Right Place, Right Time

Bagan, Myanmar.

     OK, enough of war and history and all that. …back to morning in Myanmar. Here is one that, in my opinion, epitomizes the saying in photography “it’s not the equipment, it’s the photographer”. A little bit of explanation behind the saying: you can have the best, newest, most expensive, most highly praised camera gear and equipment, but if you don’t know how to use it, it’s worthless. I really don’t know how to use it but I have always said, in a twisting of thinking here: Why spend thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of dollars buying photo gear on that “once in a lifetime” trip when you could just learn how to use a camera, use what you have and spend that money making that “once in a lifetime” trip into something like a “once a year” trip or “once in a while” trip. Ninety percent of the battle, when referring to travel type photography, is actually giving yourself the opportunity to be able to get a good photo. …not that this is so spectacular, but it was perfectly timed and I was perfectly placed, which is not going to happen sitting in your house looking at all that nice equipment that you bought for that trip two years ago …that you’re still paying off.

…and let’s face it. If you’re anywhere near Bagan, you’re at the right place, no matter what time. Another view about fourty-five minutes earlier on the same morning can be seen here.

               

PS: Bama: 6:31 AM 🙂 …just get there early.

Buddha

Travels through Myanmar XI – Bagan

…continued from: Travels through Myanmar X – Ferry Ride Photos

…but honestly, that post linked above is mostly photos, so if your more interested in the story, as in actual text, I’ll start with the second to last line from The Almost Perfect Storm, which was the post before the link above – and I know, all you want to do is click a post and read it and be happy and say “that was easy …and nice”, but now your like “this is getting way too complicated” …so, sorry 😮

OK …second to last line from the post prior to the prior post in the story:

…as I step off the docks/gang-planks/dirt bank and right into THE biggest scorpion I have ever seen in my life (the big black holy crap and I’m in flip-flops so I could possibly die if I take another step because the stinger on that thing is over an inch long type).

     My first thoughts at this point – “Damn, I wish I had my camera out”, followed by “I’m way too tired to take my camera out to take a picture of this thing”, followed by “I’m only wearing flip-flops and this thing is about an inch away from my toes” …notice the importance of thoughts there with photography coming before a painful death by scorpion poison in a third world nation all the way across the world where the nearest hospital you would want to actually go to is about three or four countries over. Alrighty than, a quick, “HOLY CRAP, look at this thing”, with a skip and a jump, followed by screams of delight by the local children …followed by screams of fright by the passengers behind us (Hee,hee,hee) and we are off to find a taxi, or tuk-tuk, or horse cart, not exactly knowing what exists up here but hoping for anything but a boat.

     Success, a few seconds later and there are taxi drivers all over, as well as horse-carts. We already have a reservation made for the hotel, we haggle for about a second, getting the price down from around fifty cents to forty-eight and a half, throw our bags in the trunk that doesn’t really close but never really opens, hop in, and take off. Fifty feet down the road we come to screeching halt, or as screeching as you can get in a few inches of mud, so more of a mostly sliding, kind of bucking, more of a “I don’t think the car is strong enough to go through mud, especially with slicks on” kind of stop. Mud: 1, Taxi: 0. I feel it’s going to be a long game.

     Lo and behold, a reasoning behind the wreckage, so to speak. The driver informs us we need to buy “Bagan Archeological Site” tickets now, before going any further. Ahhh, com on’. “Can’t we do this tomorrow?”. No. “We just spent fifteen hours on the boat”. Have to do now. “Why?”. Rules. “You’re stuck in the mud, aren’t you?”. No. “OK”. So we head to the office, three walled shack, across the street, mud slick, pay for a few tickets, as other fellow boater tourists are also stopped and start to line up. A mild inconvenience unfortunately, but a necessary one we didn’t know about – if you go up there, just be aware of it and that the guys aren’t trying to rip you off or anything. Tickets bought, we hear a loud slurpy whirring type of noise across the street. Turn around to see our taxi doing its best impression of a chubby kid sliding down a slip and slide put on the side of a hill, diagonally. The taxi driver staring at us with full smile, as he guns it without a care in the world of what may be in front of him, or who or what is being covered in mud behind, because he is staring at us with that huge smile the entire time.  Clip-clop-clip-clop, the “most out of shape backpacker in the world” (see The Almost Perfect Storm, last paragraph) pulls up in a horse-cart, you gotta be kidding me, you just couldn’t take a taxi, could ya? We have to laugh. The chubby kid taxi is out, we hop back in, now we’re off!!!

     A short drive to the hotel, The Thiripyitsaya (fantastic hotel by the way), something to eat, and to bed. We get up the next morning to a beautiful, if not hot and humid day. Bagan here we come. A short walk out of the hotel, heck, on the hotel grounds, the temples begin. For those that don’t know much about Bagan, it’s sort of like a dry Angkor on crack-cocaine with about a million less tourists, which is a good thing. Small temples, large temples, colorful temples, drab temples. Mini temples, Massive temples, old ones and new ones, and ones in-between. Old Bagan, New Bagan, stupas, buddhas, kids, horse carts, cheroots, goat herders, monks, nuns, …and beer. It’s got it all.

     Bagan, once called Pagan, formally called Arimaddanapura or Arimaddana, also known as Tambadipa or Tassadessa, translated into “The City of the Enemy Crusher”, “The Land of Copper” and “The Parched Land”. …or “Angkor on Crack” of course. The “site” sits on a dry plain between the Irrawaddy River and the hills and mountains beyond. I put “site” in quotation marks because it really isn’t a site in the fact that it can be measured accurately with any kind of certainty, which I guess really confuses a lot of people. My reasoning: Old Bagan, the town, is actually newer than the actual Old Bagan. New Bagan was a new town where the people of Old Bagan were relocated too, the newer Old Bagan, not the Old Old Bagan. In the meantime there have been small towns popping up all over the place, and there are many who still live in Old Bagan, New Bagan, and Oldest Bagan. In Bagans heyday, there were over 5000 temples erected, today there are 2217, a lot of former ones destroyed from an earthquake in 1975. The only problem is that new temples are being built every day, and of the 2217 left, only a few hundred may be from the original 5000. The idea of Bagan is much more than its physical boundaries. There may be closer to 2500 or 3000 now since the earthquake of 75′, I don’t think anyone really knows, and the people don’t really care what the rest of the world thinks about physical boundaries, if they want a temple in their backyard, they’re gonna build it, whether it be in the “boundaries” or not, thus contracting and expanding the actual boundaries as each temple, stupa, or statue is destroyed or built.

     UNESCO, in all their infinite wisdom, doesn’t like this, and I was really surprised that this wasn’t one of their World Heritage Sites, because there isn’t anything in the world like it. Their excuse is the haphazard restoration of some of the temples and some buildings around them. Idiots. A bad government and the fact that it can’t be really measured physically doesn’t mean one of the last remaining cities full of thousands of stupas, temples and statues dating back to 107 AD doesn’t exist. Of all their reasons given, none of them are substantial and the only thing I can come up with is they don’t like the government. I’ve seen about a thousand UNESCO World Heritage Sites throughout the world, and many are literally shacks or mounds of dirt sitting in the middle of trash piles, yet they don’t think a few thousand temples are worthwhile. Again, idiots. Another example of political thinking over doing what is right. OK, rant over.

    Bagan is huge. You, or I, could walk it, ride it, climb it, as well as photograph it for weeks and not see all of it. There are a few paved roads, but not many, and cars aren’t allowed off them, giving most of the roads over to horse-carts, bicycles and pedestrians. Some of the temple roofs are accessible, some have fifty foot buddha statues in them, old, new, white-washed or gold-leafed. Little food stands and drink carts ply the trails and are placed around the temples. Kids are found throughout, selling postcards, harassing the non-wary – although not nearly as bad as most places. A number of towns are within riding distance and everything is relaxed. I think we went two days without seeing another tourist, except at the hotel.

     There isn’t much I can even say about Bagan, that could accurately describe it. It’s one of those places that has to be experienced to be understood. It’s out there, and not very accessible, which only makes it more desirable for me, but there also great places to stay, to eat and certainly to see. The people were fabulous, the “site” of Bagan itself was extraordinary, and the time and effort it took to get there was well worth the effort. The photo up above is a shot of the “Postcard Girls” working their magic …outside one of those multi-level, multi-thousand year old temples that isn’t worth saving according to UNESCO.

     We see the most out of shape backpacker in the world a few more times …still in the back of that friggin’ horse-cart. One day we see him with the most red sunburned tourist girl in the world. We see a few of the other people we took the boat with. We yell at the swiss couple one night from the back of our jeep as the driver whizzes by at around 40 mph. We meet a character named Bo-Bo at one of the temples, selling his masterpieces to the world… We sit at one of the nicest, as well as biggest, pools I’ve ever had the pleasure of dipping in, eating BLT’s and french fries, looking out over the Irrawaddy and watching the sun drop under the hills beyond. Mostly though, we walk, explore and look around in awe …as well as sweat. A fantastic ending, almost – still have a few days back in Yangon, to a fantastic country.

     Maybe a disappointing ending to an eleven part, close to twenty thousand word story, I know, but to try to explain Bagan is beyond me. I still have hundreds of photos to go through and put up, and will continue to do so, with stories for each, but for now, I’m going to have to say that this pretty much concludes my story of Myanmar, at least in continuous story form. From Bagan we headed back to Yangon for a few days, and from there off to Thailand. It is an amazing, amazing country full of absolutely amazing people. I would recommend Myanmar to anyone, from the experienced traveler to the timid unexperienced. Support the people as much as possible without supporting the government, read up before you go and remember to smile …as well as remembering “Mingalaba!!!”.

The End 🙂

A list of all the posts in the “series” – links opens to another page,
and also available anytime on my Index Page:

Travels through Myanmar I – Mingalaba!!!
Travels through Myanmar II – Before You Go
Travels through Myanmar III – Money Matters
Travels through Myanmar IV – Yangon
Travels through Myanmar V – Shwedagon Pagoda
Travels through Myanmar VI – The Seamstress
Travels through Myanmar VII – Mandalay
Travels through Myanmar VIII – Munchkin Banana Pirates
Travels through Myanmar IX – The Almost Perfect Storm
Travels through Myanmar X – Ferry Ride Photos
“Travels through Myanmar XI – Bagan” …this post.

The Ferry

Travels through Myanmar VIII – Munchkin Banana Pirates

…continued from: Travels through Myanmar VII – Mandalay

Mandalay, Myanmar.

     Beep.Beep.Beep. Uuugghhhh. 4:00 AM. Time to get up and head over to the ferry for the eight-hour, could be seven-hour, but maybe ten-hour, boat ride to Bagan. We should be there by 2:00 PM. Get up, pack it up, head out the door by 4:30. Not that I’m not excited. I love boats, and I have wanted to go to Bagan for years. …it’s just early …with a bit to drink last night. OK, let’s go. Check out. No problem. The staff at the Myit Phyar Ayer Hotel even packed us a boxed breakfast – (not a bad place to stay at all, but after seeing that link I just posted, I had to laugh …maybe I’ll do a short review later). Awesome. Head out the door. Hey, look at that. The tuk-tuk driver we talked to yesterday is actually sitting there. Great. Hop in and head down to the docks.

     Get to the docks …here we go, where’s the dock? There is no dock. But these are “The Docks”. That is correct sir, say the people. The docks with no dock. Aha, Myanmar, almost forgot. The “ticket shack” is jam-packed. A heaving mass of body parts flailing around and fighting for any inch of space that gets that body part a half-inch closer to the way too small window, or hole, in the side of the shack. Everyone fighting for tickets. Touché, we already have our tickets. Yes. The office we got them from said they were the actual tickets, and said we didn’t need anything else, but seeing the “fight to the hole” …I figured we “misunderstood”, but it seems we are the only people in the whole of Myanmar who don’t have to wait in “line” for our tickets. Sweet. Right down the gang-plank and onto the boat, after a few minor purchases of food and drink on the way. Almost the first ones here. Whoops, “not our boat”, says the guy with the big gun, it’s the boat that is docked to this boat that is docked to the gang-plank that leads down from the parking lot, right next to the shack/hole/ticket booth. No problem. Still one of the first to arrive. The on-board “restaurant”, ok, the on-board table with bench and small stove with river water pumped in, not “restaurant”, isn’t even open yet. …not even close. The waitress/busgirl/cashier still sleeping on her mat. We take our seats in the “tourist” section… 

     Note: we actually had to take the “slow boat” as we were told the “fast boat”, or tourist ferry, has actually ceased to run due to the lack of tourists. We were told this, and purchased tickets for the slow boat, two days before. …approximately one hour before we met a nice Swiss couple who told us they just purchased tickets for the “fast boat”. D*mn. Oh well, too late now and everyone else we talked too said the fast boat no longer ran …we’ll see. …end note. (The fast/slow/tourist/local ferry pictured below ↓ ).

     A few minutes later, people start piling on, in, in-between, all-around, all through, and everywhere and anywhere there is an inch of space. Flashbacks to the “ticket shack-hole”. No worries. We have some room. Than, lo and behold, the Swiss couple who purchased tickets for the “fast boat” come trouncing on. Looks like there is a “fast boat”, it just happens to be on the same schedule and moving at the same speed at the same time on the same days as the “slow boat”. I have to smile at them as they give me a sly smile back. It’s all in fun. The boat is scheduled to leave at 6:00 AM. We pull out around 7:00 AM. Not too bad, I call this a win, remembering the ferry from Aswan to Wadi Halfa, which was supposed to pull out at 7:00 AM, …as we watched the sunset at 6:00 PM from the same exact spot. That’s another story though. As for this one, the typical old, third world type ferry, with plenty of patches, everything well-worn, and looking like it can turn over and sink at any second without an instant of warning. Good enough for me, if not a luxury liner, at least we have coffee. About an hour in you cruise through the hills of Sagaing. Through the outskirts of Mandalay, under modern bridges and power lines. The landscape becomes more and more rural, until, at about 9:00 AM, nothing but fields with the occasional stupa and shrine. It seems like the boat is getting more crowded at this point, with most of the tourists spreading out, stretching their legs, messin’ things up as tourists usually do. I may love boats, travel and ferries, but I hate being packed into a corner. A few more hours of cruising, or more like slowly floating against the water, and we should almost be there. Just watching the sights from the top of the boat, a dead rat floating by here, a bloated dog there. A fisherman here (yes, in a boat, still alive), a kid running on the shore and waving there. 9:05. Cha-ching. The Chinese man behind us calls out the time,”WA-CHA-MY-HA”, at the top of his lungs I may add, as he pulls a bottle of Johnny Walker Black out of his bag with a big smile. The Swiss couple makes it a check as they pull out a bottle of “Myanmar Rum”. Gulp. 9:05, I guess it’s late enough. At least I know how to say “drinkin’ time” in Chinese now. Check that off the bucket list. …as the local Burmese look at us with faces of wonderous “What the heck is going on, are these guys crazy?” kind of stares. A few sips by the older local gentlemen and women and everyone is family, as well as happy and smiling for some reason. PS: the picture to the left up above IS the waitress/cashier/busgirl …more on that later.

     …to the first stop. The village of bananas. Yes, bananas, and I didn’t name it this until after the next few stops, but the reasoning behind the names I picked is because it seemed every village we stopped at had one, and only one, product to sell and trade. It was actually kind of cool. You could see the yellow from about a mile away. The village of watermelons (upcoming) …you could see the green and pink about a mile away, etc, etc. It seemed that the reason this wasn’t considered a “fast boat” was because, well, it was slow to put it mildly, but it also stopped at every village along the way. Every village. At each village, the local “product” would be loaded, off-loaded, traded, sold, bought, eaten and everything else you could do with that particular product. I gotta tell you, it worked. Why bother growing all kinds of different produce when you can just concentrate on one and then use it to trade for the rest. Yes, there are problems with the thinking, big problems, but if it works, it works very well, and it looked like it was working. Back to the bananas. First stop. The boat pulls up, a few feet from the actual shore, because there are no actual docks, and the river is too shallow to pull all the way in …and the gang-planks come out. Stick with me here folks, remember this is the land of docks without a dock. People on shore start running, people on the boat start heaving stuff over the side, everyone is in a panic. It gets real loud. People getting off, people getting on, hawkers up on the boat selling their wares, er, well, bananas. Whole bananas, fried bananas, bagged banana slices, banana sandwiches, banana balls, bananas on sticks, banana salad, banana pie, banana juice, banana chips, dried bananas, banana oil, banana paste – I think you get the idea. Kids running everywhere selling this stuff, weaving in and out of the crowd, in-between chairs, over railings, through legs, around backpacks, like a little munchkin banana army wielding an array of banana products. “You buy Banana!” “Cheap, Cheap”. Nothing but a few kyat will fend them away, you can’t hide, they’ll find you. You can’t climb, they’ll reach you. You can’t run, they’ll catch you (not that you could even move on the boat at this point). At one point I think I had one stuck to each leg, stabbin’ me with bananas in the shins, trying to trade for my camera, for my hat, for my flip-flops, one on my back, “I trade for you hair”. A few shakes of the legs, and I am free… I teach one to say “AArrrggghhhh”, another “Ahoy Matey”. A few I teach to say, when asked their names, to answer “Jack Sparrow”. A loud chorus of “JACK SPAWWO” goes roaring through the boat.

     The waitress/busgirl/cashier is standing on a table at this point, actually I should say “the” table, long metal spoon in hand, seeming to rally her fellow munchkins, playing Queen of the Munchkin Banana Pirate Army as her troops create havic all-around. I want to give her my “I’m a Pirate in Real Life” t-shirt, but realize I left it at home… A few more long, loud, hectic, very amusing, minutes later, the horn blows, the gang-planks are pulled in, the munchkin banana pirate army exits the boat anyway they can, like a bunch of plundering munchkin banana pirates should, being done with their mission. Down the already moving gang-planks, over the side, through the rails, jumping off the bow, the stern, the roof, bananas scattering everywhere, kids screaming in happiness as they play Pirate’s of the Irrawaddy. Yelling back at the boat, arms, and bananas, waving in the air, the ferry passengers egging them on. I hear an “Aaarrghhh” in the distance, a few Jack Spawwo’s running around the shore, all the while thinking about the next ferry that stops by :). The crowd on shore laughs, gathers their munchkin pirates, money, mini Jack Spawwos, and bananas up, and disperses till the next opportunity to attack comes (wish I was there for that). Everyone is in a happy mood again as the boat pulls away, without a tourist on the boat knowing what the heck just happened. Were we just attacked by munchkin banana pirates? How do they know who got on, who got off and who may be stuck on the boat from the village? Where did they put all those bananas? What if some are still on the roof and waiting to sneak attack? Why is this kid next to me still trying to get my empty bottles? Who owns this kid? Did you see any of the munchkin pirates swinging by a rope to get off? I think one is hiding in my backpack. Why is there a banana in my back pocket? Where is that Rum?

…and it doesn’t end here. This is just the beginning of the Ferry to Bagan. Stay tuned for more. It only gets better, or, well, worse, or both, or neither, depending on how you look at it. Next stop, the village of watermelons…

…to be continued.
Next Edition: Travels through Myanmar IX – The Almost Perfect Storm

Mandalay Palace Palms

Travels through Myanmar VII – Mandalay

…continued from: Travels through Myanmar VI – The Seamstress

Mandalay, Hmmm, what to say about Mandalay…

     A city that many travellers dream of visiting. A name that brings up thoughts of the exotic. Palm trees swaying in the breeze, bamboo stands lining the roads, Kipling, Buddhism. Sitting on the veranda, a slight breeze whispering through the air, sipping …some kind of exotic juice or drink (my preference would be Mandalay Beer)… George Orwell, elephants wandering around the streets, red robed monks wandering through the golden spired stupas throughout the city.

     My first impression to those thoughts would be Whhhhaaatttt? Reality: Hotter than …well, it’s hot, and humid. Dust everywhere, thrown up by the chaotic traffic of old trucks, motorbikes, tuk-tuks and any other type of vehicle made before 1980. The sidewalks choked with those vehicles, used as parking. The air thick with smog and pollution. Horns blaring. Exhaust fumes being inhaled at every twist and turn. Central Mandalay …not a tree in sight. It’s all concrete and pavement. Not a very impressive first impression to say the least. The Mandalay in Vegas – don’t know where they got that idea from, but it certainly wasn’t from the real Mandalay, that’s for sure …thank god.

     From there, yes, it did get better, at least a bit. Mandalay is more of a city that needs to be delved into, absorbed and explored to really appreciate. A small corner restaurant that doesn’t look too promising turns out to be one of the best, as well as cheapest meals of the trip. The morning markets, lively and fun, with tanaka covered faces smiling at you from every angle. A pagoda here, a pagoda there. As you wander the city, you start to notice the smaller things, the underlying thought that this is the “most exotic” city in the world. It’s not the city itself, it’s the people, the location, the mentality and history. Sitting on the Irrawaddy River, overlooked by stupa covered hills, parts of the city seemingly overrun by red robed monks, ancient teak monasteries filled with even older relics and furniture. A smile here, a smile there. An ice-cold soda, or beer, served by a ten-year old smiling waiter. A dinner prepared, cooked and served by a ninety year old woman, always smiling.

     Yes, it did get better. Maybe not the exotic city of legends, but an exotic and interesting city none the less. Get out of the “city center”, and the roads turn to dirt, the kitchens are all relocated outside, the rush hour traffic turns from diesel fumes and noise to bicycles and sandals, and things only get better.

     As for sights to see, Mandalay has way too many to list here. Head up to Mandalay Hill. Take a winding stroll up the stupa and pagoda studded hill to take in the views over the city. Stroll around Mandalay Palace in the morning …six miles around (gulp) … the “tourist” entrance is the eastern entrance, trying to get into any other will only get you an appointment and conversation with one or more AK wielding guards. I actually recommend this by the way. I had some great conversations playing stupid. Nothing to stupid, but just a walk up to the group of military, asking the ubiquitous question “Go In Here?’. It always started with a grinning military man in full uniform politely saying no as he waved his AK around. A question here, a question there, and more times than not I would end up talking about where I was from, what I thought about Myanmar, drinking tea, exchanging laughs. Gotta go …another mile and a half to the next entrance.

     Break…the REAL crab cake up above there. Head to Amarapura and U Bein Bridge for those…Back to Mandalay Palace…If you do go into Mandalay Palace, realize a few things. The palace grounds encompass a huge area but your only allowed on the road into the very center where the actual palace is located. Guards line the road from the entrance to the palace. You would think they are testing nuclear weapons in there. The palace itself, it’s a rebuilt shell of its original self. A shame really. It gets worst. The palace was rebuilt by forced labor in the late nineties… I know, you’re in Mandalay. A once in a lifetime opportunity here. That is one reason I don’t say “don’t do it”. If you go in, just be aware, and don’t have too high expectations. It’s rebuilt, yes, it may not be right, I know, but hey, the original palace ruled this area of the world for hundreds of years and was the center of Indochina for a period, so your walking through history and the center of an empire, no matter what the present government has mutated it into. If you do go in, don’t miss climbing the “Tower” at the southern end of the compound, where you can look over Mandalay to the mountains beyond and enjoy the cool breeze up above it all.

     Done with the Palace and hills. Looking for a little comedy – The Moustache Brothers are world-renowned. Dinner on the sidewalk for people watching – the Chapati Stand on 82nd and 27th street …maybe people watching at its finest, and cheap too! A large and clean pool in a quiet lush garden setting in the city centre, the Mandalay City Hotel. Don’t miss the Jade Market. I am serious about this one. Situated in the south-western section of the city, right next to the Monk District, this market is crazy. Every and any form of jade can be seen or bought here. From raw rock jade to intricately carved masterpieces, I have never, ever seen anything like this market. This is almost its own city inside the city. Not because of its size, but just how it is. Intertwined with pool “halls”, bars, restaurants and everything else, jade dealers can actually spend a lifetime here living, trading and hawking. Some shady characters here. It can be intimidating. Child labor running rampant. You wanna check your ego and attitude at the “door” (chain link fence is more like it). This place is serious, with serious dealers dealing with serious money sporting serious protection and serious firepower. Some shady, heck, all out rough-looking characters can be found in the middle of the market here. Again though, hey, everyone is nice enough. Smiling and accommodating. The outskirts of the market mainly family type businesses, with children running around and a great market atmosphere. Just like any other travel destination, know where you are. No BS here. Right around the corner …streets full of monks. Thousands. Red robes everywhere. Monasteries. Ancient teak buildings. Houses of wicker. Teak bridges crossing meandering streams. An all around great and interesting part of Mandalay. This is where things can get “caught in time”. Walk into an 800 year old monastery and right into an open air type room filled with 1000 year old relics. Nothing behind glass or anything like that. Open to the elements. Still in use …built to last. Gotta love it.

     Tired of Mandalay. Head out. Inwa, Sagaing, Amarapura, Mingun. All capitals of centuries past within a few kilometers of Mandalay. The longest Teak bridge in the world, U-Bein Bridge, Amapurma. 500 temples overlooking the Irrawaddy, Sagaing. An earthquake cracked, photogenically endowed, Paya, Mingon. An ancient city that ruled the Burmese Kingdom for four hundred years, accessible by horse cart …Inwa. It seems there is no end to the history, as well as fascinating sites around Mandalay. It’s an area that needs to be explored, still. Thats it. At first sight, a dust bowl of crap. Delve a bit deeper, and it’s a city of legends, imagination and fascination. But you have to leave sometime, and all too often, as was my case, too soon…

…to be continued.
Next Edition: Travels through Myanmar VIII – Munchkin Banana Pirates

Travels through Myanmar VI – The Seamstress

 …continued from: Travels through Myanmar V – Shwedagon Pagoda

Mandalay, Myanmar.

     Walking through the “Druid’s section” of Mandalay, just around the corner from the jade market. I raise my camera and point it half-heartedly towards this woman in the universal photographers language of “Can I take a picture?”. The woman lets out a “yelp” and runs back into her shop. The neighbors laugh and try to explain something. I turn and keep walking, saying sorry to the neighbors, which I can’t understand. I walk for a few more seconds as the neighbors keep yelling at me. I turn back and smile …and see the seamstress waving her arms at me. I misunderstood. The neighbors were explaining in a language I couldn’t comprehend…

     The seamstress just wanted to “prepare” herself. Fix her hair. Smooth her skirt. Give it her best show. She sits at her desk, props herself up, and gives me the proudest and most serious look she could muster. Click, click, click. A proud woman. Proud of her life, her job, her shop and her sewing machine. A great memory I have of Mandalay and the people of Myanmar.

     Without a story, most would probably look at this photo with some sort of mild sense of sympathy – a poor woman stuck in a badly governed country using antiquated machinery. But that’s not how you should look at her. I see her as a proud woman, doing the best she can with what she has, no matter who or what anyone else tries to do or thinks about her. Living life the best she can with what she has.

     …I show her the pictures and she smiles from ear to ear, offering me food, a seat, something to drink. I thank her and walk away, smiling.

            September 28, 2010

…to be continued.
Next Edition: Travels through Myanmar VII – Mandalay

Travels through Myanmar V – Shwedagon Pagoda

…continued from: Travels through Myanmar IV – Yangon

The Shwedagon Pagoda.

     An amazing sight (site) indeed. I’ve seen a lot of monuments, pagodas, shrines, wonders of the world and everything else all over the world and am usually tough to impress these days, but the Shwedagon is impressive indeed. Built on a hill in the middle of Yangon and being the highest structure in the city, it can be seen for miles around. 2500 years old (according to legend), plated in gold, encrusted with 5448 diamonds and 2317 rubies and tipped off at the top with a single 76 carat diamond. Relics of the last four buddha’s kept inside – the staff of Kakusandha, the water filter of Koṇāgamana, a piece of the robe of Kassapa and eight hairs of Gautama.

     A platform containing hundreds of shrines and statues surrounds the main pagoda. Incense burning, rugs laid down, bells ringing. Four staircases leading up. A constant stream of monks. The “little ones” as inquisitive as an african child who doesn’t understand that the color doesn’t just rub off your skin. Faithful and worshipers only adds to the atmosphere. A cultural and religious centerpiece. Historically, an area of “last stand resistance” in war due to its elevated position and defendability. It’s definitely an icon of the city and a center for the Buddhist religion. There’s nothing like it that I’ve seen or heard of.

     The Legend (thanks to wikipedia): The story of Shwedagon Pagoda begins with two merchant brothers, Taphussa and Bhallika, from the land of Ramanya, meeting the Lord Gautama Buddha and receiving eight of the Buddha’s hairs to be enshrined in Burma. The two brothers made their way to Burma and with the help of the local king, King Okkalapa, found Singuttara Hill, where relics of other Buddhas preceding Gautama Buddha had been enshrined. When the hairs were taken from their golden casket to be enshrined some incredible things happened:

“There was a tumult among men and spirits … rays emitted by the Hairs
penetrated up to the heavens above and down to hell …
the blind beheld objects … the deaf heard sounds … the dumb spoke distinctly …
the earth quaked … the winds of the ocean blew … Mount Meru shook …
lightning flashed … gems rained down until they were knee deep …
all trees of the Himalayas, though not in season, bore blossoms and fruit.”

 

     Heaven and hell, fire and brimstone kind of stuff. I love legends of the sort. It may not sound so good sitting there, in front of your computer. Yeah, whatever. But told by a mono-tonally speaking monk, swathed in red robes, with a totally serious look on his face, sitting “Buddha style”, as you are staring up at the pagoda, trying to persuade yourself that you can climb it and get that 76 carat diamond at the top, thinking about home – “Hey mom, check it out, look what I got from Myanmar”, as the monk pokes you back to reality …ok, where was I. Oh yes, that legend takes on a whole different meaning when told at that particular spot and not looking at a computer screen. Hmmm, maybe just a few hundred smalls one near the top, all that gold looks like it could be slippery…

     So, the moral of this part of the story. The Shwedagon is impressive, and worth its own article. …and don’t steal, it’s wrong. Even after seeing “things” like the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, The Pyramids of Egypt, The Boudhnath Stupa in Nepal, Petra, Lalibela, Timbuktu, The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Sana’a, Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Nizwa, Swayambhunath Stupa, Mehrangarh Fort, Troy, Ephesus, Palmyra, The Ummayad Mosque, …gonna keep going because I’m impressing myself here… Termosses, Anatolia, The Bandiagara Escarpment, Mt. Everest, The Citadel of Aleppo, The Krak de Chevelier, Bosra, Wadi Rum, Mt Nebo, Valley of the Kings, Karnak, Luxor, Meroe, New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Bangkok, Saigon, Hanoi, Kathmandu, Marrakech, Fez, Dakar, London, Venice, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Muscat, Amman, Dahab, Addis Ababa, Lagos, Cotonou, Bamako, Lome, DC… Ok, sorry, you get the idea. After seeing all that, I was still impressed by this sight. It’s one you don’t wanna “rush” through. Spend some time. Go back more than once. Sit, relax, watch and talk to the people. For most people reading this, it will probably be a once in a lifetime visit, as it sadly may have been for me, but it will be a visit that will embed memories for a lifetime. It is well worth it.

     I still have to go through a lot of pictures I took here, so just two for now. I did post another of the Pagoda earlier if your interested: Blue Hour.

…to be continued.
Next Edition: Travels through Myanmar VI – The Seamstress

Travels through Myanmar II – Before You Go

…continued from: Travels through Myanmar I – Mingalaba!!! 

     Let’s see. Where to start. Get the boring stuff out of the way – some general advice before you go:

Visa:      OK, first off, I would recommend getting a visa in your home country for this one. In the states it’s a no-hassle straightforward process, although a bit of paperwork is involved. Overseas, it gets a bit tougher and complicated depending on the political situation and particular country your trying to get the visa in. I received mine in the states with no problem. Two people I was traveling with received theirs in Hanoi, Vietnam, with a lot of hassle, a few bribe attempts, and a lot of visits to the Myanmar embassy over a ten, yes ten, day period. They were worried we were gonna sell the girl (my brothers wife). They just didn’t seem to understand that if we were gonna sell the girl, we could probably get a much better price in just about any other country in the world …although she does like to shop a lot …hmmm. The Myanmar embassy in Bangkok was also contacted as an alternative but they didn’t seem to be too excited about issuing visas at the time either. So, if you know your going, get a Visa at home, and possibly avoid a lot of hassle and confusion, as well as possible human trafficking charges.

Money:     It used to be mandatory for tourists to exchange $200.00 USD for FEC’s on arrival but this no longer seems to be the case. Note: this could probably change any second, so take with a grain of salt. FEC’s, Foreign Exchange Certificates, were basically a “tourist only” currency which was almost always difficult to get rid of because the locals would actually lose out of the exchange due to government taxes and exchange rates. So no FEC’s for now, that’s a good thing, both for the visitor and the people there. US Dollars are the preferred currency, although Japanese Yen, Thai Baht, Euro’s and English Pounds were also widely accepted. The trick there is that you need to have absolutely brand new currency. US dollars should be 2008 or newer. No marks, No creases, No smudges, or anything like that. This is a big one too. I mean nothing. You can’t fold bills and carry them in your pocket because the crease that causes renders most bills “illegal” and useless. We actually had to leave the country a few days early, having $2000.00 USD in cash that was useless. Spent our last good dollar at the airport. Ashame really, because the people there and the economy could probably use every tourist dollar they can get …but the government won’t let the people take them!!! Don’t blame the people for this either. There are no foreign banks in Myanmar, everyone pulled out. Visa, MasterCard, JCB, AmEx …they all pulled their services years ago. It is almost like a bad rumor that has spread. Creases in bills, illegal. A small mark in the corner, illegal… The problem is, if someone takes the bill, they lose money because of a lesser exchange rate they will receive for it.

     On that note (no pun intended), my advice would be to exchange money on the black market, you’ll get a much higher rate than government rates. Illegal, yes, but even the businesses with the government rates will tell you to go down the street and get a better rate. Ha!!! As I said, great people.  An alternative to black market exchangers is to book tours, hotels, flights, trains, boats or whatever else you may need through certain businesses in the country that have access to, or travel out of the country. These agents will take most bills because they know that they are perfectly fine in other countries and they are able to “launder” them in Thailand, Vietnam, China, India, etc. The trade off is that you have to use the money right there, booking through them. We found one guy who was particularly helpful in this, with offices in Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan. We booked airline tickets, ferry tickets and hotels through him and were nothing but pleasantly surprised with the service and honesty. I don’t want to name the company here, but send me a message if you want particulars.

     The local currency is called “Kyat”, and, if your thinking these will be brand new and spotless, think again. Maybe, the dirtiest, most ripped up currency I have ever seen. We received a few bills that were actually just a bunch of parts, maybe 20 or 30, slapped between two pieces of clear tape. Mindboggling. A 2009 US Dollar is illegal, but a one Kyat note torn into thirty pieces, flushed down the toilet and covered in mud is perfectly fine. One of those “huh?” types of moments. A lot of talk about money, but well worth reading if you’re going there. This country was like nothing I have ever seen before when it came to exchanging money. Believe me, you’ll be thankful when you go to check out of a hotel and have to sit there worrying as the front desk meticulously looks at every bill, as you sit there for fifteen minutes thinking, ummm, how are we going to pay for this if they don’t take these?

Police/Military:     Be prepared to see a large police and military presence wherever you go. Military on the corner all over the cities. Tanks, rolling down the street. Automatic weapons everywhere. I’ve sort of become accustomed to guns, and lately my motto has become “It ain’t a vacation until I either hear or see an AK, or someone points one at me” …having gone through Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Burkina Faso in the last couple years, to name a few of the more “volatile” countries. For those that aren’t so comfortable around guns. Well, use common sense. Don’t fight with these guys. Don’t mess with them, don’t argue, and don’t go around trying to snap pictures of them. Most are extremely nice people who are there to protect, not to harm, you. Being a “tourist”, I find that most military and police go out of their way to help, knowing I am a tourist and am just there to see the country and spend money there. The majority of military and police who I have talked too just want to make sure that I will go home with great memories, great stories about the people and country, and that I tell other people to visit when I do get home. Most are just normal people doing a job.

Local Custom:     As always, try to follow local etiquette. In Myanmar, I would suggest to try a bit harder, as the people here aren’t used to the mass of tourists that some other countries in the area are used too. I had no problem whatsoever, but in respect to the people, I would suggest to learn as much as you can before you go. The usual Buddhist and SE Asia etiquette applies, and there is nothing that I would really point out in particular. If nothing else, remember the word for Hello – “Mingalaba” – and when someone passes you by and says hello, turn around and say “Ming –a –la –ba”, and often, more times than not, you will watch a huge smile erupt from the face of the recipient. Honestly, this applies to almost any country you visit. I can’t speak any other language but English, but I can say hello in Burmese, Amharic, Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, French, Spanish, and about 10 different African dialects. That one word goes along way in establishing communication, even if you don’t know any other.

     Also, certain things apply in Myanmar that you usually don’t see. Child labor is one of them that really comes to the forefront here. Poverty is another. Different ways of life and different foods and customs. It’s all part of traveling. Some good, some bad. Most often, very different from what your used too.

     Enough of the boring stuff, and I’m I’ve already made this post way longer than I intended.

…to be continued.
Next Edition: Travels through Myanmar III – Money Matters

Travels through Myanmar I – Mingalaba!!!

     I’ve been receiving a lot of questions about Myanmar lately, so I figured I would write a few articles about my recent trip to the country in the winter of 2010. I’ll start with a little introduction article and follow-up with an article a day for the next few days. I would love to do it all in one, but Myanmar deserves much more than just a small article, and I’m already up to two thousand words and barely touching the surface, so I’ll post a little at a time, with pictures of course. …at least pictures I have already gone through as I still have a whole bunch to look at. I’ll add links at the bottom of this, and all forthcoming articles, with the continued posts also, so you don’t have to go looking. If you’re interested in visiting, and are looking for something in particular, leave me a comment or send me an email.

Mingalaba!!!   

     Myanmar, Burma, Yangon, Rangoon, Bagan, Pagan, … One of the interesting nuances seen within the borders of this lesser traveled SE Asian country is the changes of names that have occurred in recent history. The country recognized now as Myanmar, often still called Burma by the various locals. Yangon, the capital, still abbreviated as RGN, for Rangoon, by a lot of airlines in the world. Bagan, Pagan, almost interchangeable in name. Whether old or new, it doesn’t really seem to matter as versions are used and intertwined in conversations around the world, as well as in the country itself. Seems to depend on each individuals political affiliation, as well as world views and opinion of the government there.

     Animism, Buddhism, Hinduism. Some call it the “Land of Green Ghosts”, others the true Land of Smiles. One of the last military regimes in the world. Often referred to as one of the most exotic destinations in the world. With fields of ancient temples for as far as the eye can see. Mountain top temples peaking through the clouds throughout the north. One of the centerpieces of Buddhism in the form of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. An endearing people and culture who are often cut off from the rest of the world. Some question whether it is morally right to go. I say yes. Go. See some of the great sights of this country and talk to some of the great people. Use local restaurants, hotels and transport, don’t support the government type establishments, and make it right to go. The people can use the money, and they can certainly use any information about the world outside of Myanmar’s borders.

     If you’re going, be prepared for frustration, poverty, child labor and lots of police and military with a lot of big guns. On the other hand, be prepared to meet some of the kindest, gentlest people you will probably ever meet. Sights like I have never seen in any other country, conversations that will leave you questioning many things, and a country full of history, life and color. Leave your cell phone at home, as well as your computer. ATM cards, useless, there are no ATM’s. Credit cards, only in a few select hotels in Yangon, otherwise …nope. It’s different, it’s exotic, and it’s an adventure.

     As an overview: I flew into Yangon. From the lively markets in the backstreets, surrounded by crumbling and moss-covered colonial architecture, to the massive, glowing Shwedagon Pagoda. A city almost lost in time and slowly fading as time goes by. Sitting on the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy River, the city itself has the feeling of one just watching, and waiting. Never in a hurry, but knowing full well that one day that will change. Just waiting for the tides to change and sweep up everyone and everything in it’s path. A sleeping dragon that can be woken at any moment. From Yangon up too Mandalay, a city almost synonymous with the word exotic when talking about travel destinations. A city full of culture and history with a name that stirs the imagination. Mingun, Sagaing, Inwa (Ava), and Amarapura. Ancient cities from empires past that surround Mandalay. Each one with a different reason to visit, whether it be the longest Teak bridge in the world, hills filled with shrines, pagodas, spires and shrines of any shape and form imaginable. Each one capital of a different time, empire and people. Ninety miles down the river, or eighteen hours by a very interesting ferry, the ancient fields of Bagan. A site to rival the greatest wonders of the world.

Mingalaba, hello in Burmese. Welcome to Myanmar!!!

…to be continued.
Next Edition: Travels through Myanmar II – Before You Go