Tag Archives: kyaukme

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!

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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)