Travel along with our Asia Study Group to Hong Kong, Taipei, and Myanmar and explore the Swallow Grotto,
Shwedagon Pagoda, temples, tudor mansions and more.
Photos and details of their days will be posted regularly.
This year's travelers include our tireless leaders Dean of Faculty and Instructor in History Rhonan Mokriski '90,
Instructor in Mandarin Chinese Yukun Luo
and new this year, Instructor in History Ben Walsh.
Our student study group includes:
Juan Ulivi '19, Woomin Shim '17, Coop Cheetham '17, Henry Nordahl '18,
Walker Battey '17, Gerardo Ibarra '20, Joseph Boehloff '19, and Jonah Capriotti '17
After a 90 minute voyage on our crafts, we stopped at two seldom visited villages. Our guide, Ye Ye brought us to a local rice-wine still, a tomato farm, and we witnessed rice production from seed to grain. The local villagers were all smiles as they proudly showed us the fruits of their labor.
Two stops stood out. The first was a local nursery school where the youngsters were learning a Myanmar traditional dance. The next was the home of two elderly women who proudly demonstrated how they husked rice. At the conclusion of their demonstration, one of the women pulled out a sling-shot and showed us how they kept the birds from eating their crops. Try at they might, our boys were unable to match her power or accuracy.
After a wonderful morning, we boarded a flight back to Yangon to prepare for our long return journey back to the states.
By national regulation, the boats on Inle Lake need to be long, teak, with a single outboard diesel engine. Our team had three (for three groups of four). We cruised along the lake visiting its seldom seen corners. What struck us most is how adept the Pa-O were at using the lake to meet all their needs. They fished while using one oar balanced between their armpit and the inside of their calves. Traditionally, they used conical nets while balancing with one foot on the aft of their long boats. Increasingly, this iconic image is being replaced by more traditional net fishing that men let out and taken in while still balancing and rowing in their unique fashion. The fishing seemed steady, and we saw a number of fishermen haul up good size fish.
Fishing is not enough to support a family, however, and these fishing families more than supplement their income by water farming. They harvest the weeds from the bottom of the lake in a pain staking fashion. They bring it back to their homes where it is dried. Next they make row out of row of these dry lakeweed beds before they plant tomatoes, melon, peppers, and other such food – no irrigation needed. They produce enough tomatoes (red and green) to not only feed the entire population of Myanmar, but also have some available for export.
We cruised the channels of the homes on the lake and were constantly greeted by friendly waves and giant smiles. The Myanmar people are wonderfully welcoming.
After a quick stop at a lake marketplace, we spent the afternoon travelling far up one tributary to a rediscovered ancient Pagado village called Indein. These Temples and Stupas date back to the 1600s. Both Civil Wars and the jungle did their best to keep them hidden, but a ceasefire has recently allowed them to be reclaimed. We wandered through these gems and witnessed archeologists in action frantically working to save countless precious relics.
We also visited local Inle industries with stops at a cheroot workshop and a silk and lotus weaving textile factory.
After a very full day we retired early to the town to sample local Shan cuisine and hunt for massages to help make our muscles function properly again.
An unusual sleep was shared by the team, and we woke somewhat ready to finish the last ten miles down to Inle Lake.
Before we departed however, we were granted an audience with the Head Novice Monk. Because the Head Monk was out travelling, the day-to-day operations were turned over to this impressive young man – all of nine years old. Can you imagine a fourth grader running a school? We were there overnight, and we could not notice a difference. Monks did chores, things were spotless, water was pumped, food was served and cleared. Buuuut, now that we thought of it……there did seem to be a lot of soccer being played……and chanting did not begin exactly at 5:00 am (more like 5:10). All in all, however, things ran pretty well, and he was an impressive young man.
Before we left to continue our descent down to Inle, the boys got to challenge the monks to both soccer and caneball.
The last bit of hiking was more gentle than the hike to the monastery, but it was still difficult. We managed to meet our long boats at a friendly jetty to begin our voyage on Inle Lake.
This was an entirely different vibe. The fresh water sprayed our faces, and the wind help wash the trail dust from our faces. We visited the floating farms and villages of the eastern shore, and were introduced to a totally new part of life in Myanmar.
Juancho said it best, “every day is different, and I still cannot figure out what is my favorite part.”
We woke up this morning in fine form and ready to begin our fourteen-mile hike through the hills and farms of the Pa-O, an ethnic minority of the Shan. These people are known for their orange headdresses, their friendliness, and their ready and welcoming smiles.
The only holdouts from this bonhomie were Masters Mokriski and Luo who realized how woefully out of shape they were for such an endeavor.
We hiked among the rural Myanmar people – untouched by roads, electricity, or running water. The Pa-O are a hard-working people, and we witnessed them farming (still a hoe and cycle enterprise). Men and women pulled equal share, and everyone was ready to greet us with giant grins and a “Min Ga Lar Bar” (Have an auspicious day!). The crops ranged from corn, to peppers, to ginger, to cilantro, to sugar cane. In some parts, they still practiced slash and burn farming, so at various stages, we were accompanied by all the smoky scents of Burmese cuisine.
Just as Mr. Luo and Mr. Mokriski were about to call for a helicopter rescue, we spied a growing number of novice monks, a sure sign that our overnight accommodations were near. The young monks looked at us as a curiosity, but we could not help smiling as we noted amongst their saffron and gold robes were also accompanied by soccer balls and sling shots.
Hti Tain Monastery is also a school for novice monks through the fourth grade. As this is about as rural as you can be in Myanmar, there was no electricity, running water, or in-ground plumping. While we were at a school, it was about as opposite to Salisbury as possible.
The monks were our dorm-mates. The novices ran the school. They pumped the water for our shower. They cleaned our rooms, they swept the compound. They ran the show.
Dinner was a simple yet filling affair, and we soon retired on our straw pallets for the night. Sleep was restless, however, as the monks chanted for an hour at nine, the local village loud-speaker blared village songs until 12:45 (it was a Saturday after-all), a dog fight broke out around three, and the monks began their morning chants at five a.m. As badly as our aching bodies needed a respite, we had to be content with focusing on mindfulness.
Our architect, Jarrod, at Asia Transpacific Journey’s always reminds us of the company’s motto while we are booking a trip: “Journey to the unexpected. Good things are never easy to get to.” After a 6:00 a.m. wake-up call and a ninety-minute wait at the airport, we were cranky before our journey even really began.
We flew for forty minutes in the Shan State in Eastern Myanmar. We boarded our bus and drove three hours into rural, rural Myanmar to the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp with Re-plantation.
Ba Kyaw Than worked with timber mining companies as a veterinarian. The wealth of the teak forests in Myanmar, and lack of real infrastructure (only thirty percent of the country even has electricity today), meant that elephants were and are a necessary tool to help bring timber to market. Ba’s work always troubled him. His niece, Tin Win Maw, accompanied him on many of his doctor visits, and saw his conflicted nature. She, together with her husband, Htun Htun Wynn (no relation to Bobby), agreed to set up this incredibly special operation.
Green Hill Valley was set up in 2011. They focus on animals no longer fit to work who are in precarious situations due to their treatment and the economy slowing. They decided to bring disabled elephants (physical and emotional) to the camp to help rehabilitate them.
This is not a circus show. The entire structure around the camp is designed to educate through meaningful participation and interaction. To get these giants re-used to humans as friends and not drivers, visitors are encouraged to feed, feed, feed, and feed them some more. You are allowed to give them banana husks, pumpkin, or protein balls. You approach using soothing talk, and feed the loot – bypassing trunks - right into their mouths. This teaches the elephants that humans are friendly and helpful. This went on for hours, with neither the beasts nor the boys tiring.
We next got the nod to head out and bathe our newly minted friends. A ten-minute hike brought us to a perfect elephant swimming hole. Our friends meandered in and plunked down on the riverbed floor. We swam over and both splashed water all over them and used rosined wood to make their skin smooth. They would occasionally spray non-participants in order to encourage an all-hands-on-deck operation.
This place is not easy to find, but it is a rare note of optimism in the deluge of stories regarding the grim future of these noble beasts. If you are interested in learning more, visit ghvelephant.com. You can also email for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Contact them. You can actually do more to help.
Strolling through Myinkaba’s Nyaung Market had a different vibe than the raw experience we had in Yangon. Country markets are more relaxed and far less frenetic. The colors and smells were a good wake-up call before we embarked on our biking adventure.
We boarded our electric bikes and Sons of Anarchied -it around ancient Bagan. Stupas, Temples, and farms surrounded us on all sides. We rode past women threshing wheat, and men building homes. We paused at the rural village of West Phwa Saw village to observe the daily life of its residents.
While we were there, we were invited into the local chapter of the Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. The Lady is a towering figure who represents the hopes and dreams for the Myanmar people, and she almost single-handedly transformed the country from a repressive military junta to an optimistic and burgeoning democracy. We felt the powers of history as we drank tea and watched the beans being threshed, the cows being fed, and the water being fetched. We interacted with a 91-year old, cheroot smoking, villager as she rolled her smokes for sale.
Next, our Myanmar friend, Ye-ye, took us to his family’s lacquer ware workshop (more on this later).
Finally, we travelled to Pot Hill to watch the sunset. This mound was made from discarded pottery that dated back to the 11th century. Shards of pottery lay underfoot, and the ability to pocket this history felt almost pornographic. Our last day in Bagan left us feeling truly connected to the power of this city’s historical roots.
It is difficult to even begin to describe what we experienced today, because it is sooo different from anything any of us has felt before. To begin with, this is a “lost city” that is just starting to be found by the West. Some 2,000 pagodas, monastaries, stupas and shrines dating from 1,000 – 1,200 AD rest on this arid plateau. This was an era that predated the Black Death by 300 years. The Turks were just beginning their empire, and the Battle of Hastings was just being contested. As this was going on elsewhere, a Myanmar capital was reaching its peak.
Its decline began with the Mongols and continued with a series of earthquakes reaching into 2006. Even so, it is still both majestic and awe-inspiring. We hiked up Stupas, challenged local boys to play Chinlone (Canesack) – a variation of hacky sack however with a ball made of rattan- and bartered for gifts. We were playing in an archeological playground without any of the regulations (scary!).
At sunset we hiked up to the top of one of the crumbling relics to enjoy the sunset view. Without shushing, the team whispered in quiet anticipation as waited for the fiery orb of the sun to descend behind the mountains that ringed this Buddhist playground. After two days in Myanmar, the consistent theme is that all days end with us bathed in a golden hue.
We landed in Myanmar at 11:00 and rolled through customs. The 85 degree weather certainly helped us adjust from our 4:15 wakeup call. We also heard about the twenty inches of snow dumped on Salisbury, and we blessed our good fortune.
Our first stop was smack-dab in the middle of downtown Yangon for a walk through the market places of this bustling city. We strolled on foot through the downtown area. The experience was a full on storming of most of our senses: the bright colors of the cloth, the pungent scent of the spices, the jostling of thousands of people going about their daily lives, the honks, the bargaining. All of this was framed by fading colonial facades, golden pagodas, and intricately carved temples. This was travel. This was Asia.
We had a brief rest in our hotel before setting out to see the most revered temple in Myanmar, the Shwedagon Pagoda Complex. It stands at 350 feet tall and is gilded in gold and gems. This temple is the Mecca of Burma, and all Burmese must pay a visit in their lifetimes.
Seeing this complex at sunset was indescribable. Even better was seeing the people – monks, nuns, pilgrims, and tourists all savor this golden moment.
Footnote: While the boys are enjoying 85 degree sunshine, should we let Mr. Luo know that this is his car back on the Hilltop?
Drinking tea on our porch and watching the sun rise over the Taiwanese mountains was a magnificent way to start Day five. We boarded our bus and travelled to the Yi-Lan Biscuit factory. You may ask, what are they? Well, they are only the thinnest biscuits in the world measuring in at .1 centimeters! The boys got to try their hand at the fine art of thin biscuit making.
We visited The National Center for Traditional Arts. The exhibition of Taiwanese original artifacts including pottery and wooden crafts was intriguing. Decoration of dragons wrapping around pots added a refined taste to it. Walking, we saw the layout of a small town, and entered shops such as a traditional pharmacy. Some of the boys bought colorful jade bracelets at the street shops. Also, they enjoyed the fog forest where artificial fog was created.
Our next stop was in Yilan for the Tang Wei Gou Hot Springs Doctor Fish Park. Yes, I typed that correctly. The boys plopped down, peeled off their shoes and socks, and soaked their feet in the hot springs while doctor fish ate the dead skin from their feet.
We arrived back at the hotel in preparation for our early departure on Tuesday (04:45!). Some of the boys conked out at the airport hotel, while a large contingent experienced the famous Taiwanese Rapid Metro System to head to Shilin for the famous Taiwanese Night Market. The boys ate and shopped among the fragrant (and sometimes pungent) stalls that sold everything from lamb blood gelatin, to frogs’ eggs, to the best beef noodles on the planet. We finally collapsed in our beds at eleven to catch a short rest before our flight to Burma.
We continued our exploration on a white-knuckling ride of Taiwan’s northeastern coast. The major populations of Taiwan are elsewhere, and the roads are rare on this part of the island. After many twists and turns, we arrived in Taroko Gorge National Park. This was nature on a staggering scale. The gorge, the mountains, the waterfalls, and the cliffs were all shrouded with mist giving us an experience right out of Avatar.
We stayed smack-dab in the middle of the park at the Leader Village Hotel. The Taroko were the aboriginal people of Taiwan, and the hotel is run entirely by these indigenous people. We were nestled high above the mountains and the clouds snaked all around leaving us in a dreamlike state.
Dinner that evening was surprisingly amazing. Most boys ordered the steak. I opted for lamb, and Yukun and Ben ordered the boar. While I talked up my group, Yukun pointed out the absurdity of not ordering pork.
“Look at this place. They have boar carvings, boar paintings, boar stuffed animals. I bet at the end of tonight’s aboriginal show, they will slaughter a pig. C’mon, use your head. Of course you should have ordered the wild boar!”
The apres-dinner show was enthusiastic, but it was mostly performed in Chinese. Finally, Yukun tired of us routinely looking at him with pleading eyes and agreed to translate. After the performer spoke for a dozen sentences, Yukun would translate “mating song.” After a similarly long explanation, we got “men can only sing it.” All of it was delivered in the same bored manner with no inflection what-so-ever. Just from trying to intuit the Chinese on our own, we finally got the sense that the evening was wrapping up, so we looked to Yukun to translate the conclusion.
He managed to deliver the following sentence before collapsing into spasms of laughter: “Now we are going to gather at the back of the hotel so that we can go on a night boar hunt.”
To enhance our dreamlike stupor, we literally did just that. We went on a thirty-minute walk through the moon-lit forests of Taiwan looking for a boar. We found poisonous frogs, an owl, and various and sundry bugs, but we did not spy any boars. Truth be told, I was relieved, as I am certain I would have screamed at the top of my lungs. - Rhonan Mokriski '90
We left our Hong Kong family to board a flight to Taiwan. After a quick tour of Taipei, we travelled to the northeastern city of Yehliu. The rugged coastline is constantly battered by winds, tides, and typhoons. We spent the afternoon trekking through the Yehliu Geopark taking in the geologic wonders totally unique to this part of the island.
This was the first full day of Asian immersion, and dinner challenged Mr. Luo’s students. The group split – half to a seafood restaurant, half to a Taiwanese BBQ place. After ten minutes, Joseph sent a frantic text to Mr. Luo, “Mr. Luo, can u come up here? We don’t understand a single thing!” Yukun came to the rescue, and also took the opportunity to dock Walker ten points off his next trimester’s Mandarin IV grade.- Rhonan Mokriski '90
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The most difficult thing to explain to the uninitiated Asia traveler is the way that our friends share their hospitality. Indeed, that word doesn’t even begin to capture the experience. You don’t simply visit friends in Asia. Instead, you are welcomed into the warm embrace of family. I tried explaining my ineptitude to our host mother, Martia Wong P‘15 TR and asked for her help. She smiled warmly and said “we do things from the heart.” She captured it perfectly.
Mrs. Wong arranged for her boat to pick us up at Central pier for a day of cruising. We began by traveling east then west in Victoria Harbor – the busiest channel in the world. We next disembarked on Lamma Island, just south of Hong Kong. For centuries upon centuries, Lamma’s residents were dedicated to the fishing trade, and we spent the morning learning about their ancient craft. They boys even got to try their hand at it in a spectacularly unsuccessful way. We cruised back to Stanley market, and the team got their first crack at the fine art of haggling. Gerrardo declared himself the winner when he acquired a framed quote from his favorite philosopher, Walter White.
We spent a very satisfying dinner celebrating Benjamin Chen’s ’20 birthday, and the boys all retired with their host families while the rest of us took advantage of the opportunity to meet up with Dave Madden '90. Additionally, we also reconnected with Tommy Chang '11, Anson Choi '12, Tin Kin Wong '08, Raymond Cheng '03, Sean Wong '03, and Nicholas Yau '03. - Rhonan Mokriski '90
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The Salisbury Team spent day one in the care of Alistair Lee '18. Laurence, Alistair’s father, is a born and bred Hong Konger, and he has ample practice with a) helping first-time visitors to Asia acclimate and b) showing experienced visitors seldom visited corners of Hong Kong.
We started with a multi-course, traditional, Hong Kongese Dim Sum lunch while overlooking Victoria Harbor. The boys hailed the meal with universal acclaim, and chopstick first-timers managed not to embarrass themselves. The lazy susan spun around shrimp, chicken, pork, goose, sea cucumber, and birds' nest soup.
We boarded our tour bus and traveled to the Mainland and the far eastern reaches of Hong Kong in the New Territories to the village of Sai Kung. This is a road less traveled for visitors to this part of the world, but the expression “hidden gem” doesn’t seem accurate to use with a city of seven million people. Regardless, we embarked on Laurence’s boat to explore the nooks and crannies of the outer reaches of Hong Kong. The volcanic landscape and the UNESCO-recognized unspoiled beauty of the coast was the perfect introduction to the romance of Asia.
We anchored and Gerrardo challenged everyone to swim. The water was surprisingly warm and the venue insanely picturesque. Mr. Walsh and Coop Cheetham kayak raced around the harbor. After a crazy 16-hour travel day, our ability to deescalate into full relaxation mode was quite remarkable.
Laurence arranged for a full Cantonese seafood meal at a Michelin starred restaurant for dinner. Course after course of fresh out-of-the-water seafood was placed on the lazy susan and quickly liberated into the hungry mouths of our boys. - Rhonan Mokriski '90
To start the slideshow simply click the play button on the photo.