Travels through Myanmar X – Ferry Ride Photos

…continued from: Travels through Myanmar IX – The Almost Perfect Storm 

      A few extra shots from the ferry ride from Mandalay to Bagan. Admittedly, not the greatest photos technically, and the white balance was off for most of them, but some of the best memories I have of Myanmar nonetheless. These first few from the Village Of Watermelons, where I really started just having fun. All taken with a simple 50mm lens, no cropping, it is as it is. As you look through the shots, realize you’re looking at some of the most oppressed people in the world, living under one of the last military regimes in power in the world today. Notice the smiles on many of the faces, and imagine the laughter in the air at each and every stop. Continue reading

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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

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