Tag Archives: pagoda

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.

Headed south….Mawlamyine, Myanmar

I usually try to start my entries with our horrific travel stories, before making you jealous with the amazing photos Riki takes. But this one takes the cake, at least up til now.

Ambitiously, we had decided to take a 20 hour bus back to Yangon and then transfer to a 6 hour bus further south to Mawlamyine. So part of this long and arduous journey was our fault, but only a small part.

Our 9 am bus arrived at 10:45 and we were once again granted the horrendous wheelwell seats. Usually we alternate who gets the window, but in the case of the wheelwell, well, Riki just can’t fit. So I get the window and Riki gets to use the aisle for a little more legroom. But not today. In standard Myanmar fashion, the aisle is also used for seating. Sometimes, it is a real seat folded out from the side. Today, just a small plastic chair with the worst possible inhabitant. He’s using Riki’s armrest as a spot for his snoozing head, wrapping his arm all the way around the rest, practically resting in Riki’s lap. He has his feet under the guy across the aisle and then in the back of the guy in front of him. He spits sunflower seeds on the floor. And then he decides to smoke a cigarette. His friend behind him says something, but he continues to smoke and snubs it out on the floor. All the while, the wheelwell is getting hotter and hotter and we have had to remove our shoes and put our feet on top of them to keep them cool. And then he smokes again. He fails to acknowledge my remarks (presumably because no one on the bus speaks any English) and my blatant display of disapproval of opening the window and letting hot air fill the air-conditioned bus. And he ignores his friend, who pokes him to stop. We decided he is a Myanmar gutter-punk. He didn’t smell like booze, but certainly appeared too dazed to be sober. NOTE: No one else smokes on moving buses here. They wait til it makes a long stop, open the windows and then smoke.

And that was just the first leg. We arrived the next day around 6 am, having slept very little. We were told there was no bus to Mawlamyine, but knew that couldn’t be true. A friendly taxi driver offered to drive us there (6 hours, can’t imagine what that would cost) but we politely declined and found another guy to take us through the maze that is Yangon’s bus station to another bus company. They also told us “no bus” and we wandered off in search of someone who could help us. Didn’t take long and a young guy who spoke some English told us three minutes walking, leaves in 10 minutes, no problem. So off we went and we were in luck. Two seats left. The guy got a little commission from the bus company and everyone was happy. Until we got on the bus. Not an air-con bus. Normally, it wouldn’t be so bad, but we had the very back seats, where there were no operable windows and no breeze and no curtain for shade. The highlight of the trip was the Shan noodles we had at the very posh bus stop in the middle of our journey. Hot and very tired, we arrived in Mawlamyine after 7 hours and shared a tuk tuk with a German guy to our hostel.

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Mawlamyine is the fourth largest city in Myanmar, a former British capital and a large port.  It was really just a stopover for us so we didn’t have night bus after night bus.

We attempted a modified walking tour of the town and even visited the Cultural Museum – this one was open. Luckily, there were English signs for most things, though often times we were left more confused by the translations than by the displays. But it got unbearably hot and we returned to the hostel to pack our stuff and check out.

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We had some time to kill before our 6:30 pm bus further south to Dawei, so we walked to the market, which was huge and bustling. We managed to find Riki a Myanmar beer shirt (yes that’s what it’s called), which I may have been more excited about then him. Then we continued up the hill to the pagoda, which in true form, was unbearably hot to walk around barefoot. Luckily, there were a couple of cats.

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Next stop: Dawei, a night bus ride to the south. Why all these night buses? Apparently, that is the only option.

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.