Hello, friends! Kaytlin here. And it’s all my fault. I could blame our blog silence on India’s haywire internet or our break-neck travel pace but the truth is that I’m not half the writer my dashing counter-part is and it takes me twice as long. So, apologies for the lack of travel updates. I actually wrote a majority of this post three weeks ago but got distracted by a troupe of giggling Tibetan refugees. More on that later.
In the meanwhile, picking up where my professional partner left off… Myanmar Part 2! Whilst being caught in the photogenic but somewhat unentertaining Yangon, we decided to take a few days out of the big city to a town we initially skipped due to time constraint (the Indian Embassy was really just making sure we were getting our due time in the south).
Golden Rock (Kyatako Mountain… another name we’ve attempted and failed to pronounce) is a gold-painted boulder precariously perched upon a cliff 3000 feet above sea level. The site is a Buddhist holy spot and worshippers come from all over the country to walk the 7 miles up the mountain and pay respects to the golden lollipop at the top. We were surprised to find out (the hard way) that many people start this journey at 1 or 2am in order to catch the sunrise at the top. We were awoken by fire crackers, loud music and general merriment outside our cabin. The trail to the top is filled with shops selling everything from bottled water to fried goat, Coca Cola to a murky opaque liquid we later learned was rice wine, individual whiskey shots to huge bamboo pop guns that have “USA” carved into the stock. There’s enlightenment of all kinds.
The path is well-worn by Burmese worshippers and business entrepreneurs – we were never alone on our trek, but that made it all the more fun. As I said, folks come from all over the remote countryside so we were greeted with a variety of suspicious stares and sometimes what appeared to be genuine fear. But with a smile and an enthusiastic “ming-a-la-bah” we almost always got a friendly smile and a shy giggle out of even the most serious villager.
After about 4 and a half hours we made it to the top and collapsed at the foot of the glowing rock. Only men are allowed to approach the rock and glue fresh pieces of gold leaf to the side (it’s good luck) but many pieces fall off and create a shimmering rainfall over the ladies waiting at the bottom. More interesting to me than the rock itself was the entire town that has formed along the mountainside, which you could explore for hours. We also witnessed some sort of Buddhist exorcism where a prayer leader cast the demons out of a line of pilgrims, for a donation of course. But she split it with the musicians. The best part about the day was that we were able to get a jeep back down the mountain so we didnt have to hike back. I am going to write the US Parks Service and recommend this for all mountains, everywhere.
After successfully procuring our Indian visas (high five!) we took a night bus north to Bagan, the site of over 2200 Buddhist temples from the 11th to 13th century. King Anawratha started this massive building project to celebrate the kingdom’s shift from Mahayana Buddhism to Therevada Buddhism. The history is not unlike the Khmer Angkor Wat temples, but the landscape couldn’t be more different. Bagan is mostly flat and dry as sand paper, especially in the dry season of January. There are small footpaths that connect the temples and it’s possible to take motorbikes, bicycles, or horse and cart through these sand pits. The really magical way to see Bagan is from above, which is easily accessed from one of the secret staircases leading you to a temple terrace or for a few more chyat, you can take a hot air balloon at dawn and count the temples by sunrise.
We wanted to take more time here but the days were dwindling down until our flight to India, so we headed next to Hsi-paw, a dusty little town northeast of Mandalay with Shan villages and well-reviewed treks. Our friends at Distant Visions of Curry (who are from Kansas City!) suggested a Burmese guide named “Lion Man”, a nickname garnered because of his wild, long mane of hair. We learned later that he had another nickname, Mr. Hangover, not because he suffers from them but because he hands them out as freely as he hands out cups of his delicious jackfruit rice wine. Despite his reputation, Lion was an excellent guide and on our first day we covered enough ground that it was necessary to learn “hello” and “thank you” in three different languages. I have not done much formal trekking, but Caleb said that this was his first trek where the highlight was the food. Burmese food usually consists of a mountain of rice surrounded by small-but-oily trays of condiments that you mix into your personal taste, and if you want to be truly local, you mix them in with your bare hands. The meat is selected out of a variety of pots at the front counter. Usually you have the option of chicken, mutton or fish and the process of picking became what Caleb affctionately coined “point and pray”. The effect is a personally tailored meal which is usually delicious but should immediately be followed by a nap to settle the carbs/meat/oil gut bomb.
However, the mountain food we encountered on our trek was filled with fresh cauliflower, okra, mustard greens, long beans, and pumpkin. Oh my Buddha, the pumpkin. The meals were prepared by friendly host families who would spy at you shyly from the corner to guage your enjoyment.
Besides the eats, the trek also weaved through some beautiful mountainsides and small ethnic villages. We met Shan and Palong villagers who reside a few kilometers away from each other but have different languages and religious beliefs. We even stopped for coffee in a shop that was playing a CD of some old Christian Gospel songs. Lionman told us that British Missionaries had found their way into this blink of a village and they now practice a wholly unique Animist-Chistian fusion. Along the way were shrines and spirit houses built for the local “Nat” – spirits that control your good fortune. Villagers will bring all of their new objects, babies and motorbikes alike, to these shrines and pray that they have a healthy future. The villagers were overwhelmingly friendly and curious about us, sometimes shyly so. We often saw bright eyes peering out at us from the shadows of a grass-roofed hut. Once again, the Unicorn mask proved to be a great equalizer. It comes in where language ends.
We took the day after the trek to recover in the comfy town of Hsipaw where we managed to find both great coffee AND guacamole. (CALEB’S NOTE: And a Seahawks Superbowl win experienced mostly via Twitter!) If that didn’t already win our hearts, we were surprised by the amazing presentation we got at the palace of the last Shan Prince. There’s a lineage of Shan tribe royalty that dates back to the 11th century but the most recent prince was seen as a threat to the military dictatorship and was sent to one of the infamous prison camps for his “crimes”. The family was split apart and his Austrian wife was forced to flee the country with their two children (the next Shan Princess is now living somewhere in Colorado). When political prisoners were being released in the 1990’s the government claimed that the prince was never taken into custody and his fate is still an unconfirmed mystery (the family strongly believes he was executed because of his support and power in the Shan state). The most amazing thing was that we were able to sit around the coffee table in the manicured parlor of the palace and listen to this damning story of government abuse from the mouth of the Prince’s family. Until last year the nephew who currently lives in the Palace was forbidden to speak to tourists and was even imprisoned for his loud mouth in 2007. However, with the increased freedom under the more warm and cuddly current military leaders, the family opened the royal doors to travelers six months ago and we listened to the nephew’s wife, the picture of diplomacy and class, frankly recount her family’s persecution. To see the pride with which these true victims of government abuse regarded their new precious freedoms was inspiring. She opens her home every day and sits with strangers in her foyer in return for donations and outside literature (they were piecing together a small library of government banned books and publications).
We sadly left the sweet little town and left for one night in Mandalay, the 2nd largest city in Myanmar and universally regarded by tourists as a crappy transit town. We planned less than 24 hours there because of this but managed to catch a show by a comedy troupe called The Moustache Brothers. Performing vaudevillian style satirical skits, this 40 year old group have also been imprisoned for their political flavor and locals are still banned from attending a performance. One of the brothers passed away recently and the show is a little worse for the wear, but the rebellious spirit persists despite outdated jokes and some unintelligible English. (The repeated USA joke- “Obama! Black like me!”)
It’s been about 2 months since we left Myanmar but it has become the place we enjoy talking about the most. Our time in India has only highlighted the drastic differences between the two countries, close as they are geographically. It’s certain to change, we could already see the negative effects of tourism in Bagan (scamming tuk tuk drivers, kids dropping out of school to sell postcards at the temple). We can only hope that the money generated from future tourism finds its way into the right hands and that the Burmese have a hopeful and optimistic future.