Thursday, March 3, 2016

Thai Food Highlight: Sushi in Nakhon Sawan

Okay, I am fully aware that sushi is not actually a Thai dish. It's Japanese, but there are some great Japanese restaurants around Nakhon Sawan. There are tons of little ramen shops all around the city, but Sumo Sushi is by far my favorite. Their food is always fresh, which is definitely important when eating raw fish. I always get gyoza (crispy dumplings filled with pork and some vegetables) and salmon. The salmon is super cheap at only 15 baht per roll -- that's about 50 cents apiece!

Not the best picture, but this sumo wrestler sign makes the place instantly recognizable!
Love it.

Salmon nagiri, aka heaven on top of rice.
The gyoza (dumplings) always comes out hot and fresh, and many people rave about the miso soup!
Personally, I hate miso, so I've never actually tried it.

If anyone in Nakhon Sawan is looking for a spot to eat, I definitely recommend checking this place out. It's located on the south side of Himmaphan (the same road as Nob Nob and Moroc) between Meksawan and Daowadung. Just keep an eye out for the sumo sign!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Yangon, Myanmar: The Circle Train

One of the first things that I did in Yangon was take a ride on the circle train (200 kyat). That's right, it's just a train. That goes in a circle. And I sat on it, on purpose, for three hours that it took to complete said circle. It might sounds strange, but the circular train is an excellent inexpensive way to get a look into the lives of local people who live in and just outside the city of Yangon. It's a great way to escape the chaos that is Yangon and take a look at a more peaceful, everyday experience.

I walked from downtown the train station, which is housed in a beautiful, immense old art deco building. Myanmar was colonized by the British from 1824 to 1948. Walking in, I was greeted by a ticket counter covered in Burmese writing and numbers, which was a bit confusing. If you want to buy a ticket, walk into the train station, disregarding the first booth you see. You have to walk up a staircase to get to platforms 6/7, which is where you will find the ticket booth. Tickets are only 200 kyat (less than 20 cents), and trains typically leave every 45 minutes to an hour.

Here's the train timetable and a list of all the stops.
Not very technological, but easily understood by this traveler!
After a bit of searching, I got my ticket!
I had plenty of pigeons and street dogs to keep me company while I waited for the train.
The train ride was beautiful. The train itself was a bit old, but well-maintained. The journey was punctuated by a continual click-clack of the railroad tracks. There are 39 stops along the 29-mile journey, and the train only fully stops for a minute or two between each one. (I saw more than one person that had to jump on after it started moving away). Lots of locals hopped on for just a stop or two, many of them to try and sell their wares to the passengers. In the picture to the left, this lady had just hopped off the train after selling bananas for just a stop. There were markets and little teahouses at pretty much every stop. The circle train ticket allows the passenger to hop on and off at will, so feel free to stop at random places every now and again!

The above picture is one of my favorites from my trip to Myanmar. Many of the people that boarded the train for a stop or two were selling food, and I was absolutely astounded to find that this lady would make you a bowl of noodles to feast on during your journey! She had everything necessary all on this one tray, which she carried on and off the train on her head. The jars held noodles, different sauces, and fresh vegetables like tomatoes and lime. If you look at her face, you'll notice that she seems to be wearing gold makeup. This is thanaka, a gold paste made from ground tree bark. It's uniquely Burmese, and it seemed like every woman was adorned with some iteration of these gold circles that serve as both sun protection and makeup.

Another part of the journey that I particularly enjoyed was the opportunity to take in the countryside. While traveling, I often find myself only exploring cities because this is where most attractions are concentrated. Driving through the country, I saw plenty of green spaces, lush jungles, rice paddies, and wandering chickens. Although I didn't really hop off and explore, I enjoyed being able to see the greener, less populated parts of Burma on my journey.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Yangon, Myanmar: Shwedagon Pagoda

The most impressive sight in Yangon is definitely Shwedagon Pagoda (8,000 kyat or $9). It's known as the most impressive temple in all of Myanmar. Situated on the top of the impressively high Singutara Hill, the 2,500-year-old monument enshrines eight strands of the historical Buddha's hair and several other relics. In modern times, the Pagoda is not only the most important holy shrine in Myanmar, but it also serves as a symbol of national identity and provides a place for people to gather in support of the pro-democracy movement.

Walking in, one of the first things that I saw was this  150 year old bodhi tree. It's considered to be a tree of wisdom and is reportedly the tree the Buddha was sitting under when he attained Enlightenment. The tree at Shwedagon (pictured left) is said to be an offshoot of the original bodhi tree, so it is considered holy. It was indeed a beautiful tree, and it was a peaceful place to say a prayer.

It is traditional to walk around the pagoda in a counter clockwise direction, so be aware of the flow of traffic when you are going in! I decided to hire a guide to show me around so I could learn more about the history. I only paid 5,000 kyat, so I felt that it was worth the hour or so of time that my guide spent walking around, answering questions, and pointing out particular points of interest with me.

The view from the top isn't too bad, right?

As you can see, the pagoda and its surrounding stupas are gilded with gold. According to legend, the gold ritual began under Queen Shinsawbu, who donated her own body weight in solid gold. That's crazy to me. Can you imagine people taking over a hundred pounds of gold, then pounding it so thin that it can be applied like paper to all of the little stupas and monuments that make up this Pagoda? The sun glinting off of the gold almost blinded me, and it makes me wonder how much money has been spent on making this place gleam. 

In addition to all of the gold, the top of the biggest stupa is encrusted with 4,531 diamonds; the largest is 72 carats. 72 carats! That's a diamond the size of someone's eye. In addition to the diamonds, the top is encrusted with over 2,000 gems such as rubies, emeralds, and sapphires and more than a thousand tinkling bells. You might be able to see them a little bit in the picture below, but the stupa is so tall (110 meters) that I doubt anyone's eyesight could pick them out. So much time and care has been put into making this monument beautiful, a fact that is obvious as soon as you might set foot inside of the grounds of Shwedagon Pagoda.

Just like Sule Pagoda, this monument is ruled by the cardinal directions and astrology. The four staircases leading up to Shwedagon arise from due north, south, east, and west. There are also four shrines attached to the pagoda in line with these directions dedicated to the four Buddhas of the current age -- Gautama, Kakusandha, Konagamana, and Kassapa. [According to some branches of Buddhism, there have been four Buddhas on earth and there is one more to come in the future. He is called Buddha Maitreya The last one, Gautama, is the most well-known, and his stories are the ones told most often because they are the ones to have survived to present-day.] Around Shwedagon, there are also eight planetary posts that represent the eight days of the week. Just like at Sule Pagoda, people go around pouring water on the animal that represents the day they were born for blessings and good luck.

Millions of dollars of gold and diamonds here, y'all.

Buddhas e'erywhere.

One of the many protectors of the shrines seated at the base of the stupa.

Some bells. I was encouraged to ring them by my guide -- I felt a bit out of place doing it,
but they certainly did make a satisfying ring heard 'round the pagoda.

Another view of the giant, golden Pagoda.

That's me! And by the way, I'm wearing a pink tank top under my blue shirt, but apparently it looks like skin.
It's not. It's a tank top.

People buy gold flakes to press onto statues like this all over the religious sites in Myanmar.
I find them fascinating!

You can tell that this is one of the most visited places in Yangon. I stayed here for a few hours, and I was constantly surrounded by monks, students, tourists, and normal people just going about their daily routine.

GIANT Buddha!

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Yangon, Maynmar: Sule Pagoda

Sule Pagoda (admission $3/3,000 kyat) is one of the biggest landmark attractions in all of Yangon. A pagoda is a generic term for a religious building, and it is typically formed by many tiers stacked on top of each other. This particular one is smack dab in the middle of the city, forming a gigantic roundabout at the intersection of Mahabandoola Road and Sule Pagoda Road. In Yangon, all roads lead to Sule! This was an excellent landmark to keep me from getting lost!

Street view of Sule Pagoda at night.
The golden dome of Sule is over 150 feet (48 meters) high, and it was built by the British as a center point for their street grid in the 1880s. The central pagoda is named Kyaik Athok, translates to "the stupa where a sacred hair relic is enshrined." Apparently is the resting place for a single hair of the Buddha, and it is a sacred location that many locals visit. It's surrounded by street stalls and food vendors, and is quite a popular place to be. 

It's also a very touristy place to be. As I walked in, I was forced to buy flowers as an offering by one of the old ladies waiting by the stairs. It was only $1, so I agreed to the hustle. Be very careful in this area, because people will start chatting with you and offer to show you around for free, only to charge you a crazy amount of money for their assistance and things like gold leaf (if you choose to adorn any statues with it).  I was aware of this going in, and when someone approached me we both agreed to a price for him showing me around before he began showing me around so there were no surprises in the end.

The central pagoda has 8 sides, one for each day of the week.

I promise you, that number is not wrong.

Garuda the Bird King!
In Myanmar, there are 8 day sin every week! Wednesday is split into two days. Each day denotes a particular direction and dictates where a person goes to pray. The day on which you were born is very important to the Burmese because it helps indicate a child's personality. Each day corresponds to a particular animal in Burmese astrology: Garuda the Bird King (Sunday), Tiger (Monday), Lion (Tuesday), Elephant (Monday PM), Tuskless Elephant (Wednesday PM), Rat (Thursday), Guinea Pig (Friday), and Dragon/Naga (Saturday). I was born on a Tuesday, so my animal is the lion and my lucky direction is southeast. According to the horoscope, 
Tuesday belongs to the Mars. You want to do work with some prestige and dignity attached to it. You are a natural self-promoter. Your idealism motivates you to seek challenges and to dedicate yourself to great and worthy causes. You attract people because of your honour and strength of character. In Myanmar it is widespread that Tuesday born have a "sharp tongue"... 
If you want to find out what your Burmese horoscope says about you, check out this site.

The temple was pretty, but not fantastically impressive. Many poor students go to the pagoda in order to practice their English and try to make money by giving tourists a tour of the temple. I was guided around by a student, and he told me about the history and cultural importance of the temple in exchange for a bit of cash. It's how I learned about Wednesday being two days!

I would say that the temple is worth a visit, but the inside is not a must-see attraction. It was interesting to tour around and do the blessing ritual for my Burmese Zodiac sign, but there are other, more interesting things to see in Yangon if you're pressed for time!

I love the look of statues covered in gold leaf.

Notice the LED halo?
As Myanmar becomes more and more modern, subtle changes permeate even the most holy aspects of the culture. One of the things that is increasingly popular is the LED halo around the heads of Buddha statues. Some people love, some people hate it. Personally, I feel that it's a bit garish and cheapens the feel of beautiful holy places. I guess I'm a traditionalist!

In the picture below, you can see a man making merit. To do this, you have to find the corner dedicated to the day you were born. Then you fill a cup with water from the tap (it's red) in the middle, and pour nine cups on the Buddha statue that resides on the top part of the shrine. Next, pour five cups on the statue of your animal (mine's the lion) on the bottom part of the shrine (blessings for your family). My guide told me that it's standard to pour five cups on the animal, but others have said you should pour as many cups as there are people in your immediate family.

While Sule Pagoda itself is a nice sigh to see, simply walking around the neighborhood is also a beautiful sight to behold. The park and nearby buildings are all lit up, and the area was especially amazing because it was drenched in Christmas lights and decorations. Night time is definitely the best time to visit Sule Pagoda!

Night view of Mahabandoola Park.
Right next to the Pagoda, Immanuel Baptist Church lights up the night and offers a view into the diverse beliefs of the city.
I was there a few weeks before Christmas, so the church was covered in Christmas lights.
Very festive!

Such festive Christmas decorations!

Friday, February 12, 2016

Anuban's Chinese New Year (2016)

Hey everyone! Sorry I haven't posted more about Yangon yet, but I have a good reason for that! Monday marked the Chinese New Year, and there have been fun things happening for the past week. Chinese New Year follows the lunar calendar rather than the solar calendar, so it usually falls about a month or two after December 31st. 2016 is the Year of the Monkey, which is characterized by 

On Monday, our school had its own little parade. My school is massive -- there are close to 350 kids in each grade from K1, K2, and 1-6. That means we have over 2,500 children at our school! So when I say we had a little parade, I mean it was kind of a big deal. All of the students were decked out in elaborate costumes and makeup, and of course they had all necessary props like a lion costume and the dragon that always serves as the highlight of the holiday.

So this week I've been busy attempting to learn how to edit together short video clips I took of the event. It turned out better than I expected, so I felt that I simply had to share. The video is below, but if for some reason it does not work, check it out on YouTube!