Published: March 8th 2011March 6th 2011
Sunset over the Ayerwaddy River
The Ayerwaddy River begins in Tibet - where it is known as the Nu - and is a major resource for Myanmar
Myanmar Part 1
This 'blog' initiates our series describing our time in Myanmar (Burma to some).
When entering Yangon (known by the British as Rangoon - a term we prefer), we immediately knew we'd stepped into another 'space'. It was not until we started to 'do' things that we realised how different the 'reality' of this nation is compared to neighbouring states. We figure that the relative poverty and friendliness is sort of like the Khmer of Cambodia, and the business way of life a bit like the way the Han of Vietnam do things.
When working, the 'dial-up' speed of the internet is unbelievably slow. And, the military junta have blocked so many websites that it's almost impossible to legitimately access anything from western websites. But, as in other repressed nations, the local 'tech-heads' have ways to get around these hurdles.
We initially wrote this 'blog' while in Myanmar, and published it without pictures. Since our return to Australia, we've uploaded pictures to show aspects of our adventure. As always, if you want to 'see' more detail in an accompanying picture, click it to enlarge.
Most Myanmar girls/women decorate their face with Thanakha - a paste made from ground sandalwood. Some say it's as a sunscreen, others decoration.
Monday 28 Feb.
Given the schedule adopted by AirAsia, we left Bangkok early and arrived in Rangoon at 8:30am. We'd read that only taxi's are allowed at the airport, so after being told US$8 pp for a ride to the city (10k away), we set about haggling. We got it down to $6 for both of us.
Within a few miles, we realised there appeared 2 kinds of vehicles, very very old, clapped out vehicles, or quite modern ones. For cars, the majority were (largely smallish Japanese) cars or utilities built in the 1960's to 1970's, (mostly the workhorses; taxis, goods carrying cars, etc.), with the pre-2000 aged Toyota Corona, Pajero, Landcruiser or Chinese made 'jeep' being reserved for the 'wealthy'. Trucks similarly support the 'divide'; either clapped out old Rio's, Fuji's, even Chevy Blitz' buses from WW2, or quite new trucks. We've been told by countless people we've come across that the newer vehicles belong to Junta members, their households, or their 'authorised' merchants.
Arriving early at the hotel, we 'parked' our bags and headed in the CBD (a mile away). WOW!!! What a ratrace. We've encountered cluttered footpaths (sidewalks) before, but not
like this. The streets are dusty and dirty, the footpaths are similarly dirty. The streets are potholed, many having more road-base showing than tar. The footpaths are broken, and there are gaping holes into drains everywhere. The footpath space is occupied by single traders selling anything and everything. Largely, the footpath traders sell small items like wallets, fake jewelry, sunglasses, etc., and as one wanders along, one sees the same goods repeated over and over. And, in between, there are the food vendors - the food being exposed to flies, dust, grit, smoke, spit - you name it. Oddly, the shopkeepers sell much the same goods. The explanation we give ourselves is that a long way back in time, a shopkeeper set up a footpath stall, the powers that be (if there ever were any) didn't comment, and every other shopkeeper set up a stall. Now, they and other poor people eke out a living by pitching a table on the footpath after dawn to sell crap.
We decided that after the 'worm' writing of Thailand, the Myanmar writing looked decidedly googly!!
Knowing that we only had US$, and needing to convert some to Kyat, we went in
Myanmar number plate
We felt Myanmar writing to look 'googly'.
search of currency traders. In fact, it was the other way around, everywhere we went, someone would come up and say Hello, how are you? Do you want to change some money?
We'd ask the going rate, and decline as we wanted to get a 'handle' on the exchange rate. Eventually we thought we had got a fix and decided on a seemingly respectable 'gentleman' with the going 'rate'. What followed was surreal. We thought we did the exchange - we counted the money, he queried the US$, and after some haggling, we agreed. Back at the hotel, we found that we'd been swindled. In the overall perspective, it wasn't a huge amount. But because there are no ATM's in Myanmar, it meant a dent in the 'bank' we'd brought with us.
Feeling gloomy as we'd been 'ripped off', we headed out in the evening back to the CBD for dinner. We found a great little Biryani cafe and enjoyed life (cheaply).
.....more of the same, but different
When we 'land' in a new nation, we like to just amble around the city (of entry) and get
a feel for the place/people/culture. Today was no different. We headed back to the CBD, and went on a walking tour (self directed). The British left behind many fine buildings. Sadly, the economic circumstances in Myanmar have not been kind to their upkeep.
To understand the reasons, perhaps it might help to explain a little of the history (according to our understanding). After WW2 (in 1947), long time independance activist called Bogyoke Aung San engineered full independance from the British. The Burmese Aung San was able to coordinate/unite the major clans in the country; the Shan, the Chin, and Kachin, and this gained support from the minor clans such as Mon & Rakhiang (amongst many). Despite gaining 'hero' status and his party sweeping the ensuring elections, 6 months later, Aung San was gunned down by a political opponent. The replacement leader (U Nu) was no statesman. The nation fell into a parlous state and the disenchantment felt by the various clans enabled a communist insurgency to begin which really destabilised the nation. By 1958, the military intervened and elections were held in 1960. U Nu was voted back in but 2 years later the communists under Ne Win assumed
Almost all women use their heads as a place for carriage. Maybe that's why they smile - they can't nod back as 'hello'.
power. Using an adapted Russian model of socialism, the nation apparently went into complete ruin very quickly. Civil unrest saw many of Rangoon's Indians (brought to Burma by the British to build railways & roads) and Chinese (brought as merchants) get killed and/or deported (those 'up country', were largely spared). In Rangoon, mostly the Chinese 'led' the financial sector, and the Indians provided labour. The nations went from worse to disaster. To assume control, Ne Win leant heavily on the use of the military to quell the clans' 'wayward' views. As the economy came to a halt, the people took matters into their own hands and pro-democracy demonstrations began from 1987. Some 3000 deaths in 6 weeks saw an end to that effort, and in desparation the now aged Ne Win handed power to the military and passed laws empowering the military to exercise martial law over the whole country. There were elections in 1990, but the military weren't about to give up their new found power; so they locked up the vote winner (Aung San's daughter - Suu Kyi) and banned her party. As many know, and most of the Myanmar people we meet want to tell us, the
While this is a little away from the central hub-bub, it amply demonstrates how the Rangoon streetscape limits a pedestrian's ability to 'sightsee'.
military are raping the country for their own pockets, limiting personal freedoms, and doing nothing for the people (unless it coincides with their own interests).
Back to our 'self guided' tour. We were finding that in spite of the economic circumstances, life is quite vital in the side streets of Rangoon. Part of our 'self guided' tour coincided with a needed for a few supplies. For example, we'd left our travel packet of cotton thread behind, and finding a need, went in search. Though there are tailors in many places, we couldn't find cotton. We were eventually directed to one street. There, nearly every second shop sold cotton. In the process of looking for, and finding, the cotton, we realised that business in central Rangoon must have been organised by the Chinese, who historically located like goods in the one street (and nowhere else).
In the afternoon, we went in search for a travel agent to give us advice about travel options. The man recommended was brilliant; he spoke perfect English (better then us), reassured us about money issues, and advised on the various travel options, places, etc. After being swindled, and somewhat losing confidence in Myanmar 'honesty',
Yangon River 'port'
Unloading/loading a riverboat.
his free advice was very comforting.
By evening time we'd 'found' the Yangon River - it was behind much corrugated fencing. The reason for the fencing was to be able to restrict entry, and hence impose a charge. There we found river boats being un/loaded by Indian 'coolies'. These labourers are incredible. Many were running from boat to shore and to truck with 2 sacks of rice. These large sacks weigh about 40kg. To our novice eyes, it was pandemonium. Boats were being both loaded and unloaded at the same time. Bodies were going in all directions, and then there were the 'counter' men in strategic positions - counting each man's movement of goods (assumedly to be paid later in the day). But, in this chaos there was organisation - it was just hard for us to fully detect the whole structure.
As the sun was setting, and the breeze cool, we found a quiet barge on which to watch the goings on. The barge was also next to the ferry 'terminal' for workers going home on the other side of the river. The ferries were swallow-tail boats. A swallow-tail boat os a largish longtail boat but has
Unloading cargo - Rangoon style
With piecework as the measure, many of these guys were running with their loads
two large 'fins' at the rear a bit like a swallow-tail). These boats were lined up, bow first, against a stepped concrete bank. There were dozens lined up, side-by-side. We noted that each - when heading off - seemed destined for a different part of the bank on the other side. While we westerners have bus numbers, with no obvious markings we couldn't figure how anyone would know which boat went where. Workers would walk down to a loaded boat and when 20 passengers were seated, the boatman would manourvre the boat away from the bank and start the muffler-less engine; what a noise!!! As the boats departed under motor, quite a few passengers would throw up the remains of their lunch rice (everyone seems to carry a stainless steel lunch tin). Down would swoop the waiting seagulls (we have attached a little vid of this - above).
So, as the sun set in a dusty red sky, noisy swallow-tail boats ferried workers to their homes, and the sky overhead was but a huge flock of seagulls swooping and diving for their daily feed. And, as mere viewers, felt aligned with Rangoon.
Entrance halls to ShweDagon Pagoda
The podium on which the Pagoda sits is surrounded by a maze of amazing structures. With 4 'entrances' (each aligned to south, east, etc., there is no shortage of places in which to pray.
Today we needed to organise ourselves to depart Rangoon. We'd pre-booked accommodation which would end Friday. The travel agent indicated there was a day bus to Mandalay. We'd factored in a flight (US$100 pp) before we left Oz, so the bus option (US$10 pp) would help our budget. We had to go to a place not far from our hotel to find the right bus vendor. Fortunately, all went well. We organised to walk there early am the next day, where the vendor would taxi us to the bus terminal some 15k away.
Next we had to change money. The travel agent advised us that there were several 'honest' black market vendors, and the street vendors merely traded with them. We went to one, and changed with such ease that our banks in Australia could learn lessons.
After lunch we went to the ShweDagon pagoda. Dagon was the Burmese name for the place that is today Rangoon. The pagoda is the jewel in Myanmar Buddhism. Though heavily trafficked with barefoot citizens, monks and tourists, it has a calmness that just can't be explained. The central 'ornament' of the
For many Myanmar Buddhist's, visiting the ShweDagon Pagoda completes their every aspiration.
pagoda complex is a huge stupa, covered in more gold than is said to be in the British banks. Surrounding this stupa are dozens of fine, decorative buildings. We spent all afternoon relaxing and being in 'quietude' amongst literally hundreds of chattering people. For us, and our experience there, words really fail to describe the place. Even pictures fail to do the place justice.
We stayed till after sunset to watch the reflected setting sunlight alter the golden colour of the stupa.
.....more of the same
As simple as it sounds, we did much the same today as the other days we spent in the CBD. Perhaps the only difference is that we felt in control.
An enjoyment we were starting to really enjoy is the Myanmar tea house. These 'establishments' are shops serving black &/or white tea, coffees, cool drinks, small parcels of food, and other enjoyable foods. The Indian ones also sell Roti's, Chappati's, etc. The Burmese ones sell pasty like parcels filled with curries, etc. The white in the tea/coffee is with condensed milk, and so si sweet (as
Gambling, Rangoon style
Late one day we stumbled across this group gambling, using bottle tops & a dice.
well). We read before we came that these places are a Myanmar 'institution' in every city. For us, they are a great way to get out of the (oppressive) heat, and enjoy what is really a slow, friendly city.
.....the Road to Mandalay
We read that the book The Road to Mandalay was written by Rudyard Kipling - who, we read, never took the road, nor went to Mandalay
. To us, in relation to our experiences of Myanmar (to date) this oddity is unsurprising.
The bus departed on the most potholed pavement, jerking and bumping in every direction all at once. Mmmm!!! we thought. Fortunately, after about 20k, we entered a 4 laned concrete highway. This highway took us all the way to the outskirsts of Mandalay (a distance of some 650k). For our comfort, the Junta has done well. But, few vehicles use it. The toll charges prevent ordinary Myanmar citizens from using, and chainwire fencing at possible entry points ensures this is maintained. It was not uncommon to travel for 10 minutes without
Road to Mandaly - Junta style
The original road to Mandalay - such as it is in a potholed state - still exists as the only route. This 4 lane road is for the Junta, sycophants, and some tourist buses.
seeing another vehicle in either direction. For us, our hearts were reminding us that this money should really have been used to build schools, hospitals, etc.
The countryside for the first half of the journey was arid low hills. The landscape of the second half of the journey changed to plains, used for agriculture. This focus on agriculture is the reason for Mandalay. But, our comment on this we will write in our next 'blog'.
You can find that 'blog' here