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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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Finding the real Myanmar….Dawei

This night bus to Dawei left Mawlamyine at 6:30 pm and was pretty promising as the seats were pretty comfortable and were camouflaged. Felt really American. The only downside to this one was arriving at 4:30 am. This of course we did not know ahead of time and were reluctant to leave the bus when it was so dark out. Luckily, we had called ahead to a hotel and after a few poundings on the door from our driver, we awakened the desk clerk who checked us in and showed us to our room. We napped a few hours but still managed to wake up in time for breakfast. Our best so far – rice soup, eggs and bread. We met an American couple from Idaho and decided to follow their plan of heading south down the peninsula to some fishing villages and a pagoda, via motorbike.

First though, we went in search of a boat company to book our ferry down to the Thai border crossing. After walking in circles, we had found three companies all offering pretty much the same thing, a $70 12-hour trip, leaving town at midnight to catch the boat at 4:30 am. Pretty crazy, but we wanted to take the boat to see the mysterious Mergui archipeligo that is incredibly expensive to visit otherwise. So boat it was (and you can’t go by bus yet – not allowed for tourists). We returned to the first company (isn’t that how it always goes) because their English was better and seemed more professional. In the process of buying the ticket, we discovered that we could pay in US dollars and since we had stocked up on these before coming to Myanmar, and had yet to use any, and we were running low on Myanmar kyat, Riki took the motorbike back to the hotel to get them. While he was gone, I started chatting to the lady and discovered that for a mere $1 (yes, one) more, we could fly, on a 45 minute flight in premier class (whatever that meant) and arrive earlier. Seemed like a no-brainer. Spare you guys the joy of reading 1,000 words about how miserably long the boat ride was too (and the next day a ferry capsized near Mrauk-U and about 40 people were killed).

Plans all changed we continued south and poked around a fishing village before running into the Americans near a pagoda out on the water.

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Now I’m not sure if it was the combination of knowing we weren’t taking a tremendously long boat ride, actually getting enough sleep after a night bus, or the shear beauty of the landscape, but I found the Myanmar I had been looking for. Sounds corny, but as we walked the length of the bridge to the almost-island (peninsula, I know, but it didn’t feel like that) pagoda, the water was clear, the people were friendly, and it just hit me. Everyone along the way had been waving and had the biggest grins to see us coming. Maybe they weren’t annoyed with tourists yet or its just the southern nature, because they get more sun and get to live along this beautiful coast.

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The girls just love Riki (though in this case it may have been his shirt)

We met up with the Americans at a beach and were joined by 5 rambunctious boys who spoke a few words of English, but were mostly interested in running and jumping in the sand and water, which was incredibly warm.

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But you can’t have all that good, and not even it out with something bad. Just my travel karma talking. On our way back to join our new friends for a cold draft beer, we popped a tire. But within minutes of stopping along the road, 6 people on bikes had stopped and a small truck. Two groups were basically fighting over who would help us. Two students won and one took the bike with Riki on it down the road a minute to a small hut, while I rode with the other one. The hut was closed but student #1 managed to find the owner and get him to fix our tire. This involved taking the whole thing off as it was beyond patching, with a three inch tear straight across. Too hot, he said. Or two big Americans it couldn’t handle the weight. Student #2 (I feel bad, but I don’t think we got their names) spoke some English and was interested to know if we were Christians (I let Riki answer that one) as he was and his friend was Buddhist. It would have been great to hear more about that, but the language barrier was too big. Student #1 took Riki next door to the shop that conveniently had spare inner tubes for $2.10. He even paid 10 cents for the tube when Riki was too slow with his money and refused to be paid back. The guy fixing the tire requested 70 cents for the 30 minutes of work he put in, but I gave his wife the change after he refused the 30 cents extra I didn’t want back. The students didn’t leave us until we were back on our bike and headed in the right direction.

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And they wanted a picture with Riki too.

It was dark by the time we left and we missed the draft beer, but had an amazing display of generosity to replace it.

The next day we once again rented a motorbike and set off on another ambitious journey, to reach a beach further down the peninsula. We got about 45 kilometers down, right around where we were supposed to be and decided to head west toward the beach. An hour through some rather treacherous terrain, with me getting off the bike occasionally so Riki could get up or down a steep hill, we ditched the bikes when we ran into some locals who told us we could go no further with them. We headed up a trail, closely followed by some men and women carrying enormous loads on their heads. We were a bit worried about getting back as the other couples’ bike had overheated just as we had stopped, and ours seemed to guzzle fuel, so when we got a good viewpoint and realized how far the beach still was, we returned to our bikes, chalking it up to just a hike in the woods, without the rewarding swim at the end.

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A bit exhausted, we finally got our cold draft Myanmar beers.

On our last day, we walked around town. Dawei is a port city, which is conveniently located near an old British beach spot.  It has only recently been opened up to tourists, hence its appeal to us.  There are not a lot of attractions, its just a town, a real town.  Not destroyed by tourists yet.  I really enjoyed just being there, not trampling through any pagodas or being harassed by touts.  It was calm and we could meander through the streets without being bothered (and hopefully not bothering anyone else).

We met up with the Americans that evening and hunted down more draft beer, as our previous joint was closed for some reason. It took awhile but we found what appeared to be a Dawei beer garden, named “Seven Zero.” A good sign when the name is in English, but that didn’t translate into the menu, and while the hand gesture for draft beer is universal, the hand gesture for chicken fried rice is not. Luckily, they actually had wifi and our new friend was able to show a picture of a chicken and some rice and gestured to mix it together. Good enough.

I probably would have tried to stay longer in Dawei if our visas weren’t running out and we weren’t sure if we could cross after they expired, Kawthong being a relatively newly opened border-crossing. It was sad to leave, but we had booked the flight and we were ready for some beach time just over the border in Thailand.

Next stop: Ranong and Koh Chang, Thailand after a luxurious premier class flight and a pain in the ass border crossing.