SE Asia, compleated

I still haven't been to Burma or Laos. I am on the way to solve that problem.

I decide to break up the journey by overnighting in LA. Instead of leaving at dawn and arriving the next night, I leave Jacksonville in the evening, get to ride up front with the white folks, stay in an airport hotel, and resume the next morning. Arrival is still the next night but the journey is somewhat less taxing.

Transpacific: full plane, no overbooking, no upgrades. From its perspective, Northwest Airlines has got this one just right. Same lousy movies as were shown transatlantic the week before. A change of planes in Tokyo, where again I run into the gal who was checking in ahead of me in JAX and who also at the airport hotel. I accuse her of following me. Turns out she is Thai and lives about 2 miles away from my house. Small world.

Arrival in Bangkok is at midnight. I have a 6 AM flight the next morning. Hardly worth going into town. I give a thought to staying a modestly priced hotel nearby (the airport hotel is $150), but no cab driver wants the short fare. I am not tired anyway, so I kill the time at an internet cafe in the terminal, where a high speed connection costs less than $1/hour.

I hike over to the domestic terminal for my flight to Udan Thani, near the Laotian border. As a domestic flight, the fare is less than one-third the price of an international ticket. Oh no! According to my lounge directory the only lounge in the domestic terminal is is not on the access. list. I immediately regret not having paid the $20 extra for business class and its concomitant privileges. Instead, I must wait with the hoi polloi.

The plane is a widebody airbus in good condition. I feel special: all the announcements are in Thai and English, and as the only foreigner on board I can't help feeling that the second set is just for me.

The first stop is at Khon Kaen. I never heard of the place but others must have since most of the passengers get off. The airport reminds me of Ethiopia: a concrete runway set amid small farmers' fields, a tiny terminal, and no other planes.

I think Udan Thani was the site of a big US Air Force base during the Vietnam War, cuz it is BIG. It's currently home to a fighter wing of the Royal That Air Force.

Transport to the border is on a comfortable bus run byThai Air and synched with the planes.

Every time I have come to Thailand before, the weather has been about 90 degrees with 100% humidity, even at midnight. This time it is quite pleasant. That doesn't inhibit their national penchant for airconditioning. From the plane to the terminal to the bus, icy blasts of air assault me. Even the driver has his overhead vents stuffed with rags to prevent frostbite.

The border is at Nong Khai, across the Mekong from Vientiane. In 1994 the "Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge," was constructed. A more accurate name would be the "Thanks, Australia, for this Free Bridge."

I reach the border at the same time the overnight train from Bangkok arrives. That's the cheap way to get here (and the way I will be leaving): a sleeper car berth costs $10 and is how the backpackers get to Laos.

Laos has a "visa on arrival" program, which is nothing more than a $30 entry tax (US currency only) and a wait. Next is customs. They are too busy talking to each other to notice me walk by. Then, comes immigration, where they carefully examine the validity of the visa they just sold you. Further along is the currency exhange, where $50 gets me a stack of more than a hundred 5,000 kip notes. Finally, I must pay a 10 baht (23 cents) entry fee, payable only in Thai money. The process takes an hour and a half, and creates jobs for the border officials, which I guess is the point. I hear that entry via the airport is not any quicker. All this takes place under ubiquitous "Welcome To Visit Laos" and "Laos Tourism Year 1999" banners.

Vientiane is still 12 miles distant. The backpackers haggle for rides on the back of motorscooters. I flaunt my wealth and take a taxi ($3.50). The driver is dressed like a rap artist. Woolen ski caps must be uncomfortable in the tropics, but such is the price of fashion.

We reach my hotel. It is a bit
shabby, but clean and light. I have booked a "suite" ($30), which is actually a very large front room. The place has a history: prewar it was owned by an army officer. When he reemerged from "reeducation camp" (the killing fields were in Cambodia; here, people came back) he resumed life as hotelier. The first thing I do is turn off the damn airconditioner.

I can't go to sleep now or I will miss the day. I grab my guidebook and begin sightseeing. But first, I buy a plane ticket for the next day. (Lao Aviation is non-IATA, so you can't buy tix in the US.) At the travel agency a women was explaining to an undecided German tourist that the flights always sell out. While he is dithering I book the last seat.

The next stop is what used to be the Museum of the Revolution, renamed the National Museum after the addition of some dinosaur bones and pot shards. Room after room of blurry and grainy black and white photos of the Triumph of the People with a scattering of artifacts used by Comrade This and Hero That, Lenin memorabilia (in Russian, no translation), statues, and plaques. In a photo from WWII FDR is identified only as "the US Imperialist." The post-colonial government period is referred to as "False Independence." There is fine art too: my fave is a large painting of a white-suited colonial taskmaster cracking a bullwhip over a toiling native work gang.

By the time we get to 1964 "US Imperialist" is used in every caption and "and its puppets" in every other. We learn that unlike the communist liberators, America had so little respect for religion that it bombed pagodas. Pictures of wounded children identify the victims as "Citizen So-and So."

The last few rooms are devoted to the post-liberation era: wall after wall of photos of party functions and meetings punctuated by an occasional graph. It is as interesting as a Soviet tractor exhibit, but without the tractors.

There is nothing I want in the gift shop, mostly tacky handicrafts. No good propaganda, just turgid pamphlets (in English). I leaf through the Labor Code of the Lao PDR. What a workers' paradise: workers have every conceivable right including the right to amusing and witty coworkers. They have so many rights that few of them have jobs.

I am not the only visitor: I spot 2 others hurrying through. I don't know why tourists skip the good stuff.

Vientiane is a small city (200,000) with not all that much to see or do. The temples have names -- Wat Long, Wat That, That Dam -- that sound like an Abbott and Costello "Who's on First" routine. Some are restored, others run down. None of them are very old; the Thais burned them all in the last invasion. The Thais, the Burmese, the Lao, the Khmer, and the Vietnamese have been invading and pillaging each other for centuries. The Emerald Buddha, now in the Royal Palace in Bangkok, used to be here, and before that was in Chang Mai. There is supposed to be a distinct Lao style, but to me it all looks generically Thai/southeast asian.

The best known landmark in Vientiane is the Victory Arch, an oriental Arc d'Triomph. Tremendously tacky. The story is that it was built from cement the US sent over to pave the runway at the airport. The interior, crammed with souvenir shops, has all the charm of a multi-story car park.

Towards the river are a number of dilapidated colonial mansions. In the new part of the city, lots of embassies and government ministries. Every international do-gooder organization has an outpost here -- it's easy to spot them by the clusters of new Range Rovers and Land Cruisers parked in front.

An afternoon is enough to see everything. Just as well, cuz by now I am tired. I don't get beyond the hotel restaurant. They are running music videos. I finally hear/see "The Ketchup Song." Yeah, they are cute, but if there is something more, I don't get it.

Day two. Up early. Good thing I have cable TV, cuz I can't think of anything to else to do or see. I go to the much-hyped Morning Market: it's just another asian market full of imported goods. I kill the rest of the morning on the internet, then head to the airport. As usual, I am beginning to chafe at the overcharging of foreigners. Instead of paying the requested $3 for a taxi, I bargain it down to $1 (which is still 30 cents more than locals pay).

A sign at the security check demands: "Show all weapons." I head over, camera in hand, to take a picture of it and the guy says "No, no, only guns." (Guess they need an accurate count.) Then passport control, which consists of asking me my nationality, then to the counter to pay the fifty cent departure tax.

It's only a 35 minute flight to Luang Prabang on a small prop plane, but otherwise a nine hour drive. The terrain below is mountainous as we follow the course of the Mekong upstream. The Ho Chi Minh Trail is below, but I can't spot any bomb craters.

On arrival there is a tout for a $7 guesthouse and a uniformed guy with brochures for an upmarket hotel. I ask the rates of the latter: $150/night. That is about the per capita annual income in Laos, so I can see why they are short of guests. (I can't imagine that any potential guests in that price range would be traveling without advance reservations.) I fall victim to the airport's ground transport scam: they don't let the drivers in to compete for fares; instead you have to pay $5 at a kiosk and they summon a cab. I claim a minor victory by splitting one with another traveler.

I don't have a reservation, but head to a recommended place. They have one room left which they must hold until 4 PM. It's 3:15, so I offer to wait. Five minutes later the new guests arrive. "Sorry to see you," I greet them. The desk clerk says he will l have a room tomorrow, so I make a reservation and go next door. This place is acceptable, but at $15 no real bargain. It's only for one night.

Luang Prabang is the former royal capital (Vientiane was the administrative capital) located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Kam rivers. The old city is on a peninsula just before they join. Lots of temples. World Heritage site and all that. Very popular with tourists, but no mass tourism. Guesthouses and small restaurants. Nothing eyepopping, just attractive and atmospheric.

I take a stroll about. In a word, "quiet." I hike up the 348 steps to the hill overlooking the city for sunset. There are a few dozen others, but its not a mob scene like at Angkor. A bit of a disappointment: the views are nice, but the sun sets behind the mountains, thus preventing any major red skies.

Dinner is very good. Everything is priced in dollars (e.g., main course $2.20), but you can pay in baht or kip. Like Cambodia, they have adopted the currency of the losers, but at least here they are willing to accept their own. Whatever currency you pay, change is always in kip. The exchange rate is currently 10,000+ kip = $1. I buy some antique currency (1 kip and up) featuring the Liberation Army. Lenin said that inflation is a disease of capitalism, so this must be something else.

I am staying on a sidestreet off the main drag and across from a temple. At 4 AM the drums start pounding, then the cymbals join in. After 15 minutes the chanting starts. That's OK, I need to get up and type this trip report.

I head out to one of the many bakeries (a legacy of the French) for my morning pastries. Also out for breakfast are the monks. Like a like of orange ants, hundreds of saffron-robed monks are trooping with their begging bowls past the faithful who offer a small bit of rice. It's all about humility, since their have to beg for their food, and what they eat is an aggregation of many small donations. Also, they have to bow to receive each offering from the seated donor. It looks like a perfect replacement for the food stamp program. I will suggest it to Dubya so he can get on it as soon as he is done with Saddam and Osama.

I charter a boat to take me upriver to see some Buddha-stuffed caves. It's a nice trip up the river, but the caves are underwhelming. In the afternoon I rent a bicycle and tour the greater Luang Prabang area. Many temples.

The former royal palace is as it was in 1975 when the royal family left in a hurry. It is a now called The National Museum (not to be confused with The National Museum located in Vientiane). It was built early this century by the French. Very nice, but rather modest: a couple of ornately decorated public rooms with surprisingly spartan royal apartments in back. Some interesting displays: a case of Laotian medals -- the King won first prize in every contest he entered -- and awards presented by foreign nations (think "glass beads for the native chief"). Also gifts from (the taxpayers of) other nations, including two moon rocks from Nixon. And the Pra Bang, a three foot high solid gold Buddha from which the city takes its name ("Luang Prabang" means "City of the Big Buddha.")

I transfer to the guesthouse I first wanted, a refurbished colonial-style mansion still in family hands. I throw fiscal caution to the winds and upgrade from the $12 room (former servants? quarters) to the $25 salon d' chef, which has 20 foot ceilings and overlooks the temple across the street. The guidebook calls this place "seriously lovely."

Monday. The monks must have overslept; the drumming does not start until 4:05 AM.

I am 3 days in a 2 day place. I had planned to go to the Plain of Jars, but there is no convenient transport. Likewise there is not enough time to visit Van Vieng and its limestone karsts. So I have the morning to kill. This place is a fave hangout for the backpackers set, who generally stay at least a week. It like an unspoiled Khao San Road in Bangkok. Overly credulous, I accept an English girl's word that a particular bakery has real bagels. I buy one -- it's just a roll with a whole in the middle.

In the afternoon I go the other outlying attraction -- the waterfall. A picture postcard, multilevel, tropical cascade. Its very nice, but would be even nicer if getting to it didn't entail bouncing along a bumpy, dusty road for an hour. Also, the photos on the postcards were taken at the end of the rainy season; there is considerably less water coming down now. The scene also could be improved were naked Laotian maidens gamboling amidst the falling waters, but I have to admit that some of the backpacker gals don't look bad in bikinis.

At dinner, the menu lets me select from "squid food," "chicken food," and "fish food." Afterwards, I eschew the St. Patrick's Day festivities and instead I tune my shortwave to Radio Australia, which has fascinating report on the camel export and meat processing industry in Western Australia.

Tuesday. Another morning to waste. I have an afternoon flight back to Vientiane, then back to the border, then the overnight sleeper train back to Bangkok.

It's cheaper to get back to the airport ($1), but that is still a cartelized rate. The airport is a gift from the Thai government. They x-ray your luggage to make sure you don't have any Buddha images -- even new ones are banned from export, which makes no sense because that's about the only thing they produce. It's like Detroit banning the export of cars.

In Vientiane they are running same scam at the airport: $5 to get into town. At least if you want to go all the way to the border bridge it's only $4 more even though it's about 50 times further.

Exit formalities are minimal. There is an exit fee of 25 cents, plus another 25 cents for my Thai entry visa (they are free at the airport).

I am on the overnight sleeper from Nong Khai, at the border, back to Bangkok. I am deliberately slumming it -- traveling second class non-AC so I don't freeze to death overnight. The train leaves at 7:00 PM, arriving at 6 AM. However, the train conveniently stops at the airport north of the city. We arrive only 20 minutes late, in perfect time to check in for my flight.

Burma (now called Myanmar) may be isolated, but it is not small. Its population, 50+ million, is more than ten times that of Laos. The flight to the capital, Rangoon (now called Yangon), is on a Thai Air widebody. The plane is full, mostly with europeans on group tours. Very few Americans, who by and large boycott the country due to its repressive right wing regime. That's no problem for the French and Germans, who find common cause with thugs and tyrants around the world.

On arrival you have to change US $200 case into FEC ("Foreign Exchange Certificates"), Monopoly money denominated in US dollars. Previously, you had to buy worthless local currency at the absurd official rate, but the new deal is that you have to pay for hotels, transport, and admissions in dollars but are supposed to use FEC. The point is to have dollar pricing without letting the people get their hands on greenbacks. Of course, it doesn't work: people change their required $200 and that is it. No one wants the FEC: you can only fob it off on those who are required to accept it.

Cab from the airport, $5. At least it's a decent, modern sedan with AC and automatic. My initial impression of Rangoon: large; spread out; clean; modern, wide roads but very light traffic. The men all wear skirts, called longhis. Something else: Burma is the other country that uses proper measurements: no meters, liters, or weird temperatures here. They also drive on the right, even though that's where the steering wheels are too. About six years ago, on his astrologers advice, the strongman decreed that everyone was to drive on the right instead of the left, but the vehicles haven't changed. (Most come from Thailand or Japan, where they also drive on the wrong side of the road.)

First stop is the travel agency where I pick up my tickets and vouchers and stow my luggage. Then, a walk. This is a big place. It takes all day to walk to the river and back, with a few stops.

The old part of the city near the river is expectedly congested. Lots of big colonial buildings in varying states of decay. No other white faces on the streets. Lots of offers to change money. A $100 bill gets me 86,000 kyats. The largest bill printed is 1000 kyats, so I get a pretty hefty stack. The currency also comes in convenient 15, 45, and 90 kyat denominations.

Kyats go a long way. This place is cheap, even for southeast asia. That's because it's poor. However, the government hoses foreigners by charging exorbitant admission prices payable in dollars/FEC. To enter Peoples Park, a completely unexceptional urban park is $3, plus a $3 camera fee (not that is anything to photograph).

The highlight of the city is the Shwedagon Pagoda, an enormous gold stupa (a solid, bell-shaped structure) surrounded by subsidiary structures and shrines. Highly photogenic.

There are plenty of soldiers about. I am told it is Armed Forces Day, but I think in Burma every day is armed forced day. Large banners welcome the visit of the prime minister of Bangladesh in town to open the Bangladesh Trade Fair. I can't imagine what they produce in Bangladesh that anyone here would want except betel nuts.

No western brand names are to be seen. There are billboards for London, Paris and Vegas cigarettes, but no signs for Burmah Oil or Burma Shave. There?s no western fast food, unless you count Tokyo Fried Chicken. It's hard to find a cold soda outside of a hotel.

I am booked on the overnight sleeper from Rangoon to Mandalay. There is a special tourist train that leaves at 3 PM and arrives at 5 AM, but I didn't like that schedule so I chose the 7:30 overnight due in at 10:30 the next day.

Most of cars are Ordinary Class (wooden benches), plus a few First Class (padded seats), one Upper Class (reclining seats), and one Upper Class Sleeper. I have compartment #1 in the latter. It's like the trains in India, but crummier. My compartment is spacious, but that is about all I can say. Amenities and service are dire.

I share the compartment with a half-chinese guy who can manage a couple words of English. He is transporting heavy machine parts, most of which are crammed into the luggage storage area. He very much appreciates my gift of an NRA magazine and a Car and Driver -- he probably spends an hour looking at the Hummer ad. He shows me a local magazine that has ads for used cars: a motley collection of vehicles dating from the 80's, 70's and even 60's.

The condition of the rolling stock is matched by the abysmal state of the track. We clack along, rocking and lurching. When we hit our maximum speed of 35 mph (per my GPS), we are being tossed about like the crew of the Enterprise during a Klingon attack. I take a reading at 8 AM and discover that we have progressed 222 miles in the past 11 hours.

We arrive at 1 PM, only 2 1/2 hours late. Luckily, my hotel is directly across from the station. It is a Chinese hotel, perfectly adequate. (In southeast asia the term "Chinese-owned business" is a tautology.) The war has started, so I take a CNN break.

Mandalay sprawls like Los Angeles. It is enormous but not dense. The streets are on a grid system. In the center is Mandalay Fort; it's 8 miles around the walls. I rent a bicycle (it takes half an hour to walk to the rental place) and join the healthy stream of traffic: not that many motor vehicles, but lots of bicycles and bicycle rickshaws; very few pedestrians -- it's too far to walk anywhere. There are plenty of pagodas to see, but not much else.

I get as far as Mandalay Hill, overlooking the town. Numerous covered paths converge at the top, from which you can view the flat plain punctuated by pagoda spires. It's a long climb which must be done barefoot -- not even socks are allowed. And it's not like path is carpeted -- they are concrete, have loose pebbles, and you periodically have to cross burning hot asphalt roads. All in all, less than a religious experience.

Next morning I dawdle at the hotel. CNN is reporting that the 7th Calvary is halfway to Baghdad, which means that they are advancing faster than my train from Rangoon. I am just not that motivated to see more pagodas. Instead. I go the market and purchase some skirts. All the print patterns l inspect are labeled as Indonesian batik, but I learn the ones priced at $2 are locally produced while genuine imports cost $5.

I go the main post office, a startlingly tiny old building, to buy stamps for my postcards. At just over 3 cents to anywhere, this has got to be the best postage deal in the world.

I get around by bicycle rickshaw. There is a definite downside to this mode of transport: the passenger sits in a sidecar next to the driver. If you select a driver who speaks English he spends the entire time yammering trying to take you sightseeing or shopping. The drivers who can't speak English can't read a map (probably have never seen one before) so that doesn't work either.

Time for a Pagan experience. My flight to Pagan (now Bagan) is in the afternoon. Mandalay boasts a new airport an hour away from the city. You drive past mile after mile of nothing to reach it. (I think it is halfway back to Rangoon. Maybe it's like Dallas-Fort Worth, built halfway between the two cities.) I read it cost $3+ billion. It's about ten miles just from the entrance gate to the terminal, which is enormous and empty. Just two gates are in use: one for international and one for domestic. A well-staffed post office has no stamps to sell.

In the waiting area, the TV is tuned to the French news channel which is glumly reporting the progress of the war. The Frogs are all clustered about, no doubt hoping that Saddam will triumph over their common enemy.

It's only a 30 minute flight. Predictably, the airport taxi robbery scheme is in operation. I beat the game by splitting a cab to the hotel with a French couple. I let parsimony prevail over patriotism and hold my tongue.

The route from the airport is lined with ancient temples, mostly 700 to 1000 years old. Pagan is comparable to Angkor, but not overgrown and not overrun with tourists. The old city has been declared an archeological zone and all the inhabitants forcibly displaced. Within the zone are three upscale hotels.

All the way in the driver and his sidekick lament the poor state of business, that they have been waiting all day and we are their first fare. Practically all visitors, he complains, come as part of a package tour. So, he invites us to take advantage of his ill fortune and engage him for sightseeing tomorrow at a very, very cheap price. The Frenchie bites, and is quoted a rate that would ensure a comfortable retirement for the driver, the guide, and both their families.

The hotel is on the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy,which now, at the tail end of the dry season, is about half a mile wide -- the riverbed is about two miles across. My $18/night gets me a nice little bungalow with all the modern conveniences. On TV there is a choice among the French, German, and Japanese channels, plus BBC World. All have round the clock war news, but the French channel seems to be focused on protests in various cities around the globe. In contrast to the breathless reporting on CNN, the BBC is much more sedate, but they are outright defeatist in tone. Also, they need some better looking newsbabes.

In the morning I rent a bicycle. First stop is into town (about 4 miles) to find a tailor to convert my skirts to shirts. Then, sightseeing. There are 3000 temples in the area. You can't see them all, nor would you want to; after a few, you get the idea. It's like Angkor -- more of a gestalt experience than a checklist.

I take a break from the midday sun and repair to my air-conditioned bungalow. In the afternoon, more temples. Sunset is a bust -- the many postcard photographs of exotic temples silhouetted against a crimson sky obviously weren't taken at this time of year. There is so much junk and gunk in the air that the sun disappears behind the haze layer long before it approaches the horizon.

For dinner I splurge: the fancy restaurant at the fancy hotel next door, $5.

I'm not giving up -- I'll try sunrise. I am off before dawn to a nearby temple top, where I am joined by a couple of other diehards. We are partially rewarded: about ten minutes after official sunrise a reddish ball appears and lingers a few moments before becoming blindingly white,

After breakfast, I pedal back to the market to pick up my shirts. Bee-yoo-ti-full!! Four shirts, $12. It is amazing what a guy can do with a tape measure, a pair of scissors, and a sewing machine -- the pattern is in his head. I shop around for other souvenirs, but most of the stuff is dreck. Everywhere you go there are fifty vendors for every tourist, but they are all selling the same low-quality crap. By the time a tourist makes it to Burma he is likely to have loaded up on junk and would now be more discriminating in his purchases. Someone should figure out that and produce better grade stuff -- he would clean up.

In the heat of the afternoon I hit the Archeological Museum, a very grandiose structure housing a not so grandiose collection of potshards and government art. Also, in case you haven't seen enough, more Buddhas. Admission for foreigners is $3. I tender a $10 FEC note, only to be met by the "no change" game. They are happy to give me change in kyats (at a heavily discounted rated), to which I respond by offering to pay in kyats. Nothing doing. Eventually, they came up with my $7 in scrip.

The art consists of modern painting of mythical/historical events (done in the Mormon School of biblical art) and of the temples as they look today. The actual temples are visible right through the windows, so there is not much point in looking at bad paintings of them. The museum is a mandatory stop for tourists, but there are a surprising number of locals visiting. The tacit message: "never mind that you are living in the least developed country in the region, your ancestors were able to carve rocks and pile up bricks."

Persistence pays: I pedal back out in hopes of a sunset picture and am rewarded. Not a great shot, but, I hope, an acceptable one.

I have my shirts; I am ready to go home. But I am not quite done yet. An early morning departure for Heho, the gateway city for Inle Lake. My domestic flights are on Air Mandalay, one of two private airlines. There is also a government airline which is cheaper but which no foreigner will fly because of its abysmal safety record. (Exaggerated I am sure. If all their planes crashed they wouldn't have any left.) They manage to regularly run ahead of schedule -- most of the customers are tour groups who get to the airport way early. Once all the passengers show up, they board and the plane takes off. Don't tell the TSA, but they do not practice effective passenger screening at Nyaung U airport. A crazed tourist could hijack one of the prop planes and crash it into a pagoda, leaving only 3999 of the rare structures left.

On arrival, as the baggage comes off the plane a porter grabs each piece and stakes claim to it. There are about as many porters as suitcases. To claim your luggage you find the guy holding your suitcase and, if you don't wish to engage his services, wrest it away.

At the airport I meet a postcard California family, except they are not. They live in Bangladesh, where the husband is stationed by his big oil employer. They are accompanied by two teenage girls. The mother reports they although the girls are spoiled, they realized how good they have it and are VERY appreciative of comforts and amenities of the USA.

Also, a guy about my age (only much better looking) traveling with 24 y.o. ingenue who he introduces as his daughter. "Yeah, right," I silently harumph (with a tinge of jealousy). Turns out she really is. He is a missionary in the Philippines doing surreptitious work in Burma, where missionaries are banned. The daughter is one of seven kids, grew up in Philippines, is articulate (no "likes," "you knows," etc.); well groomed; no tattoos, no metal sticking out of her in face. She is like a breath of fresh air. (That's enough! I refrained from all comments regarding the missionary position, so you should too!)

The thing to do at Nyaungshwe is a boat ride on the lake. The circuit is five hours. A private boat is $8, which, is almost the cost of the fuel we burn. The things to see are floating villages, which are not, because the lake is shallow and the buildings are on stilts. Ditto for the floating gardens, which are mud banks unconnected to the shore where the crops are raised. The most distinctive feature are the one-legged rowers -- those without the luxury of motors propel their fishing boats and canoes by standing at the stern and wrapping one leg around the oar. It's supposed to be less tiring but certainly looks odd.

The Jumping Cat Monastery is as advertised: between mantras, the monks have trained their pet cats to jump through hoops. They do it for their own amusement and that of tourists and don't ask for money. Also, there is a floating market, both literal and figurative. The farmers gather in boats to sell their produce, but in a different location each day. Today, the market is on land and in town, which makes it pretty much like any other rural asian market. The next waterborne affair won't be for two days hence. There is a floating market for tourist dreck every day, to which all the groups are herded.

I want fish for supper. The lake is full of fisherman, but I didn't see anyone catching anything. I didn't see any fish for sale in the market either. Nor do I see it on the restaurant menus. I keep trying. Finally, I find a place with fresh fish. Fresh = still alive. They had three swimming a in tank. I played Tony Soprano and had one whacked. Delicious.

My trip is done. Time to start working my way back. Six flights over the next four days. I begin by flying back to Rangoon onTuesday.

I have a free afternoon in Rangoon, but can't find anything interesting to do. This hotel has CNN, which instead of smug defeatism has lots of weepy interviews with the families back home. I am surprised that the reporters have not yet twisted themselves into human pretzels from patting themselves on the back. I would like to check out the internet but there is no such thing as internet cafes or public access to the web. In Burma modems must be licensed and only businesses can have one. The hotels have e-mail service, but it's like the old telegraph office where you pay them to send or receive a message. It's the same deal for fax machines.

I manage to get rid of my last $10 FEC for the departure tax. There is a customs station after immigration with a large sign advising of export restrictions. You can't take out any counterfeit coins or currency or pornography. (They must want to keep it all for themselves.) Videos must be approved by the Video Censor Board and printed matter, cassettes and discs by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division.

It's a breakfast flight. To my shock and horror, Thai Air has placed metal utensils on the tray, INCLUDING (very dull) KNIVES! I was petrified the entire flight. It was only through a miracle that no one stormed the cockpit.

A day in Bangkok, then Thursday the long trek home. Good news at the airport: UPGRADE! An excellent flight.

Trip date: March 2003