Myanmar

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Everyone that I talk to who’s been to Myanmar says it reminds them of Thailand 50 years ago.  All of those people are under the age of 50, so I am not sure how they know this, but they seem very sure of it. As long as we’re making analogies, I am going to go ahead and make one too.  Myanmar reminds me of Cameroon today. I find it interesting that when I say this, as someone who has been to Cameroon and Myanmar but not Thailand 50 years ago, people identify my real time analogy as the obscure one. If you haven’t been to Myanmar yet, I suggest you go so you can make your own analogy and get there before the hoards of elephant panted drunks ruin it, otherwise your analogy will be “Myanmar is like Thailand today”.

Myanmar is really into mirrors and so was I

Myanmar is really into mirrors and so was I

A little background… Thailand and Myanmar are not best buddies.  Another analogy, they are kind of like the US and Russia.  We’re “friends”, but not friends. In Thailand, the Burmese are frequently the scapegoat for crimes and in all the movies, they are the bad guys. Sound familiar? In 1767, the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya, which, at the time, was the capital of the Kingdom of Siam and one of the largest cities in the world. They burned it to the ground and Thais still aren’t over it.  Thais are taught in school that Burmese are dangerous, so my students kept warning me to be careful when I go. In reality, the Burmese were incredibly friendly and haven’t been tainted by the tourism industry yet so they were genuinely welcoming. Also, until recently, Burma has been closed to outsiders due to the military dictatorship. Many parts are still inaccessible. Since it has recently been opened, there is a rush of tourists, including myself, to see it before it’s too late. As a result, everything is incredibly expensive.  For example, high demand for hotels, and no hotels because they’ve never needed them results in $40 a night for a room that would cost about $5 anywhere else.  While it’s still WELL behind other SE Asian countries in terms of development, hence my reference to Cameroon, it’s changing rapidly. Two years ago, there was one ATM in the whole country; when I went in February, I had no problem finding one. Wifi was almost non-existant and people aren’t allowed to have cell phones unless they are granted a SIM card via the government lottery system, which I believe allows about 500 per month; that is nothing for a population of 53 million. Like any kind of contraband, a black market for cell phones has developed. If you’re planning to go, take crisp new US dollars. They inspect them meticulously and if they have a small wrinkle or crease, they won’t accept them. Buddhism in Myanmar is strong.  Red robed monks are everywhere. I see maybe one or two a day in Thailand, but in Myanmar I would see 100+ in a day. The food is delicious.  It’s a fusion of Thai and Indian, imagine how hip that will be in America some day.  Anyway, here’s what happened when I went…

Like all my other trips to countries in SE Asia, my trip to Myanmar started at the embassy to get my visa. Former military dictatorships/currently oppressive regimes always seem so concerned about visas. Luckily, the Burmese embassy is in Bangkok so I could just go there and get it taken care of.  Unluckily, every soul searching SE Asian backpacker was also able to find their way there from Khao San Road.  You have to drop off your passport on day 1 before noon and then pick it up on day 3.  I have a history of fainting when I am standing for a long time in the heat; imagine the Six Flags Superman ride line the summer it opened… hello Six Flags medical team. At 11:30, it had been an hour, standing up against a white wall in direct sunlight and 90+ degree heat with about 200 people still ahead of me.  I knew how this was going to end.  I was also dropping off Bom’s passport (he’s Thai) because he had to work. I called him and told him I didn’t think this was gonna happen.  20 minutes later, he showed up on a motorcycle, took both passports to the Thai line which had like one person in it and things were taken care of.  When I went back 3 days later to pick up the passports, I was first in line, but some Thai people pushed me out of the way and when I showed them my slip for having to pick up a Thai passport, they were very embarrassed, which I was very happy about.  I got the passports easily while the backpackers all played the waiting game again.

Bike.

Old bike and bike parts

First stop was Yangon, formerly Rangoon.  We arrived in the evening and took a taxi to our hostel. Before we got to Myanmar, Bom told me that Burmese people call Thai people Yoda, like from Star Wars.  I was pretty confused but whatever.  So we got in the taxi, which, by the way, is terrifying because they drive on the right side of the street with the driver sitting on the right side. Picture this.  The driver asked where we were from and when Bom told him Thailand, he started saying Yodiah! Yodiah! at which point I realized he wasn’t saying Yoda, he was saying Ayutthaya.  Burmese call Thai people the name of the city they brutally sacked. Nice. At night, the streets are all dark.  It’s incredibly peaceful for a city but a reminder of just how closed off the country has been. We arrived at our hostel and were warmly welcomed. We were exhausted so we went to bed.  Besides the freight train tracks right outside the window, the earthquake (literally) and the lack of AC, it was a pleasant sleep. I’ve actually had much worse.

What the Brits left behind

What the Brits left behind

The next morning, we got an exorbitantly priced taxi to take us to meet Pearl.  A Burmese friend from home hooked me up with his mom who is a travel agent and she was incredibly helpful (thanks Lu). We met her and picked up bus/flight tickets and chatted with her before our day of Yangon exploration. Yangon was under British colonial control and the architecture reflects it.  However, since the British left, it has been overgrown and not well maintained so the contrast between the vines and broken windows and and Corinthian pillars and domes is thought provoking.

Congrats Grads

Congrats Grads

After parting with Pearl we found our way into a church in the city center, and unknowingly crashed a graduation ceremony. Whoops.  While trying to find the bathroom, we were enthusiastically waved into a room with a table covered in bowls of noodles. We hadn’t eaten yet and this looked like as good a breakfast as any.  The Burmese people sat us down and gave each of us a bowl and then poured a steaming ladle of stew from a giant witch’s cauldron into each one. Bom told them he was “Yodiah” and they were very happy and excited.  While Thai people are generally unfriendly and distrustful of Burmese, Burmese people are welcoming and warm to Thais. Bom also knows how to say hello in Burmese (ming ga la ba) so they were super excited about that.  The only word I understood was “mohinga”, because I had read about this famous Burmese breakfast food.  It’s a fish stew served over noodles, and after trying it in the basement of this church with a bunch of Burmese people, I can say that it has well earned reputation, and I don’t even like fish.

Breakfast noodles, pre-mohinga

Breakfast noodles before adding the mohinga

Contraband

Contraband?

We left the church and continued wandering through the city.  This is the only trip I have ever used a guide book on, because there’s really not much info on the internet, and it was incredibly helpful.  Use the Lonely Planet guide if you go, they have a great walking tour map that we followed, among other great tips and general information. Speaking of books, there are a lot of street vendors selling tattered old books and magazines in English.  Want a Newsweek from 1993? Look no further.  The military government put strict controls on all media and educational material so this kind of stuff was/is not easy to come by. There are English textbooks stacked next to Sports Illustrated stacked next to Star Trek. It’s very eclectic. They sell a lot of Kipling, probably because of his famous “Road to Mandalay” poem.

We stopped into the Strand hotel, which was one of the most luxurious hotels in SE Asia at the time that it was built.  It is still very nice but its surroundings have obviously changed. We just went the to use the bathroom and feel 10 minutes of AC.

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Betel nut prep

People in Burma love to chew betel nut.  I have seen it in other parts of SE Asia and India among older people, but again, since Burma has been so closed off, it’s still widely used by all ages.  Betel nut is a seed from a specific kind of palm which is wrapped in a leaf and then chewed, similar to chewing tobacco. It is a mild stimulant, kind of like a cup of coffee. People who chew betel nut are very obvious because it stains their teeth and mouth red. Betel nut is also gross because you have to spit, same as tobacco, and people spit red EVERYWHERE.  On the street, against trees, in stair cases, basically on the corner of anything. So pretty much everywhere you go is covered in red spit.

Need to make a phone call?

Need to make a phone call?

As I mentioned before, cell phones are very hard to come by.  But people still need to make phone calls, so voila, street phones.  These set-ups were all over the city.  Instead of pay phones, there are “businesses” with plastic chairs set up next to a phone with the cable running into a building. If you look carefully you can also see the reddish-brown betel nut stains on the sidewalk and on the table legs.

Beep beep. Yangon city bus.

Beep beep. Yangon city bus.

Transportation is Yangon is, developing, I guess you could say.  Taxis are really expensive and we didn’t attempt the public bus because I can’t even guess where this thing might take us. For some reason, I get really annoyed by travelers who say, “Just get on a city bus and see where it takes you”.  I think it’s because when I travel, I travel with purpose and this isn’t my style.  If your idea of an adventure is to take a bus to someplace you don’t know and then try to figure out how to get back to wherever you need to be, let me offer some advice from someone who has done this accidentally, it’s a huge pain in the ass. It also tells me you have done no research about the place you are visiting so you have no idea what to see or do and the best thing you can come up with is to get on a bus. People take buses to go to a specific place, that is their purpose.  Their purpose is not for your misguided “adventure”. Yes I agree you can meet people who you may have not met otherwise, but why can’t you do that without getting on a bus? Anyway…here’s me with a goat head.

This this was heavy

This thing is heavy, please take the picture so I can put it down

Cluck cluck.

Cluck cluck.

We wandered the city for a while and bought a big sack of little oranges which we ate and gave away to people who helped us.  Our next stop was the market.  I have a sick fascination with the butcher section.  Bom does not.  Too bad for him. I think it’s because in America, we have no clue where our meat comes from.  We’re so shielded from it that I find it really interesting to actually see it.  In Thailand, the markets still have butcher sections so this is nothing new for Bom. I love animals so animal cruelty people can spare me their complaints on this. Humans are omnivores, we eat meat and as far as I’m concerned, these developing world butchers are allowing the animals to live and killing them in the most humane way possible.

I'll take 3?

I’ll take 3?

The market is also filled with spice vendors.  They have big sacks of all sorts of things that I’ve never seen or smelled or tasted.  This is where you can get that cliche feeling of the “mystery of Asia” because you have no idea what they have in those bags.  It’s literally a mystery. I swear one of these old guys has the cure for all the world’s diseases in one of his sacks and he’s sitting back there at like 120 years old saying to himself, good luck suckers.

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The nice section of the market

We stopped at some of the other parts of the market selling puppets, fabric, gems, clothes, general bric-a-brac and crap from China.  There was nothing here that was particularly exciting or different from any other SE Asian market, but still very cool for a Westerner.

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Burmese Puppeteers

After Bom finally dragged me out of the market, we headed to a puppet show.  I pre-planned this because it sounded cool, and it was.  There is a place called Htwe Oo.  No that’s not a typo.  When we finally found it down a small back alley of a residential neighborhood, I knew it was going to be legit.  This is a family run theater, literally in their home.  They invite you in to their living room where they sit you down and teach you all about the art of puppetry and how to make puppets. It’s really interesting because they are just recently starting to see a sharp decline in interest for this type of art because TV is becoming more available to people. They do a whole show with lots of different puppets and at the end they let us try to do it at which point I realized that these people are seriously talented.  My puppet looked like a drunk stroke victim while the other guy’s was dancing the waltz.

Me and my new friends

Me and my new friends

Shwedagon complex

Shwedagon complex

The last stop for the day was Shwedagon Pagoda.  This is an enormous (325 foot tall) gilded stupa on the top of a hill in Yangon.  It dominates the skyline.  It’s incredibly holy for Buddhists and is said to house relics from several previous Buddhas. The best time to go is sunset so we timed it perfectly.  This place was truly impressive. The whole complex is massive and there are many buildings orbiting the main stupa. To enter, you must pay, of course, and take off your shoes which is a sign of respect in Buddhism.  You also can’t wear shorts which is why I walked around all day in a pair of pajama pants from Uniqlo.  Not complaining.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

So much golden

So much golden

This is a site of pilgrimage for Buddhists so there was a real mix of people here.  Some tourists, lots of big loud Chinese tour groups, Burmese monks, Thai monks, other monks and plenty of regular people just coming to pray.  I also heard a lot of Thai which was strange because now I can recognize it and understand when I hear it outside of Thailand.

Lady monks praying

Lady monks praying

As the sun started to set, they lit oil, a lot of oil and it made a ring of fire (and a lot of smoke) around the whole stupa.

The real ring of fire

The real ring of fire

As the sun set, the colors on the Pagoda and the contrast against the blue sky was truly magnificent.

Shwedagon stupa at sunset

Shwedagon stupa at sunset

Sunset at Shwedagon

Sunset at Shwedagon

Night at Shwedagon

Night at Shwedagon

That concluded our whirlwind day in Yangon and we went back to the hotel for a peaceful nights sleep next to the railroad tracks.  On the plus side, it was a little cooler and there was no earthquake, or maybe we just slept through it.

The next morning, we ate our free breakfast banana and got another exorbitantly priced taxi to take us to the bus station. Since Pearl had booked our tickets for us, we had a nice bus, thank God because some of the buses chugging around Yangon look like they belong in a transportation museum. We were en route to Bagan via the strangest highways I have ever been on.  They are brand new 8-10 lane highways but they have like 1 car on them.  I guess the military government is expecting big things.  The drive took us through the farm land.  Next to these massive expressways, the farmers were tilling their fields with their buffaloes.  Such a strange juxtaposition. When we got close to Bagan, we got on more local 2 lane roads, which is where we drove past a convoy of 10 tanks.  Yes, just 10 tanks with soldiers crawling all over them, driving down a road in a cloud of dust.

Temples in Bagan

Temples in Bagan

Bagan is one of the most spectacular archaeological sites I have ever seen and I never even heard of it until I started researching this trip. It’s located in central Myanmar and from the 9-13th century, this ancient city was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan.  Over 10,000 temples and other monastic buildings were constructed during the height of the empire from 1100-1300 and the remains of about 2200 are still standing.

Yeah right.

Yeah right.

We found our hotel at the end of a dirt road on the edge of the very small town of New Bagan. The picture above is the view from our rooftop.  And those are not birds on the ground, they are plastic bags. Like Thailand, there is a complete lack of awareness of how bad plastic bags are.  Plastic bags are technically banned in Bagan, but this is obviously not enforced. The plastic bag epidemic is not only evident on the plains of Bagan, but everywhere else we went too.  Our first night, we got in late, after sun set so we just walked in to town to get dinner and see what was up.  It’s really sandy and dusty in this part of Myanmar and during the day it was near 100 degrees Fahrenheit  so we were basically disgusting for every minute of the trip.

Our stallion

Our stallion

The next day, we had a really good free breakfast (it should have been at $45 a night for one of the cheapest hotels in town) and walked across the dirt path/road to rent an electric bike from a family living in a thatch house built on stilts on a pile of sand. The heat and our laziness ruled out regular bikes and you can’t get scooters, so this battery powered, Chinese made, electric stallion was our only option.  This thing was a workhorse for us, but man, what a piece of shit.  It was like a toy.  More on the shitiness of this thing later.

We started out at the morning fresh market.  This was a pretty standard SE asian fresh market except it wasn’t as nice as other countries, again, it reminded me more of the rural markets in Cameroon.  Bom was saying hello to everyone in Burmese so they all thought that was great so I got some good pictures.

Burmese woman in Bagan

Burmese woman in Bagan

There was an old dog wandering around that Bom wanted to feed and a woman gave us something to give to the dog and also signaled to us that we should try it.  Well, if it’s good enough for that mangy dog, it’s good enough for me.  The dog didn’t like it, but I did.  It was like maple candy; most likely it was made from palm sugar.  Basically it was just balls of hardened sugar.  Mmmmm sugar…  In the picture you can see the white paint on the woman’s face.  This is VERY common in Burma.  They say it’s good for your skin, but it is a sign of beauty in their culture.  It’s more common among women, but men and boys wear it too.

Burmese sugar balls

Burmese sugar balls

We pretty much just drove around to as many of the temples as we could for the rest of the day.  A few of them are more well known, for various reasons, but the majority of them are just temples. Inside they all have at least one big Buddha statue and various other statues and frescoes painted on the walls/ceilings.  They’re all pretty dark and much cooler than outside. My favorites were the less touristed ones because they had spider webs and piles of dust and felt almost abandoned.

Inside one of the smaller temples

Inside one of the smaller temples

Frescoe

Fresco

Wildlife shot

Wildlife shot

Buddha in a cage

Buddha in a cage

Ancient Buddhist text

Ancient Buddhist text written on a frescoe

In Bagan, the souvenir vendors are EXTREMELY aggressive.  There are at least one or two set up outside every temple, and a small markets-worth set up outside the large ones.  They are selling puppets, lacquer ware, Buddha statues, sand paintings, and all sorts of other stuff.  If you even look in their direction, they are all over you so you need to walk with blinders on if you want to get into the temple without being harassed.  I finally caved and got a beautiful black lacquer box for like a dollar from one of the women with a very small set up at one of the middle of nowhere temples because she was the first person who just smiled and said hello to me when I walked past her.

Puppets hanging from a tree

Puppets hanging from a tree

We stopped at one of the more touristed temples and got bombarded with vendors; mostly kids selling post cards and stuff. Bom started chasing them around and playing with them, because that’s what kids are supposed to do, play.  He was chasing them through the temple and scaring them and they were having so much fun.  Then he gave them each a ball of sugar and they got really wild. I finally got them to sit down for like 10 seconds at the foot of a giant reclining Buddha to take a photo.

Bom and the kids

Bom and the kids

Later in the morning we took a dirt road into the plains without any particular plan.  The local farmers still farm around all these temples.  We drove through cotton fields and saw them drying some kind of berries on the front patio of the small temples.

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Small temple

Then we found this dude and his buffalo and cart hanging out in the shade by one of the temples, just totally in the middle of nowhere.  It’s so cool though, these people are farming and minding their own business (until we show up to bother them) next to a couple 1000 year old temples.  No big deal.  Bom said hello in Burmese which the farmer was very excited about. He let us check out his buffalo or cow or whatever large work animal it was.  I’m not sure what he was farming, maybe sticks, he had a lot of sticks.  He got a real kick out of it when I put my head in the yoke of his cart and took a photo. Stupid foreigner…  The men wear wrapped cloths called longis, like this guy.  I occasionally see some old people in Thailand with these, but they are very common in Burma.

Bom and the farmer

Bom and the farmer

Me being an idiot

Me being an idiot

I am chopping off Bom's arm

I am chopping off Bom’s arm

We followed the dirt road to one of the more iconic temples in Bagan.  This one is one that built by a crazy OCD king and they say it’s haunted.  He killed a lot of people while they were building it.  If the bricks weren’t perfectly aligned, he would chop off their arm.  They still have the chopping block in the temple, which Bom and I used to make a very accurate re-enactment.  This temple was legitimately eerie compared to the others.  It was massive, but very cold and dark  inside and it lacked the offerings to Buddha that all the others had.

Haunted temple

Haunted temple

Me being hot as hell in front of the haunted temple

Me being hot as hell in front of the haunted temple

Shaaaaaaade

Shaaaaaaade

After we had enough of the spooky business, we went to lunch.  Our friend D recommended a good restaurant at one of the few nice hotels  along the river in Bagan.  It was in the shade  and it had a bathroom with running water, which gave it 5 stars as far as I was concerned.  The hotel were really nice and there were even some temples on the grounds of the hotel.  These things were seriously everywhere.  We got some curries and veggies and for some reason French bean salad sounded really good to me at the time.  The place was deserted except for one other group so it was really peaceful.  So peaceful that Bom fell asleep at the table.

View of a temple from the hotel

View of a temple from the hotel

After lunch, we had more temple gazing to do. As I mentioned there are literally thousands of them. We got back on our electric bike and started checking out some of the big ones in the old center of the city. This big white one is the tallest in Bagan and was built in 1144.

That Byin Nyu Temple

That Byin Nyu Temple

One of the really cool temples has a huge statue of Buddha, but it’s unique because as you get closer, his face appears like he’s frowning.  As you step back, he has a smile.  Of course I only took a picture of smiling Buddha so you can’t see the contrast.  I guess you’ll just have to go and see it with your own eyes.

Smiling Buddha

Smiling Buddha

After checking out a bunch of other temples, it was getting close to sunset.   We wanted to go to a specific temple for sunset so we saved it for the end of the day. When we got to the temple, the “archaeological police” were waiting to collect money from us. Apparently you have to pay $15 to go to Bagan. My guess is that the bulk of this money goes straight to the dictatorship and very little, if any, actually goes to restoring the temples.  If you fly in, you have to pay this fee automatically in order to exit the airport and maybe you get some kind of receipt or something.  We came on a bus with all the Burmese, so we didn’t pay or get a receipt. They were checking receipts to get in to this particular temple and not only did I not have $15, I wasn’t about to pay these dudes since I know most of my money would get boffed anyway.  Strategy one, play dumb and pretend like I didn’t understand what they wanted and just ignore them and walk in.  Fail.  Strategy two, go to the payment counter and tell them I lost the receipt and I didn’t know I needed to keep it.  Fail.  Strategy three, sneak in over a temple wall via an overgrown patch of grass that may have been filled with venomous snakes. Some guy saw us and yelled at us.  Fail.

At that point, we were like, fuck these guys, this place is crawling with a bajillion tourists with their stupid sun umbrellas anyway, let’s go to a different temple for sunset.  So back to our electric bike we went. Bom went to put the key in the ignition and the whole ignition detached from the plastic frame and like fell into the engine compartment. Great. My rage level was pretty high at this point. I was hot, tired, covered in dust, and super pissed off about not being able to get into the temple, and now this? Luckily, I’m always prepared for idiotic things like this happening and I had a little screwdriver in my purse. Mrs. Fix-it was angry, the sun was setting and there was no way in hell I was about to watch it from a dirt parking lot full of tour buses. I tore that thing apart, I unscrewed the entire frame of the bike. While I was doing this, vendors kept coming over to me, like at least 5,  getting all up in my face trying to sell shit to me. I really lost it on the last guy trying to sell me a book. “Look at me right now!  Why the fuck would I want to buy a book?!”  Sorry pal. And of course, plenty of men came over to tell me I was doing it wrong and that they could fix it better.  Rage level increasing. Bom’s job quickly became to deflect all these idiots from stepping within a 10 foot radius of me, or risk a complete meltdown. I was able to get the ignition back to where it needed to be and jerry rigged it to stay in place by ripping off the elastic ear band from a medical mask (which I brought to keep the dust out of my mouth) and lashing the ignition to the frame of the bike before screwing the whole damn thing back together. We had about 15 minutes til sunset.  Vroooooooom.

Sunset at Bagan

Sunset at Bagan

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Bagan temples at sunset

Thank Buddha we were able to find a small temple about 5 minutes away that we could climb to the top of to watch the sunset.  There were only about 10 people up there and zero Asian sun umbrellas. It was truly magnificent.  The sun set behind a mountain over the Irrawaddy river.

Sunset in Bagan

Sunset in Bagan

After sunset, we rode back to our hotel.  My bike fix worked and the real miracle is that I fixed it without the help of any men.  Wow….  We had dinner and went to sleep after a long exhausting day so that we’d be ready to get up and do it again the next day.  1000 temples down, 1000 to go.

Good morning!

Good morning!

We started at a little market outside of town that we just rode to by accident. It was all Burmese people just doing their regular morning thing.  We bought some bread and went out on a pier with some monks to feed the fish. This is a really common thing for Buddhists to do, same in Thailand.

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas

There were tons of kids running around playing and we saw a bride and groom going down to the river to get wedding photos. We made a stop at the local temple and then continued on our way. We had a half day to explore so we headed out of town to an area that we hadn’t been to yet.  The plan was to fly in the afternoon, so I was a little nervous that the ignition would break again and we’d be stranded in some obscure location and miss the flight.  But whatever, we just went anyway.  Outside of town, we went to a temple that was just in someone’s backyard in complete ruins.  I loved this because I went through a phase where I wanted to be Indians Jones, and I definitely have not fully exited it.

Where are the booby traps?

Where are the booby traps?

We saw a couple other pretty cool temples and they weren’t in the main tourist center so we had them mostly to ourselves.  One of them was red and gold at some point, but had faded to pink and gold.  I think this was my favorite one. It was definitely not famous for any reason, but I just really liked it.

My favorite

My favorite.

Free water!  Drink up!

Free water! Drink up!

At some point we ran out of water and since we were away from the highly touristed areas, there weren’t annoying vendors everywhere, which was nice, but I needed some fricking  water.  Of course, when I needed one of these guys, there were none to be found.  I considered drinking out of one of the free water jugs that are left out, but I reluctantly decided against it. These clay/ceramic pots are all over the place in Burma. All I know is that they have water in them and usually a few lonely cups laying around.  I’m not sure who provides it (I assume the temples) or if it’s clean. But it was probably a good choice to remain dehydrated rather than experimenting.

Built by a queen

Built by a queen

Most of the temples in Bagan were built by kings.  But the last one we visited built by a queen. There were some herders moving through the area just minding their own business when we were there.

Goats!!!

Moo.

After many hours and visiting hundreds of temples, it was time to say goodbye to Bagan.  A lot of people say “oh if you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all”.  Not true.  Bagan is truly one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been and I am shocked that it has remained out of the limelight for this long. I can’t really put in to words how special this place is. Add it to your list.

Little girl monk.

See ya next time little girl monk.

Airport?

Airport?

Our next stop was Inle Lake.  We had to fly from Bagan so we went to the airport. This was an experience, but again it reminded me a lot of the Garoua airport in Cameroon. We were the first ones there except for a couple stray dogs and yes, I am talking about an airport. They hadn’t turned on the electricty yet, but we knew that we were in the right place because the chalk board sign behind the check in counter said there was an afternoon flight scheduled on Air Kanbawza, also known as air KBZ. I would describe this place as appearing post-apocalyptic but surprisingly functional.  I don’t think anything has changed since about 1950. The ball finally started to get rolling about a half hour after we arrived.  We “checked in” and got a sticker to wear that showed we were flying Air KBZ. We went through security which probably zapped me full of cancer rays, but it was all pretty efficient.  There were about 10 people on our flight and we walked out on to the tarmac and saw our plane. I’ve never seen anything like this thing. It must have been bought from some former Sovier Union block country’s air force.  It was pretty beat up. Good thing I am not terrified of flying or I would have turned right around.  There was basically “turbulence” from the minute the engines turned on but there was no going back now. That plane was rocking and rolling like we were going through a hurricane, except we were in a cloudless blue sky. I really thought this was the end. I was holding on to the arm rests with a literal death grip as if that would have saved my life when this thing dropped out of the sky into some God forsaken Burmese mountain side. I’m not a religious person, but I said a few Hail Marys on that flight.  When we gracefully smacked down on the runway, I had a long list of promises to God that I needed to fulfill.

There is only one way to get from the airport to Inle Lake; in a taxi controlled by the mafia. So it was like $75.  We found one other guy our age, Steve, so we joined up with him.  There was also a French family of four.  We wanted to join together and take an 8 passenger van and split the price. The mafia didn’t like that and said we had to take two cars even though we could have all comfortably fit in one. After some arguing, we saw that there was really no way around this so we split up, and spent $25 each instead of $10, and took two 8 passenger vans into town.  It’s about an hour drive from the airport to the town, so we had a chance to get to know our new friend and ended up getting dinner with him.

Inle Lake fishermen.

Inle Lake fishermen.

Crepes for breakfast

Crepes for breakfast

Inle Lake is surrounded by mountains and is pretty cold in the morning, especially if your hair is wet. Our hotel, Hotel Aquarius, was awesome.  They also served crepes for breakfast, instead of 1 banana like most of the other places we stayed.

Inle Lake is famous for its fishermen.  They skillfully row their fishing boats with one leg and it looks like they are dancing on the water. There are 4 main fishing villages around Inle and they are mostly built on stilts in the lake. People travel primarily by boat and subsist on fishing and farming in floating gardens.

Inle Lake village

Inle Lake village

The three of us took a private day tour of Inle, which was dirt cheap, like maybe $7 each or something. We took a longtail boat out of the main town, and went through the floating gardens into the village.

Group photo

Group photo

Tourism is fairly new for these guys, so we got to see some really authentic stuff, however the tour boats definitely have a circuit that they follow. We first stopped at a little village and saw guys making things out of silver with a little fire and a bellows. There was a temple with lots of stupas and a market selling fruits and vegetables, crafts and other stuff for tourists.  We continued on our way through the village, via boat. There are no roads or cars or land, so people go to school, to a friend’s house, to the store etc. by boat.

Woman at Inle Lake

Woman at Inle Lake

People from this area are very talented weavers.  They make special fabric from lotus flowers that is used to wrap Buddha statues. They also make beautiful silk and cotton textiles. Our next stop was to see some of these women. There were hundreds of wooden looms set up with women, young and old, artfully weaving all sorts of beautiful fabrics. I bought a red and yellow silk scarf from them.

She has been weaving for 70 years

She has been weaving for 70 years

After the weavers, we appropriately went to a boat building shop. I loved this, of course, and the guide had to pull me away from watching these guys planing wood to make the hulls of the ubiquitous long tail boats. I mean look at those chops and the inner arm tatoo, this guy totally looks like a sailor.

Boat builder

Boat builder

After the boat building shop, we went to a cigarette/cigar rolling workshop. This was cool to see, although I wasn’t as interested in this as I was in the boats, so I went back outside to watch the boat builders again and got pulled away, again.

Rolling cigars

Rolling cigars

After lunch, we took a trip up one of the small rivers that flows into the lake to go to Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda. We passed this guy taking the family buffalo out for a walk.

Taking the family buffalo out for a walk

Moo?

Buddha blobs

Buddha blobs

At this temple there were some Buddha statues that people have been putting gold leaf on for many many years.  Now, they are just blobs of gold.  As a woman, I actually wasn’t allow to approach them, so I had to sit further away while the boys got up close to see them.  One thing I can say for sure, the Burmese love gold Buddhist stuff. After this stop we continued on to another temple.

$15 at Whole Foods.

$15 at Whole Foods.

As usual, I was really thirsty so I bought a huge coconut when we arrived. There were a bunch of kids playing in the river where we docked and everyone was waving to us and smiling.  The temple was at the top of a big hill.  To get to it, we walked under a covered walkway, filled with souvenir vendors, of course.  They must have been on a break or something because they didn’t harass much. We were also the only people there, which was kind of weird considering how many vendors there were. As we got closer to the top of the hill, we could hear the tinkling of lots of little bells. At the top of the hill, there was a really amazing chorus of bells ringing from the tops of the stupas.  I took a video of it, so now is the time to turn on your sound.

This was pretty much the end of our day at Inle. This is another must see if you’re travelling to Myanmar. It’s probably the most relaxing place I went on the whole trip and I wish I had more time there, but I had to get moving to the last stop, Mandalay.

Monk express.

Monk express.

The plan was to take an overnight bus to Mandalay, and when we finally got on it, it was actually pretty nice. The thing that sucked is that the bus company picked us up in a shuttle and took us to the “station” 3 hours before the bus actually departed.  This station was basically a dirt clearing on the side of a road with a couple houses/shops. I had the option of sitting in the dirt or sitting on a plank suspending a trash pit.  The trash pit actually didn’t smell so I sat on the plank, for almost 3 hours. Bom found some local kids and I guess he went to play Super Nintendo or something with them while I got stuck making polite conversation with some “we’re finding our true calling in life” backpackers. When the bus finally came, it was much nicer than I expected.

Washing Mahamuni Buddha

Washing Mahamuni Buddha

In Mandalay, there is a famous temple with a huge golden Buddha.  It’s a major pilgrimage site outside the city and it’s well known because every morning at around 4:30, the senior monk comes and washes the face of the statue and brushes his teeth with a giant toothbrush in a very elaborate, formal ritual.  We arrived in Mandalay around 4AM so we just went straight to the temple to see it. When the ceremony was finally over around dawn, we were exhausted so we went to our hotel and took a nap.

Trishaw

Trishaw

We only had one day in Mandalay, and it started with a half day food tour from Grasshopper Adventures.  It was excellent. It ended up being a private tour because we were the only two people.  Our guide took us to our transportation, trishaws.  These are like bikes with a sidecar.  I rode solo while Bom and the guide rode on the other one; one person facing forward and one person backwards on the sidecar seat. These might be the slowest form of transportation I have ever been on, but they were cool.  The drivers were wearing longis (the traditional man skirts) and they got caught in the gears 0 times.  These guys were pros.

That's a lot of people on one bike

That’s a lot of people on one bike

Our first stop was to get some breakfast, mohinga, the same fish stew that we had in the church basement in Yangon. It was delicious, unsurprisingly.

Mohinga

Mohinga

Stop number two was the local fresh market.  This was in an old two story market building.  There were lots of fruits and vegetables, many that I had never seen, and even a few Bom had never seen which was interesting considering the two countries aren’t far from each other.

Colorful Tomatoes

Colorful Tomatoes

In Asia, there are a million different kinds of noodles. Think about it like in America, we have all different kinds of bread, or in Italy there are lots of kinds of pasta.

Burmese noodles

Burmese noodles

After the fresh market, we went to a tea shop.  There were lots of people there drinking chai and eating dumplings.  These things are called baos, for Chicago people, think Wow Bao.  They’re basically a big white pillows filled with pork or something. We tried 3 different kinds of tea.  They were all REALLY sweet, so I didn’t drink much.

Tea and dumpling party

Tea and dumpling party

Next was lunch.  I was so full, but I just kept eating. Pearl had told us that there was a Burmese version of Khao Soi, which is a Northern Thai curry and noodle dish, called Khao Shwe. Khao soi is my favorite Thai food so I had to try this Burmese version.  Burmese curries have a LOT of oil, like a centimeter deep oil slick on the top of all the food.  Our guide told is it’s to protect the food or something.

Khao Shwe, get in my belly

Khao Shwe, get in my belly

At this point I had already reached the point where I was so full, I was shallow breathing, but we had one more stop.  I soldiered on.  The last place served pickled tea leaves, called lahpet.  This is really unique to Myanmar, it’s their national dish.  It’s basically pickled or fermented tea leaves served as a salad or with some other condiments like sesame seeds and ginger. I’ve never had anything like it, and it was delicious.

Lahpet

Lahpet

It can also be served in salad form.

Pickled tea leaves salad

Pickled tea leaves salad

My observation of Burmese food is that it’s a really interesting fusion of SE Asian curry/ginger/fish sauce flavors mixed with the spices of India, which makes sense because of the location of the country. Everything I ate was so delicious, and I didn’t feel sick at all, except for the fact that I overate, but that’s my own fault.  Our trishaw drivers took us back to the Grasshopper office and dropped us off and I was in full food coma.  But, since we only had one day in Mandalay, taking a nap wasn’t an option.

Kuthodaw Temple

Kuthodaw Temple

 

We asked our guide if he could hook us up with a driver to take us to a few of the other sites around Mandalay for the afternoon. He did, and the first stop was Kuthodaw temple. This temple houses the world’s largest book. The whole thing is inscribed on upright stone tablets that are housed in 729 individual white stupas. This place was really peaceful and I almost fell asleep under a tree due to various forms of exhaustion.

Monks at Sutaungpyei

Monks at Sutaungpyei

Next, he took us up to the top of Mandalay hill.  At the top, there is a large temple complex and a panoramic view of the entire city. Sutaungpyei Pagoda is another important pilgrimage site so there were a lot of monks wandering around. This is a cool open air temple with lots of archways and mirrors.  Bom straight up fell asleep on the floor like a beggar so I wandered around and took some more photos while he napped.

Me at Sutaungpyei in Mandalay

Me at Sutaungpyei in Mandalay

DSC_0001

Monk on U Bein bridge

Our final stop in Mandalay, and the whole trip, was U Bein bridge.  This is the longest and oldest teak wood bridge in the world.  It spans Taungthaman Lake outside Mandalay and it’s about 1.2K long. We walked across the bridge to the little village on the other side.  Apparently, one of the Kings of Siam, King Uthumporn, was captured when Ayutthaya was sacked and held here with 30,000 other Thais.  The art inside one of the temples shows hidden Thai influence.

The pollution here was really bad, soooooo many plastic bags everywhere.  There are garbage cans along the bridge and we saw someone just dump a full one over the side of the bridge into the stagnant water below. There were also some little shacks built on the flood plains where people were farming.

Farm at U Bein bridge

Farm at U Bein bridge

There were people selling delicious foods, like water rat.  Bom tried one of these crabs. It actually looked really good, but for a Thai person to eat one bite and then toss it, I decided to pass.

Hungry for rat?

Hungry for rat?

It’s also an amazing place to watch the sun set. I have never seen a sun set like this in my life and it was the perfect way to end the trip. I can sum up my advice on Myanmar in 2 words: Go, soon.

Sunset at U Bein bridge, Myanmar.

Sunset at U Bein bridge, Myanmar.

Categories: Bagan, Buddhism, Buddhist Monks, Burma, Myanmar, Ruins, South East Asia, Travel | Leave a comment

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