Myanmar as I see it… or saw it… And eight little lessons.

People create their own questions because they are afraid to look straight. All you have to do is look straight and see the road, and when you see it, don’t sit looking at it – walk. ~Ayn Rand

There are a lot of people who say one should not go to Myanmar, though more likely they say you should not go to Burma. They say this because of the repulsive military regime that has been criminally damaging and amazingly obtuse in the eyes of pretty much the entire world for at least the past two decades. Since the exit of the British in 1947 (to this subject the first – and tremendously fortuitous taxi driver we had said, “The British… they built many things,”) Burma has struggled to find its proverbial footing politically, economically and nationally. There was a brief period of union under Bogyoke Aung San and even the hill tribes and ethnic minorities seemed satisfied for a time. But it was short-lived and following Bogyoke’s assasination and the death of U Thant, who had not only represented Burma in the UN but had risen to become the first non-Western Secretary-General, General Ne Win took his opportunity to jump the line by way of military coup in 1962. Promoting what he called the Burmese way to Socialism, Ne Win served as the head of the Burma Socialist Programme Party, the only political party until 1988. It is during this period that Burma became one of the most impoverished nations on the planet. Currently the GNP per capita, adjusted to demonstrate purchasing power, is US$1,200/year and I can assure you that US$100 per month is NOT enough to live on in any way that is comfortable in Burma.

Under Ne Win lots of other really impressive things occurred; the assassination of 15 university students involved in protests at Rangoon (Yangon) University, persecution of resident aliens that could easily be described as ethnic cleansing, religious persecution of Muslims in what was called (no joke) the King Dragon Operation, hideous economic mismanagement…. [At this point I would ask you to consider if this sounds a lot different from how a history of the US since 1960 might read.]

But then there was a bloody coup in 1988 under General Saw Maung. Martial law was imposed, general elections were promised for 1989 and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (or SLORC as it was called, which I like better because it sounds like a Star Wars bad-guy) changed the name of the country from the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar. They held the first “free” elections in the country in May of 1990 and the National League for Democracy (the NLD, primarily famous in the West because of its main political identity, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the “Father of Burmese Independence,” Bogyoke Aung San) won 80% of the seats. The junta did not like the results so they ignored them. They had placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest in 1989, though they graciously gave her the choice to end her period of confinement if she would just please leave the country. She refused and has since been under house arrest for more than 17 of the past 20 years.

Under the rule of Than Shwe since 1992, things have continued on basically the same road. In spite of renaming SLORC to the State Peace and Development Council (lulz) and drafting a “new” constitution (I couldn’t decide if I should put the “” around “new” or “constitution,” you can be the judge. The use of “” in Burmese signage gave us pause all the way through the country…) which was military produced and “overwhelmingly” approved, and would bar Aung San Suu Kyi specifically from holding political office. The Tatmadaw (the name of the Burmese military now synonymous with the government military junta) also moved the capital from Yangon and built a new one, at tremendous cost [Burma continues to suffer diminishing economic stability but spent more than US$250 million on this municipal relocation and Than Shwe’s daughter’s wedding cost a reported US$3000,000 with gifts in excess of US$50 million] near Pyinmana, renaming it Naypyidaw, which means City of Kings. Ummm. Yeah. Interestingly, the World Fact Book still lists the country as Burma and the capital as Yangon.

Currently, the US and the EU have sanctions against the country, several international organizations like the International Labor Organization, are endeavoring to pursue criminal prosecution of the junta for human rights violations, and there has been widespread and highly publicized international dissent since the fall of 2007 when the Burmese monks protest began. A documentary feature of the protests, Burma VJ, made up entirely of hand-held video footage that was smuggled out of the country has been nominated for an Academy Award this year.

Take that Tatmadaw.

But the question remains about how much the international efforts to eliminate the junta actually help, or hurt, the Burmese people. And so, we return to the original question, should one go to Burma… or not?

I chose to go.

The planning for my trip to Burma was completely unlike any other trip I have taken. I tried to make plans and arrangements ahead of time as I generally do when traveling with limited time and a deep desire to avoid backpacker haunts, but it was a true comedy of errors. Once in-country I would learn that this had much to do with the complete dearth of internet connectivity, but in the initial stages I was just sort of throwing up my arms and doing a lot of eye rolling… and relying on the Lonely Planet. I was also insanely busy with work and life and so I was not being as diligent as I normally would, which in hindsight seems completely counterintuitive when planning a trip to a place like Burma, simply because of the degree to which the place is cut-off from all the typical traveler fail-safes. Add to this that I was effectively planning for two as I would be going with my aunt, and it becomes clear that this was never going to be the average trip. When I finally got down to it and started working out an itinerary (we had our tickets for HKG-YNG and return already sorted out as well as the visa thanks to Daryl, my super-duper travel agent in HK) we were a mere two weeks from departure. We were flying into Rangoon, which really is Yangon based on Burmese pronunciation, and so that was a certainty, and we were committed to going to Mandalay because my aunt had promised to connect someone there for a friend in the States. So, the question was, could we manage the two “must see” places [Bagan and Inle Lake] as well. It might have been possible, as we were planning to fly for all of the domestic travel on the recommendation of a Hong Kong friend who used to live in Yangon, but it would mean that we would have to sleep in a different place nearly every night and that just sounded too hectic. So, we opted out on Inle Lake and the itinerary began to take shape: Yangon to Mandalay to Bagan, back to Yangon to connect with the flight to Bangkok and an overnight in Thailand for a little R&R before flying back to the 852. Of course, in spite of the meticulous calendar I created to illustrate our trip complete with flight numbers and hotel names, it was all fiction at this point because I could not manage to book flights or rooms on-line. It was a pretty calendar though.

My aunt Nancy arrived in Hong Kong on the morning of February 5. I picked her up at the airport and got to spend the morning with her before heading to the office and at that point I really was getting excited. Nancy would be staying with my cousins while she was in Hong Kong while I continued to work excruciatingly long hours and get myself sorted out for the trip. The five days until departure flew by.

We left Hong Kong bound for Yangon via Bangkok in the late afternoon of February 10. On the ferry into town, a Lammaite I know said to us as a final goodbye, “Question the junta!” We laughed at the cleverness of the remark, which would become a euphemism for doing anything remotely off-color for the next 10 days. Funnily enough, my neighbor from Pak Kok who I had spontaneously rendezvoused with last year in Hanoi was also on our flight heading to Thailand to ride motorbikes for a week. This discovery was made as we were waiting in line at the in-town check in. We had plenty of time to talk because, as it turned out, the Burmese Embassy in Hong Kong had affixed my visa to the very last page in my passport which explicitly states is for “endorsements and amendments.” Not visas. I was actually aware of this issue because when I went to Indonesia back in 2007 the check-in person had looked through my passport and told me that I was very lucky to have “one page left” in my passport otherwise I would not have been able to board the plane because the Indonesian visa requires an entire page. I looked at her like she was nuts and said there were at least four more pages in my passport, at which point she showed me that those last pages were not for visas. Hmm. I promptly had pages added to my passport on my return. And now, seriously I have about eight pristine visa pages left in that thing, but where did I find the Union of Myanmar visa? Yep, stuck on that very same last page. When I noticed this as I picked up the visas, I thought it was odd, but who am I to question the embassy? Lesson #1: Seriously, Question the junta. Anyhow, after a bunch of typically Hong Kong bureaucratic faffing about involving faxing a copy of my passport here and there to see if it was a “valid” visa, I was eventually given a pass and the guy said he “hoped it would work out.” Nice. [Once in Burma, no one even seemed to notice the placement of the visa and it was scrutinized on a near daily basis by travel personnel and immigration control.] Regardless, we were now on our way.

We touched down in Yangon a few minutes before 7 p.m. local time on the 10th. Burma has one of those funny time zones, they are on the half hour system, so 1.5 hours behind Hong Kong time. Just one of innumerable funny things. On the plane, an American man across the aisle had seen us looking at the travel book and contemplating options for places to stay. He offered his assistance as he has been living in Yangon for four years. We listened to what he had to say, but took it with a grain of salt as we were totally judging the book by its cover, as it were. We speculated on what it was a big guy from Iowa was doing there… and none of it was particularly flattering. How embarrassing when I finally asked what he did and he told us he was the director of an international school and had just been back in the US hiring teachers. Lesson #2: Look inside the book before making a silly judgement. And his advice was sound, giving us a very good idea of what area to stay in and the hotel situation.

After clearing immigration with ease, we were approached by hordes of taxi drivers and in accepting the one we did, our trip took a completely beneficial turn. Number Five (he was wearing a shirt with a number on it similar in appearance to the characters in the animated movie, 9) was great and gave us lots of interesting information and trivia as he drove us to the first hotel on the list, completely unfazed by the fact that we were arranging accommodation on the fly. He mentioned a couple of times that he could help us get a better room rate but we were not fully clear on what he meant. He also told us to check out the rooms at the hotels and we took his advice, thankfully, as the first one was definitely not what we were looking for. After that we decided to let Number Five take over, and so he took us to his agency office, an old building and a shaky lift all the way up to the 15th floor where he went into a little bar or cafe and grabbed a young guy from behind the bar who then took us a little further down the hall and opened up an office for us, which in fact was a legit travel agency. We listed the hotels we were interested in and he started making calls. We had a fairly open mind but had been made aware of the places we would not stay because we were making a very concerted effort to avoid all government backed operations. He was cool with that and spent about 15 minutes making calls until we found a place that was suitable to all of us. And low and behold, the agency rate was way lower than that quoted by the hotel and in the Lonely Planet (which of course brought this to mind… and made me nervous about really relying too heavily on a travel guide at all.) At this point we asked about arranging air travel because they mentioned they could help us sort out accommodations in all the places we planned to visit, but we were stuck in that regard as we had no confirmed ETAs or ETDs. I took out the calendar to consult Nancy, and on seeing this the young man making all our calls asked to see it. He wrote down all of the flight dates and times and destinations and told us he could look into the flights for us but not until the morning. He loved the calendar. [I loved it even more at this point.] We looked at each other and then said, sure, we’d be back in the morning and were presently driven to our hotel for the night. The price for the taxi never changed even with all the stops and waiting (over an hour, I am sure.)

And the hotel was great. Though not nearly as great as the travel agent turned out to be. Looking into it later, it appears that the travel agent was likely a government approved agency, but the most highly recommended agency in LP is as well, so I am not totally sure what this means. When we were clear that we would not fly on Tay Za‘s Air Bagan or Myanmar Airlines (the government airline), take government boats, or stay in hotels specifically designated as government sponsored, these agents did not bat an eye, so I take that for what it is worth. And true to all the literature and the words of my own travel agent, organizing the trip in-country was way cheaper and easier.

So, there we were – after an hour or so of pretty much just being chatted to and checked in on occasionally, the cute travel agent from the night before along with two other really endearing people had taken our calendar and made it a reality with flights (all on Air Yangon: “You’re safe with us”) and accommodations exactly as we wanted them. The total cost of air travel and accommodations for the eight days was: US$390 each. This happens to be extremely important information because all reports regarding money in Burma are true: There are ZERO ATM machines in the country and you cannot use credit cards, meaning you must carry your cash with you, and it has to be US dollars in absolutely PRISTINE condition and even certain serial numbers on hundred-dollar bills will not be accepted as a result of counterfeit currency that has poured in from Russia and North Korea. A simple fold in an otherwise brand new bill can render it useless. And don’t even ask about the exchange rates with the kyat, they are well beyond fluctuating. Lesson #3: We had to really budget. I hate budgeting. But we did it (barely.)

From here on out, we were officially on tour. [Tourists? Maybe. Travelers? Whatever. You backpacker types who call yourselves “travelers” and think you are better than the rest of us, scoffing at week-long adventures should just go read something else right about now. Oh, and by the way? Just because you are cheap and dirty doesn’t make you a traveler… you are just a cheap and dirty tourist, yo.] I totally dug Yangon. It is one of those cities, sort of like Hanoi in some ways, with crumbling remains of a colonial presence creating this very cool backdrop against which you can see the vibrancy of the third world market economy that is spontaneously emerging and combusting all around it. And the people. Oh. Man. Everyone had told me how great the Burmese people are, and really all the hyperbole was totally an understatement in my opinion. These people are really amazing. They are lovely and open and gracious and friendly and cheeky and forever with a smile at the ready. To my mind, this is one of the best reasons to actually go to a place like Burma: to really see the people and be able to contribute in some sort of meaningful way, you know, with dollaz. But I also could not help but notice that in spite of all the trials and ordeals perpetrated by the junta, these people are making it work on an everyday basis. They are getting up and going to work or to school [Burma has a very high literacy rate relative to the other vital stats in the country and spends only 1.2% of its very small GNP on education – the US spends 5% (not too impressive)] and while it is clear that they are aware of the governmental issues and limitations they realize that they still have to keep on livin’. And they do.

We checked out Bogyoke Market and strolled around the city. We bought longyi, the Burmese sarongs that everyone still wears, and actually work quite well with a crisp white shirt for a business meeting. I bet that totally trumps any sort of comfort one could derive from a three-piece suit. We ate some good food and smiled a lot. The monks were everywhere. Almost all Burmese men will serve as novice monks for at least two to three years. Many will stay longer. They add a layer of visual and visceral presence to the place that you cannot ignore, nor would you want to… it is awesome. Other things that stood out to me included the huge number of book vendors on the streets and the impressive number of movie theaters. Books and movies and monks. No wonder I loved it.

Then towards dusk we made our way to Shwedagon Pagoda. I think I probably do not really need to actually add words to the images.

We were on our way to Mandalay painfully early on February 12th. Now, initially I was not going to miss Mandalay because, well… you know, it sounds really cool. Like, how could you go to Burma and not take “the road to Mandalay”? Right. So, first I should have read that poem a little more carefully because it touches on a subject that really makes me throw up in my mouth a little even thinking about it, and secondly? Whatever Kipling. My step-dad had told me that Mandalay reminded him of the Wild West when he had been there in the early seventies. I had some preconceived notions in my head about all of this and of course assumed that thirty years later it would be somehow different. Lesson #4: Assume NOT, young Jedi. The new Mandalay “International” Airport is pretty far out of town. I figured it was pretty new because there is nothing happening there, just empty retail space and broken telephones and random electrical wires lying around. Actually, it has been there over ten years we were to discover.

“Man, it just screams ‘Failed Regime,’ right?” was the perfectly placed comment Nancy offered. When we arrived at the Hotel Mandalay, we were greeted by very friendly staff and taken to a really big, but moth ball scented room. My aunt’s friend had told us to avoid budget accommodations, which we did. Though this was not always evident. Being so early in the morning I suggested we do the Lonely Planet walking tour. Often I have found these to be very interesting and informative walks. The thing is, Mandalay is NOT a city made for walking. The streets are filthy, covered with myriad layers of betel nut spit resembling pulpy, bloody, bio-detritus, and many of the sidewalks are comprised of precariously placed concrete slabs directly above effluent water. Wild West? Could be: Dust? Check. Flat? Check. Disregard for traffic laws? Check. Disregard for litter? Check. Rugged? Check. Check.Check. Check. We did do the walk, and found the places identified by Lonely. And they were. Lonely. I like local, but I have to admit, this was taking it to new levels. Diligently marching on, Nancy said she was kind of bummed that we were here when we could have been sitting somewhere by a beautiful lake, referring to the choice not to go to Inle Lake. I had certainly been thinking it and was glad she was the one to have said it. I just hoped that all would eventually be revealed. By the time we made it to Nylon Ice Cream Shop we were really grateful for good ice cream and clean stainless steel seats. And the toilet, sort of. And by that I mean it was sort of a toilet. But as usual, the people were so great. Two young boys served us and one of them wanted to practice pronouncing all the ice cream flavors with me so we read the whole menu. And oh! The smiles. Two young monks and a nun came in for ice cream too.

On our return to the hotel, we found out that U Win Ko, the contact we had in Mandalay, had left a message for us. We had tried to call earlier but the cell phone coverage in Burma rates about as high as its internet access. The call kept dropping and so we hoped he had heard at least the name of the hotel. He had. The message he left said he would try to get a hold of us later and we assumed (oops – lesson #4 not so learned) that he had called and the hotel had taken the message, but actually he had come all the way over. Eventually we made it back to our room where we happily washed our feet. My aunt had taken to pregaming her showers at this point to ensure foot cleanliness (a Sisyphean task if ever there was one) and we had also embarked upon the magical toothbrush tour (I believe at this point Nance was up to four. Could have been five. Toothbrushes were an issue.) We took a load off and I decided to see I could wrestle up some kyat. I went down to the desk and inquired. The clerk told me that she could exchange, but the rate would not be favorable, better to do it on the street. I told her I knew this and that it had been easy in Yangon because people would just approach you and ask if you wanted to exchange currency, but here I had not found anyone. She told me to wait a minute, she “knew a guy.” I love the universal advantage of ‘knowing a guy.’ And she made a call and got me sorted out. I went up stairs to wait for the hand-off and as soon as I was in the door we got a call. Win Ko was calling back. Oh, except he was calling from the lobby. Up. Clothes on. Out the door.

And we met U Win Ko.

U Win Ko is a naturopath and an acupuncturist who was trained in acupuncture by my aunt’s friend Daniel. This was why we were coming to Mandalay. When Nancy had told Daniel that she was going to Burma, she said she could take something to his students for him if he wanted. This was a big giant stack of envelopes. Win Ko was lovely and told us he would like to show us around Mandalay a little bit. We exchanged glances. “By car,” he said. We enthusiastically agreed. Seeing Mandalay from a vehicle was a whole new thing. It was WAY better. Win Ko drove us around the former palace and over to a coffee shop where he said he wanted to treat us to a coffee. Once seated and ordered, he got down to business: Nancy was a friend of Daniel’s and so she was a friend of his and he wanted to do anything and everything to make our time in Mandalay exactly what we wanted. So, what did we want to do? “What are your intentions in Mandalay?” We looked at each other. Nancy reached in her backpack and pulled out the giant stack of envelopes. “Well, actually, YOU are the entire reason we are here,” she was saying as Win Ko watched her. “When I told Daniel I was coming, he was so pleased and asked me to bring these to you and so, here we are. You are the reason we are here.” To say Win Ko was overcome would be ridiculously understated. He was blown away. He took the envelopes and started leafing through them reading off the names and telling us who each person was. Then Nancy told him there had been another envelope added to the pile after the fact and Win Ko exclaimed, “Oh! My friend Alix!” And as he opened the envelope a crisp new (big) bill fluttered out. Aha. Envelopes of that persuasion. Nice. He was just stunned. And happy. And humbled. And really, really sweet. Eventually, we did get to telling him that we were interested in climbing Mandalay Hill and that of course, we would visit the hospital where Daniel’s students were working. And we managed to do this without disclosing the obvious fact that Mandalay was a total shithole. Following the coffee interlude we were back in the car and cruising around the city. We saw where we would be walking the next day, the University of Traditional Medicine where Win Ko had studied, and then he took us to a couple of houses to see if he could find some o the other envelope recipients (I felt a little like Ed McMahon…) but everyone was out for the Union Day holiday. One of the houses we stopped at was a building I had photographed earlier in the day on the walking tour. [Hello, lesson #3.] Then Win Ko told us he would like to take us to his private clinic. He showed us where it was located but since road construction was underway (in other words the road was completely tore up and there was no way through) he had moved his clinic to his home a month ago where it would remain until the road work was finished, “maybe two or three months.” So we found ourselves in his home with the front room that had been converted into a clinic and his wife was there treating patients; acupuncture, traction and various other things were going on. It was nothing if not totally intimate.

By the time we returned to the hotel, we had a whole new view on Mandalay. Still no paradise, but somehow the personal tour made it a lot more interesting. We decided to pick a place for dinner that was a little less “local” and managed to get a taxi [no small ordeal in this pedestrian unfriendly places as the taxis prefer to be hired by the hour for a very unfriendly rate – getting a one way ride anywhere must be accomplished by ‘blue taxi’ (similar to Thai Tuk tuks) or trishaws] and went to dinner. The food was fine, but as usual the best part was the staff and just the total sweetness fo the Burmese people. This was our big night out in Mandalay though: we were going to see the Moustache Brothers.

I had seen the house where the nightly performance takes place earlier in the day and so I knew we were very close, but of course, when push came to shove we were on 38th Street when we meant to be on 39th so we were a little late. We were greeted by a young man in the front yard who said we had to pay him and then he would take us in. There were two remaining seats, right in the front. We were taken around back and led in and received personally by U Lu Maw, the English speaker in the troupe. The main Moustache Man is U Par Par Lay, who along with his cousin U Lu Zaw, has done hard time in Burmese prison for speaking out against the government. U Lu Maw and U Lu Zaw are brothers and U Par Par Lay is their cousin. With Par Par Lay’s wife, Lu Maw’s wife and sister and Lu Zaw’s wife they comprise a troop that puts on a variety show of sorts, encompassing traditional dance, slapstick comedy, and showcases several traditional Burmese practices. They open the show with a clip from the movie About a Boy, where Hugh Grant is extolling his efforts in charity work:

Will: Like the time I volunteered to help out at a soup kitchen… and very nearly made it. Or the time at Amnesty International.

Amnesty volunteer: Did you know in Burma you get seven years in prison for telling jokes? Next time you laugh, think of Par Par Lay, the Burmese standup comedian. We’re at a crucial stage in our struggle for human rights… which have been grossly abused by the ruling junta. We need your support more than ever. Together we can make a difference…

Will: You’re kidding. And what’s your boyfriend say about that? Wait a minute. You say you haven’t got a boyfriend? Talk about human rights violations. Is that right? You’re in the bath now?

The show was this crazy, frenetic and educational experience that ends with an ensemble performance and then the troupe sits down on the makeshift stage to sell t-shirts. The shirts are “all different” as they said. The collection is a hodge-podge assortment of used/recycled t-shirts, many with clashing name brands on them, onto which the Moustache Brothers silk screen their own designs. They are great, and of course we bought some. As we were getting ready to head out, one of the boys tapped me on my shoulder. I thought he asked me if I had gotten any good pictures, I replied that I had gotten some great shots. And then he said, “No, no, take a picture,” and pointed to Par Par Lay who was standing behind me. I was on it immediately and got ready to shoot, but then he said, “No, no… with you,” and pointed to the main man. He wanted his photo taken with me. Hot damn – rubbing shoulders (because I bent down a little) with Burmese celebs! Awesome end to a day that had taken a surprising number of turns. Win.

We were up early the next day to meet Win Ko who would be taking us to Mandalay Hill. There was much discussion about the shoes to wear; we were thinking it might be a little hike-like, but I was reluctant to wear my Chuck Taylor’s because it is such a hassle to wear shoes that tie in a country where you have to take you shoes off every two seconds to go into temples or pass through sacred spaces. Don’t even get me started on the dramz that was my auntie’s shoes. I opted for the Chucks, she some sandals. We would both end up feeling like total r’tards regardless. Win Ko told us that one of his colleagues would be joining us on the walk and we were surprised, but you know, rolling with it and soon we stopped to pick up Aye Aye Aung, who happens to be one of Win Ko’s students. “So she is Daniel’s granddaughter!” Win Ko proclaimed. She is a lovely girl and as it turned out, after we took off our shoes because the hike is really an 800 foot staircase on which shoes are not even permitted, it was really helpful to have Aye Aye to explain things along the way (like the feverish love for Valentine’s Day that the Burmese have, demonstrated by the horrifying tacky pink and red hearts adorning everything, Win Ko’s daughter would later tell us that “Valentine’s Day is so popular. Everywhere in the world.” I imagine the cynicism will set in eventually.) Aye Aye also helped to keep us on track to the top of the hill. The climb was cool and the view was Hong Kong-like in that the air was so bad you could really only see as far as the University and the Mandalay jail (easily four times the size of the University.)

The plan was to meet Win Ko at the bottom and that pretty much went off as intended. And soon we were on our way to the acupuncture clinic at the Wachet Jivitadana Sangha Hospital in Sagaing. This was a fair drive during which we got to hear about how silly Win Ko thought the Valentine’s thing was (agree) and the role of the Chinese in Burma (not a lot of love lost there) and a bit of the colonial history as we drove over the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River. Coming into Sagaing we were told that this hospital is a volunteer hospital where different specialists come on different days (like these two, the acupuncturists) come on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The primary clientele consists of monks and nuns who receive free treatment and many others who receive essentially wholly subsidized care because they are unable to afford to pay. It was a total trip and we were treated like royalty as “friends of Daniel.” We met many of the envelope recipients and got to watch them treat patients and then were served lunch with the director. If you are interested in contributing to this hospital you should… they could definitely use any help available.

Following the hospital visit we made a brief sojourn to Amarapura to see the 200 year-old teak bridge and have some fresh coconuts in the shade.

Heading back after a very long day we passed this Tamadaw propaganda billboard (not my photo). In conjunction with everything I had seen it really gave me pause. My head was full.

But this was hardly the end of truly crazy Mandalay. After a little shopping for edible gold leaf and a coffee we decided we would go to the chapati stand that the Lonely Planet recommended. We knew it was gonna be way local, but it sounded good so off we went. It was sort of hilarious to see this complete ramshackle street food situation with several obvious Lonely Planet readers (like us) in the mix standing out like beacons of whiteness… But we took seats and as had become the norm we were greeted by simply lovely waiters who were completely sweet and totally helpful though with little to no English. As we sat eating our chapatis (which were really good, as was the briyani and the coconut rice and even the chicken curry, though it looked suspect) my aunt suddenly exclaimed, “Oh my god, did you see his shirt? His shirt says ‘Petaluma’ on it!” I looked around, “No way! Where?” “Right there!” And all of a sudden I was calling this kid over to our table and having what must have appeared to him like some sort of attack. Fortunately, a local woman sitting at the table beside us translated for me and explained that the words on his shirt were my home town: my very small and far away home town. Lesson #5: It is a really really REALLY small world. And then he broke out a huge smile and thought it was pretty cool that he was getting so much attention, several tables had by then tuned in to see what all the bruhaha was about.

The light-colored stuff on his face is a paste made from Tanaka bark used for moisturizer and sun protection by people all over Myanmar.

When we were ready to leave (dinner was about US$3) we went looking for a blue taxi. We found one, but the driver, it was explained to us by a waiting trishaw driver, was “Up there,” indicating a party taking place atop a nearby building. Of course the trishaw driver was willing to take use but we balked because of our bulk and seriously, he was going to peddle BOTH of us? He said, “No problem! Very strong!” And I realized there was no way I was going to be able to communicate my total embarrassment for him having to lug me home, so we agreed. And you know what? He was pretty strong and motored right along, though we paid him double at the end. He didn’t want to take the money saying it was too much, but we prevailed and he left with a big smile (I have got to imagine some really tired legs as well…) Lesson #6: It really is not always about me. And this was about it for Mandalay. We would be picked up by Win Ko in the morning to catch our flight to Bagan…


Well, arriving in Bagan was like entering a new dimension after Mandalay. It was clean and quiet and rural and simply stunning. And this was only on the road from the airport. We found ourselves at a beautiful hotel built around ancient temples and pagodas the way places are built around redwoods in Northern California. There was a gorgeous pool and the rooms were huge and clean. The restaurant was situated outside under the trees looking over the Irrawaddy river and the food was excellent (though expensive-er; a meal for two might run us US$12. Hey, we were on a tight budget remember? No ATMs.) It was like we had died and gone to heaven, er… Bagan. We took a horse cart around and saw some sights and got our bearings. I also met one of the young men who would meet and greet me every time he saw me for the next three days asking me to see his paintings. We sat by the pool. We chilled out and washed Mandalay out of our hair. And of course, with greater distance Mandalay became for more dear.

Bagan is really all about the temples. There were upwards of 4,000 at one time. Now they have counted around 2,200 or so. It is a ASEAN heritage site, but has been denied UNESCO World Heritage Status for obvious reasons (question the junta!) and less obvious ones, primarily that the government is “improving” the site in ways that [rightfully] go against the UNESCO protocol, including the destruction and reconstruction of sites within the 28-square mile area. Some of the temples date back to the first century, though most of the ones we saw were 11-13th Centuries. It is a virtual forest of temples and pagodas, every one is different and every one of them has unique prayers inscribed in them and those with interior space have at least two unique Buddhas, usually four, inside. There are also frescoes and reliefs throughout. It leaves you totally agape. Repeatedly. It reminded me of the J.R.R. Tolkien quote:

Still round the corner here may wait, A new road or a secret gate…

Aside from Nancy getting a pretty wicked cold for one day, our stay in Bagan was perfect. And I did end up buying a painting from my diligent little artist…

How embarrassing trying to explain to this kid that I didn’t have enough money to buy more when I was staying in this luxury hotel and whatever. This whole no ATM thing is such a crazy way to keep the people down. If foreigners had more access to money they would spend a whole lot more. I mean, I know I would. We were a little sad to leave Bagan but had to get back to Yangon on the 16th in order to make our early flight to Bangkok on the 17th, so we were okay with it. Thailand had become this land of mythical importance not only because we would be staying at the Mandarin Oriental and the fact that Thailand is great… but it has ATMs! Huzzah!!! The flight to Yangon was easy and we returned to the highly recommended (by the Lonely Planet) Panorama Hotel. This hotel sucks. it is dirty and the panorama is of an overpass and several tall dark and decrepit buildings. The breakfast was also not very good, and we had been spoiled by breakfast all week as it is generally included with the hotels. The people at the Panorama were lovely and helpful and everything, but the place itself? No thanks, especially when for only about US$15 more we could have been at the Park Royal. We went to the “famous” Strand Hotel for drinks that night after finding out they take credit cards (with a fee)  and that was fun, but when we went to pay, they said, “No credit cards.” Hm. Problem for the ladies with, like, three dollars in usable currency left. It was explained that the internet was “down.” This seems to happen regularly in Burma – yet another passive aggressive form of oppression in my opinion, but we managed to make it work by filling out some papers and letting them copy the credit card. [Auntie is going to need to keep a pretty good eye on her statements for a while I think.] Then we were back to bed and up and out early and on our way from the Golden Land to the Land of Smiles. At the airport we checked email and I found myself seated next to the Myanmar soccer team who were also going to Bangkok and were very excited and had lots of questions for me about my stay in their country, would I return, where was I from, where was I going…

Punctuating this trip with a stay at the Oriental was a great ending to a fantastic adventure and we also joked about it being reparative therapy for my aunt who had been just totally over Bangkok after being holed up there for three weeks back in 1979 waiting for money to be wired so she could go to India. Suffice it to say this time was better. We had some pool time and actually got a tan going, then took the Chao Praya express ferry to Koh Sahn for some cheap shopping and great Thai massage. We were wearing t-shirts from Burma at this point (our only clean clothes,) which turned out to be really great because we were met by no less than half a dozen individuals who exclaimed “Burma!” on seeing us. It turns out a vast majority of the vendors working the backpacker’s ghetto in Bangkok are Burmese… and legit too because the shirt I was wearing had only Burmese lettering on it so I knew they were reading it when they said, “Aha! You went to Bagan! I am from…” We got to ask all sorts of questions like how they got to Thailand, what it was like to leave, if they could go back (NO) and we got to tell them that we had really enjoyed their country which generated those gorgeous Burmese smiles.

I received an invitation for cocktails in the Author’s Lounge when we got back to the hotel but the timing didn’t work so we missed it. Bummer, but a mild one. Lesson #7: Sweat not the small shit. We took showers and baths and got as clean as we had been in days and then went down for dinner on the veranda overlooking the Chao Praya. Having just received confirmation from my aforementioned radtastic HK travel agent that we had been confirmed on a later flight the next day, we enjoyed a very self-congratulatory last night.

It was an amazing trip for so many reasons. I had asked my aunt what it had been like to take my eight year-old self to Europe and she said it was great, people had been so much nicer and more helpful and everything to her because she was traveling with a child. I laughed a little to imagine this realization dawning on my 20-something aunt totally working the hippie thing back in 1978. And here we were more than 30 years later and the whole “Auntie” thing was working in exactly the same way. The Burmese and the Thai were just tickled to work out that I was traveling with my auntie and it inspired all sorts of tales of their own families and surprising introductions, particularly with the ladies we bought our stuff from in Nyaung U. When Nancy had been in Thailand before, the Jonestown Massacre and the assassination of Harvey Milk had just gone down. Today, world events are still dodgy at best, but at least some of them are getting the right kind of attention like the Monks Protest in Burma being documented as an Academy Award nominated film, and contributions from Western healthcare workers to help with the operating costs of a local volunteer hospital.

I am very glad I went to Burma and am even more interested now to see how things unfold there. Aung San Suu Kyi has been sentenced to additional time for a violation of the terms of her house arrest (that idiot swimmer) and though the junta has promised elections they are being pretty vague – dismissive really. And really, the junta is still being pretty ridiculous on a daily basis. But I cannot imagine that avoiding the country, either its plight or its people, is really the way forward. Bringing money to local people though whatever means or finding ways to make connections of any sort seems a lot more helpful than turning a blind eye, or imposing punishing sanctions, which seem to consistently only have the effect of increasing problems for the regular people while the junta marches on. The Chinese author Lin Yutang said, “Hope is like a road in the country; there never was a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.” I realize that to quote a Chinese writer in reference to the situation in Burma may be mildly ironic, but the sentiment resonates with me. Lesson #8: Take the action you see fit.

Going to Burma/Myanmar is up to your personal beliefs in the end. But I say, whatever you do always remember to…



About Amanda

I am repatriating expatriate trying to work it all out. Well, to work some of it out anyhow. I am writing here for sanity, focus and general over-sharing.
This entry was posted in Family, Geography, Holidays, Photography, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Myanmar as I see it… or saw it… And eight little lessons.

  1. Tom says:

    Amanda, I am humbled and overwhelmed by this . Eloquent and beautiful – and honest. A lot like you and the roots from which you grow! Eat yer heart out Paul Theroux.

  2. Clare A was W says:

    I’ve been dying to hear about your trip and you did not disappoint. Thank you so much for sharing.. I enjoy your writing very much.

  3. carol barickman says:

    Gorgeous full spectrum photos and writing Ames, well planned, well travelled and well documented. We all benefit, thank you.
    How thrilling to consider that the Burmese met A and N!

  4. Daniel Bruce says:

    Amanda, this is Nancy friend Daniel, I had lunch with Nancy last sat. her account and now reading yours and seeing the wonderful photos brought tears to my eyes. I’m so glad that you were touched in ways that only those who visit can be by the true beauty of the Burmese. Now as you reflect on your trip their gift to you is seeing the beauty of your own heart reflected back to you.
    Thank you for taking the time to share this with us all.
    Daniel Bruce

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Daniel!
      I am very excited to hear from you, you are so famous! I am also really glad you read the blog. I will be sending the photos to N so you will have them, as well as sending them to Win Ko and Aye Aye.

      The trip was so special in so many ways, but really heightened through the opportunity to meet Win Ko and see the work you have done there.


  5. Patrick Barickman says:

    I just spent a very enjoyable hour reading about your trip. For those of us who by choice and/or fate stay pretty close to the home-ground, a story as well-crafted as yours provides a real vicarious pleasure.

    For some reason it never occurred to me to think about you as a writer or not-writer. Which may be why I was surprised by what a natural story teller you are. So, I hope you continue putting pen to paper. You do it well!


  6. T says:

    Ames–thank you, thank you-you just brightened my reentry into a dull work day after spring break. I loved the detail and can just picture you and nanc and all your adventures–I am so jealous! Missing you and can’t wait for your return. Love and kisses—TT

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