From Burma with Love

Trip Start Jan 31, 1996
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Myanmar  ,
Wednesday, January 7, 2004

"Hello, just looking," are the words you hear from the street vendors in the town of Nyaungshwe on Inle Lake in Burma. What an odd approach I thought. Then it came to me. 'Just looking', are the words they've heard over and over again from the English speaking tourists.

Ellen bought a t-shirt from one vendor and we immediately got swarmed by about a dozen other vendors, all yelling "Hello, just looking". We were lucky to get out without having to buy something from all of them.

It takes 19 hours to get to Inle Lake by 'luxury' express bus from Rangoon/Yangon. Broken springs and seating space for people five feet tall or less make for a horribly uncomfortable journey ... and there are no toilets. Every three or four hours the driver makes a toilet stop by the side of the road. Women and children go to the right side of the road, men to the left. Very orderly. Further along, I developed a discomfort in my upper torso. I began to wonder what it felt like to have a heart attack. The symptoms went away a little later. I determined that it was probably due to an Imodium overdose. I'd taken Imodium as a prophylactic measure against this 19 hour marathon.

Inle Lake at an altitude of 1500 meters lays nestled between two mountain peaks. Most of the villagers on this twenty-two kilometre long lake are farmers of a floating garden. The farmers have to stake the gardens to the lake bottom with large bamboo poles. If not, a good wind could blow your garden to the other side of the lake. There's a Buddhist monastery on the lake called Jumping Cat Monastery. The monks take tiny dried minnows out of a box and throw them to the cats. After the cats gobble down the fish, the monks hold up a hoop and the cats jump through it. Wait a minute, I thought, isn't this a bit backwards? Where's the incentive? Shouldn't the cats jump first and then get the treat? Both cat and monk glared at me from the corner of their eyes as if they could read my mind. Just a little bit freaked out, I walked away, none the wiser.

On New Year's Eve, the town folk send gigantic, unmanned hot air balloons off into the night sky, loaded with rows of fireworks on a linked fuse. You've never seen fireworks until you see rockets firing at you from the sky. Every second they travel a little bit further and further away until they simply disappear into the night.

Chewing betel nut is a favored pastime of the Burman. There are betel nut stands everywhere and the lady behind the counter will make you up a package of five while you wait. She takes a betel leaf, covers the inside with a white paste, and then sprinkles on a number of ingredients including finally the nut itself. A ready to chew betel nut concoction looks a lot like a folded praying mantis. Chewing the betel nut gives you a mild feeling of euphoria. Prolonged use will turn your teeth a brilliant red. You can also use it to deworm your pets. Chewing on betel nuts creates an inordinate amount of saliva. Everywhere the streets are covered with this red goop - betel juice. Ellen says that I act silly when I chew it. I tell her that I have worms.

"Where you from?" All one-on-one verbal contact with a Burman begins with these three words. Several times after answering Canada, I would get a blank stare as if I hadn't understood the question.
"We're distant cousins, both colonials of the old British Empire," I'd say to continued vacant looks.

Copyright and patent infringement is not something the Burmese take at all seriously. Because Burma has been ostracized by most of the Western world, they've taken certain questionable liberties. Examples: Star Cola: looks like Pepsi with a red/white/blue rubber ball logo. Orange Crusher: Is an Orange Crush look alike. Myanmar rum and whiskey: Labels and bottle are the same size, shape and colour as Johnnie Walker Scotch. MACBurger: With the perfectly rounded yellow arches of MacDonald's. George Orwell's first novel - Burmese Days: Badly reproduced in a backroom Burmese print shop, no doubt.

Burma is incredibly inexpensive. Rooms, usually large and pleasant by western standards cost between $10-15. A big western style breakfast for two is always included in the price. Many of the restaurants are called tea houses. You sit on tiny stools around tiny tables and eat an assortment of deep-fried goodies. Ellen and I both filled our bellies and drank a couple of Star Colas for $1.50. They make cigars and call them cherootes. A bundle of 75 will set you back 35 cents - less than cent each. We hired a horse and buggy with driver plus experienced guide for a full 10 hour day visit to Bagan. Total cost $28.00.

Food stalls - to eat or not to eat? We were in a tailor shop when I looked out the window and noticed a food stall vendor slicing up watermelon and pineapple. After cutting the fruit, he placed it in aquarium- like containers. Then out came two huge slabs of ice. He picked up the ice slabs and dropped them on the sidewalk to break them into smaller pieces. He then took the smaller pieces and washed them in what looked like a pail of urine before neatly arranging the ice amongst the fruit. Restaurant kitchens are probably hiding places for the same thing, but we tried not to think about that. One night we were eating dinner in a restaurant. Either a large mouse or a small rat came running towards me. Startled, I jumped back. Ellen caught the creature out of the corner of her eye and screamed. She jumped back and ran out of the place, faster than any rodent could follow.

All restaurants have hole in the ground, point and fire, squat toilets. They never ever have toilet paper. On your dining table, however, you'll find a cylindrical napkin dispenser and what do you think they use for napkins - toilet paper.

Because Burma has an extremely repressive, quasi Communist dictatorship, there aren't a lot of tourists. Often times, women would bring their children up just to look at us. What these tiny children, mouths agape must have thought, seeing probably for the first time these white pallid skinned people and their ever so strange eye coverings - eye glasses.

We returned to some rude news back in Rangoon. The USA had ceased doing business with Burma while we were in the mountains. That meant that we couldn't use traveler's cheques or credit cards. We were out of US dollars and Burmese kyat, which are the only two usable currencies in Burma. We had plenty of Thai Baht, but Baht was useless. A grim realization took hold. No banks, no ATM's, no Western Union - we were in a strange land with no money. We decided to go to the airport to try and get a flight out using our post-dated return ticket. Another plan was to try and find an outgoing traveler who was leaving with extra US cash. I started acting like a ticket scalper at a Toronto Maple Leafs game. I'd walk up to people who were heading to the boarding gate for flights destined for Thailand and ask if they were willing to trade US dollars for Thai Baht.
"Who's got US dollars? Who's selling US greenbacks?" I'd yell out to get people's attention. We got lucky and found a fellow who had $100 he was willing to trade. We got even luckier when we got the last two seats on the last flight of the day to Bangkok.

Wow, Burma sounds kind of horrible. Let me sum it up this way. When you travel on your own in the third-world, you should expect somewhere around 50% to 70% of your time to be a bit of a hardship. It's what's left over that makes it all worthwhile. I've always found, the poorer the country, the friendlier the people. Burma is no exception. No where will you find a kinder, gentler, human being than in Burma. Many times on any given day, you'll notice a child staring at you. A tiny grin in the kid's direction will almost always be rewarded with a huge ear to ear smile. If I were to ever take up religion again, I think it just might be Buddhism. The temples cast a great sense of serenity. The Burmese people are a reflection of that. Foreign policy would have you believe that Burma is a dangerous place. I've never felt safer. Ancient templed Pagan is magical. Inle Lake is paradise. The food, even though we approached every sitting with caution, offered a new pleasure with almost every meal. Back in Thailand now, I dream of Burma. I'm beginning to babble now. I've misplaced my betel nut.
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