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Lagniappe 2b, Riki’s Thoughts….Myanmar

Riki’s thoughts on Myanmar Part 2

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One of the journals
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Old Bagan map

Bagan

– Lucky Ducks we were! – the minivan dropped us off in town unlike tour buses (and bigger buses) that stop at the toll station (same thing happened on the way out), saved us from paying the $20 Bagan park fee that goes straight to the government (and is never put back into maintaining the archeological/historical sites).

– The Central Plains is where it is at! This area had the coolest groups of temples, away from the crowds at the bigger ones, a desert vibe, and scattered ruins everywhere.

– A surprising amount of the temples looked like they were completely reconstructed recently and using new materials (they have been using these temples continuously since they were built, so renovation is an obvious necessity, but the gov’t work was quite controversial).

– It would get so hot out there, 41 C/110 F, that my chapstick would melt (the good Swiss natural one, not the American one…)!

– The bat and pigeon poop in the temples was really bad – prevented us from going further in and exploring or going in at all to certain temples.

– So many Burmese tourists and/or pilgrims – so many want to take pictures with us – or they smile, wave and giggle as they pass us by in their pickup trucks.

– The sunrises and sunsets here may be the most amazing & beautiful I will ever have the opportunity to see in my life!

– Climbing the temples (totally ok, the locals did it…) barefoot was precarious, but was so much fun, especially when you had to find the hidden stairwell (often in a corner) that hopefully isn’t locked, and with a tight squeeze and lots of steps, you get on top and have these amazing views out over the plain full of temples (each one different) – repeat steps for the bigger ones with multiple layers to climb on.

Bagan – Magwe – Mrauk U – 20 hours by bus…

-the second part over the mountains at night was awful, no sleep, right above a wheel well

– Passed some sort of Buddhist parade (think it was a full moon that day) and there were a bunch of guys in wigs dancing gangham style on the back of a truck, then a large procession of stylish looking ladies in two lines holding a long white silk/cotton sheet with the heads of two dragons at the front.

– Incredibly parched landscape – desert like, and their wet season includes far less rain than the rest of the country.

– When we get to Magwe, it’s pretty ridiculous how excited people were to see us (waving, smiling, but way more than average), especially as we were walking up the ramp to the bridge to watch the sunset over the Irrawaddy (cars honking at us…).

– I finally started “Burmese Days” by George Orwell – favorite quote, besides the one about Mandalay: during a political argument about British colonialism/imperialism in Burma the Indian Doctor says, “I see the British… as torchbearers upon the path of progress”, Flory, the British main character (and “a bit of a Bolshie”) responds, “I don’t. I see them as a kind of up-to-date, hygienic, self satisfied louse. Creeping around the world building prisons.”

– I really liked the book, and though I thought it was a bit depressing, it was also way ahead of its time.

– At this time I also read “River of Time” by Jon Swain, a journalist living and working in Indochina in 1970-75. He was there during the fall of Phnom Penh and many other crazy places at crazy times. Was glad I read it after visiting all of those countries, but also wished I had read it before too.

Mrauk U (or Mrauk Oo?)

– Surprisingly small town, with really loud music and monk chanting in the mornings…

– Disappointingly abrasive people, sometimes even scowling at us (not as friendly as rest of the country, though many were still unbelievably nice), maybe has to do with the recent conflict (riots and expulsion of Rohingya) and the blame put on Western NGO’s for helping those persecuted (incl. doctors who merely treated injured Muslims) by nationalist Buddhists.

– Amazing sunrises again, with a mist/smoke fog that steadily builds throughout the town, enveloping the houses, palm trees, temples, pagodas and hills.

– The temples themselves are not as glamorous as Bagan (and you couldn’t climb up them), weren’t as big or numerous, but the insides of 2 or 3 of them in particular blew anything Bagan had out of the water! One temple was really cool as you went through the inside in a spiral with carved Buddhas lining the wall, thousands all slightly different, ending up in a central cavern. As I came out they were lighting lots of small candles and putting them in front of the Buddhas, creating an amazing, but also very smoky, atmosphere.

– Odd/humorous moment: saw a monk walking far away towards me in front of this nice temple, so I got into position to take a photo. He kind of walked towards me, off the road, stands still and smiles, so I politely ask if I could take his picture (because he is just standing in front of me and smiling), he nods and says “hee, hee”. So I take the picture, and he says “hee, hee, money, hee, hee”. Was weird and awkward so I gave him like 150 kyat…

– All together, not sure if Mrauk-U was worth coming too, due mostly to the absolutely awful bus rides to get there and away.

Mrauk U to Yangon (20 hours) – Yangon to Mawlamyine (6 hours)… Bus ride from Hell!

– Just the thought of this ride was awful, plus the extra 6 hour second leg. But of course, we got the wheel well, my seat wouldn’t stay up, Julie’s wouldn’t go down, the bus was over packed, and the guy next to me, on a plastic stool in the aisle, is falling asleep on me and the patient guy on the other side, with his head constantly in my lap or smoking cigarettes on an air-conditioned bus and spitting sunflower seeds everywhere… got absolutely no sleep… Luckily we had 20 minutes (so no waiting around) to catch the next bus at the bus station in Yangon, though this one was hot as shit and we had the bumpy seats all the way in the back (but at least it was only 6 hours)…

Mawlamyine

– Interesting city… Can see the old colonial architecture, especially along the waterfront – cool, intricately carved wood balconies, railings, etc.

– Very mixed religious representation – obviously mostly Buddhist (especially with that awesome hilltop pagoda with better views than Yangon’s), but also a lot of Islam (second biggest I think, lots of mosques), then Christianity and Hinduism (both represented near the center of town).

– Went up a minaret and walked around an Islamic Cemetery (Julie wasn’t allowed to because she was female, so she was pissed, rightfully, and stormed off to wait for me at the church – where she was allowed to enter), and an older gentleman came up and walked alongside me and, in what little English he knew, tried to describe to me what the cemetery was, how Islam is like brothers to all the other religions in town, and many other things…

– Also, I was finally able to buy my “Myanmar” beer jersey (green) that I had seen and wanted since the first day in Myanmar. You saw everybody wearing it, but it was never sold anywhere! Especially not at the markets, I tried in every one… Got it at a waterside restaurant that had a “Myanmar Casual Wear for Sale” sign! So happy

Mawlamyine to Dawei Bus (6 hours)

– Great sign already when we didn’t have a wheel well underneath us, the AC worked, the seats were camo, and within the first 20 minutes they played (on the flat screen TV in the front with music blasting) a Burmese version of Shakira’s “WakaWaka” (the South Africa World Cup song). Proceeded to have the song stuck in my head for the next three weeks. We knew that from here on out, we would really like the south (of Myanmar), good vibes, friendly people, etc…

– Get to our rest stop (for dinner & potty break, we don’t eat) and “Independence Day” is on and it’s the exact moment in the movie where the President is giving his epic speech and says “…this is our Independence Day!”, and Will Smith is flying a space ship – another good sign!

– Also began to notice less longyis and more pants, and the ethnic characteristics of the people were changing.

Observations on Bus Rides, in general, In Myanmar:

– Ridiculous movies – not only is the acting soap opera-esque, but the film quality and editing standards are obviously of an industry just starting to find its feet after only a couple of years in existence.

– Also, they have music movies, where a movie is being played and its either a feature length music video/story, or they just play an entire album while muting the movie – never really found out because both options seemed plausible and entertaining.

– There were (along with all the live performances of music) great set of live comedy with old men speaking and people laughing hysterically, women dancing, and all throughout, audience members would be going up on stage handing them bouquets of flowers or pinning kyat on their shirts…

Other General Observations:

– Music in general – so many covers (in Burmese) of songs we know… Paul Simon, Sting, Santana, Shakira, etc. – not sure if they use the beat and completely new lyrics or if they translate the originals.

– Nepal has cows strolling through their streets, Myanmar has goats, though they are not holy and its mostly in the south and west.

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Dawei

– Super friendly people, waving hello, in all circumstances, at the market and while we were riding scooters – two groups of kids drove up alongside us while we were riding and wanted to talk (for like 5 minutes), it was funny, and a little dangerous.

– Great place to spend our last couple of days in Myanmar

– We went to this amazing temple on the bluffs, sticking out into the Andaman Sea, where a couple of kids wanted to take a picture with me (likely because I had my Myanmar shirt on), Julie had to ask them to smile…

– We drove on and had a huge beach all to ourselves, absolutely massive, eventually sharing it with a group of kids who were showing off, doing flips, asking for money (only a couple of times), and playing frisbee with us.

– A new rule we followed in Myanmar (which we should have done in Nepal and Laos) – if somebody comes up and wants a picture of you with them, you ask to take a picture (on our camera) with them too.

– Flying over the Mergui Archipelago was amazing in our fancy premier economy seats at the front of the new Myanmar National Airlines jet, with an amazing view of the untouched islands below – don’t think we could have seen so much in the other transport option, a 12 hour ferry ride that would have only saved us $1.

– Crossing the border, was a nuts racket, with this one guy leading me all around (I never really agreed, but he forced himself to guide me… setting me up for the scam, and getting him and his friends more money.

– He took me to a store to buy rum (was only 5000 kyat, but expensive compared to everywhere else… It’s a border town, so I guess it makes sense).

– Then into Immigration, where he talked to the officers, probably telling them we were suckers – they made us get copies of the stamps they just made, outside and across the street, WTF? We came back and Julie gave them a large piece of her mind (though I tried to tell her it’s not a great idea to yell at border guards…).

– Then he put is onto a tiny, 8 person boat to go to Thailand, where we were charged $3 more than everybody else! Oh well…

Getting our feet dirty….Bagan, Myanmar

Minibus back to Mandalay featured typical locals vomiting and a rude woman who proceeded to take up two whole seats, smashing me against the window for the winding and tumultuous 5 hour trip. The alternative would have been taking the train back, a grueling 12 hour journey we had already experienced on the way up. We spent the next day planning our trip to Bagan, doing laundry (an outrageous $8 fee, though it was done by hand and dried on the roof) and exploring the hotel’s neighborhood. Riki discovered a very hip mall, a drastic difference from the surroundings and a bakery where one of the staff followed him around “stealthily” taking his picture. Maybe they’ll put him on their next advertisement.  They did give him a massive calendar featuring the shop owner’s daughter on every month.  We left it as a present for the hostel.

Our 5 hour bus to Bagan left the next morning, was uneventful, but dropped us off a 15 minute walk from where it should have. Bagan is one of the four main places to see in Myanmar. It is one of the former capitals, with many temples, some dating back to the 12th century. It is the Angkor Wat of Myanmar, is on the cover of many guide books and is VERY big. It is also very hot, and dry and incredible. Riki tends to do more historical research before we arrive. I prefer to do it when we are there, as I have a hard time grasping things without seeing them first hand. So I had no idea what to expect, having only seen the picture on the front of the guide book and reading the small intro.

To sum it all up: Temples, Pagodas, Stupas and Buddhas, lots and lots of Buddhas. And then there were hot-air balloons. It was so cool (but so hot and dry). Now you can skip down to the pictures, or you can read the more detailed account of our 3 days exploring Bagan.

Day 1:

We rented bicycles at 5 am. $1.50 for my regular bike, $2 for Riki’s mountain bike. Woke up the poor bike shop guy while the stars were still out. Then we rode about 45 minutes to a temple not known to be very touristy, Loukaoushaung, but with a good perch for the sunrise. The stars were still visible, but we claimed spots and waited. Here is my account, as written while watching the sun climb steadily into the sky:

“Not sure we can top this. We’ve watched as the hot air balloons slowly filled with air and jostled for positions in the sky. We arrived in the dark and ascended the steep stairs, barefoot of course, with the key keeper. The mist slowly cleared and the haze emerged as the sun rose over literally thousands of monuments. I’m almost wishing we were in one of those balloons, but remembering the $300+ price tag for such a short trip. I’ll settle for watching them float majestically across the sky. They come so close that we can hear the burners. And then a loud Chinese tourist with the biggest camera attachments starts talking/yelling (and running around) and stands right in front of me. Riki, from his higher vantage point has a better view, but I felt weird climbing up the wall of the temple (and not sure my blistered feet will thank me later). The loud guys leave and take their incessant camera clicking with them, off to ruin the atmosphere for someone else.”

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We stayed at the first temple for about two hours, then headed on to explore some more. There are over 2,000 monuments and we wanted to avoid the touristy ones as much as possible. We went to Shwesan Daw Pagoda, Dhammayangyi Temple, North Guni and some un-marked ones in between. I’m sure they all have names of some sort and I am probably butchering the translations. We then rode to Old Bagan, where a whole town used to exist. They kicked all the people out when they decided to make the area an official archaeological park and moved them south to New Bagan. The old walls are still present and surround a handful of monuments. We saw Thatbyinnyu Temple and Gawdawpalin from the temple next door. We made a quick stop at Bypaya to have a look at the Ayeyarwady River and then took a long lunch just outside the walls. It was incredibly hot. We lingered as long as we could at the restaurant, just ordering more and more cold water, waiting for the heat of the day to recede some before biking on.

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Our next stop was the Myinkaba village, where they are known for their lacquer ware. There are workshops there where they will show you the whole process, which is really impressive. Layers and layers of lacquer over bamboo or wood and then intricately carved and painted. The end of the tour is inevitably a stop at the their shop, where we ran into two couples who had lived in New Orleans for 30 years, but were presently in Bangkok. Small world. Our tour guide had convinced them to exchange an old $100 bill (“small head money”) for him (something we weren’t comfortable with and not able to do anyway). American dollars were used more frequently in the past, but the kyat (chat) has taken over mostly and this poor guy couldn’t exchange his old bill anymore. It looked real, and he only wanted $70 or $80 for it, in new bills. Exhausted, we rode our bicycles back to our hotel for a quick nap and then a very slow dinner (we’re talking an hour wait for fried rice).

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Day 2 started much like the day before, except that we got an e-bike. More electric than bike, as you can’t actually pedal these things easily. We wanted to go a bit further and the heat really drains you on a regular bicycle. They promised it would last all day, but we were skeptical after our experience with them in Angkor. I hopped on behind Riki and we set off to see the sunrise at North Guni, one of the temples we had seen the day before. And it was just as spectacular as the day before. Balloons, mist, pointy spires dotting the landscape as far as you can see. We then rode to the central plains, with me getting off frequently, as the goat paths got too sandy to safely traverse. Well that got old, so I made Riki walk sometimes and I took the bike. Because man it was hot. And there is little to no shade. Plus its hard to take pictures when you’re driving. And Riki takes a lot of pictures (I haven’t checked yet – but I am guessing there are a few thousand pictures from just Bagan).

We stopped at Sulamani Temple and Pyathada Pagoda, where we were accosted by pilgriming locals. I was sitting at the top of a large open area, with a great view, minding my own business, taking in some shade and waiting for Riki to take all his photos. An old man walks by, sees me and then beckons his granddaughter to come over. Motioning and asking to take a picture with the little girl, I oblige and even manage to smile, despite how sweaty and dirty I feel.

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And that was fine. But then a whole gaggle of women, in their Sunday best see this and come over to do the same. But they don’t ask and I stand there awkwardly as five or six of them stand next to me to get their picture taken one at a time, or get really close so we can take a selfie (no selfie-sticks here). I felt bad, I must have smelled pretty terrible, but they didn’t seem to mind. I was getting annoyed until Riki came around the corner. In the middle of taking pictures with me, they spot him and run off in his direction. Yes, run. And they are giggling and yelling at each other, obviously delighted that there is another one! And this just makes my day. He didn’t see it coming. Everyone takes a photo and then I have to join and by the end, we had to get a shot with all of them as well. Pretty hilarious.

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Riki looks so tall!

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We then went to some more, you guessed it, temples. I’m pretty much done with them at this point, as most are very similar. But Riki is always up for climbing something and exploring, so we continue on. I skip some, wait in the shade and watch the goat herders go past. We visit Phya Phat Gyi, Shin Phu Shin and many in between. We leave the sandy paths and find a concrete road we discover we are across from another village, Minanthu. As we are taking a short break under a tree and looking at the map, a woman runs (yes runs) across the road and invites us to tour the village. Her English is pretty decent and we follow her across the road. She shows us some old workshops, weaving, peanut oil, cigars, silversmith. We have the obligatory tea, even though it is scorching hot and hot tea is the last thing I want. In the end, we offer her some small bills and continue on for a late lunch and long break in New Bagan. We continued to explore the central plains behind Dhamayazika and found some cool murals and a cool spot to return to for sunset the next day. We ended at the same temple we had started with the first day, but this time, with Riki’s help, I scaled the temple and had a more amazing view.

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Day 3 started slowly. We opted to sleep in and skip the sunrise. We took another e-bike in the early afternoon and returned to the northern and central plains, taking goat trails and going nowhere fast. The northern plains temples were some of my favorite. We were the only ones there and some had incredible carvings, murals and oddities.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur final stop for sunset, just behind Dhamayazika, where we had been the day before has cool paintings inside and was deserted. We hoped it would stay that way, but others saw us at the top and came up to investigate. Two girls we shared a boat with in Phong Nha were among them, and remembered us as the cookie people, as we had shared some Oreos with the group back in December. Small world.

Some general thoughts:

Bagan is really an incredible site, and sight. It’s teeming with tourists though. Big buses go to the major points, probably just spending a day or two in town. You could spend weeks here, if you are really into temples, and still not see everything. We did a really good job avoiding other people, even managed never to be asked to pay the entrance fee (which is $20, goes to the government and not to preserving any of the monuments).

We found that exploring the smaller temples was so rewarding. Seeing the key keepers living right up next to the monuments, with 100+ animals (cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, dogs, cats, etc) was really interesting. They have little bamboo huts with a single solar panel (often times half shaded by something) powering a few light bulbs and a little TV.

It is a desert, dry and very hot. We were told over 100 degrees. And it felt that hot, not the humid heat we are used to. We managed to find some Australian sunscreen (not whitening like most sunscreen here) and didn’t get burnt, except for that little line on the top of my head where my part is. Always forget about that.

No socks or shoes in temples. I could probably write a book ranting about this, and Riki is sick of me talking about it, so I will keep it short. I will cover my shoulders, wear pants, and even remove my footwear to go into temples. But its not just the temples where you take off your footwear, its the whole area around the temple, which is outside and gets extremely hot and dirty. That’s not the worst. Many of the temples are full of bats and pigeons, so you are traipsing through shit and guano in your bare feet. And then you climb the narrow stairs and there is a giant snake skin on the step. And little rocks are getting stuck in your toes and in the bottom of your feet. Then you step on the little thorns that have blown in, curse avidly right in front of Buddha (hopefully he doesn’t speak English) and hop along until you can get them out. So you leave this temple with black feet, bruised and bloodied and burnt. And if you are Riki, you are lucky enough to step on the 1 inch thorn just as you’ve put your sandals back on. It still goes through, but could have been worse. Did I mention I already had blisters on the bottom of my toes? And that was the short version.

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That’s not a tan line. You should see the bottoms of our feet too, but that was tougher to photograph.

Next stop: a more remote archaeological site near the west coast, Mrauk-U via a horrendous bus ride.

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