We Should’ve Packed A Helmet

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November 2nd 2011
Published: November 2nd 2011
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Burma is unlike any country I’ve ever been to. It is wild and overgrown and filled with the loveliest people on earth. It is unbearable hot at times and horrendously dirty at others but it is home to some of the most striking scenery and historically rich monuments in the world. Golden spires are so common a sight that after awhile you don’t even turn your head to get a second look. Infinite stares and smiles are directed at you from behind betel (a leaf that people chew similar to tobacco) stained gums and faces smeared with thanaka (an ancient make up made from bark root). Monks in saffron and maroon robes walk nimbly through the streets collecting food and alms. Discomfort from heat and dirt force you to look at how comfortable and pampered your life is in the United States. This is Burma.

We barely made it to Burma. As of midnight the night before our 6 am flight we were still unsure if we were going. We knew the money situation in Burma was kind of complicated but we didn’t realize just how complicated. Here are the main ground rules:

a) There are no ATMs in Burma and you cant use credit cards anywhere, so you must bring ALL the money you will need with you.

b) You can buy things in either the local currency, kyats, or in U.S. dollars. Some places only accept kyats. If you use U.S. dollars they must be clean, crisp and new or they will be deemed worthless and refused.

c) There is no one single exchange rate. First there is the official exchange rate (1USD = 6.5 kyats) then there is a black market rate (1USD = 700 – 900 kyats). The rate differs depending on where you are in the country, how much you are exchanging, what denomination of bill you are exchanging, and how clean and crisp the bill is.

All of these rules meant that on our last night in Bangkok we needed to get a large sum of money out of our account and exchange it from thai baht into crisp, clean, brand new U.S. dollar bills before we could get on our flight. We had several complications. First, our bank would only let us withdrawal a certain amount per day, which was only about a fourth of our budget. Next, most of the money changers in Bangkok close at 8pm, the precise time we had to wait until to call our bank to extend our withdrawal limit. And finally, most of them only carry very old wrinkly, sweaty U.S. dollar bills which would be equated as toilet paper in Burma. We spent several hours trying to sort out all these issues. Have you ever tried explaining to an old Thai man with little understanding of English why you need to sort through his stack of bills and pick out the best ones? It is no easy task. Finally, after going around from ATM to ATM, calling our bank, then going from money changer to money changer we were able to navigate all of these hurdles and were ready to fly to Burma. It was 1am, and our flight was at 6am. Close call.


My first impressions of Yangon was that it was a very tropical, worn and weathered city. Large palms overflowed into the street and the air was heavy and damp. After napping for most of the morning we took a cab to the main tourist market downtown. Per usual I drooled over all of the amazing trinkets for sale - jade statues, jewelry, Buddha figurines, ethnic clothing and bags. And of course, I succumbed to the smiles and compliments from the street children and bought things that I didn’t really want or need (I’m completely and utterly defenseless against them). Next we ventured towards the heart of Yangon lured by a glowing gold dome in the distance. Colorful apartment tenements towered over us, the smell of food from small carts invaded our senses and cars honked and swerved in dizzying patterns. A large golden spire protruded from the center of a roundabout. “You want to see the paya?” a young Burmese man asked. “Sure” we said and followed him and his friends up the stairs to the Sule Paya, a large Buddhist monument. Our new friends showed us around and gave us a pretty thorough introduction into Burmese culture including a lesson on Theravada Buddhism, nat (spirit) worship, the monk uprising against the government and subsequent jailings a few years ago, and the constant struggle against poverty by much of the country. We also learned what days of the week we were born on (I was born on Friday – the same day as Buddha!) and ritually washed the Buddha and accompanying animal statue for our day of the week as is tradition. In fact, in many of the temples and spiritual places we have visited there are similar cleaning rituals that people do. Washing the Buddha is a very common one.

The next morning we headed back downtown to do some sightseeing. We walked up and down the bustling Mahabandoola Road through the Indian and Chinese district. The sidewalks were crammed with people selling food – weird slimy balls, things with tentacles, you know, the usual spread. We wandered on along the Yangon River dodging adorable children with well practiced speals (“my mom no money, my sister no money, my dad die”) and finally to the Shwedagon Paya, a much larger and even more stunning stupa than the one we had visited the night before. The Shwedagon Paya is in fact a national monument and symbol of Burmese identity. There are pictures of it displayed in hotels, restaurants and public places all over the country. Almost all Buddhists in Myanmar try to make a pilgrimage to visit the sight once in their lifetime. It is a massive spread out golden fortress with hundreds of small golden spires and one larger than life dome that towers above them all. It is especially beautiful at sunset when the bright gold contrasts against a bright blue sky. We spent several hours here walking around and talking to locals. People were very interested in both us and the opportunity to practice English.

KYAIKTIYO (Golden Rock):

The next morning we set off for Kyaiktiyo, or Golden Rock, a sacred site located about 5 hours east of Yangon. We had committed to traveling by bus for our entire time in Burma because the trains and ferries are controlled by the corrupt military government. This commitment proved to be challenging. Traveling by bus in quite an ordeal. It takes an extremely long time to get anywhere because the roads are how should I say this…not the best…and many of the buses stop every few feet to pick people up. We often wished we had packed a helmet with us to protect our heads from bouncing off the ceiling and windows. Fortunately, our trip to Kyaiktiyo was only 5 (uncomfortable) hours. Golden Rock, is exactly what it sounds like – a golden rock. It is a massive gold boulder with gold spire on top that balances precariously on a cliff. To reach it you travel to the small village of Kinpun and then either hike 11km straight uphill (about 4 hours) or take a 45 minute ride in a pick up truck and then hike up the mountain for an hour. Given the fact that we are pansies (and were low on time), we opted for the second choice. After waiting for the back of pick up truck to be packed tighter than we thought imaginable we headed up the mountain. The walk itself took us closer to two hours than 45 minutes (apparently we are not just pansies, but out of shape pansies). It was a beautiful hike up with sweeping mountain views and valleys below. All along the way there were vendors selling coffee, drinks, food and other oddities. My favorite were the stands that displayed rows of small bottles filled with herbs, spices and roots. Many of these stands had a bowl of some kind of brown liquids. The liquid was mixed with animal skeletons, bugs, roots and other squeamish looking things. It looked like some kind of mystical concoction. After a series of pantomimes I deducted that it was some kind of perfume, or at least something for your skin. Of course I had to buy some. Once we reached the top of the mountain we took pictures of the rock from afar (women aren't allowed out on the actual platform) and pretty quickly turned and began the trek back down. The adventure for us was really the journey there, rather than the rock itself although I know that it has much more spiritual meaning for the Burmese. It is believed that the gold spire on top of the rock contains one of Buddha’s hairs that was donated by a hermit in the 11th century.


After our descent down we checked out of our hotel and boarded a bus to Bago, where we would stop for one night to break up the miserably long distance separating us from our next location, Inle Lake. Immediately upon stepping off the bus in Bago we were taken under the wing of a young Burmese guy named Khin. Before we could argue we were perched on the back of two motorbikes whizzing through the downtown area of Bago, with our massive packs bouncing up and down behind us in the wind. Khin helped us get bus tickets, exchange money and then dropped us at our tiny, dingy hotel room for the night (by far the worst room we’ve stayed in yet). The next morning he and his friend drove us around on motorbikes to all the major sights in Bago, which was basically a lot of Buddha statues - Buddha reclining, Buddha sitting, Buddha standing. You are supposed to buy a $10 dollar ticket that covers your entrance to all of these sights, however, all of the money goes to the government rather than the maintenance of the sights as its supposed to. The motorbike drivers in Bago have invented a genius plan that not only helps you avoid supporting the government but also benefits them and saves you money. Instead of buying a $10 government ticket you pay $8 to your motorbike driver who then presumably pays off the people at the entrance of all of these sights and gets you in for “free”. Everyone wins…except the government. In addition to the many Buddhas described above we also visited one of the largest Buddhist monasteries in Burma and got to help serve the monks their lunch (white rice and stew). We stopped at a snake monastery where a boa constrictor lived a very comfortable life as it is believed he was a monk in his past life. Burmese people stop by throughout the day to lay money on top of his scaly skin while a woman prays over him in thanks. Its quite a sight. And finally, we visited another golden stupa, a replica of the large one in Yangon. Although it is taller than it’s Yangon counterpart, it is much less visited. After a full hour of sightseeing Khin dropped us off at the bus station and we were on our way to Inle.

T's pics: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thejarvisproject

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2nd November 2011

Claire, how do you go back to an office job after an adventure like this. I am currently sitting at a desk, reading your blog and daydreaming about a trip that will one day take me away from this computer. Have your recent travels encouraged you to explore international social work? Or are you satisfied with school social work here in the U.S. I have applied and paid for the SW exam in Wi, yet I haven't registered for the exam yet because I don't know the WI statutes yet and I'd much rather be flying to another country than studying. Anyways, I wish you good health and a good rest of your adventure!
2nd November 2011

This is quite the adventure! I am awe struck by the amount of ground you've covered and all the food, people and experiences charted in your blog. You two are so brave and blessed! It makes me want to get out of WI and see something!! I have to admit I'd never do it alone - but you have inspired me! Hope to talk soon. We are having a girls weekend at the lake (Nov. 4-5) and that is the most exciting event planned this month. Emma has submitted her senior picture which either Sam or I took and is complaining loudly and often about high school and how she can't wait to be done!! The first quarter is over and the year is going quickly. Sorry we didn't get up to Skype but Em had a sleep over the night before in which no one slept until way late including me. Keep up the insightful blogging - really worth reading!

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