Wednesday, February 26, 2014


In Myanmar, Ace and I went to Mandalay and Bagan before heading back to Yangon for Tom and Yupar's Wedding. After, we went to the Beach in Ngapali. 

Things in Myanmar were pretty cheap and affordable. Yangon has undergone a large amount of rapid development in the past 3 years. According to Tom, many of the roads were newly paved and many of the cars were recently imported from mostly Japan. Many people can understand some bit of English so it made the travel easier.
To start our mini tour of Myanmar, we took an 8 hr bus ride to Mandalay in a luxury brand new coach bus called JJ Express a private company. It was quite affordable and cheaper than the train. Like most developing countries, we had some taxi drama. To get downtown from the bus station, we needed a taxi. Of course when we finally got one, the driver drives a few feet, parks on the side and then disappears for a good 5 minutes. Ace is wondering what happened, I'm thinking he probably went for a newspaper or tea. In actuality, he comes back with a trainee driver who takes us about 1/4 of the way, before they stop and switch because the newer driver can't quite how to handle city level traffic. That's how new traffic is here in Myanmar... Many people did not have cars or motorbikes prior to 2011!

Mandalay is dusty and developing. Compared to Yangon, most people transit in Mandalay by motorbike and trucks and not cars. This busy city in the north has far fewer lights at night and has a way to go before matching Yangon's level of modernization. Internet is everywhere albeit slow.

In Mandalay, we were treated like royalty by the owner of the Smart Hotel; he provided a private driver which took us around to the sights for only 37 USD for entire day. Places we visited included a gold foil making shop, a jade marketplace, a marble cutting workshop, an antique shop and the longest Teak bridge in the world.

We took the overnight train from Mandalay to Bagan, which was owned and operated by the government. It was actually more expensive and slower than the JJ Express luxury bus. The train appeared not to have been updated since the 1940s (British Era, when Burma was formerly known as East India). Seats were made of green steel and the windows were perforated steel shutters. It was an exceptionally bouncy ride with the windows open for most of the night. It was truly an experience but definitely not worth repeating. The good part is that we got the local experience and shared seats with a few nice ladies carting their goods intercity. 

In Bagan, we visited the many temples and pagodas, as well as temple on the top of a hill. We stayed in Nyang-u which is actually not very developed, and was more rural than either Mandalay or Yangon. Despite being a tourist trap, the streets actually felt more authentic and covered with greenery. Since we were self guided for most of the time, we found joy in learning from our local guides who were children hanging around the temples selling post cards. There are nearly 4000 temples and pagodas here and a person can spend a lifetime exploring. One amazing temple was build in 7 months and 7 days and dated back to the year 1141AD. The original teak wood doors for some of the buildings were still intact. The engineering and architectural ability of the people at the time was quite amazing.

In Ngapali, we spent our time at the very nice white sandy beach and turquoise waters with plenty of small colorful fish. There was hardly anybody on the beach and it was quite undiscovered, unlikely Thailand where many of the beaches are overcrowded with tourists. There are many resorts that are being built nearby and so we think it will become crowded with tourists within the next 5 years.

I am sure Bill and Aryn will have plenty of stories and photos to share about Tom and Yupar's wedding, which was very lovely indeed. Aunt Diana was missing a complete outfit the day before so I went shopping with her in the local markets. She really wanted something peach and nothing quite looked right, but I spotted an excellent tailor in the Scott's Market and encouraged her to have a custom tailored dress made. We were in luck - the tailor girl not only had expertise in making dresses but she was also a sewing teacher. She designed and made a well fit lace dress for Aunt Diana within 18 hrs, just in the nick of time for the wedding. 

Since we last saw Bill and Aryn in Myanmar, we've been in Hong Kong, recovering from the Burmese food poisoning and a bit of fever. Myanmar has a very hot tropical climate, and can be quite uncomfortable. Ace liked Hong Kong for its cooler weather, very much like San Francisco, and for the high quality international cuisine, the first class comfort, and the hiking (lots of small mountains) immediately outside the city. 

Now we are in Shanghai for a few days. We are staying near East Nanjing Lu (the Shanghai equivalent to Times Square in NYC but much cleaner) in a lovely hotel that has a giant goldfish tank. Today we went on a dumpling food tour. Tomorrow we are going to see the Acrobatics show. On Friday, Ace flies to Osaka to visit Jen for a week while I go back to Hong Kong and to the office for a bit of work.

More Photos here:

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Lamba Labs Beirut September 19-24, 2012

Marc picks me up from the airport. We have been tag teaming emails to help setup the into to Interactive Electronics workshop that I will be teaching on thursday evening at the new hackerspace in Beirut.  Marc is working with Bilal on starting this hackerspace, aptly named Lamba Labs. In arabic, Lamba means light bulb... so I guess 'idea labs'.

We pull into a parking lot. A guy pulls out an instrument with a long antenna and scans the car for bombs. It is a sign that the region is still highly volatile and I cringe just slightly. The Radio channel that Marc tunes to in the car is chock full of  western music, from pop to rock to techno and the voices sound like you never left the USA.  

Arduino Light Painting @ Lamba Labs
The Lamba labs new hackerspace is located in Karaj beirut, a coworking space that is started and affliated with Ayah Bedir (little bits founder, TED speaker). It is a really nice old building just to the east of Genmayze, the party central district in downtown beirut.

The first night I arrive, Marc and Maya help me plan out a beginner's Arduino workshop for Lamba Labs, a hackerspace. I only heard about this place a few weeks ago from Bilal who is working on an initiative to start Hackerspaces in the Middle East ( see  Since Istanbul is so close, and I've always wanted to see Beirut, I volunteered to help out (as part of my vacation) with the fledgling hackerspace. It was also of good fortune to know the people who were making the initiative which made organizing really easy!  In my week in Beirut, I also helped create some marketing materials and participated in the weekend hackathon where we did had fun making light paintings with arduinos! 

Iraq’s First Hackerspace Will Run on ‘Irrational Optimism’

The Middle East and the Global Hackerspace Movement
In my opinion Beirut can feel a little scary if you don't know anybody. Technically the city is safe, but everywhere you go they scan you for bombs. There are old building riddled with bullet holes and extraordinary graffiti, followed by super high end shopping areas and bars, as well as gigantic new developements.

There are a lot of syrian refugees and they had a miniwar the week before i got there in Tripoli - a hour's drive to the north. Lebanon is a super small country. Its a less than an hour's drive to the Syrian border, and if you've been keeping up with the news, there's been a ton of violence and refugees there in the past few weeks from the explosions in Damascus to Syrian refugees pouring over the border and still fighting amongst themselves in Tripoli. The eastern part of Lebanon is also getting shelled from skirmishes in Syria.

I'm told Beirut is full of contradictions. You have super religious sects here from sunni to shiite and then uber christians.  Apparently, the civil war in 1975 split the city down the middle and then became a religious war. While a lot of the city is rebult in parts, there are old buildings that still show scars, riddled with bullet holes. There are extremist sects of every kind of crazy type. They say the government set up didn't help the situation because in parliament there has to be separate representative from each religious community... i.e. the prime minister is one religious group, and the president is from another religious group... nuts.

I feel tired a lot when I am outside of a non-air conditioned area. Not sure if its because of the air pollution, the heat and the humidity but I am more easily exhausted and cranky here in Beirut than Istanbul or any other hot/humid location. I'm not sure about the reports on cities with the worst in air pollution, because I am sure Beirut takes the cake compared to Istanbul's old city. It only takes about an hour of walking around or standing in the air outside before I start to feel really tired.

All in all, Beirut was a productive, exciting and busy visit. If the opportunity arises again, I certainly hope to contribute to more hackerspaces internationally during my travels. Its nice to get to know locals and also feel like I'm contributing as a traveler, not simply passing through.  I hope that Lamba Labs has a great future. The hospitality and the energy of the people were wonderful as well.