Min-gala-bah from Burma!

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February 18th 2009
Published: February 18th 2009
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Yangon (Rangoon) and breaking promises about hanging with Antipodeans

Mingalabah means "hello" you stupid people! But you should see it in Burmese (Barmar) script, it's like Thai but with added squiggles and the number 8 sideways. Marvelously unique to match the equally weird country.

Anyway, location-wise I'm currently at Inle Lake in the centre of Myanmar (Burma), in some hot internet room with people babbling in the background; I'd tell them to shut up in Burmese but I might end up saying "thank you very much, it is very hot", weird looks all round. The internet is 1994-levels slow and some sites cannot be reached because of the government. They must have been particularly sensitive around here because my guest house and other internet places have been disconnected by the authorities. Yes, this is a convenient reminder to all of you that this place is pretty fucked and its human rights record (slave labour, repressions, insurgency, press restrictions etc.) are probably up there, Stalinist North Korea is maybe only worse. I've just come off from a three day hike from a place called Kalaw (a former British hill station) led by a wonderfully knowledgeable guide called Robin Singh - a multilingual Sikh from the area. Anyway, I should give you a update on stuff.

Yangon - formerly known as Rangoon and formerly the capital of Myanmar which is formerly the country of Burma. Keep up! So, it's full of weird-looking gold encrusted Buddhist temples, called payas and little tear- drop towers, called stupas, as well as run-down old colonial buildings. It's dilapidated beyond belief but it's got character, not that it's easy to notice what's above you, the pavements are just the worse I've ever seen, they might as well have kept with mud and grass, they are so dangerous with humps, holes, slabs, obstacles. If I'd do one thing for this country, it wouldn't be democracy it would be new pavements.

The one thing I'd say about Yangon is it's shabby but much like Havana, Cuba - it has an attraction to us visitors, it's shitty for the inhabitants but exotic for us. Pretty weird huh? The former British colonial areas mainly the Strand where the famous hotel is and the old Post Office and court house are all rather grand but run down. The other thing I'd say is that their zoo (Zoological Gardens) is a disgrace. Yeh, so I went to a zoo in a third world country, what did I expect? Well, elephants in foot chains swinging their legs back and forth in a trance, Himalaya eagles (world's largest bird) cooped up in cages, hobbling around looking like they wanted to top themselves, wild cats hiding in their cages, otters and monkeys doing the I'm a nut routine and all within very shitty concrete surroundings. I felt guilty but then got hijacked by some local students who wanted to practice their English on me so I helped out! A side note is that this country is so isolated from the outside world and not exposed enough to English that what English they do have is pretty bad - but they at least try to practice.

So, I got a two-hour question and answer session from 4 lads varying from 17 to 21 years old. They did the familiar, creeping up on you when you least expect it as you're gazing at the stir crazy monkeys style of attack. They seemed nice enough and when you're asked, "what is your name?", "how old you are, where are you from - mostly in a robot-like way, you can hardly reply with, "fuck off mate, I'm busy looking at animals", can you? In Murtagh world at least, no. Anyway, so me and my eager groupies got out of the very hot sun, sat down at a food stall and had some lunch, well, I ate a nice fried noodle thing as they watched me eat. We chatted, and went over whether "howdy partner" was a suitable phrase for meeting people or not. Bizarre! I got to sort out pronunciations of Burmese which I wrote down and we had some laughs, they were really appreciative of my time and information on how to say things and the differences between past future tense and past perfect arse balls etc. I didn't know myself!

So, what about the people in general? Well, the men all wear longyii which is this skirt thing tied up around their waist. It's very fetching, but looks shit on white balding men, of which I've seen a few examples. The women are pretty and exotic looking, and they wear this green makeup daubed over their face called thanakha which also works as a sun screen. When they wear it with red lipstick they really are very beautiful, some even look like tigers as they daub stripes with a toothbrush! Everyone looks at you here, they don't get many visitors and the white skin is a give away in this part of the world. They are very inquisitive about you and they love it when you speak the lingo with them - great big beautiful smiles. It's a cliche now, but one which never fails to raise your spirits. I've learnt a few words like hello, thanks - chez-u-pey, goodnight - kondohneeyabah, excuse me - ta say lou, how much? - be-lao-lay, yes - hoh-keh, no - mahapu. It's not too much but it gets you by and it's more than my fellow traveller is managing to speak - nothing at all and not even trying.

Yeh, two Johns together- he's a Kiwi/Aussie who is here for the month tourist visa like me and I met him on the hotel bus from the airport. He's not very talkative, smokes and lives in Cairo as a tour guide for the region so his mind has been infiltrated with the Muslims are all victims complex, self-loathing Westerner blah blah blah. Anyway, it's cheaper traveling around together than solo so we've put up with each other, travelers of convenience so to speak. I'll let you know if and when I dump him - could be soon as I'm itching for my own company as well as freedom of intelligence.

Other sights in Yangon, well first I don't want this blog to be a list of things I've see and taken photos of - totally boring in my opinion. This is a deeply Buddhist country so the temples are massive gold encrusted things, monasteries are everywhere as are the monks in robes. One of them from the Arakan region got talking to us at the 1,000 year old famous Golden Shwedagon Paya and it was a delight to be able to ask him questions about his vocation (12 years a monk, learning Bali -Sanskrit which is the language of the Buddha) and about life in the monastery. It's really nice to be mutually appreciative of each other's culture - plus he had very good English as well as a ready smile - always makes things that much easier.

Yeh, that's how I'd assess this place so far, smiley and friendly. I also got told I was "very handsome" by the receptionist at the Motherland Inn (2) I'm staying at, complimentary too!

Next blog will be updating you on Bago, bus trips, being frisked by the secret police and my blister inducing treks.


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