Tag Archives: shwedagon

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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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.