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Willie Weir : February 9th, 2013

Sounds from the Road #21-24

Since 1994 I’ve had the pleasure of contributing to KUOW’s Weekday while on the road via commentaries and interviews. For our latest trip, I sent in 24 sound clips that aired on the shows “sound of the day” segment. Here are the final four clips.

Cambodian Water Buffalo Bell
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Never seen this before. I’m used to hearing the tinkle and clank of metal bells on sheep, goats and cows. But this water buffalo had a large carved wooden bell around its neck with wooden clappers. Saw several water buffalo with these bells as we pedaled along the Mekong.

Sleigh Bells and The Egg Man
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This is a series of vehicles passing me on a small road along the Mekong south of Kratie, Cambodia. First you hear the jingling of sleigh bells. This is a horse passing. The bells are on the horn of the saddle. This is the only region we saw these bells. But all the horses had them. A small car passes and toots its horn. Then there is a looped recording. That is the “egg man”. He is selling hard-boiled eggs to villagers along his route. Rather than having to shout this out a thousand times a day, he has a recording. Heard other “egg men” using this same recording.

World’s Most Valuable Bird Houses
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When I first heard this sound, I thought it was a recording to keep birds out of buildings. Then I found out the real story. Bird nest soup is an incredibly expensive delicacy in China. It is made from the nest of a couple of species of swifts that nest in caves and cliffs. They make their nests from their saliva. The nest is used in the base of the soup. Since the birds normally nest high on cliffs, these nests are hard to come by. So much so that they can go for up to $1500 a kilogram!

But some folks discovered that these swifts can also be enticed to nest in old buildings. This was so lucrative, that buildings are now specifically being built just for the swifts in coastal towns throughout SE Asia. Sometimes you’ll see a building with four floors for human occupants, and then three or four upper floors for swifts (see photo). The recordings are played throughout the day and much of the night. If you get up early, you’ll see swifts pouring out of the buildings to go out and feed, and at night swooping back in.

Some towns have so many buildings converted to swift homes, that the noise can be overwhelming. And, as with so many lucrative investments, the chances of a bubble and then a crash are high. But as long as the profit margins are high, this sound will be heard in more and more coastal towns.

Roadside Khmer Wedding
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We have pedaled past many a wedding party this past month in Cambodia. Tents are set up, speakers are raised on poles, and music blasted throughout the community. A live band often plays during the ceremony, and this recording is of live musicians. The wedding party was out on the side of the road waiting to enter the big tent. Many had gifts for the bride and groom–baskets of fruit, a case of beer, two live ducks in a basket … no cheese domes, or fondue pots … but maybe we missed those.

Willie Weir : February 7th, 2013

Sounds from the Road #17-20

Since 1994 I’ve had the pleasure of contributing to KUOW’s Weekday while on the road via commentaries and interviews. For our latest trip, I sent in 24 sound clips that aired on the shows “sound of the day” segment. Here are clips 17-20.

Roadside Music Medley
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What kind of music do people listen to in Myanmar? Coming down from the mountains, on our way back to Mandalay, I recorded some of the music we heard playing from radios, stereos, and TVs (a lot of music comes in the form of music DVD’s). Here is a short compilation of what we heard.

Koshan Road Bar Entertainment
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OK. Not the easiest song to perform when English is your second language. But this guy gave it his all. Billy Joel. Eagles. Paul Simon. Sting. They would all follow as he played for the backpacker crowd (or is that “flashbacker”) at a bar on Khao San Road in Bangkok.

Blind Musician Plays at the Night Market, Ubon, Thailand
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The night market in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand was buzzing with activity on Saturday night. Dozens of food stalls offering up everything from fruit drinks to sweets to curries, noodle soup, green papaya salad, and barbecue, were packed into a vacant lot near the city park. Above the din of the people and a loud broadcast advertising campaign from a local business, I heard a single voice. A blind man, singing a folk tune, as he accompanied himself on a three stringed instrument a little bigger than a ukulele, was wandering through the dining area with a tip cup attached to his instrument. It was obvious from the crowd’s reaction that he was a local favorite. Later in the clip, you’ll hear the sound of a plastic chair being scooted, as one of the diners, alerted that the musician might trip over it, came darting across to take it out of harm’s way.

Amazing Multimodal Bike Commute
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This is the sound of the coolest school bike commute ever. Kat and I were cycling along the west bank of the Mekong River, south of Champasak, Laos. The road became a path, then ended. There was a tributary to the Mekong with no bridge. There was, however, a small boat, used as a ferry, to get across. Kat and I (and our bikes) shared a ride with a guy on a scooter. A woman pulled us across, as the boat was tethered with a cable that ran across the span.

We wondered just how many people you could get on to this little boat? We had our answer minutes later, as school got out and a flow of kids with their bikes arrived at our side of the river. The answer is 18 school kids and their bikes. The crossing itself took 90 seconds, with the landing and deboarding process taking up a full five minutes. From a distance, the kids with their bikes looked like ants exiting a big leaf and working their way up the hill.

Willie Weir : February 5th, 2013

Sounds from the Road #13-16

Since 1994 I’ve had the pleasure of contributing to KUOW’s Weekday while on the road via commentaries and interviews. For our latest trip, I sent in 24 sound clips that aired on the shows “sound of the day” segment. Here are clips 13-16.

Tar Barrels Boiling, Mt Popa, Myanmar
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Road work in Burma is done mostly by hand … picks and shovels, even bare hands, in place of machinery. Tar is delivered to the side of the road in metal drums. A pit is dug and a wood fire is built to heat the tar up so it can be spread … bowlful by bowlful. We came upon this smoldering fire beneath several drums. The tar directly over the heat was popping as it approached boiling point, while the barrel above oozed tar, like a giant tube of black toothpaste.

Man-powered Sawmill
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We were pedaling a back road outside the city of Miektala (a dirt track really)–bouncing and weaving our way along the rutted route–when we heard the sound of a hand saw. I glanced over through the trees and saw a man standing on top of an enormous log sawing away. The way he handled this huge saw, I thought he must have Herculean strength. A closer look revealed that he had a partner. They had dug a wide four foot deep ditch, which allowed a second person to pull down on the other end of the saw from below. This one cut would take these two men the better part of a day to complete. The family was as entertained by meeting two foreign cyclists, as we were at watching this human saw mill in action.

Chanting Marathon, Kalaw, Myanmar
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We found a nice hotel room with a balcony in the mountain town of Kalaw. It was across the street from the Buddhist temple. The chanting was being broadcast in hyper-full volume. No worries. It would stop late in the evening. Or so we thought. It continued. Midnight. 2am. 4am. As the sun rose, the chanting still continued. We discovered at breakfast that the chanting wouldn’t stop … for three more days. We opted to pedal down the road.

Threshing Grain near Pindaya, Myanmar
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The back roads around Pindaya wound through farmland; a patchwork of yellows, greens, and browns, contrasted with brilliant blue skies.

Off the road, we saw a group of men threshing grain. We’d seen it many times (both men and women performing the task), but never up close. Well. No time like the present. We pedaled over and parked our bikes. There were large piles of recently hand harvested rice laying about. I grabbed a pile, and just the sight of a westerner trudging across the field, sent the men into waves of laughter. I later got a lesson on how to thresh. I need a lot of work on my technique.

Willie Weir : February 3rd, 2013

Sounds from the Road #9-12

Since 1994 I’ve had the pleasure of contributing to KUOW’s Weekday while on the road via commentaries and interviews. For our latest trip, I sent in 24 sound clips that aired on the shows “sound of the day” segment. Here are clips 9-12.

Water buffalo, Shwebo, Myanmar
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In the heat of the day (about 93 degrees), while pedaling the dusty highway north of Mandalay, we came upon a herd of two dozen water buffalo doing what we should have been doing–bathing in the canal. Water buffalo are heavy breathers. I wouldn’t want to try and take a nap with one. The splish-splashing is the sound of their ears and horns as they shoo away flies. The scooter and bus you hear are on the way to nearby Shwebo. George Orwell was stationed nearby in a small town, which became the location for his novel Burmese Days.

Concrete Crew, Monywa, Myanmar
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What you are hearing is the motor of a large portable cement mixer. You can hear the sound of a shovel digging into wet concrete. Later the sound of metal bowls hitting the street as they are delivered back empty, to be filled again and again.

The human part of this operation is drowned out. But it’s there. A crew of six men are mixing and shoveling that concrete. Over 20 women are delivering that concrete from the street level to the second story of the project, one metal pan at a time. Each pan is filled with concrete and then with help is hoisted on top of a woman’s head. A large and wide bamboo ladder has been erected to accommodate at least four women across. They climb this ladder, posture ramrod straight, where the bowl is lifted off their head and poured into it’s desired location. They then back down the ladder to repeat the process.

Dressed in plaid shirts and multicolored longyi, the wall of women workers move like an ornate slow motion piston.

Beautiful. Shocking. Amazing. Horrible. All of those words flashed through my mind.

Students Chanting at Ananda, Bagan, Myanmar
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There are hundreds of temples and pagodas in Bagan. Ananda is one of the largest and most visited. Inside the tile floors are cool, and locals stop to pray and leave offerings or light incense. There is a school here as well. These students and teacher are chanting about how Buddha was a holy man, above all others–or at least that is the rough translation I was able to get from a local.

Sparrows and Nuns, Shwezigon Pagoda
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This large pagoda in the town of Nuang U, near Bagan, is one of the centers of activity for the full moon festival. Late afternoon is calm and peaceful, but the setting sun brings the chatter of sparrows and nuns. The sparrows are looking for bits of food offerings, while the nuns are rushing to get all of the candles placed and lit around the enormous base of the pagoda.

Willie Weir : February 1st, 2013

Sounds from the Road #5-8

Since 1994 I’ve had the pleasure of contributing to KUOW’s Weekday while on the road via commentaries and interviews. For our latest trip, I sent in 24 sound clips that aired on the shows “sound of the day” segment. Here are clips 5-8.

White Wedding, Myanmar style

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Travel is all about experiencing new people, landscapes, sights and sounds. Travel can throw you a curve ball. On our first night in Mandalay we went out to eat at this roadside beer hall/restaurant. A band was warming up, and from what I was hearing, I expected to hear local music of Mandalay .. of Myanmar. The first tune the band played … Billy Idol’s White Wedding. How can you not love that?

Cycling U Bein Bridge, Myanmar
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We pedaled across U Bein’s bridge, the world’s longest teak foot bridge. It crosses Taungthaman Lake. Families out for a stroll, young lover’s, monks, school kids, and two foreign cyclists. Lot’s of folks fishing from the bridge, but also women out wading in the lake using a two poll, two hand fishing technique I’ve never seen anywhere else. Lots of loose boards in 1300 yards of span, so that’s what you are hearing as they squeak and chatter as my bike tires roll over them.

Looms near Sagaing, Maynmar
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Don’t be fooled by the train whistle. The other sounds you are hearing aren’t train related. The microphone is in the middle of the street in a small town near Sagaing, Myanmar between two establishments with sets of looms weaving silk. The rhythmic clacking made me feel like I was in the workings of an enormous clock. The train just happened to pass by up on the hill as I recorded.

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We were walking back to our Happy Hotel (Yes. That’s the name.) and our entrance was blocked by a dancing elephant. Two people in a large elephant costume, actually. The music was provided by a band in a float truck for the upcoming Full Moon Festival. The live music is then blasted through speakers at a decibel level so loud that KUOW would face fines if they played it at the original volume. Enjoy this much quieter version.

Willie Weir : January 30th, 2013

Sounds from the Road #1-4

Since 1994 I’ve had the pleasure of contributing to KUOW’s Weekday while on the road via commentaries and interviews. For our latest trip, I sent in 24 sound clips that aired on the show’s “sound of the day” segment. Here are clips 1-4.

Guy Banging on Stuff, National Stadium Skytrain Stop, Bangkok
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For many a year, it seemed like no matter where we traveled, we would run into a Peruvian band playing in a town or city square. I think the Peruvian band thing has waned in popularity on the international circuit. What’s the new trend? Guys banging on stuff. You’ve seen (and heard) them on the streets of Seattle. A guy sets up a percussion set consisting of common items like plastic paint buckets or garbage cans … and there’s usually a cow bell. Then they wail away on these items, very often with some impressive results.

Well, here is the Bangkok version of this new trend. This guy was just outside the National Stadium Skytrain stop. Plastic buckets, pieces of metal, and (one I haven’t seen before) an old Samsonite suitcase. If only he had a Peruvian band backing him up.

Student Band, Limpini Park, Bangkok
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It’s 11am and it’s hot, humid and around 90 degrees. We are in Lumpini Park, the big central park of Bangkok. A teacher is putting the percussion section of his student band through drills. What you have to imagine to make this sound byte complete, is that every time a kid makes a mistake, they drop down for 2 to 5 pushups. I’ll spare you the long version of this clip. They ran this short section no less than 20 times. The kid with the gong just couldn’t quite come in at the right time, no matter how many times they ran it. On the positive side, he was getting one heck of a good upper body work out.

Mynar bird, Bangkok canal
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Kat and I wandered along the canal near the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok. Tiny little living spaces packed together in the shadow of huge residential, business and shopping towers. As you walk along the quiet alleys, it’s hard to believe that a massive traffic jam is 500 meters away. Tiny little gardens are planted and tended. Shops the size of a walk in closet offer soft drinks, drinking water and snacks. At first we thought the sound was a video game. Turned out to be a caged mynah bird.

Express Boat, Bangkok
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These whistles are familiar to anyone who rides the Chao Phraya Express boat in Bangkok. The pilot of the boat is up front. The passengers embark and disembark from the rear of the boat. A man at the back whistles commands to the pilot. Each whistle has a different meaning, and gives the pilot the information he needs to back the boat up to the dock, when to cut the throttle, when the passengers are clear, and when to speed on to the next stop.

Willie Weir : January 7th, 2013

More Myanmar Travel Tips

A reader who is heading off soon to bike in Myanmar asked us some questions. So here is some more info to add to our Myanmar Cycling/Travel Tips.

In general, are there any routes you really recommend? Or any that we should steer clear of? 

You won’t be disappointed in getting to both Bagan and Inley Lake. Both are magical places. Make sure you use the advantage of having bikes to get to temples further out in Bagan for sunrise. Worth getting up really early for. We’ve seen reports of folks cycling the main road from Yangon to Mandalay and that is a waste of your precious few travel days in Burma in our opinion.

We are also flying from Bangkok to Mandalay. About how much Kyat would you suggest getting when we arrive at the airport? I’m assuming you mostly pay for hotels in U.S cash. 

I think we exchanged $100 into Kyat at the airport to begin with. You can get a good rate at a bank in any major city or tourist town these days. Gone are the days when the good rate was only available on the black market. So don’t be too worried about running out of Kyat. Best to make sure you arrive with plenty of US dollars in small bills (1’s, 5’s and 10’s), to pay for hotels and entrance fees.

Is there any need to bring along a sleeping bag? 

Many of the areas of Myanmar where you would need a sleeping bag are currently off limits to travelers. If you are traveling the Mandalay-Bagan-Inley Lake loop, you can get by without a sleeping bag. We carry silk liners, which come in handy for dodgy hotels where the sheets look suspect.

It sounds like you found a nice place to stay in Kalaw. Do you recall the name of the hotel?

It was new and spiffy. Right on the main drag … and not listed in the Lonely Planet. A general rule of thumb is to go the area of any town where Lonely Planet lists hotels and look in the area. Most likely there is a place right next door that is now cleaner and cheaper than a place listed in the LP and it has vacancies.

Did you cycle from Mandalay to Monywa in one day? Seems like a big haul. Is there a good hotel in Monywa? We are actually hoping to find a hotel in Sagaing and starting our trip from there.

We cycled from Mandalay to Sagaing. Then to Schwebo. Then down and over to Monywa. Great road that crosses over to Monywa. The first part is really bad. Then it’s just bad. But that’s good. Much less traffic. There are hotels in each of these towns.

Am I correct that there is a hotel for foreigners in Mt. Popa? From Mt. Popa, I am wondering where the next accommodation is for a cyclist on there way to Kalaw?

There are two. But one is a really pricey resort, way out of our price range. The other is just OK. But it will run you $45. You can charge that when you are the only game in town.

Warning. This is the only place in Myanmar where a hotel owner was dishonest with us. I paid for our room with two clean, crisp twenty dollar bills and one spotless five. Five minutes after we got into our room, he appeared and handed me my money back. One of the twenties had a tear in it. And the five had a corner that was nearly severed. He couldn’t accept this money. Well. It wasn’t my money. But there wasn’t much I could do. We didn’t have another hotel to choose from. I sucked it up and took the money and gave him clean money in exchange.

Between Mt Popa and Kalaw we stayed in Meiktila where there is a foreigner-approved hotel, but it wasn’t our first choice. We tried to stay at a monastery in a small village about 25km outside of Meiktila because it’s a long haul and we wanted to see what would happen when we tried to stay some place without a guesthouse. The monks were all for us staying, but after more than an hour of smiling, juggling, sharing photos of home and family while a room was prepared for us, the headmaster arrived and he told us that for our safety and theirs, we could not stay. We explained that it was now too late in the day for us to pedal to the city before dark, He hailed a passing truck for us that took us to the Meiktila.We did hear reports from another traveler that they were successful staying in a monastery so if in need anywhere, give it a try.

Do you have a recommended route from Inle lake to Mandalay. It sounds like you may have taken some back roads. 

From Inley Lake, take the road to Heho. Then ask the locals about the road to Pindaya. There is no sign. But it is a glorious road. One of the nicest we pedaled. We heard about it from our new cycling friends, Sergai and Adrienn, who are ending up an amazing bike journey. You can read about it over at Crazy Guy on a Bike. From Pindaya you take the road to Ywangan, and then on to Kyauske. We don’t have GPS, so we don’t have a detailed route to post. These roads are not “skinny tire touring bike” roads. They are “I wish I had shocks on my mountain bike” roads. But this section was our favorite of the trip.

Is there a particular road map that you suggest? 

We carried both the Nelles and the International Travel Maps. Both were OK. At the time, it isn’t easy to get way off the traveled path due to the hotel restrictions and camping ban. But that may change soon. At the time we were there, no SIM card data plans for smartphones was available. When that opens up, Google maps might be helpful. It has been in other SE Asian countries.

How easy is it to find food and water along route?

Buying bottled water is easy. We carried a filter, and so filtered when we could to cut down on the plastic water bottle waste. Food is around. But not always plentiful. Good to keep reserves in the panniers. We both got sick in Myanmar. The hygiene around food prep and serving is pretty sketchy. If you come down with symptoms of giardia, the drug you can buy in Myanmar is Tinidazol. And it does the trick. Not available in the U.S. Be wary of advice you get at a pharmacy. The dosage they quoted was 1/6th of the recommended amount. Better to check a reliable internet source for dosages for meds.

How often did you book hotels in advance? 

We booked a hotel in Mandalay (our arrival city) in advance. Also Yangon. But our travel agent messed up and we only had one night reserved, instead of the three we had requested. Our friends Sergai and Adrienn booked a room for us in Bagan a day before we arrived, and we phoned a hotel in Inley a couple of days in advance. Often a hotel you are leaving will call a hotel you are going to to make a reservation, but it can be hard to make that connection. If land line phones are not connecting, try asking someone to make the call using their cell phone. Much higher success rate and you pay them a small fee. A wonderful place to stay in Yangon is Bikeworld Explores Myanmar. We didn’t have the chance to meet Jeff, but his partner Soesoe will charm your bike socks off. She is a wealth of information and we felt at home the instant we arrived.

Willie Weir : January 1st, 2013

Photos of the Day — Dec 31

There she was. Just when we needed her. The humbow lady, set up near the bridge over the Preaek Trapeang Rung river just after dawn. Steamed rice buns with savory centers – the perfect early getaway breakfast for two cyclists wanting to beat the heat of the day. Bless you, humbow lady! -w

Ah, the bounty of the sea! Bar-be-cues line the port-side street in Koh Kong, Cambodia come sunset, and fresh seafood is grilled to order. We scarfed down two plates of squid and a pile of clams before taking a photo. I capture a few octopus tossed on the grill for the next patron of one of the many food stalls. -k.

Willie Weir : January 1st, 2013

Photos of the Day — Dec 30

This smile masks much of the pain and sweat from climbing hills in 98 plus degree heat, with enough humidity to swim in. We found the smallest patch of shade, parked our bikes, and drank warm water and chased it with peanuts and a cliff bar that had managed to live at the bottom of my pannier for over two months. No coconut or cane juice vendors in sight. Just another climb, waiting to extract the water we drank. Sweat equity. -w

We’ve spent some long, hot days in the saddle on the south coast of Cambodia and a sugarcane stop refreshes like no other. A day without sugarcane is like a day without sunshine. -k.

Willie Weir : January 1st, 2013

Photos of the Day — Dec 29

Coconut, the fuel for sweaty cyclists! The giant green orbs piled on the side of the road are a welcome sight in the heat of the day. We need fuel, and a fresh coconut water is packed with electrolytes and the meat is pure, healthy fats. Beats Gatorade and Snickers by a long shot. -k.

The day the kilometers died. Kat has a cyclometer. I don’t. Late in the morning, after pedaling out of Sihanoukville, Kat cursed after looking down at her handlebar where her cyclometer used to be. She remembered having checked it 10 kilometers back. I offered to retrace our route along the bumby, dusty road. I reached ten k, and nothing. I turned to head back and noticed a black rectangle in the dust and gravel. I’d found it … but not until after a petroleum truck had crushed the life out of it. -w