Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Myanmar, truely another world

Myanmar has always fascinated me, yet I never knew anything of the country itself. So in a very spontaneous decision one morning in Cambodia, I gave into temptation and decided to book a flight to Yangon and explore the country for myself. And what i discovered was such a beautiful country, so authentic, untouched and natural. Myanmar is a fusion of different countries, yet is still very much its own- which at first glance I have fallen in love with. It is intriguing, surprising, humbling and very honest all at the same time.

When you first fly into Burma you notice the line of heavy fog hovering above the city, much like that of Kuala Lumpar. Stepping off the plane you are greeted by the familiar muggy humidity of Asia and the smell of incense in the air.

It is not a country where you can travel with ease (yet) unlike most other South East Asian countries. The only way at the time of my travels that you could enter the country was via plane into Yangon, and that is also the only way to leave the country as well. There are ways to do it that I looked into but these required expensive permits that take a long time to process and there are a lot of restrictions to traveling across the border. Luckily flights were reasonable at about $100USD each way.

Traveling inside the country can also be difficult. They have built a Yangon to Mandalay highway as this is the route most travelers take, however to get to other areas there are tediously long bus or train rides that are not very comfortable. A lot of people choose to fly from main attraction to main attraction as it is quicker and can be affordable, however I am a strong believer in traveling the long, hard, cheap, uncomfortable way so I spent countless hours on karaoke buses where sweet old ladies all sing along to the songs blasting from the speakers and countless hours on the backs of motorbikes traveling on the beautiful endless beaches in the west of Myanmar, or in the bustling cities gripping tightly on to the driver weaving in and out of tight traffic.

Contact with the outside world is limited as less than 0.1% of the population have access to the internet, although in the capital, Yangon, you can find internet cafes. There is no international roaming for phones and the cost of a mobile phone SIM card is $1000USD for a non-Myanmar phone! So its a great technology detox.

But out of all the main inconveniences there are whilst traveling through Myanmar the hardest is definitely accessing money. There are no ATMs that accept foreign bank cards which means that you have to withdraw all the money you think you might spend before flying out to Yangon. And you have to make sure that the notes are crisp, new, undamaged US dollar notes, otherwise they mean nothing in Myanmar. You could come over with some notes with a slight tear, or marking on them, or maybe they were printed in 2005 (when they prefer notes printed after 2006) and they simply are worth no more than a piece of paper. There is black market where you can swap your “damaged” US dollars for “better quality” ones but you will of course be loose a bit of money in the exchange and it can be very dodgy.


The currency they have is worth so little that when you exchange your money it isnt like other countries where you get a couple of notes worth around $100 or $50. Not the case there, when you exchange all your money when you first arrive you get literally get plastic bags full of the cash that you almost need another day pack to carry. 



Yangon

I first flew into Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, was once the capital of Myanmar until 2005 when they instead changed the location of the capital to the middle of the country to a new place called Naypyidaw costing the people of Myanmar almost $4 billion! There is more information at this website. When talking to the locals about what they thought of the new capital they all had very similar responses. One man had a very poetic way of explaining the city that I liked very much. He said,
"The street lights are like birds, the wings span across lighting both sides of the road. The roads are three lanes across and are so clean. In the middle of the road there are perfect flowers and trees. I cannot explain why the government has spent so much money there. Here we have many power outages and have to always avoid potholes, but that will never happen in Naypyidaw. Even though it is my country's capital city, I do not feel I belong there."

Yangon is still Myanmar’s most iconic tourist destination, and with the border crossings being almost impossible, every tourist flies into Yangon to start and end their Myanmar experience. With 4.5 million people living there, even though it is currently not the capital it is still the main commercial, economical and cultural heart of the country.

It has a very diverse mix of old colonial British architecture, Indian street food stalls, ancient Buddhist pagodas, Chinese restaurants and intertwining back alleys with colourful markets selling things from sex toys to animal brains. It is a place that unfortunately many people just pass through, but I think it deserves a few days to explore the life within the streets. 


Local tea stall where you had to really crouch low to reach these kid-sized table and chairs.
Local tea.
At the tea stalls lighters conveniently hang down from the umbrellas.
Interesting advertisement on the side of a bus.
Yangon itself has a melancholic feel to it. There are more 10 storey apartments than I have ever seen in my travels, yet the streets are bare. Perched on top of the run down buildings are satellite dishes connecting the locals with the outside world. The streets are busy with old colonial buses, cars and bicycles, yet they do not abuse their right to a car horn. 

The motor traffic in Yangon is very peculiar. They drive on the right hand side, yet their cars steering wheels are also on the right hand side. There are two different suggestions as to why the country made the change both of which blame the eccentrics of the government, this website explains both theories. There are also no motorbikes on the road in Yangon. This is very strange for Asia in general, yet, according to rumour several years ago a high-ranking military official’s car got hit by a motorbike, so the next day he just banned all two wheeled motorized vehicles on the streets of Yangon. I cannot imagine how accepting people at home would be in this situation!

Walking down the street was a mixed experience in itself. You aren’t bothered by people, they leave you alone, which is so unlike most other places in Asia. There aren’t tuk tuk drivers motioning you across the street, people trying to sell you drugs or little children trying to sell souvenirs. 

Admiring the architecture you would almost think you were in England with the old colonial style buildings, extravagant churches and old cars. But then you are bought back to Myanmar when you see live chickens strung up by their feet on bicycles being rode down the street. 
Old colonial style building reminding you of Myanmar's history
You can tell that Myanmar is a country who hasn’t relied on tourism in the past. This year is said to be “the year” for tourism. From what I have heard it is getting busier and busier, everyone is searching for their own “real experience” of Myanmar before tourism affects the country, much like South East Asia has become. My plane was full of people when I flew in, yet I know it will only get busier.

At the moment there is still an innocence to this country that the rest of South East Asia possibly once had. And I am no expert on the matter but it is only time before people start exploiting various aspects of their country to tourism.

During my stay in Yangon I was lucky enough to sleep at “Motherland Inn 2” that was fantastic! It is possibly one of the best I have stayed in during my trip. Its not a spectacular room and the rates are fairly reasonable at $15 per night for a single fan room, yet it’s the staff that really make it a special stay. When I arrived a nice young boy was kind enough to take my back breaking 25kg backpack all the way up the 3 flights of stairs to my room on the top level. I had also arrived with a French backpacker and it was his birthday, yet he hadn’t told anyone. Suddenly when we were all relaxing outside the staff all came out with a delicious decadent chocolate cake and started singing happy birthday as they had taken notice to his birthdate on his passport when he checked in.

I believe there is a lot to learn from the people of Myanmar. They have a very unselfish nature. If you drop your wallet in the street with enough money for a whole three years average wage (which is highly possible as you carry all your money on you, due to the lack of ATMs), someone will chase you down the street to return it to you. When you look confused as to how to eat or drink something you have ordered from a little side street cafĂ©, another customer will go out of their way to come and show you just how to do it. And there are numerous times on the street when you are stopped so they can ask how you are enjoying their country and their culture. Even a simple thing as exchanging smiles is so natural and puts you at ease right away. They are such open and kind people and the older generations all have wrinkles on their cheeks from smiling their whole life (rather than the frown lines on a westerner’s head).

During my first day as soon as I arrived I got lost deep in the streets of Yangon, which to me is the best way to experience a city. I then went to the biggest of Yangon’s three payas, Shwedagon Paya, visible from most of Yangon as it is perched on top of a hill in the middle of town. Everything was so over the top. The statues were all decorated in colorful neon flashing lights, that almost made it look as though they were dressing a Christmas tree. It is beautiful and glistens gold in the sun. As the sun begins to set there is a colour show as the paya changes from magnificent gold to orange, with the 4531 jewels decorating the top of the pagoda shining green and red. It is an amazing feeling sharing the awe of the light show with hundreds of locals and other tourists, all silently enjoying the magical spectacle. Candles are lit along the walls in front of the Paya, offerings are made and prayers are said. Many of the monks around are eager to practice their English and are always keen to tell you a bit about the temple.

The rich and beautiful Shwedagon Paya
I took the local train circuit that goes around Yangon and the country side villages surrounding the big city. It cost only $1USD (and they would only accept US currency) for the whole 3 hour circuit. You could tell the train was a result of the old British colonization, and didn't look like much had been updated on the train since then. It was a great way to observe the local’s everyday life and to interact with them in a very non touristy situation where you are the only westerners. But little did I know when I jumped on that train what would happen. 

Within the first two stops leaving the station the train suddenly stopped in the middle of the tracks, it wasn’t until getting out to investigate it that my friend and I discovered in horror that there was a person lying on the train tracks underneath the train. A middle aged man had chosen that particular train to take his own life. 

People peering out of the side of the train to see the dead body as it was rolled off the tracks.
A curious little girl
Watching the reactions from the passengers of the train showed similarities and differences between our two worlds. People were shocked and shaken but then got along with their normal lives. Children hopped off to inspect the body with no objection from their parents. It showed to me that in my own world I am so sheltered from death and images like that are even discouraged to be shown on television for people to see. Back home the train driver and the witnessed passengers (such as ourselves) would receive counseling. The body would be covered and an investigation would be made. Whereas in Myanmar the driver inspected the body, rolled it off the tracks and proceeded to get the passengers to where they needed to go.

After the shaking start to the train ride I met these beautiful children, practiced English with them, sung various nursery rhymes and I taught them how to take photos with my camera. They loved this and went around snapping pictures of everyone on the train. 

I then bid farewell to Yangon and made my way to the second biggest city, Mandalay on the night bus. It took exactly 10 hours, which is what was estimated and like it promised it was very comfortable and you received a complimentary toiletry kit, water bottle and pillow, much to my surprise. The bus also had sing-a-long karaoke with very cheesy video clips to seemingly popular songs from Myanamar, which added a great source of entertainment.


Mandalay


Mandalay almost seems bigger and noisier than Yangon, and the latter I believe is due to the presence of motorbikes and scooters. Another thing I noticed whilst there was that the local motorbike drivers, trickshaw drivers or taxi drivers conduct business in a pushy more Indian-style way than the locals in Yangon. And unlike those in Yangon you have to be careful that you don’t get cheated with certain prices.

After a bicycle ride around the busy back alleys of Mandalay you get a feel for the local life here. The locals are keen to show you the fresh produce in the markets and lots of the stall owners very generously gave us bags of tomatoes, plums and very sour under-ripe mangoes and refused any payment for them. The back alleys are amazing the way they wind around, and behind every corner is another new world of Myanmar to be appreciated, and more smiling faces.

There are many things that tell you that Myanmar, geographically, is in the middle of many different countries. Some people look very Indian, others have Chinese features. The local teashops serve both Chinese fried rice and Indian curries or pancakes. 


Traveling in the back of a pickup truck in Mandalay

Bagan



Bagan is possibly the more famous part of Myanmar, well known for its 2500 pagodas and temples in only forty two square kilometres, all with religious significance. A majority of the temples were built over a 450 year period between 850 to 1300 AD by the various ruling kings of that time.

Unfortunately due to increasing amount of tourism, visits to these temples are becoming more like visits to Cambodia’s famous Angkor Wat, or India’s Taj Mahal. There are hawkers trying to sell arts, crafts, soft drinks and postcards. But I suppose people have to make a living somehow. Unlike other tourists I went without a plan, jumped on a bicycle and visited temples that appealed to me, and not the “must see” ones.

At one temple however something unexpected happened. I was approached by a monk from the temple and given a “private tour.” He however made the inappropriate move of touching my arm and telling me he loved me and wanted to run away from the monastery to be with me. After the odd encounter he then followed me to the next temple. For me the noble men in the maroon robes seem somewhat less innocent to me now.

I was then planning to leave that night, or early the next morning but the buses were all booked out and there was no way of leaving the town, although hitch hiking was considered. So I spent a well-deserved lazy day in Bagan, enjoying the air con room I had splashed out a whole $4 for.

Kalaw

The bus ride to Kalaw was one of the worst I have taken, and I have traveled some very bad buses on this trip. The local bus was scheduled to leave at 4am, but then left at 6am. After half an hour of driving the bus broke down and it took over an hour to fix the problem. For a bus that was built to fit 50 people at maximum they managed to fit an extra 20 people on little plastic chairs and on the floor of the isles. The poor bus then had to push its way up mountains carrying all these people and all their luggage, which made it sluggishly slow. Yet there was still a beauty in the way the locals just accepted the situation. The tourists were starting to complain and demand how long it would take and that the seats were too small, yet the little old ladies were happy sitting on the floor squished between plastic chairs, silently vomiting (due to the motions of the bus) into little plastic bags, always smiling.

Upon first arriving in Kalaw I was both thankful for getting off the overcrowded, hot bus, but also felt immediately uncomfortable and lost which I have only ever experienced in a couple of places I have visited. We were first met by people trying to grab our bags and take us to different hostels, which is always the last thing you want to deal with after a 10 hour bus trip. Kalaw was like a ghost town, with dusty roads radiating heat from the bitumen under your feet. It had an eerie feeling to it, a similar feeling to when you wake up late to an unexpected midday sun. I counted 4 other tourists during a long walk around the small town, which added no comfort.

But of course first impressions are not always correct. When waking up to a beautiful sunrise over the mountains, clean fresh mountain air, smiling faces and a busy bustling market I grew to fall in love with this small mountain town with its colourful markets and smiling faces. 

 
But the main reason why tourists visit the little town of Kalaw is to organize a 2 to 3 day trek to Inle Lake, about 50 kms away. The trek to Inle Lake was great. It was a perfect way to see the “real Myanmar.” See how the locals live, see how they farm their food, how they transport food, how the tribes differentiate from each other. The trek was for two nights and three days walking were you passed through different tribes and villages, walk long six hour days and cover about 50 kms of trekking. A very rewarding experience, even if we did choose the hottest time of the year to do it.


Kalaw to Inle Lake Trek

We went trekking with Sam’s trekking services, which I would highly recommend. The trekking guide, “Mr Kai”, was great. He is 69 years old, has many war wounds from years of service in the army yet still manages to briskly walk up and down the mountains leaving us to run after him. And it will be years before anyone can stop him from doing his job. 
Sam and our trekking group
He had many things to say on all sorts of international issues and especially issues regarding his own country Burma. He does not call the country Myanmar, much like a lot of other locals. They all say that when the day comes when they truly are free people then they will call their country Myanmar, but until that anticipated day they call the country its former name. He had his opinions on a lot of matters including that the Chinese gave motorcycles to Burma to kill the people from motor accidents.

We noticed along the way that it was mainly women who we saw working in shops, on the fields picking tea leaves, harvesting crops, in construction, looking after the livestock and looking after the children. When we asked where the men were he said that many of them were hopeless and had no hope for their country due to their hard past, so many of them sat in tea houses drinking the locally made Myanmar Rum (which is 500 kyatts a 250mL bottle, or 75 cents) and gambling with the little money they have.

The terrain was very similar to that of Australia; hot, red dirt, dried up river beds, blackened trees and ash from bush fires, hot rocks that radiate the heat absorbed during the day. When we asked about the bush fires Mr Kai informed us that "the locals had lit them, just because. The fire was entertaining for them so they lit it. They do not know the consequences of lighting a fire." We passed through a newly lit fire on the way that was sweeping through the terrain so fast it was unstoppable. The dry grass and small scrubs were being swept into an angry orange blaze and any wild life around were scurrying away, including us. 

Due to the bush fires and the change in climate due to global warming the weather and environment is changing in Burma. Whilst walking through the dried river beds and eating lunch beside the dried up lake you can’t help but think what the scenery could have been like years ago. Green fields, swollen lakes, flowing streams, shady forests. 

We walked along train tracks, in tea leaf plantations, cabbage fields, up little dirt tracks, down dry river beds, through monasteries and little villages. Passing through the villages was especially enjoyable as the little children come up to you and give you flowers to put in your hair. They are so excited to see you. We in turn gave them little stickers and I have never seen a child so excited in their lives. From behind their matted hair, scratched knees, torn clothes and dirty faces comes this bright white smile and eyes that light up, a face that is not easy to forget. 
Handing out the stickers to a group of very excited children.

My two dollar second hand shoes were not the best choice of footwear, after the first day there were already holes in the soles exposing my socks. Luckily a little store along the way sold the Chinese made green military shoes that most of the locals wear. So I left my worn out soles (excuse the pun) behind and swapped them for the three dollar pair of military standard shoes. Unfortunately I could not leave behind the five blisters that came with the old shoes. 

The first night we stayed in a local’s home up in the mountain. We were treated to a huge banquet of traditional Burmese food and decided to play poker with whatever small “poker chips” we could find- cotton swabs, cigarette filters and (as we were a group of three girls and one guy) of course tampons, which the locals found very entertaining. 

Our beds
Poker chips
The next night we were lucky enough to stay in a small monastery. This is possible all over Myanmar and it is expected to give a small donation. Our monastery was so small infact that there were only three monks living there in a huge beautifully built old wooden building. 

We ended the long three days with a relaxing boat ride on Inle Lake. We passed through the beautiful local houses, through some of the 17 villages of the Intha People, past water gardens, and of course past the famous fishermen who cleverly row their boats with their legs. In an elegant fashion, with great balance and practice they appear as if they are walking on water. 
A young girl putting on liptsick and mascara


Inle Lake



Inle Lake is simply a magical place with lots of things to see. The best way to explore the area is by a whole day boat tour. It was so nice to sit back and relax as you are taken to different parts of the lake to see various local attractions including places where women roll cigars and weave linen. 


These heavy neck rings are designed to stretch the women's neck, which is considered to be elegant and desirable. They can be worn from girls as young as 2 years old and are ridiculously heavy. They had one that you could pick up and try the weight and i could barely lift it. These women barely take the coils off their necks as the only way to remove them is to uncoil them, or to cut them off which never happens. Here is a website with more information about the neck rings.


It was really interesting also to see how the local cigars were made. The women use old newspaper rolled up for the filter, use local tobacco and anise for the sweet cigars, roll them up in a leaf and then seal the cigars using rice glue. It almost makes it sound healthy!

Making the Tanaka paste. The locals get the tanaka tree root and grind it down with a little bit of liquid to form a paste. It is well known as a sunburn protector, is good for your skin and is used for decoration.
I had to try it out for myself
We took a ride around Inle Lake and met some lovely locals, one of them being a 50-something woman. She was so nice and talked to us for a good hour or so and then invited us to her home the next night for a dinner at her place. It was an offer we could not refuse. She worked all day on the food and went to the market early in the morning to get the ingredients. She would not eat with us though, she said she had already eaten, but I think it is a culture thing. Even on the trek our guide would not eat with us even though we offered numerous amounts of times. The night was definitely the highlight for Myanmar so far and I think it would have to be something very special to beat it. We were joined by her niece, a gorgeous friendly 26 year old university student, and her cousin, a 60 year old lady who spent the whole time smiling and rolling around on stitches on the floor from laughing at jokes that we did not understand. 


One step closer to democracy...


The NLD flag perched in a field in a rural community shows support nation wide coming up to the big by-election day.

After almost 40 years being controlled by military junta with many human rights abuse stories and forced labour, you could definitely understand the excitement of the locals as the election results were about to be revealed.
 
It was a buzzing night and even before you found out the official results you could feel the celebration in the air. The build up the the election was exciting, people were unsure of how the election would go, if the result would be legitimate or if the election day would even go ahead. During the trek the main topic of conversation of not just our tour guide but also many of the locals was the upcoming election. Many people were scared that the result would not be fair for different reasons, as they didn't trust the government. One issue people had was that they wanted to vote, but were unable to as they did not have an ID card and could not afford one. There were rumours that the government was buying civilians ID cards in return for their vote.

However on election day everything was made to look very legitimate. There was live streaming of the votes on the televisions in every cafe and everyone was glued to the screens. Each vote was held up to the camera and the official vote counter would then place it in the appropriate ballot box according to the party voted for. And so even after being placed under house arrest for 15 years and winning a previous election but having the result ignored Aung San Suu Kyi finally got the victory she deserved. Here is more information. 

Now since the elections there has been massive international attention on Myanmar. Tourism has begun to open up and people are a lot more interested in foreign investment. Political heads from around the world are now beginning to strengthen ties with this soon to be booming country and Aung San Suu Kyi is even beginning to travel abroad to strengthen relationships.
 
My celebration that night went differently to how I would have imagined. Myself and a German friend i met along the way were swept into a crazy night that started with some innocent beers at a street stall and soon escalated into a private karaoke party with Tequila and "lady friends" to put it politely, neither were my choice, but was still an interesting night to remember.  

Before it got messy...
Chaung Tha Beach and Nwge Saung Beach


After craving the beach for so long I was excited at the idea of finally dipping my toes in the ocean again so headed to a little beach town called Chaung Tha Beach. The little resort town is a popular for the wealthy Yangonites (locals from Yangong). A swiss girl and myself were the only two foreigners which meant that we immediately attracted a lot of attention. We were invited to join tables of local business men where they showed off their "manliness" by eaten raw sea urchins and other exotic animals from beach hawkers, where they then tried to make us try them as well- not my cup of tea. 
 
 
It was interesting to watch people at the beach though. They are not confident with the water so instead the locals pose on the beach wearing all their clothes and taking lots of pictures to make their friends back in Yangon jealous. For those brave enough there are inflatable tubes that they can use to bop up and down in the water.

For me a day was enough in this beach town and I decided I wanted to check out the beach town next door, so I asked a nice local guy if he could take me to Ngwe Saung Beach, and for $15 he agreed. The next day we set out nice and early on his motorbike trying to balance my huge backpack between his legs as we drove off. This motorbike ride was possibly the highlight of my trip to Myanmar. We traveled through local villages where the locals had never seen foreigners before, through jungles where we had to dodge the low hanging branches, over kilometres of sand on the beautiful beaches, bast water buffalo bathing in the water, past fishermen bringing in their morning catch, over little tiny wooden bridges barely wide enough to fit the bike, and barely strong enough to hold our weight, across three different rivers where we had to carry the motorbike onto a local fisherman's boat where he then ferried us across to the other side.
 
Taking the motorbike across the river on the motorbike.

Pig on the beach. Whilst relaxing on the beach I was startled to hear deafening screams that sounded like a little baby crying, after looking closer I realised the noise was coming from some ships that had arrived and were offloading the pigs onto the shore. In this little fishermen boat they had about 50 pigs on it and were throwing them in the water one at a time forcing the pigs to swim to shore.
Ngwe Saung Beach is the closest i have been to paradise. Imagine palm trees, clear blue water, clean sand, cocktails on the beach, bon fires every night, night time swims and a great group of people. Paradise.  

Paradise.

And so as my visa was about to run out and my flight to Japan approached I had to pack up my things leaving behind more friends and another amazing country. To anyone considering visiting Myanmar my advise would be- do it! It is such a different experience and before tourism gets a hold of this genuine, natural and authentic country go see it for yourself!

My travel route in Myanmar...

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