Monday, September 22, 2014

Zen Paddling down the Lifeline of Chiang Mai

Aidan Schmer in front of Chiang Dao Mountain

Chiang Mai is undoubtedly one of the best places in Northern Thailand to launch a trip out into the wild. For paddling enthusiasts, Prisana and Eric Nuechterlein, kayaking down the Mae Ping  River during low water conditions turned out to be a bit more exciting than they had anticipated.

By Prisana Nuechterlein

Chiang Mai - "Eddy out! Eddy out!" shouted Aidan Schmer, our American kayaking guide. We were two hours into our adventurous paddle, exploring the scenic Mae Ping River in northern Thailand when suddenly Aidan’s urgent command broke the stillness surrounding us. Aside from myself and my husband Eric, there were six other paddlers in our international group, ranging in ages from mid-20s to mid-60s. All were novices, except for Eric and I, but most of our experience had been acquired from many years of ocean kayaking and not from river kayaking.

The older German couple paddling beside my husband and I looked perplexed. Perhaps they were wondering: “Who is this Eddie Out?” Their English was "not so good" and our German was nonexistent. I pointed over to the shore and paddled ahead toward the calmer pool of water, signaling for them to follow me.  Behind me I heard a rush of exchanges and caught a familiar word "kaput", which obviously had the same meaning both in German and in English.

Eric and Prisana kayaking the River Ping
Earlier in the morning Aidan (a fluent German speaker born to German parents) had given us an informative kayak briefing in English and in German, teaching us different maneuvers and kayaking terminology. The highly experienced waterman had moved to Chiang Mai from Hawaii about five years ago and began a booming bike touring business which eventually included kayak tours. With 25 years of “coaching surface water sports” under his belt, Aidan had learned that instructing novice paddlers how to navigate a river was best done in a loud voice. 

Our entry point was located about one and a half hours north of Chiang Mai at a lush location in front of the famous Chiang Dao Mountain.  Known as the “last tooth of the Himalayas", the jagged mountain ranks as Thailand's third highest mountain. The Mae Ping River, known to locals as the “Lifeline of the Province”, has its source in this mountainous region of Chiang Dao, located in the northernmost point of Chiang Mai Province.
Kayaking in Northern Thailand
Depending on the season and the volume of water flow, the river can either be described as “imposing and mighty” or “tranquil and meandering”. On this particular day, the water level was very low causing some anxiety among our novice paddlers. During our safety briefing, Aidan had instructed us to always keep our feet pointed downstream, should we find ourselves flipped out of our kayaks. This warning would prove useful to nearly all of us in the hours ahead.

We ventured forth, practicing our various training maneuvers. Our river guide Aay was the leader, while Aidan paddled toward the back of our string of bright kayaks. I followed practically in Aay’s shadow, benefiting from his close supervision especially when he taught me to point my kayak sideways as we entered the numerous twist and turns of the winding river. Far behind me, I heard Aidan shouting commands at a young man from Holland, who had gotten stuck on yet another boulder. In between the calm stretches of water, where we floated unobstructed, were far more challenging episodes of Man verses Rock accompanied by Aidan’s intimidating, but well meaning shouts.

Prisana shadowing river guide Aay
My kayak bounced and banged up against one boulder after another, but amazingly never flipped over. At one point, I was stuck on a rock for a few brief moments, thankfully far from Aiden’s line of sight. I struggled to remember what Aidan had told us during our briefing, wondering if I should spin the kayak, or rock back and forth, fearful of choosing the wrong option and gashing the bottom of his hard shell kayak wide open. Fortunately, his sturdy kayak was tough enough to survive all of the rock bashing, sliding and spinning rotations necessary to navigate the rocky passages.

Thai River Guide Aay
Inside a calm passage, we floated in complete silence, breathing in the sweet serenity of river life. I laid back on my kayak, blissfully enveloped by the sprawling jungle atrium of bird calls and forest fauna shading the peaceful river. A natural by product and appeal of paddling is the meditative Zen state that it produces. "If you're thinking about what happened yesterday, or what will happen tomorrow, you will sadly miss out on the magical experience of this trip today," Aidan said soon after we launched. Recalling his advice, I glided along trying to focus only on the present scene unfolding before me.

A few hours had passed, when I noticed what appeared to be a small dam downriver. Aidan paddled quickly by us and said something, but I only caught two words: “very important.” The German couple looked at me quizzically. Apparently, "very important" was all that they had heard as well, but none of us had a clue as to WHAT was important? No worries, we were four hours deep into our kayaking adventure and felt confident that our fearless leader would not lead us astray. We bravely forged ahead until we saw the couple from Holland abruptly stop in front of the dam, where Aidan was standing in the river prepared to guide them over the top of it.

Usually I enjoy being the risk taker and the first to try something, but watching the questionable maneuver occurring in front of me, I was relieved not to be the first in line. The vertical drop off from the dam was nearly five feet. I anxiously watched the Dutchman flying off the edge of the dam, and to my relief he smoothly sailed over the spillway and perfectly landed his kayak below.

With Aidan’s help we conquered the dam and paddled a short distance to a secluded location along the river bank where we enjoyed a delicious Thai meal at a thatched roof, open air restaurant. The lifeline of Chiang Mai flowed onward without us, meandering through the vibrant countryside. For a few brief hours, we had escaped into what Aidan called the “edge of civilization” where the past and the future were replaced with only the rare sanctuary of present time. 



Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Underneath a Manta’s Wing; Diving in the Big Island

By Prisana Nuechterlein

Kailua-Kona, Hawaii — I am diving only a short distance from Kona's volcanic coast. In less than ten minutes, I have glimpsed two manta rays and now my husband is pointing out a third one! I stare into the blue expanse, searching in vain for the swirling motions of a manta ray, unable to see anything. Then suddenly, the distinct shape of a winged elegant creature emerges from the ocean void.

We are in the Big Island, having traveled from Thailand to Colorado and back west again to Hawaii in the past few weeks. We are here to make my dream come true – to night dive with Kona’s beloved manta rays in the world’s best known diving destination besides the Maldives to see these marvelous soaring giants.

Although my husband Eric had encountered several mantas while working as a dive instructor in Phuket, Thailand back in the 1990s, I had only seen the mysterious fish once and it ranked as memorable as my two occasions diving with whale sharks. 

When I called my sister, who lives in Hawaii to tell her of my plans she remarked: 

“Mantas…they’re like squirrels out here.” 

Squirrels? I had heard of mantas referred to as “pandas of the ocean”, but never as “squirrels of the ocean”.

Local divers on the Big Island are definitely spoiled. Not only are manta sightings common, but also frequently seen are sea turtles, dolphins and tiger sharks (the manta’s only known natural predator). On the previous day, there was a bit of commotion on our dive boat when a massive tiger shark was spotted snaking its way into Honokohaun Harbor. The tiger shark apparently was not “Lavern”, another smaller tiger shark known to inhabit the area. Also lumbering along the marina’s rocky ledges were “Fred and Wilma”, two big sea turtles busily eating kelp and possibly the larger shark’s future lunch. 

Lavern, a 14 foot long tiger shark who is a well known fixture in the waters around the entrance to Kona's Harbor.
According to impressive statistics, there is a 95 percent chance of seeing a manta ray at night. During the day, however, manta sightings are far less common which is why I had small expectations of seeing any on this mid-afternoon dive at Garden Eel Cove, located near Kona Airport.

Not long after sunset, we gear up in thick wetsuits and gather at the back of the boat. Unexpectedly, a small German lady from another dive boat appears out of the darkness and climbs aboard our dive boat. She introduces herself as Martina Wing, a long established Big Island manta ray videographer and tells us about her Dolphin Rescue video that went viral. Intrigued we listen to her vivid description of the incredible rescue and what we could expect on tonight’s shallow dive of 30 feet. We will be diving Garden Eel Cove again, known at night as “Manta Heaven”, with Martina as our professional videographer. 

We descend into a world glowing with lights. The oceanic light show is immediate and so are the mantas. Everywhere I look, the underwater angels are swirling about illuminated by dozens of light beams. Off in the distance, I see a parade of rays dancing around a group of divers sitting in a semi-circle of large lava rocks called the Campfire. I tell myself to keep calm, but my heart is racing a mile a minute.  I fin closer and closer to the brilliantly lit scene and slip into a surreal manta feasting ground. There are now nearly twenty mantas, gliding, flipping and taking turns caressing the divers near us. 

Though branded long ago with the fearsome name of devilfish, manta rays are harmless, lacking the poisonous barbed tail of their cousins - the stingray. The misnomer was given because fishermen thought the shape of their cephalic fins were similar to devil’s horns.

Eric and I find a spot to plant ourselves amongst the large group of divers converging from a half dozen dive companies. I hold my powerful dive light close to my chest and a manta swoops upwards only inches away from me. We were told that the lights attract plankton, thus attracting the mantas, therefore the brighter the light beam, the stronger the attraction. To increase my light column, Eric hands me his flashlight. I am shining the twin beams upward, when I feel a soft rub on the top of my head as a manta passes over me. 

This is incredible! Amazing! Beyond anything I have experienced in twenty years of diving. Imagine a thousand pound fish, sweeping over and gently patting you. Black and white diamond shaped wings appear from every angle, swooshing and flapping gracefully all around us. 

Suddenly, an enormous manta appears with its huge mouth wide open, sweeping up the plankton densely populating the water in front of my mask. This must be Big Bertha, the grand old lady our dive master Flipper had mentioned in his dive briefing. At an estimated 70 years of age and with a wingspan of nearly 16 feet, Big Bertha is one of the oldest and largest rays commonly seen at Manta Heaven. According to Flipper, the distinctive and identifying blotches on the manta’s underside, are as individual as human fingerprints.

Among the largest rays known to inhabit Manta Heaven are Boo Boo Ray, Big Bertha and Lefty. All are females with wingspans of 13 to 16 feet across. The slightly smaller males have wingspans of 8 to 11 feet and include; Cousteau, Curly Ray and Sugar Ray. There is even a charismatic ray named Lobes, (the same nickname as our boat captain due to his large pierced earlobes) on the list of over 200 identified rays.

I search the waters for Lefty, the easiest ray to spot due to her broken left cephalic fin and see her passing through the amplified lights of Martina’s video camera. We had been told that Lefty’s injury made her “feeding challenged” since her paddle-like lobe hangs limply at her mouth disrupting the normal flow of plankton entering her mouth. She also was previously the most petted and popular ray in the waters surrounding Kona, staying around longer and tolerating diver’s affectionate strokes in an effort to gain more access to plankton. 

Touching mantas may be tempting, but resist the urge. A layer of protective mucus coats their thick skin, and patting them may make them more prone to infection. However, there is still some debate in scientific circles on whether this is true since mantas are extremely social and rub up against each other or the sand often and mucus is always regenerated.  Whatever the case, due to the sheer numbers of divers visiting the Big Island, a strict rule is adhered to by the entire diving community: mantas can touch you, but you cannot touch them.

Manta Heaven is not only for divers. Snorkelers can also enjoy getting up and close with Lefty and the rest of the wonderful Big Island group of mantas. Thank you Big Island Divers for a truly spectacular trip!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Borobudur: A Sprint to Nirvana

A serene Buddha Image on the upper terrace of Borobudur.

Borobudur was once described by French Scholar Albert Foucher as a "badly risen cake, of which the extent of its failure to rise is matched only by the over embellishment of its decoration." Today the world's largest Buddhist monument continues to rise out of the ashes that once buried it, attracting over a million visitors annually.

Story and pictures by Prisana Nuechterlein

When I was invited to join a tour heading to Borobudur, the world’s largest and most impressive Buddhist monument, I had imagined spending most of the day leisurely exploring the stunning architectural masterpiece. Instead, when our tour guide announced that we would only be viewing the monument for one hour, I honestly was in shock. We had been given hours to shop for batiks and handicraft items, and yet here we were on the threshold of one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World and the time allotted to actually see it was incomprehensible. 
Additionally, I was there to photograph and write about the famous Indonesian site for the Bangkok Post and wondered how I could possibly take the images I needed in only one hour? It was over a kilometer just to reach the top of the transcendental sanctuary. I grabbed my camera equipment and literally started sprinting up the ancient stone terraces, stopping every so often to take pictures of the intricate relief panels. 

Stone galleries depict the story of Buddha.

Rising 15 meters above the fertile Kedu Plain, the monument’s site was chosen where “the gods are seen at play” directly in the center of the Indonesian island of Java. Bright green rice fields surround the monument, dominated by Mount Merapi’s cone and the jagged Menoreh mountains. Of the two sets of neighboring twin volcanoes, Mt Merapi alone remains active.

Built during the reign of the Sailendra dynasty, Borobudur predates Angkor Wat by nearly three centuries. Archeologists are uncertain what inspired Java’s most powerful family (whose name meant “Lord of the Mountains”) to build the monument between AD 778-856. Nearly a century after its completion, “The Legendary Temple of a Thousand Buddhas” was nearly buried under a shroud of volcanic ash when Mt Merapi erupted violently. 

The “re-discovery” of Borobudur to the Western world occurred in 1814, when English Lieutenant-Governor Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles was informed of a great ruined temple lying deep in Java’s interior. Raffles, a brilliant scholar and historian, immediately dispatched H.C. Cornelius, his Dutch engineer to investigate the site. Under his supervision 200 men worked steadily for nearly a month and a half, removing the thick growth of vegetation and layer of earth until a clear outline of the elaborate monument emerged.

In the following years, Borobudur suffered nearly a century of decay, plunder and abuse. Finally in 1900, the Dutch government established a committee for the preservation and restoration of the massive monument. The immense task of reconstruction was entrusted to Thadeus Van Erp, an ingenious 28 year old Dutch military engineer with an avid interest in Javanese antiquities.

Van Erp began his work by spending the first seven months excavating the plateau around the monument’s foot. Buried beneath 1.3 meters of earth was an impressive collection of Buddha heads, gargoyles, lions and decorative items. Extensive restoration of all the balustrades, niches, lower stairs and gates ensued. Collapsed walls were straightened and sunken stupas rebuilt. More than half of the upper 72 stupas, (many of which had been destroyed by looters) were remade out of new stone due to the scarcity of original material.

Although Van Erp accomplished the reconstruction in a relatively short period of time, between 1907 and 1911, his ambitious plans for permanent reconstruction were never realized due to the intervention of two world wars and a depression. Indeed, Van Erp grew so attached to his “old grey pile of rocks” that he was later buried close to the monument. His body, however, has since been removed.

Some 60 years after Van Erp’s restoration efforts, Borobudur’s outer walls began to bulge causing immense concern over its structural doom. Alarmed by its inevitable destruction, a “Save Borobudur” campaign was launched in 1968, which was later supported by UNESCO. After a decade of arduous work and over US$25 million was invested on the Borobudur Restoration Project, President Suharto officially announced the completion in 1983, saying: “It is now to be hoped that Borobudur will live a thousand years more.”

In total there are six square terraces leading to three circular platforms, forming what has been described as “a prayer in stone”. 

Over 1,000 relief panels can be seen at Borobudur.

The story of Prince Siddhartha, from his glorious birth to his first sermon as Guatama Buddha in Deer Park, is portrayed on thousands of bas relief panels on galleries circumnavigating the terraces. Scenes depicting his previous incarnations and the life of the Bodhisattva emerge in rich artistic style, showcasing a beautiful mythical world unfolding with dancers, musicians, saints, ships and elephants. 

Above the balustrades are 432 stone Buddhas placed in niches, conveying the image of hermits meditating in caves upon a mountain top. The presence of the Dhyani Buddhas gazing outwardly, each displaying one of six mudras or symbolic hand positions, inspired an interpretation of Borobudur as a “cosmic vihara, a monestary of perfected Buddhas meditating on the universe.” 

The upper three circular terraces support 72 bell-shaped perforated stupas, each of which encloses an “invisible” Buddha image that can only be seen by peering into the diamond-shaped openings. Two tranquil Buddha images, with their stupas dismantled attract the most attention from visitors. When visitors finally reach the top of the monument they symbolically enter the formless world of pure knowledge and perfection. 

Picture by Trey Ratcliff

An aerial view of Borbudur clearly shows its spectacular mandalic design. In Sanskrit "mandala" means both circle and center. Seen as a mandala, the sacred monument's square terraces may symbolize the man-made world, while the upper round terraces; the infinite cosmos. Mandalic concepts were extremely important to ancient Javanese Buddhists as geometric tools for meditation, interpreted as universal symbols of integration, harmony and transformation. In this sense, Borobudur represents the world's most powerful and dramatic mandala.

Unraveling the mysteries of Borobudur has mesmerized archeologists ever since its discovery. Although many questions may never be resolved, what remains clear is that Borobudur was created as a magnificent visual representation of man's spiritual journey toward enlightenment; a journey that takes time and would be best embarked upon without sprinting.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ultimate Wreck Diving in Coron Bay

Coron Bay, Philippines

Coron Bay, is one of the Philippine’s top diving destinations, attracting wreck diving enthusiasts from around the world.

By Prisana Nuechterlein

Over a few San Miguel beers, I made my decision – I would definitely dive the wrecks of Coron Bay. I was sitting with Gunter Bernert, the founder of Discovery Divers and Coron Bay’s foremost wreck-diving expert at his waterfront dive shop, having just arrived in the Palawan area the day before.

“When I first sailed here in 1989,” recalled Gunter, “I learned of the wrecks purely by accident from some local fishermen.” Much to his surprise, he later discovered that the bay area’s wrecks included a sunken fleet of 24 Japanese warships from World War II.

Among Gunter’s prized possessions, are aerial photos of the Japanese ships, taken only minutes before the American bombing raid. The pictures clearly disproved an apocryphal story that the ships had been camouflaged as islands. According to the old rumor, the ships were detected by American renaissance planes after aerial shots showed that a few of the “islands” apparently had moved.

“Someone made up this great story,” explained Gunter. “And for years everyone believed it as fact.”

A Letter From The Last Remaining Survivor

Flipping though his files, he excitedly handed me a letter that he received from the last remaining survivor of the victorious World War II air squadron: former gunner Ralph Johnson. Mr. Johnson’s own amazing story of that day is as compelling as the wrecks themselves.

In vivid detail, he described the extremely bold U.S. air raid on September 24, 1944, which involved a total of 120 fighter planes. Launched from the Pacific, the squadron flew 356 nautical miles (in the longest ever attempted air raid at that time) and successfully sank the entire convoy of Japanese warships.

In the final moments of the one-day bombardment, Mr. Johnson’s own plane was shot down, and for three months the young gunner and his pilot hid out in the remote islands until their rescue. Although Gunter has attempted to locate Mr. Johnson’s plane, its final resting place is still a mystery.

An Eerie Darkness

Slowly we descended into the haunting dark realm, diving back in time over 70 years. The visibility was so poor, I nearly landed on the massive wreck before actually seeing it. I followed my dive master Eric over the coral encrusted ship and noticed an unusual amount of scorpion fish. The spines on there dorsal fins can cause extreme pain if you touch them, but even though they are masters of camouflage, it is extremely rare for divers to accidentally bump into them.

When we reached the middle of the ship, I saw a gigantic hole large enough to drive a big truck through. Before entering the wreck, Eric stopped to make certain I felt comfortable venturing inside. I nodded a firm “yes”. The swimthrough was easy to navigate, well-lit and ideal for my first penetration.

After lunch we anchored on top of the awesome Olympia Maru, a mammoth 150 meter cargo ship that lies only 14 to 18 meters under the water. The visibility was better there, although still poor. I followed Eric inside the ship’s massive cargo hold — an eerie , overwhelming space that plunged suddenly into pitch darkness. Floating above the mysterious black void was a daunting experience and only then did I get my first true feeling of how gigantic the ship really was. From the cargo hold we finned onward through a wide tunnel penetrated by shafts of light.

Once outside the ship, we visited Eric’s friend: a small lobster. The colorful artificial reef was inhabited by numerous species of marine life; lionfish, clownfish, groupers, batfish, parrotfish and large scorpion fish.
At the end of the leeward side of the wreck, Eric stopped and “stood” sideways, holding onto the ship’s deck rail and saluting me. Then it was time to leave the hidden war of over 70 years ago and return to the surface.


Getting to Coron Bay

Coron Island is located in northern Palawan in the Philippines, approximately 310 km southwest of Manila. From Manila’s international airport, take a 20 minute taxi ride to the domestic airport.
  • Philippine Airlines runs daily flights to Puerto Princesa from Manila.
  • Air Philippines offers the same route.
  • Seair (South East Asian Airlines) flies daily to the YKR Airport in Busuanga, in the Calamians; and also runs flights to El Nido, Puerto Princesa and Cuyo.
  • Asian Spirit flies to Busuanga, Puerto Princesa and Taytay.
  • Charter flights are also sometimes available into airports such as El Nido.


The high season for diving runs from March to June. Tropical weather is enjoyed year round.

A Letter from Burma

Prisana in Rangoon, 1996

A writer's struggle with what it means to be free.


Author's Note: A relevant letter from the past followed by present thoughts on Myanmar and freedom.

October 17, 1996

Dear Eric,

I'm flying over some barren brown Burmese mountain tops on our way to a primitive place called Heho. Although we have only been here 3 days, it feels like 3 months since I last saw you leaving the parking lot in Bangkok. I went outside on the balcony to watch you leave, but you had already gone.
You've been on my mind ever since then...I've been trying to act OK and so far have managed not to drift off too much into my own head, however it has been difficult being here with my head elsewhere..."Headless in Burma."

Yangon or Rangoon (I prefer Rangoon) is a charming city, much nicer than I imagined it would be. We went to the DAB bar that R recommended and met the manager Brent and had a few drinks...AJ was elsewhere.

My brother-in-law Cyro

I can't believe we're already landing! The landscape here is entirely different than what we have seen so far. Rugged mountains, more brown than green, perhaps victims of deforestation or maybe just not enough rain.

We only spent the first night in Rangoon and then flew out the next morning to Bagan, a magical backwards place, an ancient dusty land of pagodas and striking sunsets. The dry air reminded me of Koh Si Chang. Cacti, palm trees and horse carts.

We hired two horse carts for the day. The horses had no names, only numbers. No...mine was not 69. I asked the driver his favorite color. He said that it was Yellow, so I named his horse Yellow Sun. In Burmese you say Wansunny. "Malingalaba means Good Morning."
We've landed...more soon.

My Brazilian niece.

We're back at Heho airport. Yesterday was amazing. After landing we hired a car and drove nearly two hours to Pindaya cave that houses an estimated 9,000 Buddha images. On route we stopped at a village to take a break. It was market day and the villagers acted as if they had never seen foreigners before. We bought some shoes while a group of sixty peasants gathered around us.

Two hours more and we arrived at Inle Lake at sunset. There were a number of gaudy Chinese style hotels, but we were in search of something more cozy when we finally discovered the perfect place called 4 Sisters Inn. Dinner was by candle light and they even made us gaucamole! The bill for our delicious meal was "as you you like."

The next morning Sister #2 asked me; "Sister, how being your egg?"..."Sister...your boat is here."
I actually had been awake since 4 am, awoken by some energetic roosters crowing at the full moon. By 6:30 am, we were out on the misty and glassy calm lake. We passed fishermen rowing their boats with one leg, swimming water buffaloes, villagers bathing and children walking arm in arm along the river bank. Flocks of birds were everywhere, flying above us and over nearby boats.

The morning was incredibly cold. My feet quickly went numb even though I had taken a thick blanket from the Inn. After an hour we arrived at Jumping Cat temple, where an old monk greeted us with a warm smile, treats and hot tea. The tea tasted awful but made a good hand warmer. The temple on stilts was 200 years old and built entirely of wood. Cats roamed everywhere. The monk brought a hoop out and showed us how his cat could jump through it.

The hours pass by with games of Hangman with my niece and villagers playing takraw nearby. We are waiting for yet another delayed plane. The planes here are always, always late. A lanky Burmese man just came up to me to ask me what I was writing. I told him poetry. He gazes down at my notebook and tells me that the planes are always late because of the "snow in Rangoon." I tell him he must mean fog. He reassures me that he means "snow". He walks away and it dawns on me that he is talking about heroin shipments. 

Beneath Burma’s Yellow Sun

A yellow sun is setting over the ancient temples of Bagan, where out of the midst and dusty plain,
#89 clip clops down the dirt road.

Won Oou smokes his cigar and tells us
about the "ass crack" in 1975.
"Ass crack?"...a moment later we realize he is saying: "Earthquake."
We laugh with relief...followed by silence.

The Ayeyarwady River flows to the Sea,
roosters crow and fires burn,
flowing robes; pink, red and saffron.
My Brazilian brother-in-law searches for shoes...
I search for the right quote...

"Rivers and roads lead people on." ~ Georgia O'Keefe ~

Hidden tortures lie beneath a dream-scape of peace and tranquility.

This dream-scape story offers you a glimpse of Burma, void of the endless conflicts that lie behind these peaceful scenes. While we drift on this calm and tranquil lake, innocent Burmese are being killed and tortured by the brutal military regime that reigns over this broken country. For years, I struggled with my decision to visit Burma, supporting The Lady Aung San Suu Kyi in her steadfast declaration that tourists should: "Stay out of Burma. "Tourists are merely keeping the present regime in power," she warned, so out of respect, I waited...hoping that eventually there would be some sign of progress. After years of waiting and seeing nothing that indicated even baby steps toward Democracy, when I had the chance to see Burma in 1996, I jumped through the hoop like the Cat and landed in a place more Wonderland than you could ever imagine. What a vast difference it is to see, smell and taste a place first hand...the sensual trip of visiting a place rather than the distant armchair experience.


Truth can free us and imprison us.

The letter to my husband never ended...there were pages torn and missing from my worn Burma notebook...I have no idea where they went, or how they were lost? What I do remember is that Eric and I were losing each other when I left for Burma and for years after my return, we struggled to find that peaceful union between two would be decades of what someone once described as a Half Leaf love, only he used the word "Democracy".

My unfinished letter remained buried among pages and pages of notes about SLORC and Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize-winner who was still under house arrest at the time of my visit. My editor at the time was envious of me and told me that he was forbidden ever to enter Burma. "You are lucky," D said. "You are free to go anywhere. Still, I don't regret what I wrote...even if it closed the door for me to a country that I love. My intention was to help the Burmese and if my words helped them in their struggle for freedom, than it was worth it."

Prisana at a Burmese Refugee Camp in Thailand in 2012

What it really means to be free.

I am free to go anywhere, because I don't have the courage, insight, nor the immense knowledge of my editor. I admire D for what he has written and the risks that he has taken. D -- if you ever find this letter, excuse me for paraphrasing what you actually said. The truth can free us and imprison us. If we write the truth, we take great risks. Look at Snowden. Will the world really change now that we know what we already knew? Was it that big of a surprise that the NSA has and always had full access? It certainly was something I suspected from the beginning of email, or even before, when my NASA friends first explained the concept a decade before email became a public form of communication.

My story of Burma will never end. For as long as I live, I will dream of returning and of seeing my special little ones; the Burmese children that my husband and I cared for and cherished and their lovely parents. In spite of everything that they have suffered and endured, their spirit is always free. They sing in the face of adversity and have taught me what it really means to be free.