Talking Myanmar, with the Myanmar, in Myanmar

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Asia » Burma
September 10th 2012
Published: September 10th 2012
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Well, that was our third and last stint in what had come to feel like home, Kuala Lumpur. Many, many thanks again to Mark and Anke. From here on in there is no bolt-hole, no respite, no washing machine and… horror-of-horrors, maybe no roti canai. Without doubt the penultimate listing sends the biggest shivers down Ali’s spine.

KL once again did us proud. Ramadan was almost unnoticeable. We are fattened, alcoholically re-hydrated (an oxymoron I know), saturated with images that appear on a square screen, relatively re-informed of world events, patriotically puffed-up (Olympics) and raring to go.

Shuddering out from the low rainy-season clouds at dusk Myanmar lay spread below us in the grey gloom, a patchwork of soggy green and builder’s tea brown. It really has been raining; we are slap-bang in the middle of monsoon. Then, just as it appeared that the plane was about to land in some flooded field, Yangon airport’s tarmac rushed up to greet us.

The airport itself is hardly state-of-the-art but neither is it medieval – think 1980s provincial European. Immigration was efficient and friendly, customs a mere afterthought, and within twenty minutes we were wandering out to the waiting throng of drivers brandishing name boards.

A scant few years ago Myanmar challenged Laos as South East Asia’s cheapest destination. That was before the military regime started behaving in a moderately more reasonable fashion and visiting was viewed in a less morally reprehensible light. Now everyone is on their way here. The government (not the elected one, it hasn’t changed that much) still strictly controls businesses including limits on the number of registered guesthouses (some are still forbidden from receiving Westerners – all very old school China). Consequently, those that are registered are now struggling to cope with the masses descending and, demand outweighing supply, prices for accommodation have soared. We’d spoken to several recent visitors who had all said that $20 per night was now the minimum – we’d not paid this anywhere in the last eight months. Equally we’d never booked a guest house in advance, but here we were pumping the hand of our longyi-wearing driver as he beamed a great betal-stained smile.

We’d reasoned that as $20 dollars was apparently the going rate and the place we’d found on the net was $25 with a free airport pick-up (the airport is an hour outside the city, taxis in cost a flat $10 and public buses are never easy to locate in the dark – nor fun waiting for in torrential rain) we’d treat ourselves to a gentle introduction for once. Our driver had three other Westerners to meet, due in on the Bangkok flight, so we changed some money (I shifted a supposedly unacceptable – not pristine/straight-off-the-press - $20 note) and then sat on our packs waiting. Near us was located a typical airport terminal bin: open sided with recessed aluminium lid for cigarettes (and still used for such purposes in Asia). Every few seconds a man would wander up, lift the lid and eject a red spurt into the bin; there was almost a spitting queue. It appears that betal chewing is even more popular here than in Indonesia and is obviously not restricted to the women.

On closer inspection it became apparent that the rounded genteel faces surrounding us – already there is a feeling of peaceful calm about the place – were, almost without exception, in possession of blood-shot eyes and even security looked mildly stoned. Regardless of their levels of intoxication their expectorial aim remains true as the airport itself is spotless. Indeed, both men and women alike are smart and proud in their wrapped sarong-like longyis. Most women boast duabs of cream-coloured paste (thanaka) on their faces that varies in extent from a faint smear, through Aunt-Sally-like circles on cheeks, to full-on face-packs. This, apparently, has the dual benefit of sun screen and general beautifier (to local eyes at least). Everyone is polite, there is none of the usual ill-tempered airport jostling, smiles and laughter abound and the people look… well, happy…

Immediately we are seeing similarities between the personalities of the Burmese (I can’t cope with the more correct Myanmar for everything: the country is Myanmar; the people are Myanmar and the language spoken is Myanmar) and the Cambodians. And, now I think of it, the Sumatrans as well. It seems a damning coincidence that three of the most unsullied and endearing peoples of South East Asia should belong to nations (or a region of a nation) that (through oppression and/or tragedy) have endured prolonged isolation from the consumer-mad world…

Yangon (previously Rangoon) is no longer Myanmar’s capital; that is now some other shiny, built-for-purpose, place that no one much cares about, created – at great cost – on the basis of some astrological bunkum. Apparently, whatever-it-is-called exists as a ghost town whilst Yangon remains anything but.

Yangon is bustling and crowded its buildings a mix of crumbling old colonial and ugly modern concrete. The broad main roads and narrow muddy backstreets are filled with cars and pedestrians, all splashing and weaving their way through the encroaching roadside vendors. The cars are right-hand drive but, scarily, are driven in the right-hand “lane”. Open-top Jeeps are very popular among the flash (wealthy) young of whom there must be a fair few. Meanwhile, bizarrely, motorbikes and scooters are banned.

Like Japan in rainy season, everyone is armed with an umbrella.

Tea/coffee stands with their mini, knee-high, tables and tiny stalls, set under sloping tarps are everywhere. However, don’t expect a real coffee: you are presented with a cup of hot water and a sachet of instant (nearly always a three-in-one mix of coffee, milk powder and sugar). Almost by way of apology you are often also provided with a free accompanying pot of weak Chinese tea. Specifically order a tea though and you will be rewarded with something rather more potent: a brick red amalgamation of leaves and condensed milk that packs the mother of all tannin hits.

Roadside food is primarily of the snack variety and far more Indian influenced than Thai, although there are some uniquely Burmese additions with bubbling entrail fondues and mosquito-netted tents protecting what looks like piles of grated cheese. Also roadside are the ubiquitous paan stalls – assemblers and purveyors of the betal-containing lime-green leaf parcels that occupy so many cheeks; regularly spaced water stands with covered earthenware urns where free drinking water is available to all; whilst dangling at head height are chords leading to tiny bells on balconies that alert the residents above when their post/newspapers are attached and ready to be raised.

Among the restaurants themselves, Biryani houses are particularly popular. Beer stations (almost as numerous as tea stands) are very much the preserve of the locals - much to our infiltrating delight – and are always busy, even at nine in the morning. Myanmar and Dagon beers are both good and cheap and can be bought by the bottle or on-draught. Although they are called beer stations many locals opt for the bottle of whisky on the table approach. Whatever your poison you will always be provided with gratis nuts (often refilled from a passing staff’s hand - more easily overlooked after a number of rounds) and many stations, izakaya-like, sell small plates of food to accompany your beer.

Ornate monasteries and temples with huge gilded stupas dot the city. Burgundy-clad monks and nuns (also shaven headed) in pastel-pink robes mingle with the crowds, whilst rickshaws enquire after custom and money-changers offer fictitious rates.

Up by the train station is a region of slum dwellings and many more poor areas can been seen on the outskirts of the city, viewed from the “circular” train as it completes its circumnavigation.

Yangon is steamy, vibrant and welcoming; we both fell for it immediately.

Our second day in the city and we sourced a guesthouse in a weary old Chinatown tenement block for a far more sober $10. Somewhat rundown Mahabandoola guesthouse might be and the toilets/showers are shared, but it is clean, with drinking water, towels, toilet paper and soap provided. The hot water (our first hot shower in Asia), television and provided breakfast of the previous night in no way justified the additional $15: free airport pick-ups are canny marketing indeed. Turns out the number 51 bus leaves a mere 500 yards from the airport… Actually, certainly in Yangon, there are numerous guesthouses (all still busy even at this time of year) available in the $15-$20 bracket which is still expensive but rather less than we’d been led to believe.

Day two also necessitated changing some money. Money is a funny old business in Myanmar. It cannot be withdrawn in any currency from banks: there are no ATMs, no bank transfers or credit-card withdrawals and traveller’s cheques are not accepted anywhere. You can change cash for local Kyat, but only if it is US dollars and in absolutely perfect condition: a crease, the merest hint of a fold, the faintest blemish, any lack of crispness or - heaven forbid - a tear, and it will be rejected. The bank rates are poor, official money changers only marginally better, which leaves the dodgy geezers on the street looking rather tempting. The latter do not come recommended, but Ali and I reckon we know a thing or two about street corner operatives: we’ve done battle with the best China, India and South America could throw at us and we were prepared.

Saying that, in those blackmarkets the illegal trader always had a good reason for wanting the hard currency you were offering. Years ago in China the blackmarketeer desired your F.E.Cs (Federal Exchange Certificates) as these were only issued to foreigners and were the only currency that allowed you to buy Western consumer products (in specialist F.E.C. stores). Your typical traveller was not in the market for a new TV or the latest Wham cassette, but this ploy ensured that your average Chinese was denied access to such corruptions. By contrast the traveller desired the local Remimbi (due to the advantageous exchange rate negotiable) as these were, in theory, of equal value and could be used to buy most things, although not those under strict governmental control (like accommodation). Consequently, the trader and his accomplices would try to rob you, but ultimately if you proved unfoxable they were still happy with the transaction agreed. In India it was a far more civilized case of come into my shop, sit and talk over some chai and I’ll buy some dollars off you that I’ll squirrel away as a secure nest egg – you can’t rely on the rupee. Again the salesman would (sometimes) try to short change you, but it was a far less risky business. Bolivia: dollars were coveted for the same reasons as in India but were pursued without the tea, chat or gyrating head; and with the additional, occasional, threat of menaces. In Myanmar the dollar is accepted everywhere for anything (at poor rates), making them widely available to all. Meanwhile, all government controlled businesses (accommodation, boat and train travel, entrance fees) accept only dollars.

Anyway, it was only a matter of time before a kindly-looking old gent asked us if we wanted to change money. We agreed a rate, found a discrete location and he was rapidly replaced with a bunch of less kindly-looking youths. I displayed a beautiful $100 bill (already isolated and wrapped in plastic – it was raining and crispness is everything) and received confirmation that: yes, it was in perfect condition; no, they had no problems with the serial number; yes, they would proceed with the agreed exchange rate; no, they bloody well couldn’t hold it to examine it closer (likely, do a runner). And back into the safety of my money-belt it went and back under my belted trousers that went; so far so good. Wads of Kyat were handed to me (the largest denomination on offer was loosely equivalent to $1 – negating the need to worry about counterfeit notes), these I counted out flat (beware of folded notes in piles) and handed to Ali to hold in bunches of ten (she double checks the running total). As I count, individuals in the encircling crowd helpfully count along with me “two, three, four, six, seven, nine…”. Finally all bills are tallied, checked and in Ali’s sticky paws. No, they cannot re-check the count themselves; no, thank you, we do not require a plastic band placed round the brick. Ali holds on tight. I withdraw the $100 bill, re-secure my money-belt and…. Oh, the bill is no longer suitable… The serial number begins in an “A”. Please, another $100 bill. This – though risky, but not unexpected – I tolerate once and stepping away from stealthy hands I produce another (also separate from the main stash). No, sorry, in this one Franklin has a squint, or some other such nonsense. My bills safely re-stashed we hand all their money back and with a few choice words we walk. Cue a repentant dealer: ok, that first hundred was fine… look I’ve kindly bundled your money for you… Never, go back.

Five minutes later another man offered a ridiculously generous exchange rate and was amazed when I told him his rate was too good. Finally, as we approached the official (licensed) money changers we performed the dance one last time: with the same non-result.

Here in Yangon the blackmarketeers have it so wrong. Their reputation is so well known that almost no one risks a transaction; their offered rates are too high to possibly be genuine (they could buy dollars themselves from the bank for equivalent rates) and hence any completed deal inevitably involves slight-of-hand and a cheated punter. My business advice to them would be to think to the near future; things are changing rapidly here and soon dollars of all condition will be of equal worth. Many tourists still arrive with many “useless” notes and would be more than happy to exchange these at a lower than bank rate. If we had more perfect dollars on us (to buy more kyat) and it wouldn’t land me in the nick I’d go along this route myself.

Prices for buses from Yangon to Mandalay ranged from 10,400 to 17,000 kyat (the government has less of a grip on these); we booked on the cheapest and expected the worst for the nine hour over-night journey. Apparently there would be a free shuttle bus to take us from the booking office to the bus station, an hour out of town. As we waited various other Westerners appeared and boarded their shuttle bus – a proper bus. Time passed and there was no sign of our transport, although the tourist bus was still there and the occupants getting both sweaty and agitated. Then a dilapidated truck appeared, in we hoped and off we sped. The bus station was sprawling but we were dropped near the correct section, escorted to our company’s office and shown our bus: it looked rather swanky. Indeed, comfortable it was: reclining seats, air-con, pillows, blankets, free sandwiches and water, even a refreshment kit of toothbrush, toothpaste and wet-wipes. What more could you possibly get for 17,000? Not only that, but the bus was half empty so we rapidly procured double seats and then, just prior to departure, our hostess came round with a tray bearing tiny rolled pieces of paper. Everybody took one. Mine had a number inside; I’d won top prize in the raffle – a rather attractive but extremely impractical two foot diameter wall clock. We passed the clock on to our grateful neighbour.

The journey north was flat if not smooth - little of the revenue generated from the country’s principal asset, natural gas (flogged to the Thais), appears to get spent on infrastructure. It was also (good for us, though not so appreciated by the farmers) increasingly dry, and, rather spookily, incredibly quiet. Whether by accident or design, this primary transport artery, linking the country’s two largest cities, seems to pass through very few towns or even villages. Outside of Yangon cars are suddenly scarce, although motorbikes are evidently only banned in the capital.

We rolled into Mandalay at first light and neatly side-stepped the $10 entrance fee. This is purportedly to support sites of antiquity, but in reality goes to line official pockets. Anyone arriving by government-controlled transport would certainly get stung.

On first appearances Mandalay is characterless; Orwell wouldn’t recognize the place (not that he ever actually visited). It could be a humdrum, low-rise, concrete city anywhere in Asia, with broad, grid-numbered streets and little to break its ordered monotony. Venture out a little though and it’s a different story. The west of the city is bordered by the mighty Ayeyarwady and along its banks are networks of alleyways hiding rural communities, tiny markets, ramshackle villages, blackened charcoal packers and golden temples. Here, monks are disappointed if you won’t come and take a look at their little monastery; the people similarly if you can’t stop for a brief chat. Myint hlei (delicate horse-drawn traps) trot passed and express bemusement that you’d rather walk than ride as the locals do. On the riverbank workmen on breaks and fishermen kicking-back beckon you over to watch them playing cards and what appears to be a variant of Ludo with cowrie shells used as dice; women wave and shout good-day “mingalaba” as shy but curious children follow in your wandering wake. It is hot and dusty and still very “Burmese Days”.

We braved the stifling heat and cycled 11km south of the city to the tiny village of Amarapura, famous for U Bein’s bridge – the longest teak bridge in the world at 1.2km in length. That it may be, but the ramshackle jetty-like construction (ok, it is 200 years old) is hardly awe-inspiring. Most tourists seem to visit solely as it offers a fantastic ambush point for photographing monks using the crossing.

Also south of the city is the impressive Mahamuni Paya: a big old white temple with pyramidal golden stupas and inside sits the nation’s most venerated Buddha image, covered in six inches of gold leaf (and getting thicker as devotees queue to apply more). The seated Buddha can be approached from all four compass points via beautiful arched passageways of crimson tiles and gold paint.

However, without doubt the highlight of the city itself sits ungrandly on the corner of 27th and 82nd and opens only in the evenings: the Chapatti Stand. This roadside stall offers fantastic curries and chapattis for a pittance with free tea thrown in for good measure. Once discovered we ate nowhere else.

Our next location filled us with both intense anticipation and dread; the latter of disappointment in the former. Bagan, like Angkor in Cambodia, is the must visit destination in Myanmar; indeed it vies with Angkor for recognition as the most spectacular temple complex on planet earth. Whilst Angkor comprises dozens of temples in ten square miles Bagan, in a similar area, boasts 4,400.

Nearly all tourists make this journey by river, even though it is extremely expensive. We had considered taking the train but, fortunately (see horror story later), once again opted for a cheapo bus. This time we received our just deserts – a rusty old wreck with collapsing bench-like seats (judging by the fading kanji/hiragana it was a Japanese school bus in a previous life); sleep on this overnighter was an impossibility. Positioned at the front of the bus, looking over the driver’s shoulder, we were able to follow every crunching, rolling inch of our slow, head-lit progress. Myanmar is not wealthy, but this stretch of “highway” is possibly the worst in all of South East Asia; it is a spitefully neglected embarrassment. Outposts in Laos and isolated Indonesian islands have better non-sealed tracks. It’s as though the government is sticking two fingers up at the locals and saying travel if you wish: truly peevishly shoddy road maintenance.

Bagan’s archeological zone spreads across a wide, pancake-flat, plain crisscrossed with dirt tracks. Three

by Ali
discrete townships lie around its periphery: atmospherically located Old Bagan within the relics of the original town’s fortified walls to the west of the plain (rich tourist territory); New Bagan to the south (domain of the flashpacker) and Nyaung U to the northeast (haunt of locals and backpackers).

We drew into Nyaung U an hour or so before sunrise, but just in time to see the masses of monks – many of them only five or six years of age – queuing for alms. (All Burmese men are expected to serve at least two stints as a monk during their lifetime). It is becoming increasingly apparent that all of Myanmar retires early and rises before the cock; really, the streets are busy by five. At first light we trudged around guesthouses and splashed out an additional $5 for our own bathroom – something that Ali was later to be very grateful for. Contrary to the reports we’d received there has been no problem in getting a room, with breakfast, and often en-suite, for less than $15; and, overall – even with a healthy beer intake – Myanmar is proving to be far cheaper than either Thailand or Malaysia.

by Ali

Unlike Angkor, Bagan did not disappoint. There are several temples that can be climbed (shoeless, which was bloody painful in the heat of midday) and the views are stunning, especially when the sun is low and the brick stupas radiate a burnt-orange glow. Sitting atop one of these waiting for sunset we got chatting to a local girl who invited us back to her parent’s house. Unfortunately we had nothing with us that we could give as a gift and didn’t want to accept their undoubted hospitality empty handed, so we cried off; a real pity.

Nyaung U has many western-orientated eateries and must be heaving with tourists in high season. Nevertheless, it still retains a sleepy charm, reminiscent of a low-key Siem Reap or how Yangshou was back in the 1990s. No doubt this will be lost with time, so my advice is to get here soon. Arriving by bus, rather than boat or train, also avoided the $10 “antiquities fee” (we donated directly at sites where we knew the money would go to the cause intended), although guesthouses also do their best to extract this from you: we lied and it was never checked.

However, it wasn’t all smiles in Bagan as on arrival Ali started with a severe case of the trots and, inexplicably, we were both suffering with nausea (not self-inflicted either) that cut our appetites and left us feeling somewhat weak. Eight hours of cycling in the roasting sun – monsoon season is over here and it had been a poor one anyway – did for me one day and I passed-out for the second time this trip (ever, for that matter). Lying on the floor in bars (sober) is getting to be an embarrassing habit. Last time it resulted in free cake and this time a lime to sniff whilst the barman wafted me with a fan…

Another bus (that left at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m.) took us cross-country to Nyaungshwe and Inle Lake – Myanmar’s second principal tourist destination. Well, the bus actually drops you at a junction from which a pick-up (converted ‘ute with facing bench seats) or taxi is necessary to get into town. Also getting off the bus were four young backpackers: a French couple and two Chilean girls. The six of us haggled a taxi fare and then got him to ferry us around the cheapest guesthouses where we bargained from the healthy position of requiring three rooms. The taxi driver was more than happy to do this as he was on for three lots of commission from whichever hostel we settled on. The result was $9 rooms at Gypsy Inn with what turned out to be exceptional breakfasts (fruit juice, unlimited pots of real coffee, eggs, toast, pancakes, fruit and even occasionally empanada-like pastries). It later materialized that the French couple, who were only staying the one night, had been given a more expensive room and they were subsequently told that breakfast was not included for them. Whilst we wanted to show solidarity and, on principle, leave ourselves it would have been a cutting-off-your-nose situation as there was nowhere remotely comparable in price, and those breakfasts…. The French woman was later to say that the owner wouldn’t have dared pull such a stunt on Ali and I, and that he had obviously picked on the youngest when the adults weren’t around. Ha, us… adults…

The Chilean girls (good old fashioned backpackers, haggling masters, and demon drinkers) had taken the train from Mandalay to Bagan in economy-class just as we’d contemplated. This they regretted bitterly and what a mess they were in. At night the train was alive with mice and cockroaches but, far worse, was crawling with bedbugs that, literally, emerged from the woodwork and had eaten them alive.

The puddled, dirt-track, town of Nyaungshwe is actually several miles north of Inle lake but is connected to it by a busy working canal, packed with long-tail boats ferrying people and goods to and from destinations on the lake itself. We found a crumbling two story restaurant and drinking hole “Shanland” – very olde English coach Inn - that overlooked the canal, and designated it our second home. This mama-run heaven serves delicious Shan cuisine (some of which needed to be ordered a day in advance) such as herb-fish steamed in banana leaves, sour pork, and a powdered-rice variant on pakora; and from the upstairs balcony provides a perfect viewpoint for watching the world go by.

In the east the rains continue and we were forced to take shelter for several days. On one of these we were sitting in a garden gazebo playing Scrabble, accompanied by a bottle of Myanmar rum when the Chileans returned from a – very wet - walk. Six hours later we had (collectively) demolished four bottles and were only halted by town shutting-up-shop: our first serious Myanmar hangovers. Predictably this fell the day before an early rise to tour the lake.

Inle lake is pleasant enough: with various stilt-housed communities; huge surreal floating tomato gardens; the local fishermen still (extremely impressively) rowing standing with a single leg-operated oar; and a pretty backdrop; plus, long-tail boats are always fun. Nevertheless, a trip around the lake essentially constitutes an aquatic tour of various trade workshops/salesrooms (lacquer ware, silver smiths, weavers) – all of which were interesting and informative, but repetitious. Ali was gutted that the performing cats at a monastery en-route (trained by the monks to leap through hoops) were long past their prime and leaping would only have been achievable with the aid of a cattle prod. In truth, this is one destination where season – when the lotus is in bloom – would make it far more memorable.

Well, that’s as much as most people get to see of Myanmar; but worth seeing it was. I haven’t mentioned that many – most according to Ali – men have tattoos, men of all ages, – not just the young – mainly applied by the traditional means of a nib-like stencil; that the Myanmar language sounds so much like Japanese (they both share a similar gentle sing-song intonation); that there is probably no safer country in the whole of Asia (outside of Japan); that we adore the place; or, that the Burmese (ok, Myanmar) are simply wonderful.

Luckily, we did have more time.

Mawlamyine lies south and access isn’t restricted. Getting there required a bus back to Yangon (12 hours), a two hour wait at the station (caught breakfast) and then seven further hours. Generously, entertainment on buses continues unabated regardless of the hour. This is typically in the form of back-to-back music videos, although you may be treated to a whole concert; I almost said performance there, but that would have been too kind. We’d been told that rock music is big here, although we’ve found that homegrown rap (some surprisingly good) is the contemporary vogue. Sadly though tradition remains paramount and fat women in flouncy dresses being invisibly tortured still dominate. Given the Myanmar passion for all things football - we’ve seen entire bars rapt for 2nd division German games, tea shops spellbound by women’s matches, and people standing in the rain to witness the mighty Southampton play Fulham - you’d think they might show the odd match’s highlights on a long journey? - But, no. We were treated to a dozen or so episodes of a soap opera on one trip, but this was still pretty much just lardy birds caterwauling.

Football; this reminds me, rather unpleasantly, of two occasions here when men have walked up to me pointing and stated “Rooney”. I must be aging rather poorly as only six years ago the South Americans were far kinder with two “Beckham”s and a non-footballing “Euan McGregor”.

The city, apparently Myanmar’s third largest, sits on the muddy Than-Lwin river and the cheapest of its three guesthouses – Breeze – overlooks the waterfront. Mawlamyine is a quiet, laid-back place and there is really very little to attract visitors. Its main draw was being the start point for the river journey to Hpa-an that passes through karst mountain scenery. However, the government boat was discontinued a year ago and chartering a private boat definitely requires a crowd to split the price; predictably we were the only buggers here.

We did find a pretty 10 mile hike from the nearby town of Kyonka that winds through the Hump mountain range to terminate at the Thabeikaing monastery atop one of the Humps. Here, there is a precarious natural stack of three gold-painted boulders on which stands a mini pagoda. We’d seen some photos that made it look fairly impressive, but in reality it was not. Nevertheless, a monk kept a close eye on us (the sole visitors) as there was a 1500 kyat camera fee: we weren’t even tempted.

What Mawlamyine does have though – and I hate to say it really - is, hidden on the outskirts of town, an amazing beer station. On arrival the locals immediately ushered us towards the food cabinet, offering various nods and thumbs up; it looked good. Wow, it was good: fish parcels were nothing new (although here they were wrapped in edible vine leaves), but the potato cakes stuffed with minced chicken curry were, as was the spicy tongue soup, sweet Mon sausages, and frog curry. Returning one afternoon we ran into another foreigner, an Aussie, here in Myanmar checking out NGO opportunities. Yes, he was up for joining us in a quick afternoon beverage. Eight hours later and we were in deep conversation with a bunch of locals. Their English speaking spokesman stated that it is only in the last three months that they have felt able to talk so openly; things really do seem to be changing and they are extremely hopeful for the future. Meanwhile, our Aussie companion proved to be a natural at paan whilst I dribbled red goo like a loon (the next day it materialized that we’d both lacerated our gums on the leaves). The owner closed the premises, curled up asleep and left a young lad to see to our needs (and make sure we paid). On the stagger home we ran into a group of local youths playing guitar and downing bottles of whisky on the river bank. We were duly invited to join them and a very late night ensued.

Unable to raise enough bodies to hire a boat, we headed by bus to Hpa-an. Again it is an unremarkable but chilled town, with some pleasant walks and view points, and charming – if initially reserved – people. Unexceptional it might be, but we easily idled four days in Hpa-an, and by the end of these we were known to most and greeted like old friends at our most regular haunts (particularly a great tea-room for Mon nibbles; a street-shack where a wizened old dear produced the best onion baji/tomato-corriander-chili dipping sauce combo we’ve ever tasted; and a Mon curry house where the food just kept on coming). Hpa-an is very rural and pointy bamboo hats (think Vietnamese-style / limpet shell-shaped, but with a rim) are worn by most. We bought two and found a sign-writer to paint them with a cross-of-St-George (our attempt to get on the telly during the cricket in Sri Lanka).

So, here I lie, back in the attic at Mahabandoola in Yangon with the rain falling as hard as it was when we left. Prior to arrival, hearsay had dampened our enthusiasm for Myanmar. Don’t you just love it when your expectations are exceeded? Tomorrow will be a day of rest and then we fly back to KL for a quick turn-a-round and off to meet up with the Barmy Army in Sri Lanka. We have some trepidations (money orientated) about Sri Lanka, please let them be as unfounded as they were about Myanmar. Like Cambodia, Myanmar may be light on sights, but the superb people more than compensate. We didn’t make the beaches or hiking from Hsipaw: we’ll definitely be back - soon.

And that really was meant to be the end of this blog. However, on our last night in Yangon we discovered the barbeque stalls on 19th street. These are common throughout South East Asia, but the food this night was not. Sat in the busy gutter at a rickety table we received a fish sent straight to us from piscine heaven - a humble tilapia at that, but what a heady spice rub and stuffed with an exquisite green masala; it ranks among our greatest fish dishes of all time. Then, as we tipsily reflected on our wonderful time in Myanamar, we were confronted by a street child who looked imploringly at the bones and empty skewers on our plates; and we had the pleasure of buying him dinner which he delightedly had packaged to take away back to his friends… Departures don’t get much better.

Over 100 pictures this time (I apologise for the excessive written trite, but the photos are worth a look – possibly the best bunch yet; just two or three where the little camera struggles with focus on a big zoom..).

Additional photos below
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10th September 2012

loving it
Hi guys, loving the stories and the pictures. Keep them a coming. Take Care. Love Ex
10th September 2012

The photos are amazing I think Yeti may have missed his way! Glad you are both OK good to hear from you. Keep well xx
12th September 2012
Cheroot smoker, Inle lake

Sensational...cracker photography in this blog...warms the heart. I'll nominate this for Photo of the Week...I'm rather partial to portraits!
12th September 2012
Cheroot smoker, Inle lake

thank you
Hi David, You've made my wife's day... She took the photo and is chuffed. Best wishes, Andy
12th September 2012

Nice blog, and I liked the photo of the young monks lined up. We went to Burma (sounds so much more exotic than Myanmar, I agree) 5 years back and my blog is still getting regular hits which clued me in that tourism was on the up. Pity about the equivalent up in the price tags.

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