Burmese Days

Trip Start Mar 04, 2006
Trip End Apr 13, 2006

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Where I stayed
Motherland Inn

Flag of Myanmar  ,
Thursday, March 9, 2006

Holy crap I'm in Burma. I mean Myanmar. I arrived in Yangon (Rangoon) yesterday, and immediately set my watch back 60 years. I'm glad I went to Thailand first, it served as a much gentler introduction to Asia than Burma would have. If Bangkok was foreign, Yangon is completely alien. Though, since I'm the visitor, I guess that makes ME the alien.

My reservations at the Motherland Inn (2) went through, and I was picked up at the airport along with a dozen other travelers, and deposited at the Inn. It is an air conditioned safe haven from the heat, and the third world conditions surrounding us. During the day, electricity is provided by what looks like a 40 year old diesel generator just outside the front door, and at night they draw from the grid. The inn is clean, well kept and staffed by very helpful and friendly locals, with better English skills than the staff at my place in Bangkok.

After arriving I exchanged a crisp new $100 bill for 113,000 kyat (chat), the local currency. Hell of an exchange rate... While they were counting out the money, I struck up a conversation with Ruth, a Korean woman who had also just arrived. Though her English was pretty limited and my Korean even more so, we managed to agree to check out the neighborhood together. We walked for a couple hours, during which I learned that she had quit her office job of 20 years in order to travel. She's planning on spending 2 years circling the globe, and is now 4 months into her trek. Her family thinks she's crazy. As we walked, we were increasingly astounded by the conditions. Once one of the jewels of the British Empire, it appears no one has done a lick of work since they departed. The sidewalks are a patchwork quilt of paving stones, cracked concrete and sand, all resembling what you would expect in the aftermath of 9.0 on the Richter scale. Much of the time it's easier to walk in the street.

As bad as the infrastructure is, especially to western eyes, it's just what the locals have known their whole lives. They seem remarkably unaffected by it. Friendly and open, neatly attired in crisply pressed shirts and traditional longyi (sarong-like skirt), they stand in amazing contrast to their city.

Turned in early last night, and tried to get out before the heat got too bad today. It turns out that isn't actually possible. Sure, it's better early, but it doesn't last. By 9:00 the heat was as oppressive as ever, and you quickly begin scouting for shade along your route. I had a bit of luck while standing staring at my map. I was approached by an American, Bill, who actually lives here. He's retired military, and his wife works at the embassy. He helped me correct my course (I can TOO read a map), and walked with me to the oldest Buddhist shrine in Yangon, Sule Paya. We had a great conversation, where he filled me in on some do's and don'ts, what's worth seeing, what might not be. He also gave me his home phone number and his wife's work number should I ever need it. But according to him, that's highly unlikely as he says Burma is exceptionally safe for travelers. He also said I'm the first American he's run into on his daily walks in months. In nearly 3 hours of walking, he was the only anglo I saw as well. Super nice guy, I was fortunate to run into him.

I didn't get any pictures of Sule Paya, as it's currently surrounded by scaffolding as they do their yearly application of gold leaf to the dome. In fact, I've taken hardly any pictures since arriving as most of my time has been spent just walking around, soaking it all in. (And drawing a lot of looks. I get the feeling most visitors get around in taxis and tour buses, and kinda confine themselves more to the tourist attractions.) Plenty of great photo ops, but I don't want to be that guy sticking his camera in everyones face. Also, at times it seems almost disrespectful. To me it's a photo op, to them it's their everyday life. I don't know if I'm making any sense here, it's just a feeling I have. Still, I'll be breaking out the camera tonight as I'm planning on going to the main attraction in Yangon, the Shwedagon Paya. A 98 meter tall golden domed pagoda, it's really THE can't miss attraction here. Others at the GH have told me it's pretty stunning.

As long as these posts are, I'm relating so little of what I'm seeing and sensing. Just the barebones really. It's impossible to get across the absolute foreigness of the entire experience. Vendors cooking on the sidewalks, shops of all descriptions, sign makers working out of a 4x2 foot bench on the sidewalk, cutting letters from colored plastic with a hand saw, people riding on the outside of buses, EVERYTHING is different. My favorite though, was the guy on the side walk with a hand cranked pipe bender. Want some pipe bent? He's your guy. And the smells. Compared to this, San Francisco is scentless. Food, smoke, exhaust, spices, waste, and more things you can't identify.

Anyway, I'll look for internet access on the way to Shwedagon, and try to get this posted tonight. I'll be in Yangon until Friday, and catch a train north after that. Haven't decided where yet, but probably to Mandalay or Bagan.

P.S. Obviously I found net access. Great place actually, very modern, just a 5 minute walk from my GH. SLOW connection, so just a few pics, all low quality as I had to turn up the JPEG compression to compensate for the upload speed. As expected, my email is blocked. And thanks everyone for the comments!
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