Myanmar - Burma

Trip Start Jul 16, 2004
Trip End Jun 16, 2005

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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

May 10, 2005

On May 12th I'm flying from Bangkok to Rangoon, Myanmar/Burma and will finally put that well-earned visa to work for me!

I will not have access to email or the web from Myanmar. I will update my website when I return to Bangkok in two to three weeks.

Bangkok -> Myanmar
May 13, 2005

Surprise! I stumpled upon a little internet shop here in Yangoon. Although I cannot access hotmail I do have access to my website.

Myanmar has already graduated into the "amazing" category. The people, the architecture, the stupas, the streets, everything....It's all so 'different' than anywhere else in Asia. I feel as if I'm back in the late 1940's - as if time stood still and everything needs to be dusted off, fixed, or replaced. Nothing is new.

But, first let me back up to my last few days recharging in Bangkok....

Once I moved off Bangkok's infamous "Koh San Road" (read: huge frat party) and onto Sukhumvit's "Suk 11" on Soi 11 street I realized that there really is a place I can feel comfortable in Bangkok. "Suk 11" is a charming large guest house that succeeds in making you feel like you are in your long lost cousin's home. It quickly became just what I needed - a place to relax, recharge, clean-up and spend time with Menno before his 'final' flight home to Amsterdam. We got haircuts, bought custom-tailored suits, did laundry, shopped for souvenirs and ate delicious meals.

But, as always happens on the road, it finally became time for us to say goodbye. We went to the airport together on Thursday. He, with a 3pm flight through Amman to Holland. And me with a 12:00pm flight to Myanmar. he's home. And I'm here - in Yangon. All I can say is that the Good Bye's NEVER get easier! Even if you know you will always keep in touch and remain best of friends forever.

Anyway, Yangon is an eyeful. So very different from the rest of Asia but still also very much the same. Myanmar has changed little since the British colonial times. Due to it's isolation - self imposed and otherwise - it has yet to be touched by outside influences.

I have seen a grand total of 3 other westerners since I arrived (and that includes the one on my flight). I changed money on the blackmarket to get the best rate possible. I've been to the movies - a horrible sub-titled feature which I left after two hours. And I spent three hours today touring Yangon's Shwedagon Temple - the most sacred of all Budhist sites in the country. I spent five minutes touring it on my own, and the rest of the time with a 71 year old 'guide' named Tumin. He adopted me early on and was a valuable resource for my knowledge about Myanmar and the temple itself. Of course, in the end I slipped him $3 for his efforts. It's the least I could do after hearing over and over about his 97 year old mother who needs medicine! ;)

This afternoon I'm taking the 14 hour bus trip up to Mandalay. Hope you are all well. Please send me messages through this website rather than directly through hotmail. Don't know if/when I'll have access again but it's worth a shot. Jen

May 14, 2005

It's 3:30pm here in Burma - the heat of the day. Perfect time to hide indoors and update my website.

This morning I took a boat trip 11km upriver to the village of Mingun. The boat trip brought back memories of Laos with the people working, playing, and living along the river's banks. The only difference were the hundreds of pagoda/stupas you could see dotting the country side. After about 45 minutes the small wooden boat pulled up to Mingun and the four unfriendly french gals, one scandinavian, one aussie, and me disembarked for three hours of exploration. Quickly our small group was surrounded by the locals. Some were selling drinks, other t-shirts, the children - postcards, and one lady was renting out umbrellas to save us from the heat. Quickly, we all went our seperate ways - each with a handful of locals in tow.

I ended up befriending a young Burmese gal selling postcards, and a young boy trying to be a tour guide. They showed me around and pointed me in the right direction to climb Mingun Paya. Mingun Paya is a massive stupa which was started in 1790 by King Bodawpaya. Thousands of prisoners of war and slaves laboured to build the stupa (which would have been the biggest in the world had he succeeded) until 1819 when the King died. Then in 1838 an earthquake split the monument and now it is a glorious, and HUGE pile of bricks! The base alone stands 50 meters high and overlooks the river. The lowest terrace is 140 meters.

It's a gorgeous view from the top of the Paya over the country-side but you have to climb up barefoot. I decided to brave it and, not quickly enough, regretted my decision. You know when you are at the beach and the sand is far too hot to walk on? So you run for the ocean - knowing that in only a few seconds you will have the relief of the ocean on your sore, hot, feet. Well picture that on hot brick, climbing... By the time I realized that it was simply too hot for my feet - it was too late. I scrambled for my scarf and quickly threw it ahead of me a few feet. Once I jumped on it I had just enough relief to realize that the people going DOWN the staircase were all carrying bricks from the stupa. They were actually carrying bricks, simply so they could put them on the ground and stand on them to cool their feet. Once you got to the top there were some local children with small branches and tree leaves to stand on - for a small fee. A local Burmese man saw the anguish in my face and even offered me his shoes (which he had snuck into his bagn for the hike). But, I took my time and worked my way around the stupa; step, step, step, step, throw the scarf, rest. Step, step, step, step, throw the scarf, rest. My scarf became my refuge! Not sure how the monks managed it. They saw me and laughed but then they ran for shade. They too could not bare the pain on their feet.

Anyway, once I was safely back down on the ground, and firmly tucked into my shoes I was able to explore the rest of magnificent Mingun. I got to see the Mingun Bell which is claimed to be the largest hung, uncracked bell in the world. And I got to meet many locals who were out at Mingun on their own sort of pilgrimage. From monks, to school children on holiday, to local food vendors, to the young gal who kept me cool all day by walking by my side and fanning me! When all was said and done I had a much better time with the locals on Mingun than I did on the boat with the other westerners.

Tomorrow I'm heading north by over-crowded local pick-up truck to Pyin U Lwin. I probably won't have access to email again for a bit... But keep on writing...

May 14, 2005

So much for NOT having access to the web or email in Burma! My guest house in Mandalay has one computer in the lobby and when I went online to update my website the manager asked me if I wanted Yahoo or Hotmail! Cool.


The bus from Yangon to Mandalay took a whopping 16 hours! SIXTEEN! But I was blessed to have an air-conditioned bus, and the ability to sleep through much of the ride. The woman sitting next to me didn't speak a word of english but she kept an eye on me at the pit-stops to make sure I didn't get left behind. In many ways the bus ride, and much of Burma, is a flashback to my Nepal trip. All 55 of us had to get off the bus no less than 7 times, even at 1:00am, for security checks. The only ones allowed to remain on the bus were the bus driver and the one monk! The rest of us had to do this on-again off-again fire drill. We'd all shuffle off - which wasn't easy considering the number of bags and people lining the aisle of the bus - walk 100 yards to show the military our identification - then find the bus up the road and reload. Over and over and over. Sometimes within 30 miles of the last check-point. But, blessedly, there was a good spance of time between 1am and 6:30am where, besides us stopping to help another broken down bus, I was able to catch some sleep. Then...16 hours later...we were in Mandalay. It was almost sad to leave the bus cause there is something bonding about spending 16 hours shuffling on and off busees with strangers. But, I was glad to be here in Mandalay and was quickly accosted by the usual hotel touts/trishaw drivers wanting to take me to 'their' hotel. I settled on "Nuwin", he had the cheapest price and the cheapest guest house called "Nylon Hotel".

Honestly, I thought he was going to walk me to a taxi or at least some sort of motorized transport but...low and behold...I was riding on the side compartment of his bicycle! Not bad for a 5 minute jaunt but...I was 30 minutes from town! Too late to change the plans i jumped on board and indeed enjoyed the adventure of being out in the open on the highway!

I took a quick nap at Nylon Hotel (after convincing them to give me an A/C room for only $3) then went out to explore this dusty, spread-out city. At first I was followed by Nuwin but eventually ditched him, only to realize that i needed him so I could get to the base of Mandalay Hill before sunset.

So, this afternoon I hiked up Mandalay Hill and helped Burmese of all ages practice their english. I was stopped by one monk, a school teacher, and two english students - all very open about wanting to practice their english.

Burma/Myanmar feels like a cross between India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. The cow in the highway was typical Nepal, the food is very indian, and the thousands of Budhas being worshipped is very Sri Lankan. But the people here are so different. Yes, they stare or try to speak to me, but they also seem gentle and kind and genuine. The men all wear long skirts or Longyi - a tube of fabric worn to the ground and tied in a knot at the waist. And the women and children all wear tree-bark on their cheekbones as a type of make-up and suntan lotion.

And, I guess, that's one of the other things that reminds me so much of India. The fact that I just can't put this country into words. I guess it reminds of what I think Cuba would be like. Kind of stuck in the past. As if their progress stopped overnight...

Mingun was just the beginning....
May 15, 2005

Even though Myanmar has been a journey unto itself, every once in a while I ask myself "what the hell am I doing here?" Then, as quickly as I start to ponder the question a string of incidents, people, and experiences remind me of how travelling can enrich one's life.

I think the magic of Mandalay started out at Mingun when the ten year old Burmese girl adopted me for the day. Everywhere I went (except the 300 degree staircase) she was by my side waving her delicately decorated sandlewood fan on me to cool me off. Even when I told her that I had no money to donate...the fanning continued.

After saying goodbye to my young friend (and buying postcards from her - of course) I returned to Mandalay by boat and took a long nap and refreshing shower. In the afternoon, when the air began to cool to a bearable temperature I went out to epxlore Mandalay on foot. Within 50 feet of the hotel six rickshaw drivers asked where I was going and whether I needed a ride. My answer was always a polite "no thank you" and, unlike India, they didn't follow me down the road or yell after me. They just went back to sleep in their little bike rickshaws.

A few blocks up the dusty street I ran into Momo, a rickshaw driver I had met previously, and his jive talking friend. Seriously, his friend could only speak in idioms and "Eminem" style jive. Not to mention his hundred or so tattoos all over his body. He even had the word TATTOO in three inch lettering across his lower back.

I quickly escaped Momo and the jive talker and followed my shopping instinct until I found the night market. There I found a wide selection of badly beaten 1940's and 1950's english novels and magazines. In the pile I found an IKEA catalog selling for a whopping 75 cents, an old FHM selling for 50 cents, or a 1989 TIME for 10 cents. I settled on a 1964 trashy novel titled "Break the Past" for 50 cents.

With book in hand I went to a nearby cafe for a drink. A few minutes passed before two locals sat down nearby and one of them began to paint a traditional Burmse scene on his sketch pad. It was obvious that the artist and his friend/brother were there to impress me and sell me a painting. What else could it be? They hadn't ordered any drinks and practically chose a table on top of mine. I was determined to ignore them but my resolve only lasted a few minutes. When I finally looked up from reading, the chatting began with a "cheap price for you...". I laughed. Since I have no access to cash via ATM, credit card or even travellers checks in Burma I have to be extra careful with my cash - a painting surely wasn't within my budget. But they persisted so I offered to swap them my newly bought mangoes for a painting. Again they laughed. We ended up talking for a solid 15 minutes and then it was time for me to leave. But, before I did, they gave me two free paintings. Just because...

Then...I was back in Nowin's bike rickshaw for the 20 minute ride to an evening performance of the infamous and legendary "Moustache Brothers" show. This legendary Burmese trio performs everything from slapstick to dance to drama to opera to comedy a la The Marx Brothers. There were only three of us sitting in plastic chairs in their garage-like living room which transformed into the theatre. To find out more about the Moustache Brothers and their years in prison for poking fun at the military regime, please do a google search for any of the multitude of articles on them. They have a very interesting story to tell.

Another day in Mandalay....
May 16, 2005

Sometimes the 'answers' come to me a little bit late... Last night I awoke from a deep sleep thinking "I do not want to ride in an overcrowded truck for three hours, and I really have no desire to head upcountry at all". So, I reset my alarm clock and instead rented a bike for the day. It was another scorcher so quickly after setting out I was drenched in a layer of sweat. But I was determined to make the 11km trek out to see the ancient city of Amarapura.

Rather than tell you about the beautiful sites around Amarapura including "U Bein Bridge" which is a 1.2km-long teakwood footbridge (the longest in the world), I'll tell you about Koqbathon. Eighty five year old Koqbathon greeted me on the teakwood bridge as soon as I began to cross it. He spoke very little english but loved to hear himself in 'converstation' with me, so he kept on talking whether I understood a word or not. Quickly we were old buddies and he handed me three ancient coins from Burma - a gift. We ended up spending most of the early afternoon together. Chatting in a tea shop, exploring an old temple, and chatting with some of the other locals who were curious about the solo american in their midst. It was exhausting but fun.

After a few hours we parted and I reluctantly jumped back onto my bike for the 11km ride to Mandalay.

I decided to splurge a little and tomorrow will take the $16, 9 hour, boat to Bagan rather than the 7 hour bus ride. Bagan is claimed to be Myanmar's, if not Southeast Asia's, most wondrous site. Across 40 sq km of country, stretching back from the Irrawaddy River for as far as the eye can see, stand thousands of stupas and temples. In every direction there are ruins of all sizes, shapes, and detail. WOW! Sounds like the equivalent of Angkor Wat, Cambodia (but without the influx of tourists). The only catch is that it's 44 degrees there. If I'm calculating correctly that's a whopping 110 fahrenheit. Hope I don't have a melt down! :)

May 21, 2005

Beautiful sunrises, sunsets, and temples, temples, temples, temples.....
Dinners with a local family - bearing gifts...always gifts.
Horse carts and bicycles, old markets, old tea shops, and the most amazing/warm/friendly people in the world.

Will write more when I have better access to a computer.
But, in a word let me sum up the people and sites of Myanmar, and Bagan, with "PHENOMENAL".

Bagan days...
May 24, 2005

I ended up spending 5 nights exploring Myanmar's greatest archeological site - Bagan. A wide plain dotted with solid stupas housing relics of the budha or hollow temple/shrines containing budha images and sculptures, all dating from the 10th - 14th centuries. It was as if all of the medieval cathedrals of Europe had been built in one small area and then deserted, barely touched over the centuries. For as far as the eye could see the 40km sq country-side is scattered with over 2,300 structures. It's easy to explore many temples a day via horsecart, bicycle, or even on foot.
I arrived in Bagan via 9-hour boat from Mandalay and quickly made friends with my shipmates - Pia and Iris from Austria and Dan from England. Upon landing in Bagan we used 'the power of 4' to negotiate a reasonable room rate (60% discount) at one of the nicest hotels in Old Bagan ( complete with beautiful pool, a/c, fridge, tv, and lavish buffet breakfast. The 4 of us became fast friends and ended up spending the next four days together exploring temples via horse-cart, bikes and even a car trip to the nearby site of Mt. Popa. The daily routine was roughly:
5am - walk to sunrise point atop nearby temple
6am - breakfast
7am - explore temples
11am - pool, a/c and relaxation time (since it was 40+ degrees)
4pm - more temples followed by glorious sunsets
7pm - dinner at Khin Maung Oo's Food and Drink shop (but more on that later...).

Throughout the day we would be approached by dozens of touts selling paintings, lacquerware, budha images, statues, carvings and whatever else they could get their hands on for tourists! We quickly learned that western items like make-up (namebrands only), games, pens, thai baht, and even Dan's clothing had a huge value for barter. Worth as much as, if not more than, the all might Myanmar Kyat. Thanks to Pia we all had lots of trading power because she came to Myanmar well-stocked with Chanel over-stock and outdated make-up. A stock she divided into four piles and let us bargain with for loot (paintings and lacquerware mostly). Thanks again Pia!

Now, back to the Khin Maung Oo family and their Food and Drink shop....This Burmese family adopted the four of us (plus an indian/american named Darshak). I had met them on one of my solo mid-afternoon excursions to see more temples. They own a shop right near our hotel and I was in dire need of a lemon soda. Thus, the friendship began...

We would stop into their shop for dinner and without even looking at the menu a huge feast of at least 7 different varieties of food would be set in front of us. So much food that we would run out of room on the table...and in our bellies. Rice, tomato salad, vegetables in spices, veggies in oil, name it. Then, when we would ask for the bill, they would instead bring us coffee, mango shakes, cakes, and candy. Then, gifts! From lacquerware owls, to souvenir handbags, to candy. Then, on the last day when I went to say 'goodbye' they brought tears to my eyes by giving me a photo of their 9 year old son when he was 3 years old at the base of Mandalay Hill. This family, who has so little, gave me so much. Their restaurant is barely three walls of bamboo and reed, with a roof that can't withstand rain. They live in back of the restaurant.

We did manage to get a few kyat into their hands, along with a game of Snakes & Ladders, and Dan's juggling set, before saying our final 'goodbyes' with a promise to come back again some day. A promise I surely hope to keep.

After many sunrises, sunsets, a trip to nearby Mt. Popa (the Mt. Olympus of Myanmar!), palm sugar tastings, toddy drinking, Burmese feasts at the Food and Drink shop, and dozens of ancient temples it was time for our little cast to split up. My aim was Inle the saying goes "want to make God laugh?"!

The bus for Inle left Bagan at 4:30am. I was looking forward to catching a few naps on the 10 hour journey but it wasn't to be. The ride was so over-crowded and uncomfortable (with me jockeying for shoulder room with the man next to me) that I got off the bus early - at a small village called Kalaw.

Kalaw was a popular hill station in the British days and is a beautiful, quiet town with an atmosphere reminiscent of the colonial era. At an altitude of 1320 meters it's pleasantly cool and a nice retreat from the heat of Bagan. The population (20,000) is a mix of Indian, Muslims, Nepalis and Burmese. A contrast strikingly apparent in the clothing, skin and facial characteristics.

Yesterday, when I rolled into Kalaw, I went to the 4:00pm service at the Christ the King church. The service was partly in English and I really enjoyed the singing and recitation of the school children in the front pews. But, the bus journey from Bagan to Kalaw started to hit me and I had a difficult time staying awake.

Today it's Tuesday and I'm finally near Inle Lake. Once again there are VERY few tourists. It's sunny and hot here but not as unbearable as Bagan. I bought a wide brimmed straw hat to protect my head and lather on the sunscreen and bug spray every morning. Tomorrow I hope to actually SEE the lake. The nearest town is 3.5 km away and that's where I'm staying. Maybe I can find some other travellers and take a full day tour to see the sites via wooden boat. But who knows..."want to make God laugh?!"

I'm in no rush to leave Myanmar (except that my visa is up on June 6th AND I have a flight home shortly there after!!!) I'm already trying to figure out how to make a return trip. It still has that 'untouched' appeal and the people I've met have been so incredibly friendly that it will be hard to leave.

Inle Lake - unedited
May 27, 2005

Inle Lake is outrageously beautiful! And the people I've met here, both tourists and locals, have made this into a truly spectacular part of my journey. Just when I thought it couldn't possibly get any more beautiful, or any more has!

After a few days in Kalaw to cool off, I travelled to the lovely, but dusty, town of Nyaungshwe - 3.5 km from the famous Inle Lake. Inle Lake is 22km long and 11km wide, with high hills around it's rim. The waters are calm and shallow and during the dry season it can be anywhere from 0 meters to 3.5 meters in depth. The lake is dotted with villages - 17 in all - on stilts. And the livelihood of the people who live on the lake can easily be seen via a full day boat trip on the lake. The busy wooden fishing canoes, the men who row with one leg (standing up), rice fields seeming to float on the lake, temples, pagodas, stupa ruins, birds of all sizes, wooden boats of all sizes, it's all there. There are so many sights to see and the views are so breathtaking that I could go on and on and on. And even filled up my camera's memory cards in one day.

I was invited to join a small boat for a day trip around the lake with Melanie (from Alaska) and Gilles and Lucy from Canada. I had met all of them before, by chance, in Mandalay so it was nice to not only see familiar faces but to spend some days with them. The long wooden boat was captained by "Win Maung" a jovial Burmese with lots of connections and friends on the lake who helped to make our day unique.

We started out after breakfast on the veranda of our guest house "The Joy Hotel". The boat was about 30 feet long, made of old wood, with an older motor. There were 4 low seats and surprisingly 4 life jackets. We set out in the morning and spent the rest of the day with our mouths wide-open going "OHMYGOD" it's GORGEOUS. Not only the scenes of every day life on the huge lake, but also the smiles of local people as they passed us with a wave and a "mingalaba" (hello). We spent the day waving, smiling, and touring. We got to see how the lake villages support themselves by growing wide varieties of flowers, vegetables, and rice year-round. Many of these crops cultivated on floating islands where marsh, soil and water hyacinth are combined to form incredibly fertile solid masses staked to the bottom of the lake by bamboo. Melanie even crawled out of the boat at one point to stand on one of these 'islands'. It looked as if she was balancing on a waterbed.

When not busy fishing or farming, the locals produce silver, brassware, pottery, cotton, and hand-made umbrellas right in their stilt homes. We were lucky enough to be invited into the home of an umbrella making family and ended up eating a tasty, home-made, lunch right there on their living room floor. We all ended up buying the decorative umbrellas ($1 - $2 each) before saying our sad farewells. It was unbelievable how quickly we had bonded with them in spite of the different languages. I think it had something to do with Gilles taking a go at rowing their tiny wooden canoe around the inlet - much to the giggles of the entire stilted neighborhood! Sometimes there really is no language barrier.

Another highlight of the day (and there were many) was our mini-trek to the oldest pagoda near the lake. The four of us got lost after Win Maung dropped us at the path and told us to go right (meaning left) but eventually after a 30 minute hike through a bamboo forest we ended up at an empty market which made me feel like we were in a ghost town. There we were befriended by three young Burmese children. Even though they didn't speak a lick of english we had a fun time communicating with them and let them lead us around a bit. The pagoda was absolutely empty and eery. Like it hasn't been touched in decades. And, the views from there were breathtaking. When we were finding our way back to the boat we had even more fun watching the villagers coming back from a hard day's work. Children 'driving' the water buffalo, riding them like a bare-back horses. The parents followed behind. Some from ethnic tribes wearing black clothing and a neon turban.

Would love to edit this....or at least continue...but there is a blackout...the generator just kicked on...AND...I have a flight to catch to Yangoon. Just couldn't handle the thought of a 16 hour bus so decided to splurge on the $70 air ticket! Gotta go...

But here are a few more highlights before my 'taxi' arrives to take me to Heho airport.
- Renting bikes and touring the countryside with Gilles and Lucy. 11km one way, and then we put our bikes on a long wooden boat and took the easy way back - a 30 minute boat ride.
- Watching young monks chanting, and stealing glances at us as we sat quietly behind them.
- All of the "minglabas" at the fishing village! We were like a floating parade for everyone to greet. They were peeking out of windows, doorways, boats, piers. Everywhere there was a person - there was a "minglaba"!
- The novice celebration at the monastery. And trying to get to the monastery. Laughing at Melanie as she lost her shoe in the sludge. Don't worry - she dug until she found it again (the Timex watch was not as fortunate).
- The wedding celebration in town.
- Banana lassis, peanut nan, and yummy food at Unique restaurant.
- Biking to nowhere with Gilles and Lucy. Loved watching the local people and ethnic tribes people.
- A nice sunset over the lake.
- Breakfasts on the terrace of Joy Hotel.
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