Jambiya Sellers of Sana’a

Sana’a, Yemen.

Jambiya 3     Yes, I can proudly say I have been to, survived, and thoroughly enjoyed Yemen. What a country. So different from any other place I have been too. Exotic isn’t even the word for it. Mythical may be a better word for it. Cut off from the world, almost seemingly to be lost in time in places. Adventure, you got it. Excitement, around every corner. History, Culture, Nature …everywhere. The capital, Sana’a, one of the highest capitals in the world, founded somewhere around the 6th century BC (yes, BC), with a city center that I can only equate to looking and feeling like a life-size gingerbread house city, is simply outstanding. Walking these streets is an unexplainable feeling. Here is a place where you actually could almost be walking through time. Small alleyways in-between ancient mud brick houses which resemble ancient skyscrapers, tipped with elaborate friezes and white alabaster covered window frames framing out intricate stained glass windows. Turn a corner, a group of camels tied in the street. A man in “full garb” riding around the next, crossbow on his back, Jambiya in his belt, at full gallop, sword flailing at the camels side, face and head covered in cloth. Simply fantastic.

     Ok, this post isn’t simply about Yemen, or Sana’a. They will come over the next few weeks. This post is about the Jambiya, and the Jambiya sellers around Sana’a. Maybe getting ahead of myself already, you may be asking yourself “What the heck is a Jambiya?” A Jambiya, well, basically its a thick, around a foot long, dagger which Yemeni men carry strapped to the waist. The Jambiya positioned right in front on the belt. Pronounced JAM-bee-yah, this is often a man’s prized possession, historically passed down from father to son for generations. Historically, it was a weapon, a symbol of regional origin and social status, and an informal investment plan, since the daggers nearly always appreciate with time. Maybe the first thing you will notice strolling through any town in Yemen, and always displayed with pride. I gotta say, it is quite an intimidating and spectacular display too. …and if you haven’t noticed yet, I love this stuff. This is real manly man, no BS, I carry around a foot long razor blade sharp knife like it’s the 5th century kind of stuff… Love it. Adventure at its finest!!! Alright, back to reality. You can’t miss the Jambiya, and although quite intimidating, I found the sellers of these knives to be quite a cordial bunch. Head to Bab al’ Yemen, the Gate of Yemen, the main entrance into old Sana’a, and beyond you can find shop after shop of Jambiya sellers. PS: make sure you are still looking up as you pass through the gate. I don’t condone it, and it may not be right, but they still occasionally hang the bodies or heads of child molesters, thieves and other law breakers on the gate there. …suffice it to say, not much crime in Yemen when I was there. …and I told ya, like stepping back in time.

     OK, head past the gate, through the square, and into the markets. Past the Qat dealers, the sweets and candy shops. Intertwined throughout the market streets and alleyways. A little yell here, an Asalaam Alaikum there. Don’t worry about all the guys with AK’s over their shoulders, it’s just normal here. Three guns for every man, woman and child in the country at last count. It’s an honor thing. Everyone is nice enough, actually one of the “nicer” people I’ve met. Respond to some of those greetings, don’t worry that the man behind the counter is wearing a foot long knife, surrounded by foot long knives, as people with foot long knives try to make their way around you, as you are knocked by the butts and barrels of their Ak’s 🙂 It’s just how it is here. Did I mention I love Yemen?

     Give it your best shot. “Let me see that Jambiya”. Na, don’t like that one. “How bout that one”. Don’t be shy, don’t be intimidated. It’s just a market, just like any other market, souk, mall or shopping center in any other country. This is the true adventurers mall! Don’t like this shop, move to the next. Smile, be happy, don’t offer if you’re not happy or really don’t want. It’ the market game. They’ll try to get you to offer, but you don’t have too. There are plenty of Jambiya shops and sellers, each one just a bit nicer and accommodating than the last …I’ve seen this game before. Have fun, ask questions, laugh, joke and exaggerate. Accept and enjoy the tea offered …yes, this is the Arabian Peninsula remember. Drinking the tea doesn’t mean you have to buy. This is just Arabian Peninsula hospitality!!! Thank them for the tea. They will almost always let you walk away unscathed by words …this isn’t one of those tourist markets either. Go to the next stall. Look, smile, communicate and learn and have fun. If you want to know the history of the Jambiya, just ask. From what I saw and heard, these guys are almost always just plain happy to explain their culture and the meaning of the Jambiya to foreigners, and almost always just as interested in you as you are in their wares. “What country are you from?”. “How do you like Yemen?”. “I hope you find Yemen is a great country”. All too often I had to answer yes to that last question. A great country. A truly honorable people. A place I thought only existed in dreams. A word of advice – if you don’t want to buy, just say so up front. No harm done. You have to remember this is still an economy, and market, driven by commerce. I found that these guys were actually more willing, more than any other country I’ve been too, to just talk. They were actually just interested in talking to a western foreigner more than anything else even after you told them you didn’t want to buy. Their business based on honor, like just about everything else in the country. Would they try to sell you a Jambiya during, or after, the conversation, even after you said this? Of course. But it would come with a smile and not the kind of exchange often encountered with more travelled kind of countries? …most definitely yes. You just laugh, smile and point out that you said you didn’t want to buy, and the seller almost always just poured another cup of tea and laughed back, continuing the conversation without another word of sale forthcoming. That said …I bought that one in the middle in the picture on the right. I also bought two more. Hmmm, maybe I did get had… If so, all in fun, and souvenirs I will never, ever, ever, regret buying. These guys were great, and Yemen was just outstanding. I can only hope to go back one day, considering it the most exotic country I have ever visited. Until than, I hope these guys keep selling. The country keeps going, and the world doesn’t encroach on the culture too much, as this is a country truly lost in time. I love Yemen. I have even been made fun of for spending money on visiting Yemen, but I only have to laugh at that. If people only knew, all the while hoping that not too many people find out…

     As an afterthought – it may sound like a very dangerous country, but just like any other – use common sense. The people I met in Yemen were some of the nicest, kindest, and most accomodating people I have ever met. Yes, there are guns galore. Yes, there are automatic weapons carried around nonchalantly like you would carry around a cellphone in New York. I think you just have to realize it’s not New York. This is what travel is all about, at least to me. Something different, exotic, interesting. Just because you carry a gun, doesn’t mean you use it. I find this to be more of the thinking in Yemen than I see in the US. It’s a matter of prestige, honor and culture. People are people, no matter where. As for Yemenis, I can actually say that they try and hold themselves higher than most. It’s a great country. It’s just as dangerous as any other, if not more, but honestly, sometimes less, even when surrounded by knives and guns.


No Butts

Taken on the Niger River somewhere in between Mopti and Timbuktu, Mali.

     This one from the top of the boat, or pinasse (I’ll explain that in a future post). Maybe the “safest”, if not the overall best place to stay on a trip up the Niger River. Why the safest? …you see the kids in the villages along the Niger River, and you’ll know what I mean. Ever have a 50 Lb. ball of smiling, almost always naked, energy  flying at you at a full force run… You’ll see. Not dangerous, per say, but a kid who doesn’t have a toy and knows that: boat full of people = toy …toy being an empty plastic bottle. Holy Smackatoly. A few hippos in the way …they don’t care. Seriously. They do not care. This shot taken from above as three of these “balls of energy” lunge into the pinasse to “explain why they should get the empty bottles”. One of the fondest memories of my trip through Mali. The kids are, simply, awesome, for lack of a better word. Balls of energy ready to explode into full sprint at the slightest hint of fun. …here they have launched themselves out of the water like three crazy dolphins, and nothing is going to stop them from acquiring a few toys before they hop back in the water.

March 5, 2008

The Bucket List

     I see these things everywhere. A new fad I guess. Everyone has a “Bucket List”. Everyone wants to do this, that or the other thing. Most of the time I would say, well, stop making lists and start doing these things. A bucket list gets you no further in completing the list other than wasting some more time writing it down so other people know what you haven’t done and will probably never do. But. Yes, always a but. I figured what the heck, may as well join the crowd this one time in my life, so here is mine – and don’t get me wrong, there are some interesting ones out there and I do have to admit, I read a lot of them and many seem very well thought out. Not dissing the list, just putting my unasked for and probably unwanted thoughts out there, and joining the crowd in my own criticism. OK, here it is:

√   1) Join the crowd at least once in my life
√   2) Go to Afghanistan
√   3) See the Pyramids of Egypt
√   4) Travel from Kathmandu to Timbuktu
√   5) Taj Mahal
√   6) Angkor
√   7) Travel through Burma
     8) Buy a Chinese Junk and live on it
     9) Become a pirate (well, you know, not the Somalia type, but it
         goes along with the Chinese Junk)
     10) Free a slave …had the opportunity but missed the chance,
√   11) Petra
√   12) Pretend I’m Indiana Jones in some far off land exploring bone
           ridden caves and dodging deadly animals and the whole
           Indiana Jones thing – YES!!!. Caves, check, human bones,
           check, deadly animals
(scorpions, barking dogs, possibility of
           poisonous snakes – I’ll take it), check, little passageways

           through dangerous (possibly) villages in a foreign land,
check.   Sweet…
     13) Do the Karakoram Highway …all the way.
           …along with the NWFP.
√   14) The Himalayas
√   15) The Himalayas again
     16) Bhutan …looks awesome, gonna have to bite the bullet and
           just go.
     17) The Trans-Himalaya Trail in Nepal …the whole thing in one
           shot. None of this section crap. I see a lot of people saying it
           can’t be done and you would have to run it, blah, blah, blah.
           Thats BS. I could do it easily, just need the time and the
           proper paperwork. No doubt about it. It’ll take months, I know,
           so what.
√   18) The Nile …did it …all the way …three months. Awesome trip.
√   19) The Sahara
√   20) The Sahara again
     21) The Sahara one more time (at least)
√   22) The Niger to Timbuktu
     23) The Niger even further – from Mopti to Gao, than into Niger to
     24) Agadez, The Aïr Mountains and Woodabe
     25) The Amazon River
     26) The Congo and DRC from Kinshasa to Kinsangani …now
           there’s a trip.
     27) The Lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia
     28) Be able to walk out of my house with everything I own in my
           Kelty 2650 pack …and not look back, worry, or have to go
           back for anything else. In other word – Nomad. I gotta tell ya,
           I’m really close to this, and possibly there. I have a lot of
           books that I’d be like, damn, and a lot of pictures, sentimental
           crap and stuff like that, but I think I could almost do this. Have
           to sell the car but no big deal…
     29) The Kalahari …although no big deal if I don’t see it, but why
           not, always wanted to be able to say I was there
     30) Southern Africa ex-South Africa …this would be easy if I would
           just stop going to the Sahara
     31) Stop smoking …my God, this is actually #1 on the list and an
           ongoing process
√   32) Morocco, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Cambodia, Thailand, China,
           Japan, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt,
Ethiopia, Sudan,
           Cameroon, Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali,
           Senegal, India, Nepal,
Vietnam, Myanmar, Afghanistan,
           New York, Seattle, Vancouver, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Saigon,
Bangkok, Yangon, Sana’a, Casablanca, Marrakech,
           Timbuktu, Kathmandu, Delhi, Agra, Jaipur,J
aisalmer, Jodhpur,
           Udaipur, Kabul, Kuala Lumpur, London, Madrid, Venice, Cairo,
Omdurman, Addis Ababa, Lagos, Douala, Bamako,
           Dakar, Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dialasso, Lome,
           Damascus, Amman, Istanbul, Muscat, Abu Dhabi, Dubai 
…many having no desire to go back at all. Having survived all
           of them once is a feat in itself.
√   33) Try to understand why the more money people have the more
           they worry and complain about money.
           …think I got this one, as much as I will ever understand, so
           I’m checkin it off.
√   34) Never make a bucket list again …I think I got this one down
     35) Be Happy

Hmmm, kind of like my list. Maybe not such a bad thing after all.

     36) Somalia
     37) Go back to Bangkok …unless I live there, this will always
           remain on my list. The greatest city in the world. I’ve been
           there 5 or 6 times and always try to make it back if I’m in the
     38) Live in a foreign, non-western, country for at least a year
     39) The South Pacific. Tahiti, Rangiroa, Bora Bora, Samoa,
           Kiribati, Fiji …too many to name.

     Another thing with the Bucket List, thinking about an older post. Sometimes you don’t know you want to see or do something …until you actually see or do it. Most of the things I’ve done or seen have been spur of the moment types. The Bucket List becomes oxy-moronic in this sense, especially in regards to travel and adventure. Travel and adventure for me is spontaneous, spur of the moment and definitely not planned. Putting together a list is planning. Blah. I would never put “Swim with Hippos” on my list, but heck, one of the most adventurous, exciting, as well as stupid things I’ve ever done. Wouldn’t take that back for anything. Watching slaves be marched in, bought and sold …Bucket List moment, absolutely not, but my God I’m glad I saw that and am aware of it now. Staring down pirates, holding an empty AK …bucket list, no. Awesome, gotta say, yes. Child soldiers. Glad I met them and talked to them. Wish it wasn’t so, but it is. Bucket List. Heck no.

…so maybe:

√     40) Enjoy the ride and realize I can’t list what I don’t know is out
             there. …check that one.

     So, a little tougher to make than I thought, and kind of enjoyable actually. Definitely an interesting exercise in wants and goals too. … and if anyone wants to invest, these Junk Boats are expensive – send me an email. 🙂

A few last minute additions:

     41) Papua New Guinea
     42) Walk the Gobi

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

Halong Bay

Halong Bay, Vietnam.

     Think …old Chinese junks, floating through a maze of over 3000 limestone islets set in turquoise blue waters, tropical birds flying all around, villages floating on the waters here and there. Cave systems to spark the interest of the land lubbers. Tales of dragons spitting jade and jewels, protectors against the northern invaders, to spark the imagination. Halong Bay, I never knew it even existed until I actually saw it. Impressive. If you’re in Vietnam, don’t miss the chance to see it. Even bad pictures bring back good memories from here.

September 18, 2010

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 IV – Yangon

…continued from: Travels through Myanmar III – Money Matters

First stop – Yangon.

    The unofficial capital of Myanmar, and the country’s financial hub – the capital “officially” moved to Naypyidaw in March 2006 by the military. By far the largest city in Myanmar at almost six million now. A short flight from Bangkok and a straightforward affair at the airport with minimal hassle. The first greetings you notice is the sea of Thanaka covered faces waiting outside the terminal. Like the aftermath of a peanut butter factory explosion at head level only. A thousand different tan lined designs with a pair of eyes staring through. Not a matching design in the crowd.

     Leaving the airport and driving through the city, one of the first big differences you will notice between Yangon and most SE Asian cities is the lack of motorbikes. Motorbikes aren’t allowed in the city limits. WoooHoooo! No masses of Hondas converging towards you at every street corner and crossing, like a dam above the Honda factory just broke. No playing the chicken game at every crossing. No head twisting looks as you step off the curb. Heck, no worrying about getting hit on the sidewalk. Ahhh…

    A few days seeing the sites. The massive Shwedagon Pagoda overlooking the city and shining through the night. If that’s not enough for you, there are numerous other pagodas, or payas, scattered throughout Yangon. The Maha Wizaya, Botataung, Kaba Aye, Chaukhtatgyi, Me La Mu, Ah Lain Nga Sint, Yau Kyaw, and Sule Paya (pictured below). Too many to count and each one as exotic as its name is hard to pronounce. Tired of all that gold and religion, head to the park, the Maha Pasana Guha, or “Great Cave”, or Kandawgyi Lake.

     Downtown Yangon, with its fin-de-siècle architecture, gently crumbling, decaying and fading with time. Being the former British colonial capital, Yangon has the highest number of colonial period buildings in Southeast Asia. Buildings like the former High Court, the former Secretariat buildings, St Paul’s and the legendary Strand Hotel are all excellent examples of the bygone era. For me though, the buildings are just a backdrop for some really interesting characters that can be found throughout the streets of downtown. From soldiers to hawkers to homeless to children. Most of the back streets in downtown form one long continuous maze of a market. I find just wandering is the best way to find things. So much to see that isn’t on any map or in any guide. …you can’t find what you’re not looking for, so this truly is a city where getting lost can be the best way to see the sites.

     Make sure you try the Dagon beer, named after Yangon. Huh? Named after Yangon you ask? …Yangon was founded as Dagon in the 6th century AD by the Mon, who dominated Lower Burma at that time. Dagon was a small fishing village centered about the Shwedagon Pagoda. In 1755, King Alaungpaya conquered Dagon, renamed it “Yangon”, and added settlements around Dagon. …and how do you record that moment in history? With Dagon Beer of course!!! Than there is always Myanmar Beer, blue & red labels. A great place to enjoy one (or more): …while watching a rugby match or Premier League, Traders Gallery Bar & Restaurant is top-notch and highly recommended. I even had quesadilla’s there that were surprisingly great, as well as any other snack I tried. They even have a Happy Hour…

     Aung San Suu Kyi, freed on Novermber 13, 2010. Wish I was there for that. I hear her street is open now. When I was there it was a bit tough getting past the tanks, but once you got past them you only had about two hundred military with automatics to deal with. I bet it’s a lot easier now 😛

     Don’t miss the Bogyoke Aung San Market. It’s a virtual maze. You think you’ve seen it all, than go upstairs, than across the walkway, than across the street, than through the little alley, etc, etc. There are some really interesting pieces in here (just make sure you can actually get them through customs) and anything can be had here from souvenirs to clothes to food to anything else imaginable. Also a good place for changing money – don’t worry about looking for money changers, they’ll find you …believe me, they’ll find you. If a mazelike indoor type market isn’t to your liking, the streets all around are basically extensions of the market. A great place to walk around even if your not looking to shop. From the market it’s an “easy”, eh-hem, walk down to The Strand which really shouldn’t be missed. Just don’t fight to much with the military telling you you can’t walk on “this” side of the street, cross the fifty lane deathway at a quick pace, dodge the kids if you like, or not, they are fun… Than scratch your head as the military on “this” side tells you – you can’t walk on “this” side and cross the deathway again. The walk is well worth it, and you wander around the Strand for a while, have tea or coffee in the lobby, bar or restaurant and soak up the cold air conditioning while admiring the teak-wood, bamboo and old world type interior. On your way, if you have any extra hair gel on you, give some to Beckham pictured on the right here …and watch him instantly put it in his hair and animatedly start jumping up and down showing you how much he looks like David Beckham, as he screams over and over, Beckham, BECKHAM, BECKHAM!!!. …as his sister tries to sell you every postcard in the book. Good times… Just a note: this picture was taken next to a guy with an automatic (rifle) screaming at the kids to leave me alone from about a foot to the right, as I screamed at him to leave the kids alone, as the kids got up, as Beckham told his sister to look at the camera …and hurry up, as the guy yelled, as I clicked, as the gun waved, as the kids smiled, as Beckham fixed his hair. The kids did a great job of not running away crying and screaming, or crossing the road to the other side. …not really sure what the guy was yelling at them for, but the gun was big and his voice intimidating. If I knew what he was saying I probably would have run away crying and screaming, but, the joys of ignorance. 🙂

     Enough for now. I haven’t talked much about the Shwedagon Pagoda. Next post.

…to be continued.
Next Edition: Travels through Myanmar V – Shwedagon Pagoda


Abomey, Benin.

     Sometimes life is simple. It’s just plain black & white. A lot of places in Africa, I got that same feeling. Simple, not easy. Almost animalistic. Survival of the fittest. You live and work that day to eat and survive that day. If you have the luxury of falling asleep that night, you won on that day. Everything else is just “fluff”.

     …the scars on the cheeks a symbol of this boys tribe, made with razor blades a few weeks after birth. Your in the middle of the land of voodoo here, in Abomey. It can’t be easy, and it’s definitely not simple, but sometimes it just looks that way.

February 7, 2008