Myanmar: Part 1

Apologies for the lack of posts recently. Internet access has gotten rarer and slower in the last month or so and we’ve been travelling at break-neck speeds compared to our earlier, more leisurely pace. It turns out that there is a lot to see in this part of the world. You pay lip service, saying “I’ll be back at some point,” but you know the odds are that you won’t.

The exception to that sad realization is Myanmar. Kaytlin and I both agreed we’d like to come back in ten years and see what it’s like. The place is changing at unfathomable speeds with the advent of a flawed, sort-of democracy after almost 50 years of an occasionally brutal military dictatorship. (More on that in a later post.) Our Lonely Planet guidebook, published in 2011, was close to useless aside from the city maps. Prices for accommodation have inflated as tourists rush in faster than hotels can be thrown up. Bus journeys take half as long as the book said they would as roads are improved. While the place still largely lacks the sort of tourist amenities that its neighbors have (Western restaurants, Internet that works better than mid-90s AOL dialup, real coffee, English signage at major attractions), you get the feeling that that is right around the corner. This is a country that was shut off from the world trying to catch up all at once.

Kaytlin and I got a taste of this uncertainty from the get-go. While our previous destinations had their own charms, the tourist trail in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos is well-worn by the sandals of generations of white people before us. While this makes the logistics infinitely easier, getting “off the beaten track” takes a lot of work. Realizing we had been traveling for nearly three months without taking much in the way of a risk, we elected to head into Myanmar through a land border crossing, something that was nearly impossible for a tourist to do until late last year. Most tourist itineraries begin and end at the airport of the city’s capitol – Yangon. We hoped that some of the small cities in the southeast of the country might not have been quite so touched by tourism. Armed with a couple second-hand reports gleaned from internet message boards, we headed from Bangkok to the small Thai town of Mae Sot, tucked into the rolling green mountains that separate Thailand from the Country Formerly Known as Burma. Over the years the town has served as a base for a slew of charities and NGOs that work with the tens of thousands of Burmese refugees that have fled over the border in recent decades. From there it was a quick tuk tuk ride the next morning to the border.

Given all the uncertainty, we were prepared for headaches getting into the country, but it was actually one of the quickest and simplest borders we’ve crossed. They bring you into a tiny roadside office, make you fill out a paper with the same information you supplied to get your visa and then write your nationality on a whiteboard (we were two of about ten foreigners that had crossed that day.) Just like that and you’re in Burma.

We’d spent all this time worried about red tape, we forgot to prepare ourselves for the fact that Myanmar is a very different country than the places we’d been before. The men (the old-fashioned ones, at least) wear a long strip of fabric tied around their waist called a longyi. This either looks like a skirt or a diaper depending on how they tie it. Many of the women still wear traditional headdresses. Most women and children wear tanika (sp?) – a white face paint designed to work like sunblock. Kids often get creative, each wearing distinct tanika designs that wrap around their features. Just about all men over the age of 16 or so chew something called betel nut, a red sort of fruit wrapped in a tobacco leaf. (Think chewing tobacco that makes your spit look like blood.) Judging by the dark black color of their smiles and the horrific noises they all make when they clear their throats (like hawking a loogie for 30 seconds at a time), this has given just about every man in the country some form of throat or mouth cancer. The nut is allegedly slightly narcotic. Not sure I can vouch for that, though I will report that it makes your mouth go numb almost immediately. I couldn’t do any further experiments for fear of losing my travel companion.

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Burmese kid, proud to pose.

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Burmese family. And Kaytlin.

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Myawaddy, the border town abutting Mae Sot, gave us our first taste of something we’ve gotten much more used to over the past month or so – the stare. Whole groups of men crowded around tables in front of local tea houses (which play the same role as local watering hole bars back home) would stop what they were doing to gawk at the Westerners. They were rarely, if ever, menacing stares; people always returned smiles, waves and a friendly “min-ga-la-ba” (hello). But coming from an area where you’re a dime a dozen as a tourist, it was a big change. We immediately agreed that we had succeeded in getting off the beaten track, but wondered if we’d adequately considered the ramifications of that.

The reason we had to stay in the grubby little border town of Myawaddy was the foreboding road of death that separated it from the larger lowland towns of southeast Myanmar. The road was only wide enough for traffic to go one direction, so it changed directions (east-west, west-east) every other day. We had trouble finding our way to a bus to make the journey (there was basically one guy, the town’s only tout, that spoke English), and after much gesticulating ended up in the back of an early 90s Toyota Corolla station wagon alongside about 200 3-liter bottles of Thai soda pop for the 8-hour journey to Mawlymine (I still can’t pronounce it, don’t try). I’ll not sully the reputation of our 18-year-old driver, but there is only one reason that soda would be transported from a crummy little border town to a larger city 200km away, and it’s not because there is a soda production plant in the border town. So we set off with our smuggler and his skirt-wearing associate up into the mountains, with the road going from pavement to rocks to dirt. Views were incredible, as were the hairpin turns. We immediately thanked our lucky stars we had decided to pay the $15 for a private driver for the day as compared to the $3 bus when we saw one of the busses, roof loaded with various boxes of goods, tipped on it’s side. The windows were broken out and the occupants were gathered on the side of the road. Our driver snaked our compact smuggling machine around the side of the bus and continued on our way. We stopped one other time for an hour or more, our destination 4,000+ feet below us, after a truck tipped over.

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Illicit cargo.

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Bus tipped over between Myawaddy and Mawlymine.

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Nothing to see here. Just a Corolla full of orange soda and white people.

Part of the reason this border crossing has not been open to foreigners in the past is that this region has seen a low level civil war for most of the country’s history. The Karen people were one of dozens of distinct ethnic groups that were more or less left to their own devices during British colonial rule. The Brits, busy running India, didn’t have the time or energy to fully subjugate the ethnic hill tribes of Burma, instead preferring to buy a local chief. After the colonial party ended following World War II and Burma was finally granted independence, the Karen didn’t take well to the ethnic Burmese from the Irrawaddy river delta area running a central government. The violence has died down in most (but not all) of the country in recent years with the move towards democracy and the government’s efforts to get the ethnic groups on board. Given the guerilla violence in the area, the road had several checkpoints were we were required to show our passports to men with large semi-automatic weapons. It was never quite clear to us who was Burmese government and who wasn’t, as some were in uniform, some in army fatigues and some in plain clothes, but just about all the armed men were more interested in practicing their meager English, asking us where we were from and shaking our hands. Over the course of our journey, our driver gave out no less than a dozen bribes/road tolls/taxes (this is all sort of a nebulous concept in Myanmar).

Arriving in Mawlymine, we checked into our $14 horror movie set of a hotel room (plywood wall painted blue, single bare lightbulb, dirty mirror for ambiance, Burmese man making zombie noises in the bathroom down the hall – very David Lynch-y) and slept a fitful sleep. We awoke to rent a motorbike and see the town. There are a lot of cliches you see over and over again in travel books, but the ones about “atmospheric colonial architecture” are the worst. In general we’d been let down by these sorts of towns thus far in our trip – Cambodia had a few cool old buildings, but most remained in such a state of disrepair and were surrounded with such abject sadness that it was hard to find much charm. But Mawlymine, which has been a temporary home of both George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling in years past, was different. Pictures don’t do it justice and I’m not architecturally inclined enough to wax poetic, but it seemed frozen in time unlike any place I’d ever been. It was much like the stories I’ve heard about Havana, Cuba – almost a living history piece.

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The surround countryside was just as sublime – vast rice paddies, occasional palm trees and towering karst formations topped by ornate Buddhist and Hindu temples. We even got to see the world’s largest reclining Buddha – big enough that you can walk around inside his head. The inside of Buddha’s head was remarkably drafty and unfinished for someone who has achieved enlightenment, but maybe there’s a message there for our “monkey minds.”

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Mythical creatures.

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No one home in Buddha's head.

From there it was a couple hours to Hpa-An (Paw-An), another small town with a collection of caves and mountains around. Another motorbike ride (by far the best form of transportation man has invented) around the country side bought us to Zwgabin Mountain, with amazing views from the Buddhist monestary on top. Buddhists believe that you can b reincarnated as an animal. A distant relative must have ended up as a Burmese dog, because we had quite the guide bringing us up the winding trail to the top.

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Hundreds and hundreds of Buddha statues at the entrance to Mount Zwegabin

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Up, up, up.

Then it was about 10 miles of terrible dirt road to Saddar Cave, one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful places we’ve been on the trip. There is a large Buddha statue in the entrance. Behind that, the cave continues for 500m or so through winding, vast passages. The cave has a light system, but we couldn’t locate anyone who looked to be in charge. With a borrowed headlamp on the end of it’s battery life and the light from the LCD screen on my camera, we made our way through the cave barefoot (this is a holy place, mind you) on mud and bat shit. We almost turned back when the lights suddenly came on, revealing the roof of the cave 100 feet above. At the end of the cave you come to a clearing that opens up to an impossibly scenic lake filled with ducks and flowers. (Don’t tell Hallmark.) For a couple bucks a boatman will take you on a little canoe ride around the lake, through another cave and onward through a canal between rice paddies.

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Cave entrance

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Taking pictures to see where we are going.

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Light at the end of the tunnel.

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Pffff.

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Then on the way home our bike got a flat tire several miles from the main highway. We limped back to the road to find a changing station. It cost $3 to fix.

From there we headed to Yangon, the country’s capitol. The city itself is what we’ve come to expect from large Asian cities – crowded, hectic and smelly, but not without its charms and quirks. The country’s closure to the outside world over the last few decades is most obvious here. Beautiful colonial buildings in various states in decay have had new signs slapped on them in the last few years as relaxed trade controls have brought a huge influx in Western amenities that used to only be available to well-connected military men. Each street seems to specialize in one specific item – our guesthouse was on washing machine street, perpendicular to cell phone and Haines underwear street.

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Pushing the paddy wagon.

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Our stay in Yangon was drawn out longer than we would have liked due to the wonder that is the Indian embassy in Yangon. We arrived on Monday morning. With processing time being 72 hours, we figured this gave us enough leeway time to ensure w’d have our visa in hand by the end of the week. But upon arrival we discovered that the embassy only accepts visa applications for about an hour and half every morning (something of course not mentioned on the web site.) Back the second day, we braved an unruly line of more than 100 at the front steps and finally got in the door with mere minutes to spare before the end of the acceptance period. Once there we discovered that the embassy would only accept US dollars in pristine condition and that ours did not pass muster. We pleaded that a delay would throw off our whole travel itinerary, but didn’t get too far. And so, back a third day, we finally got our application turned in (complete with the form that requires you to write down every specific serial number of every bill you were turning in – they’re masochists). But that meant no visas in our hands until the following Monday. We were quite frustrated, though from talking to some Indians about it it sounds like the process for them getting an American visa isn’t much easier.

We celebrated by going on a ride around Yangon’s decrepit local train system and heading out on foot to find Aung San Suu Kyi’s house on Inya Lake. You can’t see much more than a large gate with some National League for Democracy flags next to a busy road, but it was cool to see the spot where she’s given some speeches that are legendary amongst Burmese. Watch the documentary Burma VJ on Netflix for an idea.

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Later we visited the Shwegadon Pagoda, a 325-foot high gold covered tower that is the holiest sight in the country for Burmese Buddhists. This was quite a sight to see – a bigger version of some of the more serene monuments we’d seen earlier in the trip – but it was also just about the only place in the country we visited that felt like a tourist trap. (Would Buddha really approve of $8 entrance fees for foreigners and free wifi?) Still, the pagoda really did glow in the evening light.

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You've gotta be zen as all get out to meditate around hundreds of Chinese tourists.

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Two monks walk around Shwegadon Pagoda, occasionally stopping to take selfies on their phones.

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Pagoda sweeping committee.

We also took a ferry across the Yangon river to a small village on the other side. After spending 20 minutes trying to dodge the persistent rickshaw drivers that wanted to give us tours, we spent the afternoon wandering around little dirt paths with ornate Buddhist and Hindu temples and smiling and waving at the kids that had just gotten out of school. The little village was maybe a kilometer away by boat, but it may have been worlds away from the highrises of Yangon. Ancient Asia the European explorers used to idealize is never very far.

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Hindu temples are by far the most flaming.

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No less than 40 live chickens tied to a bike on the ferry across the river.

Stay tuned for the second half of our Myanmar adventure from a much prettier author. The people of Myanmar really were what made the trip – unceasingly friendly and interested in you and flattered that you would come visit their country. We would generally be stopped several times a day on the street by people wanting to pose with us for pictures and practice their English. On a long trip like this it’s easy to focus on the negative effects of tourism – Western influence displacing local traditions, whole streets and towns being turned into Disneyland, etc. – but places like this remind you why you travel.

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One response to “Myanmar: Part 1

  1. Great post. I couldn’t quite find the words to describe Myanmar when we were there, or even still, so I am glad that you have documented this account with such color. “No one home in Buddha’s head”…. just as it should be.

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