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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…

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Lagniappe 2a, Riki’s Thoughts….Myanmar

More notes from Riki’s journal

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Myanmar Part 1

Yangon

The City: I got awesomely distracted the entire time when walking around town; great diversity, Hindu, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity (still see Indian influence which used to be 50% of the population); reminded me of a mixture between Havana and Kathmandu with better infrastructure than both (To KTM: less polluted but with its spirituality, but not as ancient feeling, due to it being destroyed often and recently by wars. To Havana: Tropical with the same colors and run down tall buildings, all made of concrete, all the same height).

– Shwedagon Pagoda: (has WiFi…) Stunningly beautiful, lots of people, very relaxed atmosphere many more Burmese than foreign tourists (at least 10-15% are monks, maybe coming for here for their first time), had many different shrines (day of week, etc…).

– There was this gorgeous Buddhist nun in pink, with completely shaved head (maybe in her late 70’s?), walking around the pagoda in an extremely slow, but constant pace, saying her prayers (amazing dedication).

– A group of Chinese tourists wanted their picture taken with a tall blonde Northern European woman in front of the pagoda, ridiculous….

– Sad it was being painted when we were there, but still looked cool because they painted the protective cover gold (haphazardly built with bamboo and paper).

The City continued…

– Newspapers, books, crazy movie posters, guitars & music, etc… all of these things that weren’t allowed just a couple of years ago are all SO popular, sold like hotcakes on the streets!

– All the ministries/gov’t buildings were abandoned – giving the appearance of eerie/odd inner city ruins of majestic buildings. These workers were taking down the remains of an obviously intense wall around the old main government compound (barbed wire, 4m tall, concrete posts, etc…), another of the many signs of change happening in the city (and country).

– Guys yelling at potential passengers from the doors of public buses (impossible to use, we tried) – barely organized chaos.

– Pigeons shitting everywhere (like most places we’ve seen)…

– Odd situation: saw a kid monk kick another one (who was crying and screaming) on the street… people around were making faces at the situation (not sure if they were upset and at who), and we had no idea what was happening… Later the kid who was on the street crying came up and asked for money (which I’m pretty sure novice monks don’t do) – maybe that’s why he got kicked, fake monks?

– Everybody says “hello” (in English) when answering their phones here…

– The central market and main pagoda are the only places you really see other tourists (besides rarely passing them on the street).

– Embarrassing moment at the hostel when I looked at a picture of a general on the wall and asked if it was Than Shwe (the old general/president/dick), but it was Aung Sun (national hero, his daughter is the leader of the opposition)… oops.

Train Ride around town:

– An old man pointed at Julie and then at a no kissing sign (not sure what he was trying to hint at)…

– So much fun hanging off the side of the train and waving at the people who pass (and when they recognize that I’m a foreigner, they always smile and initiate the wave – all ages, not just the hundreds of kids).

– There is the red dried spit (from the betel chewing) on the outside of all the windows, and its gross (same as all the cars in town).

– Experienced our first case of amazing Burmese/Myanmar hospitality – two ladies on the train sitting with us proceeded to give us 6 oranges, chocolate goo/tea, and hot corn!

Bus stop on way to Inle Lake: Nicer than the ones in the states and they played some no word version of “House of the Rising Sun”! Made me think of NOLA

Inle Lake:

– Bikes that sucked, and got too many flat tires, though riding around was really nice.

– Fire on the hillside at dusk (especially after our wine tasting… where only half of the wine was even consumable…) was crazy! This, and the fact that there were these big hills/mountains that were really dry, and completely surrounding us, reminded me of California (SoCal), whereas the lake, houses on stilts, canals through the floating gardens in Inle, reminded me of the Louisiana Bayou.

Boat Tour:

– Fishermen were posing for the tourists in the morning, and there were so many tourists in the boats (and locals who would all smile, giggle and wave to us), I thought it quite odd, so I took pictures of them later in the afternoon, on our way back into town, when they were actually fishing.

– The “floating market”, close to the silver shop, was so disappointingly and unexpectedly  touristy.

– The whole boat tour thing was quite touristy, including all the huge resorts on the water and the various shops/houses they take you to, etc. But still, the other villages on stilts that we drove through were awesome, bamboo curbs/wave breaks, as were the floating gardens.

– The cigarettes they make with licorice and other natural ingredients were surprisingly smooth (even though I had a sore throat).

– We met two journalists that were making a documentary on the lake (and how its losing so much surface area) – we might be in some footage that shows cats on an island…

Football Game at Inle:

– Was a pretty intense game (field was just rocks and dirt), every time the ball took an awful bounce, the whole crowd erupted with laughter.

– I was the only non Myanmar person at the game (seems as though other tourists never go to these games, or even know that they are happening, considering all the interested looks I got there). Guy at the gate/entrance told me, very enthusiastically, to come and watch the game as I approached, even though that was my plan all along, and joked that the price was 3000 kyat ($3), which I was ready to pay, but then informed me that it was actually 300 kyat ($0.30) – great laughs were had all around.

– I sat down near the middle of the field, in front of the stands, next to a bunch of other people who were all quite excited to talk to me (or make hand gestures) and ask me questions.

– I met this one guy who used to be a trekking guide, and he explained to me how one time he showed an American the area, took him home to dinner, and this guy eventually married his sister, so he had a soft spot for Americans. After the game he takes me to a “bar” where I seriously doubt any other westerner had ever been  (I was getting very surprised looks). When we get there, there was a drunk guy yelling, pointing, crying, and pushing the other people around, so we sat in awkward silence for a while as everything eventually calmed down (we didn’t even go right into the bar at first because he was doing all this stuff in the doorway). I tried the dried fish that I had seen everywhere, which was very strong, but was ok with the cheap whiskey that was easy to drink, as well as the fish rice chips we ate. I learned many things from my new friend, like how the Burmese (likely just the men) all drink before dinner and in the morning, and how now they can openly discuss politics, when before they couldn’t and that he was definitely going to vote for the NLD (previously banned opposition group) in the upcoming elections.

Mandalay

– The city had always seemed like such a romantic/historic sounding place – but I was told to drastically lower my expectations of the place because it was a dusty, dirty, confusing place. But it was surprisingly unique and different from Yangon, and really any other city I had ever been (almost 40% Chinese, due to recent immigration). Yes, it was more dusty, yes it was not that big, yes the palace had been reconstructed with forced labor 20 years ago, yes it was hot and not built up (and at one point I literally walked through a wall of mosquitoes that nearly knocked me off my feet), but it seemed like a young, hip, and more artsy (graffiti, etc.) city than anywhere else in the country, and the people were of course super friendly (especially prevalent when I was walking through the random side streets of the city).

– One of my favorite quotes from George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” which I started reading later on: “Mandalay is rather a disagreeable town – it is dusty and intolerably hot, and it is said to have five main products all beginning with P, namely, pagodas, pariahs, pigs, priests and prostitutes…”

– The Mall was surprisingly posh (full of young hip people), with a lot of shops selling the same stuff as Bangkok, but not as aggressive/tacky, and there was an awesome grocery store in the basement. But it was a huge change from just outside where there was a real food market (and all the accompanying smells and flies) and dusty, dirty streets…

– There were female monks (Buddhist nuns) everywhere (no hair, dressed in pink with yellow bags). Also, more monks than anywhere else (total number and percentage of population maybe?) in Myanmar.

– Funny moment: went into a pretty nice little bakery, looked around confused, saw all the ladies working there with matching blue outfits, start to look at selection, lady with tray shows up behind me, insists on holding it while I choose what I want, while her coworker in the corner discretely takes a picture of me, and 30 seconds later is obviously taking pictures of me (no doubt to show her friends?)… and they gave me a huge calendar with awkward pictures of the owner and his family when I checked out.

Train from Mandalay to Kyaukme – was quite cool, very bumpy and hard to get any sleep – saw amazing change in the landscape as we got higher – better irrigation – more green fields. The viaduct was crazy/scary – 1 lane – 5 mph… pretty glad when we reached the other side.

Kyaukme, Shan State

– Was cool that we were the only Westerners to get off at the train station (considering how many were on the train), and we never saw any others walking around the town, just a couple at the guesthouse.

– Johnny, our trekking guide: really nice young guy who’s English was very good – taught us a lot on our trek, like that the controversial (in the West’s eyes) change of name of the country from Burma to Myanmar recognizes the numerous minorities around the country that aren’t Burmese (never saw it that way before).

– There were a number of places we couldn’t go trekking because of continuing fighting between the rebels and the government (recent changes highlighted the constant fighting). Apparently lots of local girls are joining the rebels.

– The homestay we spent a night at had a calendar with pictures of the Paulung Rebels posing in these ridiculously photoshopped setups, but they still looked like a legit and formidable army.

– Apparently the rebels like to get (force?) 1 or 2 people per village as soldiers (never brothers), and /or the oldest/youngest son in a family (I think the gov’t does the same thing in lowlands…).

– We learnt that the government used to make the farmers plant shitty Chinese rice (because the military had arranged some agreement with China) and pay high taxes, which they couldn’t afford because selling shitty rice doesn’t get you much money (and this was in the main towns of Shan State, not just up in the mountain villages) – can see why there was much disagreement/hostility with the gov’t.

– Quite funny that there was this big fashion trend a year or two ago of all the boys and young men having these emo haircuts.

– Kids at the school on the first day of the trek were crazy, all grabbing both of my arms and screaming “hello” “good afternoon” “nice to meet you!” – try to picture a little novice monk almost angrily, but definitely aggressively push other kids away so he could have me all to himself as he smiled and said all these things over and over… also, they would never let go, so this went on for like 10 minutes!

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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Trekking in Shan State….Kyaukme, Myanmar

Our train to the remote northeast was scheduled for 4 am. It didn’t leave that early, but it was only half an hour late. We could have taken a bus a bit later, but decided on the train as it was much cheaper and we heard it was a beautiful ride. It was a beautiful ride. But it was oh so slow. We had paid $3.30 for our Upper Class (as opposed to Ordinary Class = wood seats) tickets and were grateful for the soft seats as we bounced down the track. Apparently, the trains they use are slightly small for the track, allowing lots of wiggle room as the train jostles along.

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Getting excited for the train

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The highlight of the train ride is the Gokteik Viaduct, a 1901 American-built structure. We stopped for about half an hour right before the bridge and thus were granted lots of time to take photos. Then we creeped along the bridge. It seems they must be very careful because the trains are already pretty loose and they don’t want to loosen anything on the bridge either. So you go very slow. Lots of photo time. The gorge below is beautiful, which stone walls and a gushing stream at the very bottom.

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Approaching the gorge
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On the viaduct

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We arrived in Kyaukme only an hour after the scheduled time – around 2:30 in the afternoon. This is a town just one over from the main town, Hsipaw, where most people go trekking. Upon a recommendation from someone we met in Laos, we opted to go to Kyaukme (pronounced ciao-may) instead. There are only a couple of guesthouses in this town and we walked to the one we had been told about. Luckily, they had room and were able to contact the guide we wanted for our trek.

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Approaching Kyuakme
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Downtown Kyuakme

The next day, with Riki on a rented motorbike and me on the back of our guides’ bike, we set out for some Shan and Palaung villages in the mountains. We stopped for provisions at the town market and then set out. About three hours up windy and terrible roads, we stopped to leave our bikes at that village’s (Hu Kuat) chief’s house. From there we walked to Ban Hone and through Nuang Pyget (please excuse if misspelled – the map is a bit blurry). The villages have roads, but they are dirt and mostly suitable for dirt bikes and trucks in the dry season. We took the more scenic route.

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Part of the road
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Cool tree
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‘Give me some rice puffs!’
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Village outside Kyaukme
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Riki makes human friends

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The villages are not very old, but the people speak different languages. Some people speak Shan and some speak Palaung. Some speak Burmese too, some do not. So we didn’t expect any English. The houses are mostly metal roofed bamboo thatch, which looks liable to go right up in flames, as they have open fires in every home. The villages we visited all had monasteries and we visited a few, where we sat on the floor and drank tea. Have I mentioned there is a ton of tea? No? Well, we walked through numerous tea farms, which are set on very steep mountains and are everywhere. Which explains why they drink so much tea. Though maybe the British had something to do with that too. At one school, we were bombarded by children who all wanted to shake our hand and say good afternoon. It was a bit overwhelming.

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Village outside Kyaukme
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“Good afternoon!” “How are you?” and shaking our hands vigorously all at once
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So many kids
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We were dragging them away at the end – they wouldn’t let go.
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Great fun
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Village outside Kyaukme

Our last stop was Ban San, where we met the local brother and sister monks, had tea and a tour. There are only three monks in this village, but they have a huge building to worship in. We stayed with a family, who cooked us delicious vegetables, rice and chicken and let us sleep on their floor for the night. The open fire makes for a smoky house and it was cold, so many of the windows were shuttered. Not a good combination. At night, the family huddled around their portable DVD player and watched a movie, which must have been hysterical as they were laughing so much. We played cards with our guide, with a few family members observing our rendition of the game Jenga.

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Indoor fires!
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Clearing weeds around tea plants

After an early awakening from the family rooster, we were again treated to delicious vegetables and rice before setting out for a few more villages. We really enjoyed learning about Myanmar and particularly the Shan culture from our guide. It was a great insight into a country where there are still so many conflicts. We were particularly close to some areas of unrest, but were lucky not to hear or see any rebels.

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Village outside Kyaukme
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Removing fermented tea leaves that have been in this well for a year
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Another reason the fermented leaves smell – packed by foot

We set out for two more villages, Don Heik and Kyein Lau, where we ate lunch with a cute family and befriended two young kids who were not the least bit shy.

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We brought some dual colored pencils for the kids we met – big hit.
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Lunch spot kid #1
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Lunch spot kid #2

We reached our bikes and headed back down the same road, slightly delayed due to some intense road construction. Lot of ladies carrying baskets of rocks, which were covered in stinky tar and then more rocks. Quite a process, but will make travelling to this area much easier once its finished.

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We stopped at a cool bridge on our way back and saw rice being planted.

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Planting rice
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Planting rice

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That evening, our guide invited us to his home for dinner, where we ate more delicious vegetable and rice. All in all, a great glimpse of a new culture.

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Next up: Bus to Mandalay for a day before heading to Bagan (spoiler alert: bus is so much faster than the train, but costs more and contains vomiting locals)

On the road to….Mandalay, Myanmar

The bus ride from Inle Lake to Mandalay went pretty smooth. Except for the poor kid in front of us who was puking on the floor during the very curvy ride out of the mountains. Felt really bad for him, but it is so common for the locals to get car sick. Every mini-bus is equipped with plastic bags and the roads can be so bumpy and curvy its no wonder they get sick.

We were told to spend as little time in Mandalay as possible. But we discounted that advice the first afternoon. Mandalay surprised us. We rented bikes the next day and proceeded to roughly do the bike tour as outlined in our guide book. We stopped at the train station to buy our $3.30 ticket for the next day and then rode all the way to the river to see the boats. And laundry. It was fascinating to see all the ladies along the riverbank scrubbing their clothes and then hanging them on the boat lines or laying them in the grass to dry. Along the way, we crossed a cool long, low pedestrian bridge. We stopped at a few monasteries, where we got many stares, and many barks.

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So many bananas
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Crocodile bridge
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Pedestrian bridge
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Boats and laundry
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Mid belly flop

After roughly following the bike tour through un-named alleys and unmarked roads, we headed north to Mandalay Hill. But first we stopped at the post office, where I dispatched two postcards to my brother and grandmother for their upcoming birthdays (this is proof that I did not forget – whether they arrive or not). We circled the palace walls, which are basically just a reconstruction of the original enclosing a reconstruction of the main palace area. Something we decided to skip based on the reviews and the price.

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Wall and moat

Along the wall, we stopped for lunch at the Golden Duck, mostly because it was on the map and I was starving, and I am not too fun to be around when hungry. We instantly felt out of place when the valet offered to take our bikes, our push bikes and ushered us into an elevator. This is not our normal restaurant. We’re used to open flames and dogs eating the scraps under our feet. Much to our surprise, they had reasonable prices and we ordered three small dishes for less than $8. And they were HUGE. We couldn’t finished them, though we gave it our best shot. And then when we asked for the bill, they brought us some sweet gooey coconut things, which I devoured, despite being full.

We continued onto Mandalay Hill, parked our bikes and removed our shoes and socks. That’s right. AND socks. This is something I cannot get behind. I will remove my shoes, no problem. But please let me keep on my socks. I currently have massive blisters on three of my toes. And then they make you walk 30 minutes up concrete steps to the top. And the stairs are covered in bird poop and red betelnut juice spit. I just don’t understand. Its not clean. Its gross.

But along the way, I befriended some cats. And since I was already dirty, I petted them, which I don’t normally do (except for all those other pictures you have seen). At the top, we were rewarded with a splendid view of the city and tons of tiny mirrors inlaid in the columns. We meandered around the top before returning the same way, barefoot to the bottom and riding back before it got too dark.

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My feet weren’t too gross yet
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Another friend
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Mandalay from above
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Near the top of Mandalay Hill
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You can see the semi-circular prison (?) top-left
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So many mirrors
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More mirrors
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This one the lady tried to get me take with me
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Puppies are cute too

Next stop: Train to Kyaukme for trekking

Floating villages….Inle Lake, Myanmar

Our night bus, which by no means was a “sleeper” bus, arrived around 7 am to the town along Inle Lake, Nyuangshwe. We shared a taxi with a British journalist living in Yangon. He initially came over for a short period of time and decided to stay. It’s been three years. Having slept very little on the very windy road, we decided to nap for a few hours before renting bikes with another girl from our bus.

Refreshed, we hopped on decent looking bikes ($1.00) and rode to the west side of the lake. The town has obviously been gearing up for more and more tourists. There is lots of construction and lots of foreigners, bus loads. On our way south, we ran into an American who has been travelling around the world for the last 8 months. She tagged along as we continued down around the lake. It is a pretty flat ride and the roads are decent. But my bike was not cooperating. I stopped along the road to put air in the tires twice on our way down. Lots of bike pumps readily available. Must be a common occurrence. Little villages and a hot springs line the lake on this side. The road is mostly shaded with a particularly scenic tree-lined section.

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Riki and I turned around a bit before the last viewpoint, as I wasn’t too keen on taking the bike any further with so little air in the tire. We stopped to eat lunch and the other two caught up to us. It wasn’t long after we left our lunch place that my tire just completely gave. Riki, the true gentleman, offered to stay behind with me as I tried to hitch a ride back to town. We walked along for quite awhile, waving at all the passing trucks. Most were already full and didn’t give us a second look. A guy who had a boat offered to take me for $8 back to town, but I declined and finally told Riki to go a bit ahead and let me see if I could flag down a ride alone. Not ten seconds later, a big red dump truck comes rumbling by. The driver and his other passenger speak no English, but he helps me hoist the bike up onto a pile of dirt in the back and I hop into the cab. I pass Riki and the other two girls and get let out on the opposite side of town from our hotel. I walk the bike back and arrive just before the others.

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Making friends
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My ride

The hotel staff swear they can fix the bike, but we opt to not risk it and hire a tuk-tuk to take us up the east side of the lake to the local winery, where they have 4 samples for $2. The view was beautiful and we watched the sun set over the lake, or at least until it disappeared behind the haze above the lake. The wine was alright, though the red was borderline undrinkable. This is not a country known for its wine and its the first wine I’ve had since Christmas, so I may not be the best judge.

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That evening we met up with the British journalist from the taxi and his girlfriend, a French journalist for dinner. They had interesting things to tell us about Myanmar and about the projects they are working on around Inle Lake. The area around the lake has been changing rapidly and the water level has dropped. We had already arranged for a boat tour the next day and were excited to see all the spots they mentioned.

Very early the next morning, our boat driver met us at the hotel and walked the four of us to the pier. We boarded a long, thin canoe with a motor on the back and set out for our “special” tour around the lake. We must have left before most people because there were many boats waiting for passengers. Our first stop was a silversmith and we watched as they made little elephant rings. The jewelry was pretty, but we weren’t really in the market for anything. Other boats of tourists were arriving as we left and we continued onto the “floating” market, which only floats in October apparently. And maybe not even then if the water level keeps going down. It was full of touristy stuff and we were unimpressed with it. The villages are a lot more built up then I had imagined. Hundreds of people live in wood huts over the water, or on land built up in the water. There are intricate walkways between the houses in some places, others are only reachable by boat. Our next stop was an umbrella shop, which we cruised through and then a cigar rolling shop, which was fascinating. Ladies sit on the floor with a flat basket of tobacco in their lap. They have stacks of leaves and a stick and they roll little cigars so, so fast. They use corn husks for filters and some are flavored like licorice and honey.  We also saw a weaving center, where they make cloth out of lotus silk, as well as imported silk and cotton.

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Boat taxi
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Weaving on the water
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Seaweed boat
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“Floating” Market
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Long neck woman
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Umbrellas, which apparently inspired the little drink umbrellas
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Village on the lake
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Silversmith
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Harvesting seaweed to use in the floating gardens
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Fishing
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Rolling cigars

Another stop was a recommendation from the French journalist, who happened to be there at the same time. The Inthra Heritage House is a complex of nicely maintained buildings, that just so happens to run a Burmese cat sanctuary of sorts. Of course we had to see that. They also have a restaurant and some other buildings that we didn’t explore. But we went to see the cats. And it was incredible. They have 35 beautiful cats that have their own island and little huts to lounge in. It felt kind of like a little kids’ playplace.

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SO excited
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Cat island

From there, we headed back towards town, through the floating gardens, also incredible. They have tiny canoes that they use to get between the rows of built up earth. We saw flowers, vegetables, and even vines growing up trellises.

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Street along floating garden
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Gourds in floating garden
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Putting the seaweed around plants in the floating garden

One of the villages we went through felt so much like a normal town. The “streets” were laid out in a grid with giant floating bamboo, just like curbs. The biggest downside to these places I think is the bathroom. Little outhouses sit just off the raised house. Not much privacy, but also, 20 feet away, the women were bathing and doing laundry in the lake water. Not much sanitation, either.

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Fishing baskets
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Street scene

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Our last day was a rest day. Time to catch up on blogging, buy our bus tickets to Mandalay and eat as much avocado salad as possible. And by avocado salad I mean guacamole. But served with rice chips. And so cheap.

A new country….Yangon, Myanmar

I’ve had a tough time writing this one. I’ve started over a few times and it still isn’t right. So bear with me – it may be a little slow, as is the internet here.

Myanmar is not like the rest of southeast Asia. It hasn’t been open to tourists as long and it is way behind in catering to them. It makes for more difficult prep work, which so far has involved more word-of-mouth than anything else, as the internet is slow to non-existent. This also makes it more expensive compared to the other countries we have visited. Apparently, this is because hotels have/had to be licensed by the government, which is/was difficult. I haven’t figured out the current situation, hence the slash (/) marks.

The country has a troubled history. It’s lengthy, confusing and is still yet to be determined. I won’t go into too many details, as I’m still trying to understand it myself. One thing I do know, there are places we are restricted from going because there is still unrest and fighting. I had wanted to try to go as far north as we could. We have been discouraged from doing this as it will take an incredible amount of time due to inadequate infrastructure, and because of rebel groups that are fighting the government and killing each other. So we won’t go there. That’s enough to persuade me. Like Cambodia, I highly recommend reading a bit about Myanmar. It had many kings, with many ethnicities “united” and then became part of colonial British India. The British set up many towns to facilitate trade of local products, such as teak. Since being free of Britain, Myanmar has been struggling to find peace amongst themselves.

We booked two nights ahead of time in Yangon at a popular place that has free airport pick-up. We wanted to be sure to run into other travelers to get a feel for where we should go. We didn’t buy a guidebook ahead of time because we had heard that everything that is written about Myanmar is obsolete almost as soon as its published because the country is changing so rapidly. Also, as I said, because of fighting in certain areas, a few places are closed to foreigners, but this changes rapidly and can only be ascertained from the locals.

Although Yangon/Rangoon may be the most well-known city in Myanmar, and the largest, it is not the capital anymore. In 2005, the military moved the capital to the center of the country. For a cost of upwards of $4 billion, Nyi Pti Taw was constructed. But we are not going there. Supposedly, it’s just 8-lane highways and crappy construction. It gets 2 pages in the guide book we ended up getting. Yangon and Mandalay each have their own sections.

Anyway, back to Yangon. We arrived by plane at 8:30 am, went through immigration at a snail’s pace and were at the hotel before 10 am. In time for breakfast. And then we took a much needed nap as we had woken up at 4 am in Bangkok, which is half an hour ahead of Myanmar.

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Painted buildings
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Playing rattan ball in skirts hiked up around their waists – did I mention all the men wear skirts (longyi)?
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Street scene

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That afternoon, we walked to Sule Pagoda and then up to Shwedagon Pagoda. It took quite awhile, but walking a city is really the best way to get a feel for it. That, and its easier for Riki to take a million pictures. We arrived at the pagoda in time for sunset, which is the most popular time to go. We encountered more tourists than we had seen all day. The incredible complex costs $8 to enter but is definitely the highlight of Yangon. We wandered around as the light slowly faded and the electric lights came on. I discovered the pagoda has free wifi (something we had not been able to access at the hotel very well), so I did some research while Riki continued with the picture-taking.

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Lots of people, lots of gold
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Cleaning the floor – though my feet were still black when we left
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Sunset
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Monk at sunset
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All lit up
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Making friends

The next day we walked to the train station and got on the local loop. It costs $1 for foreigners and you can hop off anywhere you like. We opted to do the whole three hour loop in one go. Almost as soon as we took off, we stopped again. And it continued like this. Stop, go. Slowly. At one of the first stops, a Burmese woman living in New York sat down across from us. She was delighted to find out we were Americans. So delighted, that she gave us three of her oranges. And then some packets of chocolate goo that she insisted we eat right away (but that we could also put in water). And then, when a man selling a different kind of oranges got on the train, she bought us three of those too. Because they were better, she said. The next lady who took her place, spoke no English. But we smiled and she smiled, like most people do here. And then, she took a hot ear of corn out of her bag, split it in two and gave it to us. Without saying a word. So within an hour, we had acquired 6 oranges, 6 packets of chocolate goo and an ear of corn. Without even leaving our seats. Lovely. The scenery was lovely too. Riki stood with his head out the door most of the second half. We travelled at a snail’s pace, but we passed some market towns, where the people heaved baskets into and out of trains, as well as some farmland.

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Railyard
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Jumping on and off we were going so slow
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Canal
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Trash along the rail line
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Farming
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Kids playing in the water

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On our last day, we had decided to take the night bus to Inle Lake. We checked out of our hotel, stored our bags and walked into the city. We went to the market, which had tons of handicrafts, but also some local goods. It obviously is catering to mostly tourists already. We also went to Chinatown, where there were tons of decorations, as it was their New Year’s festival.

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Neighborhood monkeys
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Yup.
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Betel Nut wrapped in leaf slathered with lime (not the fruit) to be rolled and sucked on and then spit as a bright red-color into the street
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Lady with typical Thanaka on her cheeks
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Pigeons are in every country
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Streetscape

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We returned to our hotel, shared a cab for the hour ride to the bus station and boarded our “sleeper” bus (just a little extra reclining) to Inle Lake.