Chapter 31: Me and Myanmar, Part 1

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Friday, April 9, 2004

Thanks to the difficulty of finding internet access in Myanmar, it's been ages since I visited the Travelpod site, and I have lots of catching up to do! It feels not unlike getting behind on my college papers. Luckily I scribbled often in my hand-written journal, so remembering the interesting events and chronicling them here won't be too difficult. I'll split the Myanmar entry up into several parts, though, and I'll try to be more succinct than usual (I'm failing already), in the interest of preserving your eyes and my fingers.

On the morning of March 17th I made preparations to fly to Yangon. I packed up my extra bag full of goodies, and when I went to my travel agency for the airport bus, my friendly agent Didi, who organized my little trip, offered to store my bag upstairs for free. I was grateful, as the airport charges $2/day. While I was sitting on the curb waiting for the shuttle, Didi sent a coworker out to me with a note that read: "Maybe next time if you don't mind, we could get coffee together?" It was sooo cute! I blushed and smiled through the window at her, and luckily at that moment the shuttle pulled up, sparing me from having to deal immediately with the situation. At least I figured my bag would be safe with her.

At the BKK airport I changed some money to US dollars and then enjoyed an easy 50 minute ride to Yangon on Biman Bangladesh airlines (surprisingly it was the most comfortable flight I've had yet). Immigration and customs in Yangon were ridiculously easy. Despite all I'd read about how you have to declare all your electronics, music, photos, and such, I was waved right on through, and getting from the airplane to the taxi took about 5 minutes. Six of us westerners shared a taxi, and I became friendly with a few of them: Darius & Beau (US), Beau's girlfriend Melissa (Oz), and Vincent (Spain). We paid US$1 each and had the taxi drop us off at a nice ($8/room) guesthouse downtown. The ride was a surprise, because instead of shanty-towns and tenements, we passed beautiful parks, gardens, lakes, monuments, and shopping centers (such as they are). The government clearly has made every effort to make sure the airport-to-city drive is pleasing to the tourist eye. Downtown Yangon is certainly a bit run down (mostly it's shabby concrete blocks with the occasional attractive storefront or pagoda) and overcrowded, but it felt friendly enough and easily navigable. The cool & loopy Myanmar-language characters that are on every sign add much to the atmosphere.

Dinner that night was an adventure, as we all had only US dollars, and most restaurants (in our budget) deal in kyat (say: "chat"), the Myanmar currency. On top of that, we definitely felt like the only tourists in town, and we had no idea what to expect from the locals. We found the Golden Duck Chinese restaurant (that looked like a converted high school gym) a few blocks from our guesthouse, on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River, and convinced them to take our dollars at a rate of 800kyat/$1. Somehow we all got food and beer and some kyat for change, which went a long way towards making us feel more comfortable. After dinner we found a cute bar down the street where we shared some pitchers of Myanmar Beer (not bad!) and tried some of the local poison ("Myanmar Old Brandy," - 50kyat/shot). Everywhere we went, the people were incredibly eager to please, and this is a trait I noticed country-wide.

The Old Brandy ensured hangovers all around on Thursday, so Beau, Melissa, and I slept in before walking to the Shwegadon Paya (Pagoda) near the center of downtown. I noticed a few barb-wire-fenced "no photo" areas along the way (one of them was the US Embassy), but aside from that there wasn't much of an obvious military presence. Shwegadon Paya is the much-photographed enormous pagoda with a giant gold stupa (bell-shaped tower-thing) at the center surrounded by smaller gleaming white temples and stupas. US$5 seemed a little steep to run around the place in bare feet (I say "run" because the marble was white hot, so we went bounding from one shady spot to another), but it was worth it to learn more about Buddhism and to see such a magnificent structure up close. For a couple of bucks a local guide walked around with me explaining the significance of various shrines and Buddhas, and he pointed out the parts of the complex that are special for my birthday (Wednesday - Buddha's B-day!).

On the way back to the hotel, I stopped by Sule Paya, where all the black market money changers hang out. You don't need to find them; they find you. I negotiated a good rate of 845kyat/$1 and traded two hundred-dollar bills (they get the best rate), which I thought would last me for a few weeks. The whole operation is kind of shady, as you'd expect. I had to go down an alley and hang out in a tea shop while three guys ran around finding my kyat. When they came back they tried to count it out in front of me with quick fingers, and when I insisted on counting it myself they made a big production of reorganizing the pile of bills - presumably adding the ones they would have tried to cheat me out of. Very funny. Anyway, 10 minutes later I had a several-inch stack of 169 dirty old Myanmar bills; the biggest denomination the currency comes in is 1,000kyat!

That night we all went out for drinks (and cards) again at the same friendly bar down the street. Halfway through the second pitcher, we heard a muffled squeak from above, and suddenly a baby rat fell from somewhere in the wall or ceiling, landed on Melissa, and bounced to the floor where it flopped around in agony. Maybe you had to be there, but we couldn't stop laughing. When we did, it was my job as the resident snake-feeder to pick the thing up and chuck it onto the sidewalk, where I'm sure one of its many larger relatives promptly chowed down.

Friday I bought an overnight bus ticket to Mandalay that would leave at 5pm Saturday from the Highway Bus Station - 45 minutes out of town. I wasn't looking forward to the journey, except that a friendly and animated Japanese guy named Yoshi happened to buy the ticket for the seat next to me just a few minutes later, so I figured I'd at least have some good conversation. I spent the rest of the day wandering around a few markets and shops downtown. My major purchase was a longyi, which is the traditional sarong-style garment worn by everyone in Myanmar. It's kind of cool how few locals have adopted western-style jeans or pants, and it makes sense: the longyi is cool and comfortable and cheap (my silk/cotton one cost ~$5), and it matches everything! I thought it would be especially useful to carry one around for entering temples and pagodas and other places where shorts are prohibited. Several guys in the market made it their mission to teach me how to tie the thing, which took practice but I eventually got it.

My longyi salesman insisted that I accept (and try) a betel nut, so I took the strange green package and popped it in my mouth. The local guys all chew the things; they're kinds of nuts wrapped in leaves with lime powder that supposedly have relaxing effects when chewed, and some pros can keep them in their mouths for hours, while spitting periodically. One side effect (aside from cancer) is that your teeth and tongue and spit turn bright red, so the streets in Myanmar are covered in splotches of blood-red betel nut spit. Anyway, I tried it to be nice, and promptly spit it out in the nearest trash can.

Saturday I was pretty lazy, and hung around the hotel reading and chatting until it was time to catch my bus. The Yangon Highway Bus Station is a sprawling, dusty, confusing place, and I was glad that my cab driver knew where to find my specific bus. Yoshi was already there, so we stocked up on snacks and drinks before taking our seats for an on-time departure. The ride was decent, I guess, especially compared to some of my later trips in the country. Once we got out of Yangon, the highway became a one-lane paved road for most of the drive, but at least the pavement was in good shape and the bus was good at passing other vehicles without much slowdown. I vaguely remember stopping a few times for food and squat-toilet breaks. At 7am the bus was stopped for a military checkpoint, but they didn't even look at our passports as they waved us along.

At 8am we finally arrived in Mandalay. Yoshi and I took a taxi downtown, checked out a few hotels, and settled on the Nylon Hotel, which had air-con, a queen bed, satellite TV, hot water, and a bathtub (!) for $5/night! Ironically, my TV got BBC World News, so I was more up to speed on world events in Myanmar than anywhere else in my travels! As an aside, the standard of accommodation in Myanmar was excellent, and I thought rooms were generally a better value here than elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Food was similarly tasty and cheap; big Bamar (Burmese) meals (usually curries including lots of side dishes and soda) could be had for as little as $1.

I slept for most of the midday, and when I woke up at 2 I grabbed a trishaw (3-wheeled bike taxi) across town to Mandalay Hill and its adjoining temple complexes. My trishaw driver was a nice 40-50 year old man, and I felt awful watching him pump his legs in the 90+ degree heat for miles to drag me around town! He knew very little English, but we still made some good conversation and he tought me several Myanmar phrases while he took me around to the various sights. He also showed me how to correctly board a trishaw while wearing a longyi, which was helpful. I saw some beautiful payas and monasteries, the most memorable of which was Kuthodaw Paya. It's called "the world's largest book," because the entire Buddhist canon is inscribed on 729 marble slabs which are lined up in rows in their own individual stupas.

My final stop was Mandalay Hill, which is 230 meters high and features many Buddhist artifacts in addition to a great view of the entire city and surrounding countryside. Unfortunately there are over 1,000 steps that you have to conquer (barefoot, no less) before you reach the top. Luckily my climb was fun because I met a 30 year old monk named Pannayota at the bottom, and he asked me if he could walk along with me and practice his English. We talked about everything from Buddhism to movies to Myanmar, and by the time we reached the top he and his friends invited me to come to their monastery (the Ma Ha We Yan Ban Tha Monastery...) and teach English for a few weeks! I was touched but had to decline. His friends were great, too; they had fun trying on my Oakley shades and goofing around. On the way back down a few other locals joined our merry party, and it was then that it hit me just how much more open and friendly the Myanmar people are compared to most others I've met. I guess that's partly just because they're not inundated with tourists yet, but it was still pretty awesome. One of them was fascinated by US politics, and wanted more info on John Kerry than I had. He kept saying "Ah, USA. I love Freedom Country!" I hope no government officials overheard him...

Monday I rented a bicycle and rode south along the Ayeyarwaddy to the ancient city of Amarapura. I didn't see a whole lot of ruins, but I found U-Bein's bridge, which is the longest teak bridge in the world. Or something like that. Anyway, it was atmospheric and it was full of monks crossing the lake from one village to another. I didn't have a map, so finding my way back to Mandalay was kind of fun. Again, I used the sun primarily, and asked at a few intersections just to be safe. I passed many golden stupas, some tiny country villages, and had a mostly pleasant day. The only things that drove me nuts were the dust (it's the dry - very dry - season), and the horns. Coming from the US, where horns are usually used on the road to indicate anger or danger, it made me very tense to have the buses and cars and trucks constantly using their horns as a form of communication. Every vehicle that passed me blared first, and it was deafening. The only thing that made up for it was that being a foreigner on a bike in the middle of Myanmar made me a minor celebrity; every kid (and many adults) smiled and waved from the side of the road and yelled "hello!" as I rode by.

That night I dragged Yoshi out to see the Moustache Brothers' performance. The comedy troupe is 3 guys: Lu Law, Lu Maw, and Par Par Lay, with support from their sisters and wives. They excel at a traditional Burmese kind of theater that combines comedy, dance, history, and music, and the Moustache Brothers in particular are legendary. Par Par Lay was thrown in jail for 7 years after making a subtle political joke in one of the shows, and upon his release the performances went "underground" - meaning they now only perform in their house for small audiences of tourists and locals. If you've seen the film "About a Boy," the Amnesty International workers (at the center where Hugh Grant briefly volunteers) make references to the plight of Myanmar and Par Par Lay; Lu Maw was obviously proud and played the scene for us a few times before the performance. Although some of the comedy was gently misogynistic or dated (um, when's the last time anyone mentioned Demi Moore's "Striptease" to get a laugh?!), much of it was funny - especially the bits that were slapstick or poked fun at the government's neuroses. The cultural aspects of the show, like the costumes and dances and music, were excellent. The Brothers themselves were so warm and friendly, too - I was very happy I'd gone to see the show, especially because Yoshi and I made up one third of the audience! Afterwards I met a man outside who had overheard that I was from the US... he said "Thank you so much for visiting Myanmar - it means a lot. Please tell your friends to come also, and tell your government that the people here need American help." Um... done.

Tuesday I sheltered from the heat by reading "Harry Potter" (#2) and writing in my journal in my cool hotel room. I quite like having an occasional "down" day in between the sightseeing. That night Yoshi and I boarded an overnight bus to the ancient city of Bagan, but that's the start of another adventure...
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