Secrets of the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda

The Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, known as Golden Rock, is built on top of a massive boulder at the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo in Myanmar, however; I did not get to see it as instead I opted to observe, with all due humbleness and respect, diarrhea day. d-day (un-capitalized so as not to be confused with the real revered article) is a frightful and regrettably unavoidable one for all food-eating, liquid-drinking, finger-touching, air-breathing globe trotting earth travelers. It is almost as inevitable as my Dad singing Al Jolson songs with his eyes closed on New Year’s Eve. Even the profoundly intellectual Russell Hulstrom, my erstwhile traveling combatant-colleague, told me in a rare unguarded moment of weakness he is unable to visit the Indian sub continent without some measure of self-effacement. In cautious deference to d-day I thought I should instead consider setting aside the daylight to potentially visit some of the smaller non denominational shrines located near the hotel lobby bar.

The first aspect I can think of to improve upon my germ fare avoidance technique is to shower with Evian—the mineral water from the French Alps, not the supermodel. The supermodel endeavor would undoubtedly be enjoyable but would not in all probability benefit my current plight, and indeed could result in abrupt awkwardness. Apart from a Perrier rinse I think I have done everything in my authority to isolate myself from unsolicited microorganisms, lest I contemplate donning one of those hermetically sealed spacesuits our patriotic and awesome astronauts sported when they admirably repaired the ailing Hubble telescope.

How was I smitten? Well, I can say with absolute certitude that I did not eat outside my hotel at some random Myanmar street curried-noodle eggplant pizziarrhea. Regardless, eggplant fabrications continue to scare me in any form and on any continent. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously said, “when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” On that basis I must conclude I have upset the gods with my less than sincere prayers in the ageless Burmese temples over the past few days with my continual wishes for Apple stock to once again reach $700 and the pump in my fishpond to operate as advertised. As I told my undemanding and blithe little sister Eleanor on Skype last night I can sometimes tend to be self-centered and to think of my centrality as if I were a sun with all else rotating and existing merely because of me. In any event it is a beautiful day to stay and relax at the hotel. With some recovery and regained fortitude I may consider going for a swim in the hotel’s large warm swimming pool. Thankfully, today I am not in California where they post placards at hotel pools to admonish you, nae forbid you, if you attempt swimming within fourteen days of shitting your pants.

And so, as must be, my Burmese banterings and Myanmar meanderings are coming to an end. I must soon go back briefly to Singapore, then Dubai for shopping and then home, albeit for only a short time as I have just last night been informed that my sweet beautiful under-privileged daughter has officially requested some custodial accompaniment dotting across the majestic pacific ocean for multiple scuba undertakings once again culminating at the great barrier reef.

Dress Code

A Strict Dress Code Applies to Visit Burmese Temples

On my way back home, in Singapore, I plan to visit once again with the Witch Dance Club where I will present said club management with my latest song, White Witch. They’ve somewhat perhaps un-enthusiastically played my ever-lasting mid-life crisis stuff before after a few bribes but I am hopeful that I can achieve more of a corporate embracement this time around based on the undeniable relevance of the subject matter. I must admit that hitherto, when they played my tunes in the crowded chic club, I was as happy as a Glaswegian attaining triple Scrabble points over the pink star on the board for awfurfucksake or, even better, the irrefutable and ultimate gonnaenofuckindaethat. As inspiration for this campy little chanson I have apparently and heretofore unknowingly identified with a couple of real-life witches since childhood and I met another three this past year leading to this new sorceress stimulated song, sung by the lovely and gifted Connie Chen and played by moi sur la guitar, the indomitable Dr. Freeze on the skins, Ricky Sanchez en el bajo, and the wonderful Wayne Wilentz on the keys.

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The German Tourist

As a young man I loved to stay in youth hostels, sleeping with my moneybelt wrapped loosely but detectably around my then-slender waist and my 35 mm Canon camera tied to my right leg. With a carefree modus I’d backpack throughout the UK, Europe and Asia meeting various like-minded and interesting folks along the way. In Europe it seemed to be mostly Australians and in Asia mostly Germans. It seems that I’m still doing the same thing decades later, albeit with just a few changes—little first class, five star, private tour kinda details. But I still meet some really interesting people. On this trip to Burma I selected the most opulent high-end hotels I could possibly find in an attempt to once again hang out with Aerosmith at the hotel bar as I did last year at the Ritz club in Tokyo. But alas, so far it has been mostly loud Germans or no one at all.

North of Mandalay I met a Frenchman, Michel, who surprisingly spoke less English than the rudimentary French articulation I could muster. Normally a little reclusive I embraced this opportunity to maintain my ailing French as it was late at night and I was in five-star middle of nowhere anticipating the possible appearance of Aerosmith at the bar. I also hoped that soon I might meet an English-challenged Spaniard for similar selfish scholastic reasons. Michel was a quiet man, probably in his late forties, with white seemingly un-pigmented skin and the composure and face of a slight lonely timorous shrew. His abundant hair, like that of a teenage Brazilian girl, was pulled back tersely over his head and gathered in a small ponytail at the back, but not in any describable rock star fashion. Thin and tall he walked with a Jim Carrey stoop as though playing in the sequel to that over rated and lugubrious Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events movie. His intense bashfulness caused him to bob his head in apparent submission to anyone in his path even when he shuffled to get another small pastry at breakfast time. But hey, as the only tourists I’d talk to him over a few drinks or a pastry.

In the western Burmese city of Mrauk-U there were only two tourists in that land; me and, yes, you guessed—a German from Munich who went by the name of Thomas Erlich. Thomas spoke in perfectly good but loud halting English like an overweight five year-old only-child American boy. I assume he was loud in his native German dialogue too. Like competing warriors we quickly assessed each other’s strengths and weaknesses in travel prowess. Ouch—he threw gut punches such as Afghanistan, Tibet, and the Kingdom of Bhutan. But I countered with powerful jabs and hooks including Alice Springs, Saipan, and Mozambique. After we had exhausted the Times Map of the World we called time. With the intense heat and fierce competition the back of Thomas’ shirt was wet with sweat, but he acknowledged I beat him squarely in that albeit noncompetitive category. However, he undoubtedly won when it came to monkdom. I could only claim a few monasteries that had been converted into five star hotels, such as Cusco, in Peru. He was seriously into monasteries in a big way and the next day as part of the negotiated treaty on my travelogue-ian defeat I accompanied him to a nearby Myanmar monastery (see photos below).

All the Young Monks

            Friendly, Happy, Committed

Monastery Business

                  Waiting for the Boss

Generally, more Burmese than I expected spoke a tad of English this time around.  When my acupuncturist Soe-Soe, pronounced so so, first told me her name (I am so so) I replied, naw I bet you’re really good.  I tried to explain this was a veiled reference to the classic Python Mr. Smoketoomuch sketch (you need to cut down then!), but that went miles over her head.  I should have known better to keep multi cultural humor to a more basic keystone cop kinda level.  But communicating through humor runs in the family and my Dad was particularly good at it with his epic one-liner responses.  In the late 1970s my grandfather’s brother (known to us all as Uncle Chick) had a 50th wedding anniversary and Dad asked some rather large older lady who appeared to be dressed in a beige and white patchwork quilt of doylies if she would like to dance. She clutched her more than ample bosom and said och no I canny dance wae ma chist. Dad immediately retorted, oh c’mon hen yae canny dance withoot it. They did dance while Dad hammed it up as usual, with an impressive array of North Korean goose-stepping moves.

As much as humor is a crutch for me, I am sometimes notorious for maybe injecting too much joviality in otherwise solemn situations. For example, last year when I was finalizing my Ph.D. I thought my professor was being a little too detail oriented. So I thought I’d throw a curve ball into one of my final manuscripts, as we say in America, just for shits and grins. For this little dark corner of my work I was analyzing the probability of the successful progression of an entrepreneur from business start up to exit within a corporate governance framework, whether it ended as an IPO, trade sale or so on. So I made a well-researched comparison to the potential life expectancy of a Canadian pacific leather back turtle surviving through a typical harsh Canadian pacific life cycle. Citing many revered sources I projected the probability of the darling little mammal making it from the egg to the ocean, and through all of the lugubrious phases of its challenging life including its return to nesting as an adult. (It was less than 1% by the way for Mrs. Turtle). Much to my surprise my professor merely recommended a few edits to the text essentially approving the inclusion of this bizarre association to stay in the research. So I reflected that I really didn’t take it far enough and that I should have reached more for the stars. Perhaps I should have made a comparison with the decline in construction accidents since the introduction of the Office of Health and Safety Act, or something more peculiar along those lines.

When I tell my Mom some of the more humorous stories from this trip, she will probably say to me, ”I don’t know where you get all this from.”  And I will answer solemnly; Burma.

Discovering Timeless Bagan Wonders

In many ways I feel that the true beauties of Burma are mystifyingly hidden, much like my friend Dave Simpson’s superior off-road Land Rover driving skills, exhibited to me recently in Southern New Zealand. The landscape in Burma constantly varies from lush bowling-green plains to weathered mountains adorned with shiny temples and there are also apparently beautiful islands in the southwest which I have not yet seen, except abstractedly from the air. I traveled with a company called Mandalay Air or, as I call them, MA for Missing Airplanes as they apparently have only two small planes, which I never saw. They do have a tiny sizzling ticket office at the airport in Mandalay where they sell you old-style hand written tickets for crisp new U.S. dollar currency. Then they reliably and sequentially cancel all your flights within 24 hours of their scheduled departure. But they did it in a really smiley Burmese hospitable tactic and with great labor-intensive attention to detail. Since we foreigners are tracked vigilantly as we move all over the country by visa number and hotel locations the airline knows exactly where to call to provide the last minute cancellation information. And since Missing Airplanes apparently code shares with anything that can achieve powered flight I was put on some other airplane generally going in my intended direction. When Mandalay Air gets their third small plane rumor has it they will rebrand their larger airline business as Mandalay Airways.

There are, I am told, over 1,000 glorious temples around Bagan, which is located in the epicenter of Burma. Some of these sun blasted wonders are as majestic and as large as the central Mexican Teotihuacán pre-Aztec pyramids I was fortunate to climb just last month. But they are better preserved as the pyramids were essentially reassembled in the early 1900s from a large pile of stones (hey let’s make it pointy). The main source of any damage incurred by some of the Bagan temples was from a huge 1975 earthquake. Damage to the temples is minimal when compared to WWII allied carpet-bombing that occurred elsewhere. The Teotihuacán pyramids were not bombed; I think they just fell apart but I would have to Google that (slow patchy Internet here) so I am not asserting any national differences in workmanship or materials in this memorandum. Many of the small and mid-sized temple doors are locked and require some local guardian to provide access and a flashlight so that you can go and poke around inside in the dark while observing original eleventh century wall paintings and Buddha after Buddha. Some Buddhas are made of stone, some of teak, and others of gold-painted teak. I will provide my deliberated take on Christianity vs. Buddhism as seen through statues of the preceding millennium in a future communication.

The sensible and prevalent way to get around the off-road temple areas in the shimmering plains of Bagan when going temple to temple is by old-fashioned horse and cart. Shunning any form of air conditioning in a wobbly, inelegant, bouncy barrow apparently adds to one’s visit experience. I acquired the services of a Burmese guy, Unco, and his trusty, but underfed looking steed, Mimi. Mimi the malnourished mule is not to be confused with the exceptionally well-fed Mimi from Vietnam who runs the king queen nail salon in my hometown downtown McLean. From the photo below you can see that I am probably heftier than Unco and that poor pony combined. The process was that Unco would navigate me around, I’d get off the wagon, grudgingly take off my shoes, dash madly for the shaded flooring, use a flashlight in the dark interiors of the temple, then get back on the wagon and repeat. There were really never any other tourists around as the song goes. Everytime my churchillian frame stepped gingerly onto the back of the cart I could hear the clunk of Mimi’s rear hooves hitting the ground as her ass returned from a one-foot high cantilever. I’m not saying I’m fat though; I just have high body density. Dave Simpson tells me I’m fat, but I tell him that am somewhat solaced by my robust hair retention and the knowledge that at some future date I could be thinner. For the record, I do not believe that I could cantilever Vietnam Mimi. And to make matters worse those little rickety wagons are designed for a lead charioteer and two passengers. I was taken by the thought that had my good friend and talented music producer Keny Ruyter accompanied me on this trip there could be some serious animal rights issues. However, together for sure we would slay Vietnam Mimi on the see-saw.

Unco & Mimi the Mule

Unco & Mimi the Mule

After my edifying and culturally stimulating antics in the early part of the day, in the intense heat of the mid-late afternoons I would try to retreat to the hotel spa, saving swim time for dusk, or sometimes dawn if I couldn’t sleep. The Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Spa in southern Bagan was especially noteworthy where I would gladly receive a daily foot massage to repair my ailing hooves and acupuncture to maintain my overall ambiance and mortality. (Picture of the spa and me with the charming acupuncturist Soe-Soe shown below).

Soe-Soe the Acupuncturist

Soe-Soe the Acupuncturist

Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Spa, Bagan

Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Spa, Bagan

Sorry if some of these travel notes are a little on the long side but I recently started cutting back on my use of Facebook as a dependency for social interaction after my old school friend David who lives in Manhattan created a page for his dog and the dog tried to friend me (sic).  My immediate thought then was that I could make a page for my pet Lucky and I could put both dogs in touch with each other.  At that point, however, I then thankfully realized this plateauing feature of social interaction was becoming sorely tangential.  How this business is worth more than almost twice the combined GDP of all three Baltic States I do not know. I’ve been recently to each of these fine EU member nations and I can attest that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have infrastructure, commerce, civilized systems of government, half-decent restaurants and other cultured features of first-world countries. Whereas Facebook is just a big server farm running Linux and SQL which you can buy on Amazon for $59.95, according to my IT specialist and long-time friend Brian Cunningham. And he should know. Who would have thought all those years ago at the Glasgow College of Technology Brian would emerge as a top-notch 21st Century data cleanser employed by some of the world’s foremost dirty data users.