Burma (Myanmar)

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February 4th 2012
Published: February 5th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

The third and final stop of January: Burma(officially Myanmar now according the the military dictatorship currently in charge...the locals still call it Burma)

This is going to be a long one, it was an amazing trip with tonnes of little stories. Once again i'll put the topic of the sections in bold in case you want to pick and choose what you read.

OK, so the evening of the 18th my father and I (he had decided to join but a couple of weeks earlier) settled into a hotel and headed for the night market for dinner. We settled down at a non-descript stall with some rather delectable looking grilled fish and pointed at them emphatically. They were very good and cheap, and as we tucked in, from the group of locals we were sharing the table with, a hestitant middle aged man handed us an clementine each. Clementines in Burma are about the size of a 50 pence piece but the jesture of kindness still stood. He was with four others around my age who were too shy to speak themselves but we had a broken conversation with him. However, conversation was rudely interupted as a small parade of dolled up dancers with a dragon in toe came winding down the market banging drums and shouting, generally disturbing the peace. Our new friend explained it was the start of Chinese New Year Week. A brief walk around admiring the old colonial structures haunting the streets and we retired back to the hotel.

We did a little planning the first night, working out a rough plan and went about implementing it from 0730 the next morning. We stopped by the British Council/Embassy with little luck (Dad was running a few errands for a friend), then onto an agents to book flights up north where our plans were torn asunder...No where in the country accepts credit cards and there isn't a single ATM. In Burma, the words Visa and Mastercard are as foriegn as democracy and free-speech. This came as no shock to me, as i had perused the Lonely Planet guide cover to cover, and i assumed my father had done the same: he hadn't. All his planning was pinned on withdrawing money and suddenly the sh*tceremoniously hit the fan. I had brought 150USD under the usual assumption daddy will pay for me. He had come with 600USD, so we had 750USD collectively to get two people through 12 days of traveling. This sounds reasonable but Burma isn't set up yet for the tourist trade, and as we were to find out, there were hidden costs and some large price tags to come. To put it in some perspective a close friend, Marta, had just done the same trip and spent 800USD. A new plan was quickly drafted. There were to be no flights, night buses were to become our transport of choice and some destinations had to be scrapped altogether.

We then had to exchange our dollars to Kyat, the local currency, so we headed to a number of banks which was an experience like no other. Firstly, they quote different exchange rates for different notes, the bigger the note, the better the exchange rate. Then the dollars are only accepted if prestine, unsoiled and without a crease in sight. As we left the second bank that rejected one of our notes we were approached by a local mummering "change money" in a hushed voice. We knew this was sketchy but when he offered a flat rate better than any in the banks we sat down on his toy chairs to count his side of the deal. I counted, Dad was watchman keeping an eye on proceedings, assuring nothing sly was to develop. We were very careful with our cash, and i proceeded to count their piles, even trying to turn the table claiming piles were short when they weren't; they duly topped up the piles without question. In retrospect this was highly questionable but i was too caught up in the thought that i was winning! I counted how much we had agreed then took out our dollars, counted it out and handed it over...they rejected the 100 dollar bill as well. We stood and went to walk away and very surprisingly, they stopped us. I was never expecting it but they changed their mind and said they'd accept it. So we counted it out again ready to seal the deal...and that's when the sh*t hit the fan for the second time that day: we were now 100USD down. We counted again. Definitely short. We turned on them, never accusing them directly but using a very persecutory tone. They (of course) denied it but we continued. I think eventually they realised we weren't the type to play with. We were much taller, much bigger and angry. They suddenly accepted 100USD less for the same amount of Kyat - an exchange rate which could only be accommodated by those with a little extra cash tucked in their top pocket. To this day we're not sure how they did it or if we were still shafted some other way but we heard later in the trip of a couple who, over two transactions, lost 300USD.

With that stress and exhileration behind us and with a night bus to Mandalay (the largest city in the north) in mind, we headed to the Shwedagon Pagoda: the main attraction to tourists and buddhists the country over. The pagoda (giant golden conicle) itself was only half the draw with numerable smaller lavishly decorated shrines, statues and payas circumventing it. We walked, barefoot as with all buddhist sites of worship, around for half an hour between shadey patched to avoid the 30 degree sun until a local monk grasped the opportunity to practise his English. He explained each day of the week had an assigned animal and planet and you should worship the day on which you were born. I was rather chuffed with Neptune and an elephant for Wednesday...I furthered my frolicking as Dad was introduced to his animal: a rodunt we could only assume was a well-fed guinea pig. After departing ways with our monk we headed unwittingly towards our first real taste of Burmese lunch. It involves chosing a curry of your choice, being rather disappointed with the meagre portion and then being presented with a myriad of side dishes which engulf all remaining table space. We had no idea what most were but they tasted fine so we polished them off before jumping in a cab for the bus terminal. The terminal was, without exaggeration, the size of a small town! Fortunately our taxi driver knew which out of the countless coaches was heading for Mandalay. The trip from Yangon to Mandalay is the most trodden bus route in Burma and the coaches were testement to their demand: the newest fleet with the most leg room i've ever seen. It's such a shock for a country where my father and I, both standing above 6ft, are gawped at where ever we went. After 12 hours of the worst T.V i've seen in Asia (and that's up against some tough competition) we reached the Mandalay bus terminal and after a brief moped ride we found ourselves squeezed in a locals' truck heading for Pyin Oo Lwin (formally and for all intents and purposes: Maymyo, the old summer capital). We arrived and rolled into the nearest little shop selling breakfast. After getting over the shock of westerners (Maymyo really was off the tourist trail) one local came to talk. A nugget or two of advice later and he pointed us in the direction of one of the few lisensed hostels in town. The main reason for stationing ourselves in Maymyo, other than to meet locals, was to take the famous train journey to Tsipaw so our first stop was the train station. We were told two different times for the morning train form two different officials and it turned out the next morning both were wrong: Burmese scheduling at its best. We then found ourselves being sitting down with an elderly lady outside her house for biscuits and a chat as we were making our way through the town. She force fed us snacks and oranges as she prattled on about her old nunnery and Burmese life. She had learned English whilst in her nunnery and was one of the best English speakers we met. Interestingly she was the first (and only) person who gave a negative response to the name Aung San Suu Kyi (the country-wide loved freedom fighter and figurehead for the National League of Democracy in Burma). Everyone we'd asked up to this point had nothing but words of praise and love, but she didn't like the politician, though couldn't say why. Very interesting. Either way she went on to present me her 91 year old mother who lay in bed in the front room with the words: "come and look at her, she is very old...come and look at it!" We presently said adieu and heading back via the market and a milk shop (milk is a rarity, so getting your hands on the white stuff fresh was an occasion) for a quick nap.

Day 4 began at the station platform at 0730. The train was old, and the track had seen much better days which made for a rollercoaster ride as you were thrown between the laps of your neighbours and shaken up and down like a salt mill - but it was fun and we made friends. First a little boy came, sat next to me, and just stared at me. "Ming ga la ba" i said (hello)...i got just a smile in response. Eventually i took him through the photos on my camera, then took a photo of him and showed him. He loved it, so i tentatively let him loose with it. With no past experience, his first three photos were just of my father's belly...but to be fair, that's like trying to take a photo with no sand in it when stood in the Sahara. Eventually i helped him take a photo of his family sitting opposite (see insert). As they left at the next stop an older gent came over for a chat. He was a retired station master and taught us about his trade. We soon passed over the famous Gokteik Viaduct and onto Tsipaw and as the seventh and final hour of the journey clocked in i realised i was without my wallet. I searched all around the seat but with people coming and going and bag of produce under each bench it was hopeless. This was no help to the budget. Tsipaw was a small town with quite a few tourists as Lashio, a neighbouring town, had flights in and Tsipaw is the launch pad for tourists to go on tribal hikes. That afternoon, as dad took a nap I did a little budgeting, and we were in dire straits. There wasn't much in the wallet as most of my money was in my bag but never the less, our trip was looking very tight. We were planning to continue on to Lashio then try and disobey the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) and head further north to lands of Shan State north of Lashio tagged as off limits to tourists. All this was scrapped and the next morning we borded a bus for Mandalay where we connected onto Bagan. We arrived in Bagan, an area famous for its leviathan collection of temples, at just before midnight. We only found out quite how famous until we agreed a 500 kyat (50p) horse and cart ride to a hotel well rated in the Lonely Planet. It was full, the driver told us to jump back in and went on to rattle on 6 other hostel doors: all were full. Finally he pulled over at a collection of local men playing a board game by the street side. He explained his friend was going to moped down to one final hostel and ask there...we sat and waited...he returned 15 minutes later...with good news! one room; perfect! Even after all that extra effort the driver was happy with 500kyat, but we felt it only fair to tip him 1000 for his troubles. The next morning after exchanging stories with an israeli and two Brits we put an extravegant plan into action. We had heard only two hotels in the country accept card payments: The Strand and The Trader, both in Yangon. We'd also heard they are happy to charge more to your card and give you the difference cash in hand (i.e: a hole in the wall) so we went online to book a room. With the wheels set in motion on that plan we rented bikes and headed into the forest of temples.

The site is extraordinary! as far as the eye can see are temples. Different sizes, different shapes, different colours. The smaller ones were relatively uninspiring but still fun to explore by ones self. The larger had statues and hallsways to lose yourself in. Some had inbuild external staircases providing some of the best vistas i've ever witnessing. I loved Bagan. As my father headed back suffering fatigue i ploughed on through the shrubs and sand on my little women's bike. With so many little dust paths through the maze of structures it wasn't long before i was very lost and far from anything resembling a beaten track and found myself passing through a rural village where the local dogs went for my ankles. Eventually an Austrian and I helped each other work out where we both were and I returned to mount a night bus this time bound for Yangon with the promise of finally withdrawing money and breathing life back into our deprived pockets. We picked up a 2 hour time penalty as the driver threw the bus into a pothole obliterating the rear suspension but still managed to arrive on time.

We started Day 7 in a cab with a German/Chilian couple from the bus terminal into town to find a room. The very kindly offered to exchange some emergancy sterling Dad had brought which wasn't accepted in banks in Burma which relieved our worry, especially when Traders apologetically refused to let us use our card to withdraw money with them. However with this newly exchanged cash and thanks to Traders pointing us in the direction of one travel agent who can (on occasion) accept cards everything looked plausable. We booked flights to Inle Lake in the East, saving ourselves the cost of paying in cash for the coach. We had a long chat over lunch with the German/Chilian couple, and another unsuccessful trip to the British Council for my father's errand before returning to the hostel to get on booking hostels in advance: we'd learned from our close call in Bagan. Dad rang round 8 hostels mentioned in the book while i got chatted up by a middle aged Burmese women (Julia). She started conversation by offering me fruit and went on to explain she was Burmese but now resides in Phuket as there is little work in Burma and now owns her own tailors with her brother in Phuket. This made sense as after only 5 minutes of conversation she had emitted a vibe only prominent of a westernised tourist-polluted environment: she was brash, rather in-your-face, and littered the conversation in colourful curses. It appeared she'd taken a fancy to me and as long as she kept feeding me, that was just dandy. I stopped fooling with the women to help a stressed looking father and took over calling around finally managing to get us a (much over budget) room for one of only two nights at Inle Lake. It was all they had free. As we walked dejected from the reception, my old flame piped up and asked of the quandary. We explained the booking issue, our credit card naivity and how were found ourselves on a tough budget, not looking for any sympathy. From nowhere she chimes: "well let me help you. Yes, you're in my country and you should be able to enjoy it, here's 30,000 Kyat" (25GBP). From nowhere this previous femme fetale revealed the wings of an Angel. She went on to throw in 20USD. Once we had picked our jaws up and found ten synoyms for thank you, we beat a hasty retreat to our room. We sat in almost silence for half an hour trying not to choke on the colossal portions of humble pie we had in front of us. She had increased the budget by around 30% and without accepting a thing in return. In fact, minutes after parting ways she returned to our room with a hamper containing: clementines, a box of Thai chocloate and Ferrero Rochers. I asked if we could at least buy her dinner; she politely declined saying she was holding a few drinks for the staff in the hostel that evening and we should join. We obliged and spent the night with her and a bottle of whiskey hearing her story. To confuse us further this saint held a rough past. She had signed her own business under her first husband's name. Everything was peachy, until her mother fell ill. She returned to Burma to care for her but when she headed back for Phuket, she found her husband had sold everything and vanished without a trace. She recovered and later married a Burmese man. Whilst on their honeymoon she had met a Filipino girl in Thailand headed for Phuket who was terrified caught like a deer in headlights at the prospect of living away from home. She took her under her wing and put her up for a couple of weeks to let her settle in. Two months later the girl was pregnant...with Julia's brand new husband's baby. She had every reason to dispise the mere sight of men, and yet she had shown nothing but compassion for two strangers. If you ever find yourself in Phuket in need of a suit, head to Mike's Tailor, Banglore Rd (Mike is her brother, not another partner).

Day 8 started with an morning flight to Inle Lake. Sticking to budget, we had an elaborate bus based route from the airport to the lake (an hour journey direct) but a friendly Dutchman who appreciated our financial woes offered to take us in his cab for the same price as the bus fares. He had booked well in advanced and had a room. We had to rent a trishaw promising 1000kyat (1GBP) if he found us a room anywhere. Seven stops later and we were settling in at our preferred hostel who only the night before had claimed to be fully booked over the phone. It was greatly located and more importantly on budget. We went about organising a boat trip for the next day with Jeroen (our dutch friend) and two Americans in our hostel and it came to 15000 kyat for the day, or 3GBP per head for 7 hours boating around. That evening, we joined Jeroen for a streetside dinner.

We started the next morning on the water at 0800 with our pint sized captain on a long, thin boat much like those in Venice, with five deck chairs and a very noisy engine. We stormed across this beautiful lake circumvented by mountainous terrian towards a preplanned route stopping at: a market, through villages on stilts, a knitting loom sweatshop, a goldsmiths, lunch, passed floating gardens, a cigarillo producer, a pagoda, the jumping cat monastery (as it sounds), and finally the best part of the trip: stopping in the centre of this great lake and jumping over board. Everyone followed Dad's lead; including the driver. The trip, for me at least, wasn't too enjoyable as every stop was smothered in a haze of tourism. It was to be expected but i personally hate how tourists impact the attitude and character of locals and Inle Lake was an archetype. The locals lose patience, the sparkle wanes and it all becomes about the sell, sell, sell. I know this is hypocritical as i am myself a tourist, but i came to Burma to get off the tourist trail. If i wanted to hear Americans complaining there was no deep fried chicken, I would have headed for Thailand. That evening, as a boat, we went out for another market dinner.

The next morning we flew back to Yangon and booked our train ticket out to Kyaiktiyo for our last adventure. We also finally found success at the British Council and had a two hour long meeting with a Mr.Smart about potentially setting up links between a Burmese University and Cambridge (a request made by a Burmese friend of my father). Over two hours it was fascinating to get a in-depth and honest view of current affairs both academic and political from a diplomat who had lived there four years. To celebrate, we stopped by the neighbouring Strand Hotel for a beer, on the credit card. We then ended up staying for a slap up dinner...and presently returned to our 8GBP firetrap of a hostel.

The stark polar opposites of our trip continued the next morning as we boarded the ordinary class train bound for Kyaiktiyo, and the Golden Rock. It was clear everyone on the train was babbling on to each other about us but they spoke no English. Half an hour in to another bone shattering train ride and the food sellers started to patrol the isles. We had eaten so bought nothing. But the amicable local gent opposite Dad presented us with a corn-on-the-cob each, out of the blue. We accepted humbly and started a very broken conversation. He, and the guys opposite me, were drawn to my book, taking it from me to inspect it, leaf through it and point quizzicly at the words on the cover. The plump lady across from me continued to buy us fruits, berries and snacks all journey! She wouldn't take a polite no for an answer. Eventually the guy pulled out beetle-nut: a narcotic herbal concoction all Burmese men seem to chew. It turns their teeth a muddy red and requires you to spit every couple of minutes. I was dying to try it, and he offered it to us both. It was presented as a collection of berries wrapped in leaves and the whole carriage seemed highly amused as these foreign novices repeatedly misunderstood the frantic physical instructions being presented to them left, right and centre. Do i spit? Do i swallow? When does the feeling kick in? were questions all lost in translation and we evidently didn't read the hand jestures correctly as neither of us felt anything, other than fools.

From a nearby station, we mounted a heaving truck headed for the base of Mt Kyaiktiyo, where the Buddhist place of worship at the peak was to be found, centred around a precariously balanced Golden Rock. The guide book stated it was a 4-6 hour hike to the summit. This drove Dad to take the truck up with the promise of a beer when i caught up at the summit. I smashed the hike in 2hrs 15minutes. It passed through many villages with an abnormally large under 5s demographic. They knew the usual salutations in English...but would greet you with a chirpy 'Goodbye!' then say 'Hello' as you passed on down the path. We saw the rock, did the usual activity of buying and plastering a small patch of rock in gold leaf before heading back down the mountain through the sunset. We had a midnight train to wait for and killed time sleeping on the platform before a friendly monk on pilgrimage provided a welcome distraction. The train was an hour late and he happily filled the delay with stories of his life and questions on ours. The last day saw us wake up in Yangon station at 0700. We headed straight for the Traders Hotel for a intercontinental buffet breakfast. One morning we were being fed a fresh fruit diet courtesy of locals earning than 3USD a day, the next we were gorging ourselves on smoked fish and crepes in luxury. It was an odd trip all round. We spent the final day blowing our last kyat (we managed to stick to the budget succeeding to survive under such tight financial conditions, and this made the trip that bit more enjoyable) on gifts and souvenirs. I went to the museum briefly, then one final Burmese meal before bed. The next morning...we were gone.

Burma/Myanmar was arguably my most enjoyable and fulfilling trip to date. The country is so raw and unspoiled. The shame is, to me at least, it's clear as democracy takes hold (and it will) the country will become the next Thailand so i highly recommend you go if you like a genuine experience of a beautiful culture, but go as soon as possible.

I'm now back in UST, HK, spending my days getting to know the new exchange kids coming in this term. I can't see myself traveling for at least another month; I need to get my feet back on the ground. But keep an eye on the blog: i plan to do S.Korea, Japan and perhaps Singapore this term. Still only ideas though.


11th February 2012
Dinner options in the market

Offal, must-take-pic for tourist
Sights of offal displayed in restaurants and hawker stalls always attract tourists to take pics. Even the returning/visiting Burmese are excited by it. :) The question is did you try some? I have had the guts to try again - pardon the pun BSSN Australia http://bssnoz.blogspot.com.au/ @bssnoz

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