Burmese Impressions

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May 7th 2013
Published: May 7th 2013
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Yesterday, Chris and I settled down in an internet cafe after a hard day of trekking and motorbiking down a mountain back to our 'base' town of Kyaumaye, only for the internet to be so atrociously sluggish that I only managed to load two pages in an hour. Chris didn't manage one! So, on the second attempt, now writing from downtown Mandalay, here are some scattered observations gathered thus far:

We touched down in Yangon at around 11am and were nearly incinerated as the automatic doors parted, exposing us, from the air-con peace of the terminal, to the blisteringly hot outside world, and drenching us incredibly quickly in sweat. Though we must have looked like easy targets, we managed to haggle a great deal for a taxi into town. We slumped deliriously into the back seats of a right-hand drive taxi, which proceeded to drive us on the right-hand side down the highway. This is just one of the many oddities that confront the new-comer to Burma, like the men swaggering by in table-cloth dresses, the women ducking from the sun with faces smeared with a beige paste, or the frequent monk sightings - blended in with the office workers, taxi drivers, pedlars and traffic police, the regal red robes of the shaved-headed monks are a stroke of brilliance in an otherwise mediocre urban painting. From the taxi window, we snatched glimpses of the peaceful characters; one collecting donations for his evening meal, another crossing the road in a gang of commuters, his shining head protruding like a pagoda from a dreary city-scape, while two speed by on a moped, robes flapping like lost prayer flags in the wind.

Yangon boasts perhaps Burma's most famous and certainly most iconic attraction: the huge and towering Shwedagon Paya, which commands a keen view over much of the city, and sparkles gold in the rays of the sun. We visited for sunset, and had a fantastic time talking to a tiny 40-year-old monk who was keen to show us all of the eccentric and unique features of the surrounding shrines and smalled meditation rooms. We performed a couple of rituals; notably the blessing of the tiger shrine, the animal that represents Monday - the day Chris and I happen to be born on. It involved pouring water over the Buddha and the tiger and repeating a wish. The monk also led us to a point a little away from the Paya, where there were 4 or 5 marks on the floor. By standing on the different marks, and looking at the large diamond embedded at the pinnacle of the bell-shaped structure, we could see it glinting first yellow, then green, then red in the sun's diminishing light! By moving a pace away or towards the Paya in a specific position, we could observe the visual separation of the light into individual colour of the spectrum! Quite amazing. We arrived at this light-separating point while a group of Thai tourists were oggling at the phenomenon, and noted how they parted instantly on seeing the monk - the respect, which clearly translates over international borders, is humbling.

Chris and I then shot up on a comfortable overnight bus to Mandalay, where the 2x2km central Palace square which is now used as a threatening army base, displays slogans like "We will crush those that oppose the party." We took sly photos of the signs between sniggers. We also climbed Mandalay Hill for superb views of the surrounding plains and the pagoda-dotted city. I counted over 10 - the gold or white spires rise from the city as frequently as those of Churches in England, but undoubtedly more beautifully, especially in the orange afternoon sun. On the mountain, we found the odd homage to a female ogre who cut off her breasts to give to the Buddha. Oddly, this impressed the enlightened one so much that he promised to reincarnate the ogress as a King a few centuries later. We bought some colonial-style straw hats in Mandalay for a dollar each; they are identical to those you see in old jungle explorer cartoons, and the locals of a certain age find it hilarious.

From Mandalay, we zipped across into the mountains to meet a recommended trek guide, named Moe Set. Moe Set was extremely helpful and hospitable and arranged a 3-day, 2-night trek into some of the most remote villages in the region that tourists are permitted to visit - some had only seen a handful of foreigners. To reach the start-point, we had to motorbike up the mountain for over 2 hours. I volunteered to drive one, while Chris went on the back of Aijai's - Moe Set's friend. The bike was a semi-auto and was great fun to wrestle up the hills. Our drive was delayed by over an hour as we waited for heavy monsoon rain to abate, so that when we began to head into the mountains, the normally flat roads slowly evolved from tarmac, to patchy gravel, to mud, to deep, churned and slippy bogs which tested by balance to the max! Happily, bar a couple of brown trainers, I came through unscathed and could enjoy the wonderful panoramic views when we finally reached the end of our climb.

The trek, as I'd expected deep-down, didn't quite go to plan. These things rarely do, and the Burmese weather was always threatening with frequent cold downpours that conspired to hit us when our ponchos had shuffled to the most cavernous, hard-to-reach parts of our backpacks. It was the Burmese food that was our undoing though: unfortunately, Chris caught a short 24-hour bout of food poisoning that had us up much of the first night in our large room in a hospitable village house. To quote the "Gap Yah" video, he "chundered everywhere" at intervals over the whole night and, though we got him on the pills early doors, we were sure to miss the next day of walking. Poor Chris calculates he was sick over 50 times and his stomach soon had no dodgy noodles or old rice to expel, so he just brought up bile for half the night. As has become an odd but welcome trend in both of our trips, this extreme bad luck for Chris proved the next morning to be balanced out.

After a grim night for Chris and a fairly sleepless one for Moe Set and I, we were thankful to spend the day relaxing in the village house, or in the lovely small hill-top monastery at the top end of the town, which was perched picturesquely on a cloud-ridged ridge over lush green forest. I looked out of the window, rubbing my eyes, and saw 4 or 5 men in green scruffy uniforms, talking to an uncomfortable-looking local salesman. Moe Set made eye contact with me across the room and whispered excitedly - "rebels." It turned out that a small section of the fractured and jungle-based rebel Shan army had turned up in the night for rest and sustenance, which the passive village had happily provided! "Shan" is the tribe that much of northern Burma is affiliated with. Those news stories back home of the Burmese government bombing remote areas of jungle or villages in the tribal areas seemed awfully and literally close to home as I watched the rebel band marching around town in little groups, collecting food and stopping for tea in the various shops along the only road int he village.

Fascinated and feeling rather like Che Guevara, smoking as I was one of the local cigars rolled inside leaves, I went out with my camera around my neck, perched on my belly, to give the rebel army a closer inspection. Some walked alone with uniforms undone at the neck, hair matted and dirty and sipping at green tea. Others crouched in gardens with their AK47s next to them and ammo pouches bulging from their small frames, while others still stood guard on lookout points, silhouetted sharply against the blue sky, gun butt and barrel betraying their identities. I passed one nattering into a battered radio, and another, probably the group leader, savoring a tea with a local family while a huge sub-machine gun dangled threateningly from his shoulder. The rebels looked like rebels. They were scruffy, tired and possessed a mix of weapons and outfits that make them more of a small militia group than an army. The locals respected them - whether in fear or in faithful service was not for us to decide. Some smiled at us and returned our greetings, others regarded us with suspicion. I got some photos, but many of the killer shots were lost in my fear of being shot - they presumably did not want photographic evidence of their identities, which might fall into government (military) hands. Moe Set told me at the monastery that they moved from village to village, and that the Myanmar army could never nail them down, because by the time word reached them of the rebel positions, they had rereated into the jungle or, more likely, were in another village on another remote hill, 30km away. Moe Set was a little intimidated by the rebels, but fully supported them and did not beat about the bush in his political opinions. We walked past the rebels one last time as sun set and they prepared to leave the village. About 10 young men in green Che-esque attire, complete with hats, lay sprawled on the grass with various equipment dotted around. I had a huge pang of regret that I couldn't take a photo, when I noticed an RPG lain delicately amoung the weapons. Our rebel encounter is something I will never forget, and we have Chris' sickness to that for the experience!

After our decent yesterday, we came across a monastery where Moe Set had been a monk in his childhood. There was an all-monk football game raging as we got off our bikes to take some photos, and we had no sooner come next to the pitch than we were included in their game! The monks were kids aged 6 to 15, and most were appalling at football. In effect, when I am by far the best player on the pitch, you know the standard of quality in this particular game of monk football is phenomenally low. Savoring my brief episode as "Steven Gerrard" (as Moe Set labelled me in admiration) I scored 2 goals to help my team to a decisive victory. Amoungst the best players on my team was "neon monk" who had been given a bright party robe, and who made same brave challenges, while "yellow monk" also put in a sterling performance with an assist and several vital interceptions from Moe Set and Aijai. "Mowgli" who turned out to be 2 monks in red nappies, was probably our weak link with several miss-kicks and a game that I'm sure he/they will not be proud of in reflection. I couldn't stop laughing throughout the encounter - part because I was skinning the kids with my silky skills, but partly because we were playing an absurd game of football, in a monastery, with 20 monks! Surreal and wonderful.

We take a night bus to Inle Lake tonight - the lake on which traditional and picturesque fishermen elegantly steer their boats with oars that are manipulated by their feet. We hope there won't be too many tourist boats there, trying to get that Burmese photo. We reckon the intense heat (nearly 40 degrees) will put all but the most hard-core off!

Until next time!

NB I write "Burma" as that's what the local, anti-government and pro-democracy people choose to call their country. Of those people Chris and I have met, every single one of them call Myanmar, "Burma".


7th May 2013

Absolutely fascinating.
So glad always to hear that you are safe and having such wonderful experiences. I am envious.

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