Stage 2: Bangkok to Calcutta


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Asia
February 1st 2009
Published: March 15th 2009
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Burma

And so the adventure continues...

I fly from Bangkok to Yangon on the 1st of February for the next part of my journey. I am a little bit apprehensive about what I am getting myself into as my idea of Burma is somewhat cloudy. As I sit in the plane reading more about the plight of Burma the questions and confusion in my mind grows to breaking point however I am saved by the 50 odd monks sharing the plane with me. They are all in an excited mood laughing and giggling and I notice these monks are sporting digital cameras and Ipods.... hmmm the power of Apple knows no bounds.

Before I start I think it is useful to get out a few details about Burma because like most people when I started I had no idea about what this complex country entailed:

Quick Facts
* They are ruled by a oppressive military dictatorship
* You must fly into Burma, there are no open land borders
* In Burma there are no atms, they dont take credit card/bank card or travelers cheques
* The official rate for the Burmese currency is 1 US dollar to 6 Kyat however on the street it is 1 to 1100
* They have a $45 and $90 bill
* The biggest note in Burma is $1000 which is about 90 cents
* Foreigners are only allowed in a small area of Burma the rest is restricted
* Finally in 2003 the generals moved the capital from Yangon to the small village of Napidaw because a fortune teller told them to do so.

So back to the story... Arriving in the Yangon international airport came across just like other nice European terminal except maybe a little emptier. I was expecting some tin shed with scores of military personnel lining the way. However it is extremely relaxed as the first signs of the incredible Burmese hospitality seeps through. Then the power to the entire international airport is lost and we all fall quiet as the terminal is plunged into darkness. Is quite an uncanny situation however as if nothing had ever happened the lights flick on after 5 minutes and the baggage carousal starts working again and I am on my way. Welcome to Burma

The taxi ride into the city allows the driver to talk candidly about the failings of Burma but through his tone I can tell that he is not angry only concerned about his country. As we drive I notice the huge roads, lack of cars and no scooters (the driver tells me they are banned in Yangon). It is almost an unreal place after just coming from the chaos that is Bangkok. The driver pulls into my hotel and charges me a fair price, no bargaining required, a sign of things to come?

In the afternoon I walk the streets admiring the huge British colonial buildings. It was almost if a section of Pall Mall in England had been transplanted to Yangon. I then arrive at my destination the Botataung Pagoda. I now start to realize what I am in for in my trip to Burma, a REAL non-commercialized tourist experience. No sellers, no one trying to rip you off just real people going about their life unaffected by you. As with some of my previous destinations a lot of the experiences were so commercialized and untrue the just seemed fake and forced. Here there is no such gimic.

The temple is covered with thousands of pilgrims coming to see a ancient Buddha hair relic. After putting on a traditional Burmese costume called a longyi I am allowed to enter. I step into the site and some people start staring at me in disbelief but I do not feel unwelcome. The site which houses the relic is covered in dollar bills testament to the strength of Buddhism in this country. I leave the site deeply touched and content to have seen such an experience. Little did I know that this was just the start and the experiences were to continue to flow. I finish off the night with a walk through China town to the BBQ stands. Here they have charcoal BBQ cooking up every possible meat served with chilled Myanmar beer and ending in my very first Rickshaw experience. For those unaccustomed to a Richshaw it is like a human pedaled chariot and involves scooting around streets narrowly missing cars and pedestrians as you go the wrong way down one way streets.

The next day in Yangon I continue down the extraordinary sights list with a visit to the legendary Shwedagon Pagoda. The pagoda dates back about 2500 years and was built to house the eight sacred hairs of the Buddha. The central stupa is 107m high and is covered with over 60 tonnes of gold leaf. I hire a guide for the trip around the stupa and the 80 temples that surround it. My guide turns out to be a student and he starts to open up to me about the issues with his country. He speaks of oppression and the way the country is run. He speaks to me candidly about the monk riots which happened here a few years ago and his discontent at the government for giving the lead monk 65 yrs prison time. Anyway the Pagoda is huge and positively glistens in the sun and lights due to the 60 tons of gold plastered all over it.

From here I head to what is eloquently termed 'Buddha World' a small town called Bago to the East of Yangon. Here I hook up with a scooter driver and he takes me to all the sites of the town. We start by going to a monastery to watch 1200 monks eating breakfast. Is a real enlightening experience as I also get to hang out with the monks as well. There are amazing people and I learn that they love football and play when the head monk is not around. I see where they sleep and learn more about what being a monk entails. Next we head to another huge stupa larger than Shwedagon but with a lot less gold. We then go check out a gigantic reclining budda that makes the one in Bangkok look like a pygmy. The driver then takes us to a cigarette sweatshop with 50 girls working for $2 a day making up to 2000 cigarettes per day. Is hilarious I walk in there and all the girls fall silent and then all burst in fits of giggles. I am not sure if a brown man can blush but when my moto driver starts laughing as well I am pretty sure my cheeks wer rosy as cherries. My moto driver is an absolute character and we spend a good 4-5 hours taking tea throughout the day. In Burma taking tea is a custom which is ingrained into their society. On every street corner are low chairs and tables packed with locals chatting and laughing. My driver introduces me to his group of friends and we drink tea all night having a great time. As I had just paid my driver instead of tea he started hitting the $1 whiskey bottle and we have a hell of a time laughing at the mischief he gets up to!

From here I head to the sacred rock of Kyalito. It is a four hour pilgrimage to the sacred site that includes a huge golden rock that is teetering on the edge of a cliff. As I walk I pass scores of local tourists getting carried up the steep path by 4 Burmese guys on stretchers like they were royalty.

After heading back to Bago and having yet more Tea with my friends there I get on an overnight bus to one of the tourist highlights of Burma, Inle lake. The lake is a beautiful place and I hop onto a boat with Chinese girl to explore the lake. We take in floating markets, floating temples, see the famous leg rowers of Inle and even go to a monastery where the monks have taught their cats to jump through hoops.... now thats enlightenment!

From here it is off to Mandalay for more solid adventures. The first day I meet a great guy from the UK called Ali. we spend the afternoon eating ice cream and observing some guy loading huge 6m lengths of plumbing pipes onto his bicycle and then trying to ride and go around corners. We then hook up with the drivers son and he takes us to see the Mustache brothers. The mustache brothers are a comedy troupe and are worldwide celebrities mostly because of their anti government stance. They have been mentioned in movies and the plight of the leader Pah Pah Lae was a worldwide headline. Pah Pah Lae has been imprisoned for over 7 years because of making a anti government joke. They are no longer able to perform to the Burmese public only foreigners, this is a tactic used to stop the spread of the anti govt message. We go and see the troupe and are amazed by their openness and bravery to fight through the oppression to spread the story of Burmese oppression.

The next destination is in the east of the country Hsipaw. Is a nice place but again I am bought back to the questions around oppression. I visit the palaces of the last king of the local area. I am greeted by a locked gate and a barking dog. After a few minutes an old lady walks to the gate and informs me that she can no longer accept tourists. The govt have locked the gate however I can sneak in through a side entrance. Once inside she tells me about why the gates are locked and her husband is in jail. For the past 10 years they had been showing people into the castle however 3 years ago things took a turn for the worse. The government sent out a call for a group of local leaders to get together with then and develop a strategy to achieve democracy. After the leaders were elected by locals they got together for a meeting. At this meeting the military stormed in, arrested all the leaders and charged them with treason.... From this point on I start realizing why Burma is stuck in this position and the military can still rule the country. It is apparent to me that the government to their credit are quite intelligent, they kill off the tall poppies and without these leaders the population just fall into line. And as the Burmese are Buddhists they believe that everything that happens to them good or bad is a result of what they did in a previous life they just accept their situation.

Anyway from here I move to the town of Maymyo and tragedy hits. After a morning of sight seeing with my motobike guide I am struck down with a violent illness. My moto driver straps me against him and races me to the hospital. I start going into violent fits with the nursing staff struggling to keep me down. They inject me with scores of drugs and manage to get a drip into me. Within a few hours I stablise but it is very apparent that I cannot move from the hospital. My moto driver goes and packs all my stuff and brings it back to the hospital. However after military intervention the army tries to kick me out fo the hospital as foreigners are not supposed to receive treatment. Next thing a general is called to my bed and things change quickly, I am now receiving the best treatment and they fly the best doctor in the state to diagnose me. After 3 days of treatment I am feeling better... I am deeply indebted to the nurses (I had 3 in all) my moto driver who never left my side for the whole time (He even gave me hourly massages) and of course the general for throwing guidelines out and letting me stay in the hospital.

After that episode I head to Monywa for more Buddha viewing. We visit a mini Petra temple with caves dug into the side of cliff faces filled with Buddha statues. I view the 2nd largest standing Buddha in the world and see up to 1000 human sized Buddha statues jammed into a field. Man talk about Buddha overload!

My final destination is the world heritage site of Bagan. Bagan is similar to the well known complex of Angkor Wat, the main difference being that Angkors temples are larger however the temples here would outnumber Angkors by 10 to 1. AND unlike Angkor Wat you have this huge temple complex to yourself. I spend the days cycling around the temples with a feeling of absolute isolation. There is something special about looking over a plain with over a thousand temple spires poking up over the horizon.

From here I head back to Yangon and plunge back into contemplation about my experiences with this country. One of my guides described Burma as being an onion because you may think you have understood something but as you peel back the layer another complex issue arises. After my time here I definitely believe this to be true and think that this mystery seems to add to the aura of the place.

Well that was Burma a unbelievable place! I had to dedicate an entire blog to Burma as there was a lot to write about this incredibly complex and enjoyable place. I really hope that the plight of the Burmese is improved as they are some of the wonderful people on this earth and have taught me a lot about smiling and enjoying life.

India

After my amazing experience in Burma I am hit over the head with a club of realism when I fly into Calcutta India. The city is a maelstrom of activity the city is dirty, the people dirty and the sounds of car horns is overwhelming for me after my enlightening Burma experience. One of the most disturbing sights are the foot wallahs. The foot wallahs pull passengers along in a sort of host and cart situation. They run through rush hour traffic dodging cars and people in their barefeet.

I push through for a few days and eat my first Western meal in over a month. I manage to catch the highlight of the dawn flower market in which thousands of worshipers come to purchase scores of brightly covered flowers. So after 3 days I board my outbound bus fairly glad to be putting India behind me.

Next I head to Bangladesh for some more 'Real' world experiences.

Here is the link to my pictures:

Burma Photos
India Photos

Shaun










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16th March 2009

Good to know about Burma (Mynmar)!!!
Hi Shaun! It’s a wonderful piece of writing about Burma. Looking forward to explore this complex country …
1st October 2009

WOW
Your info and photos on Burma are mind blowing. Super Trip. Keep the blog rolling. Keep up the heat. My language for keep pushing the envelope in your travels; You are seeing the world. Outstanding info.

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