Beguiling Burma

Trip Start Aug 25, 2003
Trip End Jul 23, 2004

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Where I stayed
White House Hotel

Flag of Myanmar  ,
Wednesday, December 17, 2003

We had ruled out going to Myanmar before we left home. Not for fear of our safety; the political situation in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is very stable for tourists. Unlike Cambodia, where the July election has yet to coalesce into a functioning government, or Laos, where minority group rebels, seeking to gain political attention, have shot at a handful of buses on a heavily travelled route. And our reluctance was not for lack of sites to see: Shwedagon Pagoda, the ancient temple city of Bagan, beautiful Inle Lake, the palace ruins of Mandalay. Instead, our concern was over the morality of visiting a country ruled by a brutal military government, still in power even after losing the popular election in 1990 (by 82%), a humiliation they responded to by imprisoning the woman who won, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She has remained under almost continuous house arrest since 1988, and has refused several offers by the military junta to live in exile, saying she will never abandon her country. Added incentive not to go was the mandatory currency exchange of $200 to government-issued FECs upon arrival; since FECs are not even the country's currency, it meant that every tourist was putting at least $200 into the government's pocket. Some forms of transportation also are government run: the two main airlines, the train system, the boats between Mandalay and Bagan. Still, we thought, we could help the local economy by traveling solely by private-run buses, staying in privately-run hotels, and, by using our travelogues to write about what we see in Burma, we could educate people and raise awareness... So, when the FEC exchange requirement was lifted in September of this year, we decided, last minute, to go.
We successfully avoided the government-run airlines by flying Biman Bangladesh Airlines, which has the added bonus of in-flight meals consisting primarily of dessert. I'm not sure of the rate of diabetes in Bangladesh, but I personally loved the bulk of my meal being Kit-Kats, a cheesecake-cookie thing, and an ultra-sweetened fruit bar. Their motto should be "Every Day is Halloween on Biman!" Landing in Rangoon's airport at 5:30pm, we caught a taxi into town with two other Westerners, and landed for one squalid, mosquito-infested night at the White House Hotel. The room seemed fine; a little small, maybe, and kind of stuffy, but we had a fan and look, a mosquito net's provided. The fan was fine until the power went out (a frequent daily, and nightly, occurrence in Rangoon), and the mosquitos buzzing around would have been thwarted by the net if there weren't holes in it, and if we could bear having the net up since it smelled as if it had been used to sift a thousand cat boxes. Other people have defended the place, but it was, without a doubt, the worst night of non-sleep I have had since we left home. And that includes Flophouse ala Bedbugs in Ipoh.
So, sleep-deprived though I was, I am proud to say that my mood was bright and optimistic as we said an emphatic goodbye to the White House Mosquito Frenzy and ventured forth to change our US dollar travelers checks, good at thousands of banks worldwide. Except, it seems, in Burma while there are active US sanctions in place. And, the apologetic bank man informed us, we also couldn't use any credit cards anywhere, also because of those pesky US sanctions. This left us in Burma for two weeks with barely $100 cash; important, because US bills can be changed to Burmese currency, the kyat, on the ubiquitous black market. After considerable and wide-ranging investigation, including a visit to the US consulate and discussions with several moneychanging professionals (identified by their furtive hisses of "change money?"), we found a private hotel which would change our travelers checks for the princely commission of 15%, contingent on the fact that we stayed two nights in their less-than-budget establishment. It was a necessary sacrifice, we said, as we watched HBO Asia from the luxury of our soft, bug-free bed, our high-pressure hot water shower just out of sight in our spotlessly clean and tastefully decorated bathroom. We stayed one night, saving our second for the night before our flight back to Bangkok.
Walking to Shwedagon Pagoda at 6 am avoids the mid-morning traffic noise and smog, and seeing the pagoda complex before busloads of tourists helps keep in mind that this is a huge center of the Buddhist religion in Burma. The Shwedagon itself looks bigger when viewed from the city center because it rises up over all other buildings and dominates the horizon; close up it is less imposing, but much much brighter, being 326 feet of gold, and adorned with over 4,000 diamonds. It's surrounded by the other hundred or so temples and pagodas in the complex, which all have different styles and house the many types of Buddha statues, including a few with Lite-Brite halos. After completeing this one sightseeing adventure in Rangoon, we headed out on the slighty-traveled tourist circuit toward Bagan.
Most long-distance buses run at night; my theory is that they are trying to avoid competing with the daytime local traffic, which consists mainly of carts drawn by oxen teams, for space on the one and a half lane "highway". Our bus left Rangoon at 3:30 pm, and by 10 it had already stopped twice for some engine maintenance. I'm not sure what the problem was, but it required four or five guys staring into the engine compartment while the driver whacked at the offending part with a hammer. This apparently wasn't enough treatment because it stopped for good at midnight. We slept until about 7 am and then, like everyone else on the bus, waited. As the only Westerners, we felt kind of awkward, but our fellow riders were especially kind, offering us food they had brought and taking us to the closest hut to use the outhouse. After several assurances that the rescue bus would appear by 10 am, then by 12:30, and finally "no later than 2!", it rolled up about quarter to four, and we got into Nyuang U bus station just before 10 pm.
Hotel costs in Burma are more on the level of Viet Nam than Thailand, so our budget room was $8, but it had a hot water shower and included what turned out to be a good breakfast. In the morning, we rented these incredibly 1950's Hero brand bicycles (white wicker basket included), and rode around the thousands of temples scattered over the Bagan area. The structures range from stupas only a few feet high to several storied gold-topped buildings housing 30 foot Buddhas. Much of the brickwork was destroyed in the 1975 earthquake, so it doesn't have the incredibly old feel of Angkor, but the vast number of temples is amazing, especially when viewed from the top of a particularly tall temple. We watched the sunset from #2007 (most of the structures haven't been named, only numbered), my personal favorite because the Buddha statue inside is unique for having a "baby Buddha" figure inside it's abdomen.
The next day we rode to New Bagan, south of the main center of the Bagan area, and returned by way of the dirt/sand tracks criss-crossing much of the area between temples. Although the terrain isn't technically challenging (probably beneficial since we were on pretty nancy bikes, although the basket might have broken a tumble over the handlebars), it still felt good to do some physical activity that wasn't carrying a 30 lb backpack up four flights of stairs. Partway through our day we met up with Aaron, a Canadian we shared a taxi with in Rangoon, and spent the rest of the day, and dinner that night, hanging out with him. He's very laidback and funny, and after talking to him for a little while, you just know that he has the perfect personality for his job, which is being a PROFESSIONAL MOUNTAIN CLIMBING GUIDE. Forgive me for being a tiny bit awestruck, and I'm sure everyone from Switzerland is like, "Yah, no big deal," but I happen to think that is a very cool and unique career choice. I understand that geography has a big part in that -"mountain climbing guide" wasn't part of the Future Career Board at Elk Rapids High School in northern Michigan- but I have met people from Colorado that enjoy mountain climbing activities but are teachers or nurses or mechanics in their real lives. So, if you are planning on needing a guide for climbing or high-altitude skiing in North America, you should go with Aaron, although you should wait until April when he's home from India (I'll put his e-mail at the end).
After three days exploring Bagan, we headed (at 4:30 am, an evil time to be awake) to Inle Lake. Technically, our bus took us to Shwe Nyuang, from where we had to catch a share taxi to Nyuang Shwe (I think they ran out of names by the time they hit East Burma), and then hire a boat for the 4 km to Inle Lake. We took an all-day boat trip with two other travellers around the lake, visiting several stilt villages where different crafts are practiced, everything from handspun, handwoven silk to handmade cigars. The trip's last stop was the "Jumping Cat" monastery, where an order of monks lives and studies, and where they have trained some members of the resident cat population to jump through hoops. Phil really hit it off with one of the monks, who is also 28; I think Phil had one of those "different people choose different life paths" moments. We have some pretty funny photos of the performing cats, captured courtesy of that monk, who obviously has had a lot of practice with the operation of tourists' digital cameras.
After three days in Inle Lake, we had both caught colds, and were thinking about getting back to Rangoon a few days before our flight. Worried about another 14 hour bus ride becoming 31, we headed south, intending on stopping in Bago for a sidetrip to the Golden Rock, a gold leaf-covered boulder topped with a stupa perched on the edge of a cliff. It is one of the biggest pilgramage sites for Burmese Buddhists, and sounded like a more austere contrast to the other popular site, Shwedagon Pagoda. However, as the 4 am stopoff for Bago loomed, and my cold got worse (and, if I must be truthful, I may have gotten a tiny bit crabby), we decided to continue on to Rangoon to spend our last two days. Including one incredibly restful night in the luxury of the May Shan Hotel with it's cable TV and remote control air conditioners...

Websites for more information about Burma:

E-mail to contact Aaron, mountain climbing guide extraordinaire:
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