres del Paine today. Scenery was just stunning, postcard like! High mountains, bright blue and green lagoons, dramatic cloudy skies, guanacos and condors. Weather also was gentle for us, as this time of year it can rain days in row. At some places, winds were very strong. It indeed felt like the edge of the world, just as Tibet was the roof of world.

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Torres del Paine national park, Chile

I’ve ended up much more South than originally planned, tomorrow its time to start correcting the “error” and jump bus to El Calafate, see glaciers and continue again North towards Buenos Aires @ Puerto Natales

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On Road in Patagonia

April 8 2011 — Came to Argentina today. My first visit to Chile left only good memories. Beautiful country and people! Drive North from Porto Natales was through empty pampas that had only cattle grazing on few spots. In its vast emptiness, scene evokes imagination. How would it be to live here… @ El Calafate

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El Calafate, Argentina

Glacier Perito Moreno, Argentina

April 10 2011 — Lazy Sunday in Calafate, and tomorrow morning bus to Comodoro Rivadavia. Did some laundry today + organizing photos from past days.

Trip to Glacier Perito Moreno was another highlight of my trip in this part of world. Weather was nice in afternoon, and ice monolith is just massive. It is a river of ice, that rolls forward like a slow lava. Ice constantly lives, cracks size of a building falling off and splashing to water. Current melting edge was snow in high Andes, about 500 years ago. So, at the time Columbus was trying to find new sea route from Europe to India, water was frozen and became part of glacier. Gives a bit of perspective to our human limitations. @ El Calafate