Without any context this picture means roughly nil. With a tiny bit of background, however, it easily represents my greatest moment during the week we spent in Myanmar (or Burma, if that’s your thing).
It is a small piece of gold leaf, roughly an inch or so square, and it is the piece I applied to the giant golden rock at Mt. Kyaiktiyo, a Buddhist pilgrimage site southeast of Yangon. That I got to apply the square was cool in its own right. How that moment came to pass makes the experience probably one of my top 10 travel moments ever.
Even as a tourist and not a pilgrim, a visit to Mount Kyaiktiyo is quite an experience. Also known as the “Golden Rock,” the site is a major destination for Buddhist pilgrims and they come en masse, along with a fair number of tourists. The main place of worship is the massive boulder, precariously perched and, as legend has it, balanced by a hair of Buddha enshrined in the stupa atop the rock. The site is much larger than that, however, with many smaller temples surrounding the main one.
Additionally, because only men are permitted to pray directly at the rock (there is a small, attended bridge to that part of the site) there are a number of areas where the women have made themselves quite at home, chanting, praying and offering their respects to Buddha.
The rock maintains its golden color because pilgrims are constantly applying gold leaf to the surface as part of their visit. They show up with small packets of the leaf, rubber-banded together in 10 or so pieces to the pack. I very much wanted to participate in this tradition but had no idea where I’d get the gold leaf. I figured there would be a gift shop of some sort at the top of the mountain for unprepared pilgrims. Oh, how wrong I was. A bit disappointing, certainly, but nothing I couldn’t get over.
As I was standing on the small platform, taking some photos of the pilgrims a young boy started to make conversation with me. He was probably around 10 years old and his English, while much better than my Burmese, did not have a particularly broad vocabulary. Still, we managed to talk a bit and I expressed my interest in the process of applying the gold leaf and tried to ask him where to buy it. He responded by showing me how to apply it. Not really what I was going for, but I was impressed by his willingness and ability to communicate with me about it. And then something truly amazing happened.
Either he understood that I wanted to apply a piece myself or he was just feeling that generous. I’ll never know the real reason why, but he gave me one of the papers out of his stack and encouraged me to apply it to the rock. I was in awe. It is hard to express how wonderful that moment was.
We spent a few hours out at the site that afternoon, taking in the crowds and watching as the sun went down over the site. The day we were there didn’t have a particularly dramatic sunset nor sunrise, but the effect is still rather impressive. The rock is lit up spectacularly and the glow from the candles and incense is spectacular.
And, because it is a pilgrim site, there is no shortage of monks in the area. Some walk the line between pilgrim and tourist.
Others are there praying with (and for) the visitors.
All of them are quite photogenic.
While Mt. Kyaiktiyo can be visited as a long day trip from Yangon (the drive is about 3-4 hours each way) staying overnight in the area allows visitors to take in the sights around sunrise and sunset. Getting from the parking lot at the bottom of the hill up to the site requires cramming in to tiny benches in the back of a pickup truck and cruising up a steep, switch-backed road to a rest stop. At that point it is another 30-45 minutes of walking uphill. That is unless you opt for the more relaxing option of being carried to the top in style.
The spectacle of Mt. Kyaiktiyo is a sight to see. It is hard to describe the energy and excitement atop the mountain. And, for me, the experience I had is one I’ll never be able to replicate. Simply an incredible moment in my life.
The airports of Copenhagen to Aarhus, Denmark are only 84 miles apart. There isn’t a whole lot of time in-flight to worry about things like IFE or service. And, yet, somehow, SAS actually managed to provide service to the ~75 people on the CRJ-900 the day we flew. Sure, it was just coffee or tea, but they made two passes during the ~20 minutes in the air. I was impressed.
Also, with only ~20 minutes of fly time it was short enough that I could capture pretty much the whole thing as a time lapse video:
The terminal in Copenhagen for the domestic flights is pretty spectacular inside, at least aesthetically. There are no amenities of any sort, save for a few vending machines, but it does have a cool Scandinavian look to it.
Boarding means walking out to the plane; seems they don’t mind doing that in the winter for some reason.
And the flight was completely uneventful, other than my surprise that they were offering beverage service. Some stunning views, however, as we were flying around sunset across the bay. Seeing the island which sits in the middle of the tunnel between Denmark and Sweden was cool, for example. Ditto for the rest of the islands scattered in the bay and the snow everywhere.
Nothing special about the trip, but it sure was pretty.
For all the time I’ve spent in the churches of Europe, looking at the stained glass windows and admiring the pipe organs I’d never actually heard one of the organs play until this most recent trip to Germany. The Marktkirche in Hannover has a concert series throughout the year and we happened to be in town on a Saturday where there was a performance scheduled. For the bargain price of 5 euro we got to hear performances on three different organs in the church and of works by three different composers: Girolamo Frescobaldi, J.S. Bach and Josef Gabriel Rheinberger.
The church itself is quite impressive, standing on the square with its 14th century Gothic edifice. The roof was damaged during 1943 air raids and, unlike the nearby St. Aegiden’s, it was rebuilt in the 1950s.
The main altar dates from the 15th century and had been removed to a museum so it survived the air raids. It sits back in the original location today, juxtaposed against a rather modern interior overall.
The main organ was installed in 1953 as part of the restoration and it keeps with the modern styling.
It still has the powerful, old-school organ sound going for it.
I don’t have the full hour of the concert recorded but the video clip above has some of the music in it. Alas, my lack of musical knowledge means I don’t actually know what I’m listening to in each of the segments, but that was less important to me than enjoying the performance in general.
The morning started off normally enough, at least for what I was expecting in Laos. We were in Vientiane and headed out with Green Discovery, one of the local adventure/eco-tour operators, to the forest a couple hours out of town; we were going to play on the zip-lines for a few hours. We had breakfast and hopped in the van where we met our driver, a guide and another guest who was doing a similar trip. It turns out that he hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning, and that worked out VERY well for us. I offered him a granola bar from my stash but that wasn’t enough going in to a full day of activity. Our guides insisted on stopping at a small shop on the way out of town.
It was a tiny stand, tucked into the endless row of shops alongside the road leading out of Vientiane, past the airport and into the country side. I don’t know the name. I don’t even really know where it was. Even the driver didn’t really know where we were going; the guide pointed at what seemed a random store-front and we pulled over to park and grab our meal.
A few young women worked the counter, whipping up sandwich after sandwich (they make about 2000 daily) for the throngs who come throughout the day to eat. They weren’t cheap, at least by local standards, probably a couple dollars each. But filled with pate, various meats & veggies and then topped with a couple different sauces (assuming you said yes to the only question asked, “Spicy?”) they were oh so very, very, very good.
I only recognizes a few of the ingredients, mostly the vegetables. That didn’t stop me from chowing down. The French influence in the area is strong, particularly when it comes to food, and this sandwich certainly showed some of that influence.
It was a moment of travel serendipity, one of a few on this trip. No way I would have found the shop on my own and definitely no way we would have gone that far out of town just for a sandwich. Fortunately, we got lucky and didn’t have to figure it out on our own. Alas, it will never happen again. Just one of the many great things that happens when traveling.
Gear up, clip in and step off the platform. That’s all there is to zip-lining, right?
Not so much in Laos, where everything runs a bit slower and more relaxed. Getting to the site, for instance, was a 2+ hour adventure out of Vientiane, including a van, a transfer to another truck at a random turn-off and eventually a 20 minute boat ride up the river which was one of the high points of the day.
Puttering up the river we passed lots of locals, including these women fishing:
There was a lunch break and then some hiking; you have to get to the top of the canopy somehow. And the views along the way were nothing to sneer at.
From there it really was just a matter of getting the gear on and jumping off the platform, trusting that the wire would hold and that the ride would be worthwhile. It did and it was!
There was more to the day than just the zip-lines. The path through the trees also included "obstacles" of a sort, challenges to get past as we moved between the zip-line runs. They were both fun and a bit difficult, though we all made it through OK.
The longest of the runs was over 180 meters; the highest was 37 meters off the forest floor. That’s something like 20 seconds of flying, spinning and dodging the occasional errant branch. And there were a bunch of "flights" during the afternoon.
There were also a couple spots where we had to change elevations, with the guides lowering us down. Not nearly as exciting, but some great views as we did it.
And then it was back on the boat and back down river. More time to check out the locals and just relax before the van ride back into town.
Overall this was a great way to spend the afternoon. We knew that we’d be desperately bored in Vientiane and got lucky wandering past the kiosk downtown for Green Discovery Tours. It didn’t take long for them to get us signed up for their tour going out to Nam Lik. And their team was incredibly professional, helping and encouraging where needed, focused on safety and able to have a ton of fun while doing it.
More photos from the day here.
More from our trip through Laos here.
Looking for something resembling a beach near Luang Prabang, Laos? Hop in the back of a tuk tuk or van and ride about 30 kilometers out of town and you’ll hopefully find yourself at the Tad Kuang Si, a collection of waterfalls which are the best option available for swimming, floating or relaxing away an afternoon. Following a short hike in from the parking lot you end up facing a series of limestone pools filled with some of the brightest turquoise water that I’ve ever seen. Swimming in the terraced pools is the main attraction for most visitors to the falls. The water is clear and warm enough; it is the closest thing to a beach in the area, at least one that you’d want to go swimming in.
The many terraced pools are awesome and despite a decent number of people at the site there was still more room for swimmers, meaning a reasonably relaxing experience, if not especially private.
And if a swim and relaxing is all you’re looking for then you’ll do just fine with that. But, should you be looking for a bit more adventure, another option awaits. Just off to the left of the main viewing area, hidden in the brush, is a path leading up the side of the falls. It is steep, slippery and often covered in water running down from the falls. But the reward for making the hike up is tremendous.
There are a few smaller pools at the top, and you get to look down off the top of the falls pretty basically from where they start their descent. It is quite impressive. And very few people make the climb; no crowds at all.
We spent enough time hiking up and down that we didn’t have much to spend enjoying the relaxing part of the falls. That’s mostly based on failure to properly negotiate the trip with our driver than anything else. The hike is easily an hour of time up and back, more if you are averse to the idea of sliding down as a reasonable means of descent.
The site is a great half-day excursion from Luang Prabang, but don’t short yourself on the total time spent at the site. If you want to both hike and swim you’ll likely need more time than the default the drivers in town are willing to offer.
More photos here.
Read any guide book, trip report or other account of a visit to Luang Prabang, Laos and there is a very, very high chance you’ll read about the daily sun rise ritual of the local monks walking through the streets, collecting offerings of food for their daily meal. And, just to be clear, this is yet another such story. But I think my take on the scene is a bit different; certainly what I saw was very different from what I expected. Or at least it was very different than what I had hoped to see.
Shortly before sunrise mats begin to be set up on the sidewalks near the main pagodas of Luang Prabang. Most are set by hotels so their guests can participate in this ritual. And most have food provided by the hotels rather than the street merchants. That’s actually what the monks want; apparently the street vendors have a habit of providing food which makes the monks sick which isn’t so useful when this is their daily nourishment.
And, for the most part, the people I saw setting up on the mats to offer food looked like they were taking it reasonably seriously. It is a spiritual offering, bonding with the monks, not a tourist excursion. Indeed, on the list of requests from the monks which I saw on a wall outside one of the pagodas they actually ask that people not give food if they aren’t going to take it seriously.
And then the monks began their shuffle down the sidewalks, collecting small offerings along the way.
One of the more surprising things to me was seeing the people – mostly kids, but a few adults, too – along the route begging of the monks for food. And, every now and then, they would be successful in getting some rice or other food. That was pretty nifty to see happen.
Overall I found the experience to be mostly a good one. The people who are taking it seriously make it rather moving. At the same time, however, I was quite disappointed in some of the behavior I witnessed from other spectators. It would probably do the monks some good to better publicize the "rules" of the event, things like avoiding flash photography and staying out of the way as the monks are walking along. Then again, I’d like to think that sort of respect comes naturally to most. Alas, it does not.
Most of the people I saw respected the rules, the monks and the sanctity of the event. But there were enough who did not that it made me feel guilty about being there, watching it happen. Maybe it is just because we were there at a peak time so the crowds were more unruly than normal (a friend later related that the day she was there during the wet season she was the only one offering food). Or maybe things have changed enough with the tourists in Luang Prabang that it is no longer a ritual and more of a spectacle. Looking at the faces of the monks many seemed bored or bothered by the event. I know that I’d be rather annoyed if my daily breakfast routine involved hundreds of random strangers getting up in my face and taking flash photos. I cannot say that I blame the monks at all in that regard.
We saw similar scenes in Yangon and Bagan, Burma and the spectacle part of it wasn’t there. Not quite as photogenic, certainly, but also not nearly the same level of "show" involved. Maybe I’m just bitter and disillusioned. And maybe I’m part of the problem. After all, I was there, shooting photos and video (though no flash!) and watching the parade as it happened. I just don’t know. When I got back to the room that morning to have breakfast it just didn’t feel right. Talking it over with @Veritrope the following evening over drinks it was still irking me. And now, three weeks later, I’m still a bit frustrated. Such is life, I suppose.
More photos in the gallery here or on Facebook here.
In a world where statues of Buddha dominate day-to-day life there is an important question which is often overlooked: What do you do when the statues are damaged or ready to be retired? Around Luang Prabang, Laos the answer was a voyage up the Mekong river to where the Ou river joins and a pair of caves known today to tourists as the Pak Ou caves. The caves have been used for more than a thousand years, accumulating quite the impressive collection of Buddha images.
The caves have changed a bit in the 1000+ years they’ve been used as a pilgrimage site. They are still a place for reflection and prayer.
And they are still a destination where one can find hundreds, if not thousands, of Buddha images tucked in to nearly every nook and cranny around the site. And pilgrims still bring an image to the site to add to the collection in the lower cave (Tham Ting). At the same time, however, there is now a dock at the base and ticket takers stationed at the site, welcoming the large daily influx of tourists.
Getting to the caves involves either a 2ish hour boat ride upstream from Luang Prabang or a rather shorter van or tuk tuk ride. The boats are narrow and loud but if a nice day on the water suits your fancy this isn’t a bad way to get that experience. Once at the site there are two caves to explore. The aforementioned Tham Ting (lower cave) is not particularly cave-like. It is reasonably open to daylight and seeing the massive collection of Buddha images there can be done without too much trouble.
Higher up the cliff face (just walk up the stairs to the left) there is Tham Theung, the Upper Cave. This one is actually a cave in the traditional sense. You walk in and it gets very, very dark very quickly. It is spacious inside – plenty of room to move around without bumping into anything, but pitch black at the back. It has more of a religious feel and is also less visited than the lower caves, meaning slightly smaller crowds. Combined with the extra space the relatively few Buddha images inside Tham Theung seem a bit more spiritual and "put together," at least it did to me. Seeing anything inside requires a flashlight/torch; there is a donations-supported station right outside the entrance with many to use.
Like most tours a Pak Ou caves excursion involves a visit to the gift shop as part of the adventure. In this case, however, the gift shop is not at the caves themselves. Instead you visit one of the local villages along the waterfront (don’t worry; your boat driver knows which one) to see the handicrafts available for purchase. The crafts themselves weren’t particularly impressive (few are to me) but the region is also known for its production of Lao Lao, a rice whiskey. And there are free tastings at the stop.
Lao Lao is not good. It burns and has minimal flavor to recommend it. Still, a small souvenir bottle was a dollar or two; I’m looking forward to tasting it compared to the Burmese whiskeys we picked up later in the trip. Definitely kitsch, but still fun. And then you sit back and relax for the rest of the return boat ride back to Luang Prabang.
Time-wise the trip is very much about the boat ride. If you manage to spend more than 30-45 minutes in the caves that would be a much more significant devotion to Buddha and tolerance for crowds of other tourists than I can typically muster. Still, the trip is a good way to spend most of a day and, assuming good weather, the time on the water can be quite lovely. It can be done via roads as well, but you lose a lot of the experience that way.
A few more photos from the trip can be found in the gallery here or on Facebook here.
I love a good time-lapse video and I love a good Scandinavian landscape. Thanks to the folks running Norway‘s railroad here’s an awesome combination of the two. Covering a 700+ kilometer route from Trondheim to Bodø, the trip was filmed four times and merged into a single video showing both the beauty of the land and the seasons. Very cool.
Yeah, I’m not so sure that a 10 hour documentary about the ride is something I’m up for watching, but the abbreviated version, particularly with the blending of the seasons is awesome. And almost as impressive as the video is the details on how they made it. You can read more about it here but the level of effort they put in to matching the position of the train and time stamps to ensure a smooth blend is pretty awesome.
Anywho, not really all that much news in this post but I thought it was pretty cool and worth sharing. And now I want to go back to Norway (not that I ever was questioning that bit).
Wandering the narrow, dark, cramped, loud, wet aisles between the stalls of fishmongers at Tokyo‘s Tsukiji market is a time-honored tradition. Tourists flock to the site early in the morning; the Tuna auctions start at 6am, with previews open to the public starting at 5am. A breakfast of sushi (and a beer, if you’re so inclined) is a great way to start a day in Tokyo or to work off the after-effects of a late night out on the town. Alas, this tradition will be coming to an end in 2014 as the Tsukiji market closes its doors for good.
The market has been in operation for nearly 80 years and is bursting at the seams. The proposed new market will be 40% larger, covering more than 400,000 square meters of floor space. That’s roughly the same amount of usable space as the Boeing wide-body assembly building in Everett, Washington or the Willis Tower in Chicago. It is going to be HUGE. But it also is not at Tsukiji.
The facility will be built in the Koto ward, a few kilometers away from the current location. The city government unveiled plans late last month for the new site.
The multi-story, multi-building facility will be constructed to support the functions which the site has become known for. There will be dedicated areas for seafood wholesalers, middle-men, fruit and veggie shops and other commercial offices. Construction is not yet started, pending efforts to neutralize toxic substances in the ground at the new site from its prior days as a gas factory.
The wholesale section will be built with observation platforms for the tourists. This will undoubtedly make for easier operations at the market as the vendors won’t be fighting with the tourists for access to the same space. At the same time, however, it notably reduces the intimacy of the experience. And that intimacy is what makes Tsukiji awesome.
I’ve been to the market a few times now, basically every time I visit Tokyo. Wandering those narrow, dark, cramped, loud, wet aisles while fighting off jetlag and trying to remember that I’m in a place of business, not the world’s most interactive tourist site is both glorious and challenging, all at the same time.
I’ve attended the tuna auction just once but that was enough for me to recognize the significance of the tradition and also the major business being conducted in that frantic 20 minutes of shouting every morning.
(More auction videos in this post)
I’ve followed a whole fish through the market, watching to go from auction to wholesaler to a middleman to being sectioned for retail sale, all in just a few hours.
And I’ve seen some awesomely strange animals plucked from the sea and set out for sale.
The market is more about tradition than modern facilities today. It seems to run in spite of itself as much as it runs because of itself. And that is a huge part of what makes it wonderful. I’m sure the new facility will be beautiful. Functional, too. And it will probably make for a better business environment. But it won’t be Tsukiji. And that makes me sad.
I’ll be making at least one "farewell" visit to the market in April 2013. I may have to plan a couple more to help friends and family experience it before it is too late.