Burmese Days

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Saturday, February 12, 2005

I'm not sure if I'm getting used to propeller planes flown by carriers I've never heard of before or if the flights are actually getting better. There's another scenario to consider and that's that since I'm hitting the sauce prior to take-off I'm a bit more relaxed to say the least. The little over one hour flight from Chiang Mai to Mandalay on Mandalay Air was smooth, comfortable and friendly. I was glad that I'd already kicked back a few gulps of my rice wine whiskey however before I read the page in Mandalay Air's inflight magazine celebrating their tenth year anniversary. It stated that in the past ten years it hasn't always been smooth sailing and that "there was certainly a great deal of turbulence, as well." When you're tipsy it's funny had I been sober I may well have puked.

The forty-five minute ride into town under old trees that fanned themselves across the rode was punctuated by our driver's insistence to alert us to various points of interest along the way. It wasn't his commentary about where the old airport was and the where the new bridge was being built that was remotely captivating (though it was appreciated). The real show stopper were the Burmese people and he was a wonderful ambassador who engendered a terrific first impression of the people of Myanmar.

Masses of people were pilled high in mini-buses atop the luggage racks and burgeoning from the tiny bared windows. Holding on to the handles in the rear stood burgundy robed monks and men in tatter sole and gingham-checked lungis (ankle length sarongs). Women gracefully balancing huge wicker baskets atop their heads their faces decorated in dried sandalwood paste in simple patterns. Some had the light colored power in circles on their cheeks, others a line across the forehead or down the bridge of the nose, still others opted for a more asymmetrical and individualistic approach of tiny dots and several lines. Others still wore it covering their entire face like a hot-natured peasant geisha creating an almost mask-like effect. It is said that the powder acts as a natural sunscreen and skin lightener but it is also clearly used for cosmetic purposes.

The mini-truck tuk-tuks of Myanmar crowded the streets as we neared the city limits clogging traffic and melding with the buses and trucks. These little truck tuk-tuks are by far the smallest I've seen in my travels and resemble something you'd see in a circus unloading 20 to 30 clowns. The cyclos or trishaws as they're called are the true oddity of transportation. They are bicycles with two narrow seats attached on one end like a sidecar with one facing forward and the other to the rear. I would later find out that not all of the seats are created the same and one was so narrow that I had to sit with only one cheek on the seat.

Once in Mandalay proper we passed stores selling all kinds of needs but few desires other than television stores. Car shops, furniture stores, pharmacies, sign makers and locksmiths compete for space while cafes and curio shops are virtually nonexistent. Brightly lit restaurants however of the cafeteria-styled variety are the boites of choice for the Mandalays and even those are not in proliferation. It seems that unlike other countries where I've traveled Mynamar doesn't quite have the traveler in mind in terms of souvenirs and cute little coffee and tea shops for the weary traveler to while away a few hours. Oddly enough this is precisely the reason why Myanmar is appealing. It is indeed the road less traveled.

Even in high season here the Lonely Planet guidebook recommendations that can make or break many an establishment seem to have virtually no effect here whatsoever. In most countries an eatery suggested by the book (as many call it) is generally 95% travellers. Here in Myanmar the figure is around more or less 5% to 8%. Though the locals it seems are not quite ready for us they aren't yet jaded by us either.

Being off the well-worn path certainly contributes to a more authentic experience and the friendliness of the people can be practically alarming. Simply walking down the street one can be guaranteed several hearty "Hello"s from passers-by, store clerks from refrigerator stores and once even a waving military convoy. Walking past the moat of the old palace walls yesterday I heard what sounded like cheering and looked up to spot a police van with two smiling policemen holding onto the rear nodding my way. I smiled assuming that they were greeting me. Then I noticed that it was a cram-packed paddy wagon and they were probably screaming for help. Meanwhile here I was giving a toothy grin and a hearty parade-like wave like damn Mr. Magoo.

In all my travels when approached on the street or any time I am immediately engaged by a smooth talker I am instantly suspicious. Normally you can rest assured that there's a bent and that bent is 9 out of 10 times to lighten your wallet. Clearly when people smile and wave from buses you know they're genuine and a drink saleslady who offers you to sit once you've bought something really is only interested in conversation. In some cases and in rare places one must raise an eyebrow when approached by people who may or may not work for the government. Suffice it to say that when a local comes up to you and casually drops a pejorative line about their country it's best to stay as neutral as possible. I'll gladly talk about what's wrong with my government but as a guest in someone else's country I have no right to speak ill of the country that's allowed me to visit. At least not to its countrymen -- I can however listen.

No sooner had I checked into my guest house than I stepped outside surveying the scene when I was approached by the smoothest talker I've encountered in recent years. It could very well have been a hundred percent innocent but nonetheless my guard was up. I have not heard jive talkin' like what this self-proclaimed "street kid" spouted since I saw a blacksploitation film. Here he was in sandals, traditional skirt, tight tee-shirt and red beetlenut-stained teeth uttering "yeah, yeah, right on, right on." Within minutes he told me he was my man and that if I wanted some "411 I could get it on the DL, knowhatI'msayin'-- I'm just tryin' to get ahead of the man, awright, right on!" He also told me that he and I needed to take a "coffee break --I got cha back, kid, ahh yeah, right ON!" I was buckled over a couple of times and told him that, "Do you know that most white people would have no idea what you're saying?" I of course could converse at length but chose just to listen.

I still feel that I should give people the benefit of the doubt and I genuinely belive that the Burmese are a good and honest people. I've still got my antennae up however and it's pretty well-aloft I can assure you. Anyway, I want to have said coffee break with Mr. Dy-no-MITE! but it'll be in the presence of others and I'm keeping my damn mouth shut knowhatI'msayin'?

PLEASE NOTE:Due to strict government control regarding email services here I am currently unable to access either of my email accounts and probably will not be able to read my emails until I arrive in Bangladesh on March 6th. I am actually shocked that I am able to get onto this site and I don't know when I'll be able to log on again but I hope very soon. If there is an important message that you need to get to me please sign my guest book above. I am safe and having a great time by the way and there is certainly no need for alarm. Cameron will be joining me in two days and currently I'm hanging out with my New Yorker friends whom I met in Luang Prabang. Everything's groovy.
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radsolv on

Right on!
'Suffice it to say that when a local comes up to you and casually drops a pejorative line about their country it's best to stay as neutral as possible. I'll gladly talk about what's wrong with my government but as a guest in someone else's country I have no right to speak ill of the country that's allowed me to visit. At least not to its countrymen -- I can however listen.'

I agree totally. Even when I return home I try to be as positive as possible about my visit.

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