A Travellerspoint blog

Sri Lanka and Habitat for Humanity

I wanted to volunteer while I was traveling and luckily a Habitat for Humanity trip in Sri Lanka fit perfectly into my schedule. To be honest, I knew very little about Habitat for Humanity before I volunteered with them in Sri Lanka. After my two weeks of volunteering, I was very impressed with H4H and I look forward to volunteering with them in the future, maybe in Africa. If you ever have an opportunity to volunteer with Habitat abroad, I would highly recommend it!

After arriving in Sri Lanka, I met up with two other Habitat team members and we took a taxi to our hotel. One of the first things that I saw was the heavy military presence on the streets. On the side of the road were military personnel toting automatic machine guns. Recently, there has been increased violence between the government and Tamil population.

Our Habitat team consisted of eleven people from Canada, England, Northern Ireland and the US. Our group had a large range of ages and personalities. Add this with some serious hard work and the product was an amazing and fun experience.

During our two weeks in Sri Lanka, our team helped build four houses in the Kaleduwa village. The Kaleduwa village is situated in the middle of Sri Lanka near the city of Dambulla. During the day, our group worked at four different sites. At each site, we worked next to the family that would be living in the house. The house sites were very basic with no running water or electricity. The tools that we used to build the houses were very basic - just a couple shovels, trowels, and a wheel barrel. Everything was done manually - mixing cement, sifting sand, moving the bricks, etc, etc. Interestly, each site built different size houses and used different building techniques. Although the work was very tiring, seeing the work that we completed each day was extremely rewarding.

Beside helping the build the houses, we visited a local school and played dodgeball with kids and we taught the kids the hokey-pokey. Also our guesthouse staff taught us how to play cricket. The local villagers treated us very well. When we arrived they put on a welcoming ceremony with dancers and music and they held a cultural night with singing, dancing and music.

One of the highlights for me was learning the local Sinhalese language. This was the first time during my trip that I stayed at a place longer than one week. On our last day in the Kaleduwa village, we dedicated a house and I gave a speech in Sinahalese.

Along with volunteering, the local Habitat Group organized trips for us to see the local sights. We visited Sigiriya or Lion Rock which was home to the King's palace around 470 BC. The palace was built on top of 180m rock and had an intricate irrigation system built in the rock itself. We went on a Safari and saw a variety of birds, water buffalo and elephants. We saw the Dambulla caves which are seven caves with images of buddhas inside each cave. We visited the city of Kandy where we saw a cultural dance show and visited a hotel and restaurant named Helga's Folly. Helga's Folly had a motley collection of artifacts and ornately decorated rooms. Also, we visited Pinnewela Elephant Orphanage where orhpaned elephants are brought to live.

Along with volunteering and checking out the sites, the group that I worked with were alot of fun. After a long days work, our group hung out, chatted, played games, dranks some beers, told jokes and exchanged stories. I have not laughed so hard in a long time!

Suffice to say, it was an amazing and very rewarding experience and something that you should definitely do yourself!

Posted by ejgalang 00:00 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

The middle of Myanmar

After Yangon and Bago, my friends and I went north to cooler temperatures and more adventures. Our first stop was to a small mountain city named Kalaw. Our main reason to go to Kalaw was to do a trek to Inle Lake. Before our trek, we visited the city of Pindaya which was just down the road from Kalaw. Pindaya is famous for the Pindaya Cave which contains over 6,000 images of Buddha. While the cave was pretty interesting, the real story was getting to and returning from Pindaya. In the morning, we took the local truck taxis which were filled to the brim with people, food and everything in-between. It tooks us around 3 hours to travel the 30 km. In the afternoon, we found out that there were no truck taxis leaving town. We had two options, rent a private taxi which was super expensive or spend the night there. We decided on option three, hitch-hiking. After walking a couple kilometers we were picked up by a truck which drove us maybe 3 or 4 km down the road. The passengers in the truck took us to their village to inquire about a ride. While we were in the village, a range rover drove through and picked us up. (Actually, my friends pretty much jumped in front of the car and they talked the driver into giving us a ride). Pretty fun!

Our trek to Inle Lake was three days and two nights and we covered around 50 km. Our first day we visited a festival which had gambling and a giant rocket contest. Each village built a full size version of a bottle rocket and the rocket that went the farthest won money. Most of the rockets crashed after take off but one I swear went into orbit. I think it flew almost 300 meters. Our first night of the trek we stayed in a house in local village and our second night, we stayed in a monastery. Throughout our three days of walking, we saw gorgeous landscapes filled with lush green fields and rocky mountains and met the most friendly people. It was a great experience.

Inle Lake is a vast lake that is surrounded on all sides by mountains. The lake is 22 km long and 11 km wide and is home to almost 70,000 people. While we were in Inle Lake we visited stilt villages that were built on the lake, we saw floating gardens on the lake that grew all sorts of food and we visited a monastery where the monks taught cat how to jump through hoops. Also, I enjoyed some of the best homemade woodfire pizzas at a local restaurant.

After Inle Lake, we traveled to Mandalay. Two words that describe Mandalay is hot and dusty. The highlight of Mandalay is Mandalay Hill which gives you a panoramic view of the city and is a great spot to see the sunset. Also, my friends and I ate at a street vendor which offered a delicious curry and chapita meal for $.33. A day trip outside Mandalay is Minguin, Sanguin, Inwe and Amapura. Minguin had a unfinished temple which was 50 km high and a 90 ton bell which they thankfully did not ring when I was there. Sanguin had over a 1,000 temples built there. Amapura had the world's longest teak bridge measuring 1.2 km.

Just north of Mandalay was Pwin OO Lwin. My friend and I took the train there. While we were in Pwin OO Lwin we rented bikes and visited the Botanical garden. Also, there was a golf course in Pwin OO Lwin so when in Rome ... Suffice to say after a hour at the driving range, I realized why I had not played in two years, I suck! But I did meet some cool locals who were pretty good and they tried to talk me into playing but I thankfully declined.

One of the most popular places to visit in Myanmar is Bagan. Bagan is home to over 4,000 Buddhist temples and one Hindu temple. The best way to see the temples is by bike which my friend and I did. There are a plethora of temples - tall, small, wide, short, etc, etc. On our way back on bike, we got caught in a torrential rainstorm. By the time I got back to my guesthouse I was completely drenched and so was my digital camera. Luckily two days later, it came back to life. The temples were very beautiful and definitely worth checking out.

One the last places that I visited in Myanmar was Mount Popa. Mount Popa is sacred to the Myanmese people because it home to 37 Nats or Spirits. Visiting Mt. Popa was an interesting experience. While the temple was really nice, it was the wild monkeys that were the real story. They jumped on people, shit all over the place (no shoes were allowed in the temple), and they were scary. I even saw a monk aiming a slingshot at the monkeys, not a good sign. With that being said, I have a great time in Myanmar.

Posted by ejgalang 00:00 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Experiences in Myanmar

When I got on the airplane to Myanmar, I was traveling solo. By the time I left the airport, I knew six people including two Belgian's with whom I traveled with during most of my time in Myanmar.

I landed in Yangon previously known as Rangoon which people think is the capital of Myanmar but it is not anymore. (The government has moved the capital to a more secure city). One of the first things that you come across in the airport is the government run money exchange which is exchanging 450 Kyat per $1. Um, the current exchange rate is 1300 Kyat for $1. It is a nice first impression.

My friends and I stayed stayed in Yangon for two days. Yangon is a bustling city where you see everything from pick-up truck taxis packed with people, modern hotels catering to package group tourists and monks receiving their alms early in the morning. While we were in Yangon, we visited a small paya or temple called Sule Paya and the grandaddy of the temples in Myanmar, Swedagon Paya. The Sule Paya sits in the center of Myanmar and it was walking distance from our guesthouse. When we visited the Sule Paya, we met some young monks and they practiced their english with us. The Shwedagon Paya is a magnificent and colossal temple. The main stupa is 98 meters tall and is believed to be over 2,500 years old. It is estimated that there is well over 53 metric tons of gold leafs and over 5,000 precious stones decorating the paya. Suffice to say, the temple left a lasting impression on me.

After Yangon, we traveled to Bago, a highway city just north of Yangon. We Visited a cigar factory, a giant reclining buddha and the Shwemawdaw Paya, a smaller version of the Shwedagon Paya. The city of Bago was a dusty, loud, and hot place. The most time that you should stay there is one day days, oh well.

From Bago, we went to Kyaiktiyo where we visited the Golden Rock which is located at the top Mt. Myaikto. The ride to the base of Mt. Myaikto is in the back of a dump truck. Imagine around 40 people sandwiched together, a steep, winding road and a driver who has a lead foot. It was a very adventurous ride. The walk from the base to the top of Mt. Myaikto took us about 45 minutes. The top of Mt. Myaikto gave us a panoramic view of the lush, green surrounding mountains and a close up view of the Golden Rock. Unfortunately, only men were allowed to actually touch the rock, so I was the only one in our group who could do so. The rock is a massive, gold-leafed covered boulder which sits precariously on the edge of a cliff and it is believed to be balanced due to a precisely placed Buddha hair. I refrained from pushing the rock because I did not want to accidently push it down the mountain. (I am not saying that I could do it, but knowing my luck it is best not to try).

Posted by ejgalang 01:34 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Into the heart of Myanmar

After 28 days in Myanmar where I endured marathon bus rides, hot, humid, and rainy weather, walked up about a million steps and saw a gazillion buddhas, I survived and I had an awesome experience. The beautiful landscape and the friendly people left a lasting impression on me and my memories of Myanmar.

Before I go on, let me give a brief overview of Myanmar. Myanmar is located in Southeast Asia and is sandwiched in-between Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh. Myanmar is widely recognized by it's former name Burma which was changed about twenty years ago.
Like many countries in Southeast Asia, Myanmar is a very impoverished country with the average person making about $10 or below a month. The main culprit is the oppressing government that is in power. The government uses most of its money on the military and little of it trickles down to the rest of the population. Also, the government faces human rights violations by the UN so the EU and the US have imposed economic sanctions which has further hindered the country's growth. The price of petro and rice fluctuates daily due to the instable economy. So the question is, why travel to Myanmar? I decided to visit because I wanted to see state of the country and I had heard many good things about Myanmar. After my visit, I felt that visiting was the right thing to do because tourism is one of the few ways the Myanmese people can subsidize their living and through my experiences I can share my stories about the government and people.

Of course, growing up in the US and traveling around, there are things that I consider be part of everyday life. Like using the internet, the roads and infrastructure, electricity and freedom of speech. But while traveling throughout Myanmar, I realized how lucky I am.

The internet is extremely slow and many sites are banned by the goverment like yahoo mail and hotmail. The roads were extremely bad. The "main" highway was barely wide enough for one car let alone two buses and most highways were mostly dirt. Electricity is usually only available for a couple of hours at night and sometimes not at all. Even the capital city of Yangon only had power at night. Most people had generators to bridge the gap but then gasoline was not always readily available, a catch-22. But the most overwhelming limit of rights is that there is no freedom of speech and due process. If a local gets caught talking or acting out against the government, they are sent to jail. There is no trial. I met a man who had marched against the government in 1998 and he was arrested, imprisoned for seven months and since then has been unable to find a job. A performance group had made a joke about a military general and they had been sent to hard-labor camp for five years. Pretty harsh consquences.

With that being said, through all the adversity that the people of Myanmar endure their spirit and friendliness are what I will remember most about of the Myanmar.

Posted by ejgalang 00:00 Archived in Myanmar Comments (1)

Bangkok, Kanchanaburi and the end of Thailand

After Koh Phi Phi island, I returned to Bangkok to get ready for my trip to Myanmar. My visa to Myanmar took a couple of days to procure which gave me time to further explore Bangkok and the areas surrounding the city. After meeting up a friend, we decided to check out the area around the city of Kanchanaburi. Kanchanaburi is about a three hour drive east of Bangkok and is the famous location of the Bridge of the River Kwai. Along with being the home to bridge, the area surrounding Kanchanaburi is filled with waterfalls, majestic rivers, elephants (not wild), and a national park. The first day of our trip we took a train ride and saw the beautiful land surrounding Kanchanaburi, walked across the new bridge spanning the River Kwai and chilled at a small waterfall for a couple of hours. We spent the night on a houseboat on the Mae Nam Khwae River and hung out with other travelers. On our second day, we went elephant trekking, rode a bamboo raft, visited a memorial and musuem for railroad that was part of the River Kwai, and visited a tiger sanctuary. The elephant trekking was actually pretty fun compared to my Chiang Mai experience so I think now there is about 50% chance of me going on another elephant trek. The tiger sanctuany was pretty interesting. We got to touch and take pictures with the tigers but they seemed to be heavily sedated and asleep. The tigers are taken care of by a group of monks. My trip to Kanchanburi was great. I met alot of cool people and I was able to escape the hustle and bustle of city of Bangkok.

For rest of my time in Bangkok I visited the famous Bangkok weekend market and hungout with my friends that I met on the trek and during my trip. One of the friend's that I hungout with I first met in Vietnam, bumped into him Cambodia, bumped into in Krabi and finally bumped into him on Khao San Road. It was his last night in Bangkok and he was heading home after eight months of traveling. We grabbed some beers and exchanged travel stories, not too shabby.

Posted by ejgalang 00:00 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

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