A Journey Through Myanmar (Burma) in 2012
Burma has been interesting destination after a gap of fifteen years; on the one hand, it's considerably more open and there are less army with guns lurking around, so it feels much safer, less of a police-state. On the other hand, much of the intrigue that surrounded traveling here fifteen years ago is missing (or hidden), and there are many, many more tourists, overwhelmingly so I thought. You really have to book all hotels weeks in advance, which makes traveling freely, without a plan, difficult. Getting from one place to another is never as easy as it looks on a map unless you fly, but almost always the most rewarding way to travel, to see Burma and experience the Burmese way of life. Flying allows more time at wherever you're headed although it takes away from the 'journey' ... I am (or used to be) a pretty tough traveler but conditions in rural Burma are basic and travel hard, so I even flew most of the first half of the trip. Until I couldn't stand it anymore!
Most people don't speak any English, and as my Burmese didn't rapidly improve, there was quite a lot of sign language involved in communicating. Still, with 'mingula-ba', 'chezutimbedai' and 'belau-le' down (hi, thanks & how much) you can interact with people, sample the delicious local foods at street-stalls and sometimes even find transport. I didn't learn numbers as people use fingers, and it's either 100 or 1000 with one finger; later in the trip I started to recognize some numbers, and during my last few days in Yangon met a Burmese anthropologist who confirmed that many numbers are similar to Tibetan and/or Hindi/Nepali. Watermelon is either 100 or 200 (one finger or two fingers), as is a basic white pastry with bean paste, and many dishes in restaurants are 1000, as are draft beers often. The 'black market' rate which I think is about to become the official rate is 815 kyat or so to the $US. You sometimes still see prices listed in $ or FEC (foreign exchange certificates), oddly. Credit cards aren't accepted, only new, crisp, unfolded US dollars. Don't run out!
Schools are interesting and melodic when heard from outside. They recite lessons in unison, more like singing them or chanting in a monastery, from before 6 AM until after dark. I'm not sure how much time off they get during the day. I've not done much shopping as, oddly, there haven't been many textiles besides in Yangon, and even there there's a dearth. There were some antique shops in Pyin Oo Lwin but didn't bother to take a look. There are amazing crafts in Bagan (laquerware, paintings) and Mandalay (paintings, puppets, umbrellas) but didn't see much in the way of 'tribal'. Now I know more, so next time will skip all the famous places in Burma (which, in spite of everything, are still absolutely amazing, breathtaking) and go northeast, northwest and southeast.
Having lived in Nepal for over ten years and grown that much older, travel need to have a real purpose, whether it's research, photography or exploring a new land and people. I often wondered why I was in a boat on Inle Lake with 35 other tourist boats behind me, or climbing a pagoda at Bagan with 300 tourists. So I focused on photographing, doing some writing and research and catching up on the usual year's worth of work (not much done there). I'd like to come back on a bike someday but at the moment much of Burma is restricted to foreigners, many of the roads are closed even if the regions are open, a Westerner can't stay in most villages. So travel by bike where you'll take 4 days to cover 300-400 km would be almost impossible. One man I met in Hsipaw, who lives in China, is using his bike on 'legal' roads, throwing in on a bus or train where it's now allowed, and using it around town. I am envious of him being able to cruise around Hsipaw, much cooler than walking and he has the opportunity to cycle to villages too far to walk to in a day. Next time!
Having finished with a three-day local bus trip to the western coast and a week on idyllic Ngapali Beach, had some hot days in Yangon where we met more 'connected' or educated Burmese, having returned to Bangkok and looked over all of my photos, my views have changed as they always do. I think back on these travels in Burma and think maybe I'll go back next year. I had dinner in Bangkok with Jock Montgomery and his wife Annie, a well-traveled combo of guide, photographer, designer who live in Bangkok now, lived in Kathmandu previously. They've biked through parts of the restricted parts of Burma and made me realize that I missed adventure on this trip, missed ethnic groups, being the only Western person to wander into a town or village.
One thing that I still struggle with is to define what Burma IS, who the Burmese ARE. I'm now back in Thailand and have no doubt about being IN Thailand amongst Thais. In Nepal I feel that I'm IN Nepal living with Nepalis despite all the diversity. India is always INDIA. China has many faces but is all one China. Burma left me a bit perplexed. At times I felt like I was in a port town on the coast of India. Others I felt I might be in China, or could have been in Nepal. There is a distinctly nationalistic sentiment in Burma, the people all wear tanaka on their faces, it's a mix of various hill-tribes and ethnic groups that have clashed at times but are still at heart Burmese. It's hard to explain because in the end it was only a feeling, but it's one that I've discussed and thought over often. I've read Orwell's Burmese Days, an interesting book that sheds light onto the colonial period in Burma, and other books such as Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh but still have lots to read, and a few DVDs to watch. Including 'The Lady'.
So go to Burma, but as Aung San Suu Kyi advises, try to not be a group tourist, interact with the Burmese instead of just going for the sites, spend your money as much as possible locally, listen and learn ...
I stayed with a good trekking friend, Louise Dunlop, who Lindsey & I also stayed with in Bangkok; her place isn't as nice as her great apartment in Bangkok but nicer than lots of the housing in Yangon, which can be quite small, covered in bars and grills. I spent almost four full days wandering around Yangon, looking for something that was familiar without finding it. But had a great time on the streets trying to order the fermented tea-leaf salad that I loved so much last time here. I found it, finally and discovered that much of of what I was getting had fermented tea-leaf mash in it. It's delicious if a bit oily and heavy; not what I remember exactly. I've found that there are endless varieties of it. The Burmese have food that they call 'sour, salty & spicy', and this small salad is one of them. If you're lucky you get small shrimp and sesame seeds, seasoned with fish sauce.
Yangon is an interesting city. The main city, 'downtown', has lots of classic British-era buildings with pillars and long shuttered wondows adorning the skyline, most in pastels or creamy white. They're an interesting contrast to the street stalls under colorful umbrellas which congest avenues with names like 'Merchant Street' and 'Bank Street'. You can get wonderful watermelon, papaya, strawberries, ripe and green mango with chilly salt, pineapple and other exotic fruits such as jack fruit and rambutan abundantly and cheaply on the streets. Even a lassi (yogurt and ice here) if you're lucky. There is lots of meat sold in the street-stalls, the most interesting a sort of 'hot-pot' of meat parts on skewers which you stick into a communal broth pot. There are a lot of Indian-style curries in Burmese food, much greasier than Indian food and not as flavorful or spicy. And fried noodles or noodle salad with fish soup is a Burmese staple. Lots of small dishes, sometimes with a fermented sauce. I love it except for the greasier varieties. Salads are amazing, nothing like ours. Small plates full of flavor, heavy and satisfying.
Some highlights of wandering around Yangon: The last day I took a 5 minute ferry to the delta part of Yangon, across the (name) large river. It was a real experience. Locals pay 10 kyat and foreigners 1000 kyat, and the five minute crossing is all about selling watermelon and pineapple, gum and cigarettes, local fare. It's as if each passenger making the crossing to the other side of the river for business of personal reasons was on vacation, only there to spend money on the five minute joy ride. The other side, the delta region, is Dalat, a small hamlet of cemented alleyways shaded by palms, 'drinking water' as my trishaw driver kept informing me, green and slimy and covered with lilies. It's interesting, hot and tropical, with great regional food. I had the best vegetable/salad dishes I've had yet here, with salad (dripping with local water, yikes), all for 500 kyat (50 NRP, less than $1). The trishaw drivers were quite desperate for business, the other villagers were open and friendly. It was too hot, though, so had to jump back on the ferry after a couple of hours; crossing the river was nice, looking down on colorful long-tail boats plying their way through the wake of our ferry, taking umbrella-covered locals from one side of the river to another.
The piers were also interesting, with local Burmese men loading and unloading the ferries and carrying the white flour sacks (50 kg?) up to waiting cargo trucks. All under palm trees, and all friendly and ready for attention ...
Visiting Shwedagon Paya, the golden pagoda, at sunset was simply magical, very serene and beautiful. Shwedagon for the Burmese is the most sacred pilgrimage site, north of downtown Yangon. Various kings and queens contributed their weight in gold, vying to outdo the last. It's wonderful at sunset, with the Burmese dressed in their finest longs with offerings of flowers and other sparkling adornments, the many different golden spires catching the last rays of the sun as it sets, and the whole complex turning pink.
The second morning in Yangon, a Burmese girl who Louise works with, Nuey, invited us to her son's 'monk initiation', something that young Burmese boys do once or twice in their lives. It was touching; the boys had their heads shaved and were dressed in red robes, having to spend the next five days staying at the monastery, learning Buddhist scriptures and fasting after noon. It's an occasion that the families spend a lot of money on, providing lunch for many friends and family menders. The boys were funny, speaking great English and taking their situation seriously but joking with everyone. Louise has a small, shaded market right around the corner from her house with is fun to wander through; the pagoda was right behind the market on a peaceful road, near Inya Lake.
I loved wandering the streets the most,exploring the covered markets (zees), taking photos, checking out such institutions as the Strand Hotel ($550-$1000/night). I took the bus from Louise's apartment into town, sharing the space with monks clad in maroon and novice nuns in pink, and came back by taxi. Another highlight was heading out to interesting places for dinner with Louise. We ate at a great, atmospheric restaurants: Alamada Inn, owned by a French couple, and House of Memories, with an old office of General Aung San.
We went twice to a local Burmese restaurant in the northern section of Mandalay not far from where Louise's apartment. The food was delicious and diverse. PILES of grilled squid (no oil at all), a whole grilled river fish, grilled vegetables and potatoes, a seafood salad, grilled garlic and broccoli. Amazing food, and all for about $10 each, including lots of beer. She lives in a much greener, less citified part of Yangon, with shady streets, local produce/goods markets around every corner, street food and 'pan', small bamboo shops over a small canal. The money changer is two floors up, just down the road from Louise, always people waiting to change US $ to kyat. When I was here last, 15 years ago, the official bank rate was something like 8 kyat to the $ and about 280 kyat on the black market. Now it's 815 kyat to the $ but with inflation the price of everything has increased; I don't think there's a bank rate anymore, just $s or kyat. Prices are similar to Kathmandu, with 20% added on in restaurants but nothing in small, local places. Hotels range from $8-10, about the cheapest, to $550/$1000 (The Strand Hotel, Yangon).
There isn't so much English spoken in Burma in general but many of the schools are American or English curriculum, so more and more the younger generation speak English, shyly. Some of the older men speak a bit as well, often due to serving in the British military.
TRAVEL TO MANDALAY
I'm really in Burma now after five nights of comfort at Louise's place in Yangon. I took a flight here from Yangon and spent 1 1/2 hours driving here from the airport in a minivan with the slowest driver in all of Burma. So by default had a full tour in slow motion of the city at sunset. We drove past the walls, moat and Burmese-styled spires of the old palace and fort, wonderful in the pink evening light, the sharp spires reflecting in the moat. And ended up at the Peacock Lodge, in a rustic 'bamboo shack' with a shed behind one of the sets of windows, filled with mosquitos, with a lace mosquito net filling most of the room, a dusty cover on the small bedside table. Pretty dismal. I had to have a little laugh when I arrived, thankful for the green sheet that I'd just bought at the market and my down, lightweight comforter that I thought I might leave at Louise's. I booked a flight here and all the hotels were booked, so took a room here which is actually highly recommended as a family-run guest house. The owner is a lovely woman probably in her late 60s, frail, dressed in Burmese attire with her hair in a bun, very friendly and grandmotherly. I guess I have the original house as the other house got good reviews. No hot water in the bathroom outside my room so stuck my head under the tap and headed out.
I found a local restaurant which does grilled (BBQ'd)food about ten minutes walk down the dark road, no street lights. I've ended up with a Tiger Beer (great, from Singapore), VERY greasy grilled food that doesn't need to be, and no seafood. Swimming in heavy oil; and some inedible pork sausage. But at least have some sort of green, spinach-like vegetable called 'kailan' (also greasy) with grilled garlic which is good. You just go to the food bar near the grill and throw skewers of what you want into a plastic bin. And voila, a meal. Usually eaten with rice but I'm off anything starchy as my stomach hasn't been right since leaving Kathmandu. There's a live band doing decent Burmese music that just started; the guitar player is actually quite good. And the atmosphere is unbeatable, sitting outdoors just off the street in an open space with a bamboo roof overhead, packed with small tables and plastic chairs. The sweet young waiter has now refilled my free plate of watermelon for the third time. I love this place - probably more because I've almost finished my second large beer ... Rather drunk men are now singing along to the very Asian tune being sung at the front of the restaurant, looking more and more like a bar. Men at the next table making kissing sounds to attract the attention of the waiter, a common practice in Burma.
PYIN OO LWIN
I shared a taxi with three guys leaving Mandalay for the two hour hilly drive through parched Burmese landscapes to Pyin Oo Lwin. I loved this hill-station town, founded by the British in the late 1800s, originally called Maymyo and a summer capital for the British colonial administration after the railway from Yangon was built. I wasn't so impressed with the famous National Kandawagyi Gardens, although it included interesting models of all of Burma's great sites; it had the feel of a theme park with lawns, flowers and palm trees. (I later found out I'd missed most of it).
More interesting was wandering the colorful side-streets and exploring the expansive covered market, where they specialized in the laphet-ot salad preparations. The people were very friendly, offering me tastes of all the condiments and I left the market weighed down with small plastic bags (which were soon thrown out in the heat). Horse-drawn carriages ply the streets and make for wonderful photographs, and the light up a bit higher in altitude (1050 meters) is dramatic. There is a clock- tower that dominated the town, and horse and carriages are one of the standard means of transport, another being motorcycle taxi. The evening was freezing eating at a local outdoor restaurant, but I was warmed by the spicy Thai-style soup which was delicious. Beers are plentiful, good, cold and cheap, always a good aspect of a country.
TRAVEL TO HSIPAW
I took the slow, red train the next morning from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw, a small 'town' now famous for 'trekking' to hill villages that I had spend time in fifteen years earlier. The train trip was fantastic; I took 'Ordinary' class, $3 instead of $6 for 'Upper' class which allowed you to sit in the cars with local Burmese. It was a very colorful ride filled with vendors yelling out their wares/dishes and villagers selling in bulk the specialties of their region (carrots, strawberries, tri-colored beans, fried papad-like bread). I met people from all over the region, including a Nepali Burmese who has never been to Nepal, wears a Burmese longi but still speak Nepali at home. There are lots of this sort of Nepali living in Burma, their grandfathers having migrated to Burma for work years ago. A similar story with Indians.
I spent the first day here trying to find something that I remembered about Hsipaw, but nothing looks familiar. Mr Charles Guest House is a fantastic find; $30 for one of the nicest rooms I've had in a long while, and chock-a-block with character. On the first morning took a walk to some Shan villages not far from town instead of opting for a hike to some Shan village about 5 hours away, which seems too odd. People arriving daily in your village, taking photos, and then leaving ...
My walk wasn't incredibly interesting, these Shan villages architecturally being squared bamboo huts partly up on stilts, and the landscape was parched. But I did get invited to eat at a gathering which I discovered was a funeral. I was brought to a round table of women with vegetable and pork dishes, a spicy chilly coriander condiment and rice in the center. You just take your spoon and dig in, putting the spoon into your mouth or onto your rice. No pollution issues here. I was then taken around to the back of the house where there was smoke rising; but it was only the men making gigantic vats of the food dishes. Finally I was lead by the hand upstairs, shoes off, into a room with mostly men and a few women sitting in a circle, bowls of laphet-ot (tea-leaf salad) spread around. In one corner taking up much of the room was something that vaguely resembled a large person, with a pillow tied to the front, and pots and pans tied in a web to the figure. There were also hanging CDs, money and other things that looked like they might be for the deceased women in her next life. And a photo of her with something written in Burmese script, and her age (75).
Continuing walking along the small path in the mid-day heat, I met a few locals, passed by ancient-looking payas (chortens), crossed a dusty field and then followed a small path by the railway tracks back to Hsipaw. Some poor families living along this sometimes road sometimes path. At the intersection of the main road into Hsipaw I met a lovely Indian Burmese man who had a truck and two houses, one here and another down south of Yangon. We talked in pidgin Hindi for a bit and he bought me a coffee (Nescafe, quite good actually). More wandering through markets, watching nuns in pink enter their monastery with their begging bowls, more covered markets where I finally bought a straw hat and back to Mr Charles. Deciding to go for a sunset view, I went right back out into the heat again and walked towards the bridge and Thein Daung Pagoda, sidetracking first to a spot where a long-tailed ferry must cross the river occasionally. Crossing the river I climbed to the chorten, deserted until three Westerners and a monk came about half an hour later. Sunset and the late afternoon light over Hsipaw was sublime ...
Not finding a motorcycle taxi or jeep to take me back into town, I walked the last hour back in the dark, reaching Mr Charles GH thoroughly exhausted. This morning moving rooms as mine is booked, and sick. Some sort of bacterial thing disrupting my stomach yesterday and making me feel nauseous today.
LATER IN HSIPAW
Took a walk after changing rooms yesterday, heading towards what they call 'little Bagan', en route stopping at Mrs Popcorns garden which my share-taxi guys recommended for juice & garden. I have to say both were a bit over-rated but she was lovely. Found an extensive 'nat' site, or local animistic deities. Many seem to be in the forms of animals - elephants, tigers, horses - and others look like Himalayan elves. People go and light candles, leave offerings much like you would in any Hindu temple of Buddhist shrine. Saw a woman in conical hat walking her cows, and water buffaloes in the dusty fields. Re-hit the main road and veered off towards the river, looking for something marked on my local map as a river sight. I wasn't sure what I was looking for and the maps are really only an excuse to get lost, but did have a quite pretty walk through some fields that were greener, some planted with cabbage, others with green vegetables. I was passes by people on motorcycles and bicycles, and walking with umbrellas, a pretty sight. I eventually found a river-side cafe, or a few covered wooden planks next to the river with a few tables and a group of locals playing cards. I stopped for a coffee just to have something while I took a break, watched one of the longtails returning down the river after a morning's tourist excursion to a Shan village and monastery (and later saw that my three shared taxi friends were in the boat, zooming in on my camera), and finally retraced my steps back to town. Have been eating lots of watermelon, a good fix in this heat. Days seem super hot although it's probably just in the low 80s; the sun beats down relentlessly and I find walking exhausting. I considered biking with a friend who's on his own bike (see above) but they have the old Chinese bikes here, with baskets, and I'm not sure I'd make it across town on one. So on foot it's been.
Today was a nice day; my friend on the bike suggested that I go to a Palung village outside of Hsipaw which we hadn't heard about after grilling the trek/travel info guy at the guest house yesterday evening. They're no very forthcoming with info if you're not traveling somewhere with them. This morning someone suggested he take his bike up to this village on a road which was a mountain-bike path really. I thought I'd walk it but after well over an hour, only reaching the hot springs (don't bother, anyone who's reading this, but do make the walk to them) and not finding the trail up to this village, decided I wasn't really that interested. The small Shan village on the side of the small stream that I'd been following for a few minutes was lovely, with many small bamboo bridges and two large water wheels. And the people were shy and friendly, happy to be photographed (except for the kids who screamed at first but were later interested to see their photos). I meandered a bit in this (very small) village and took a small trail above where I heard a school. The kids looked away when I entered and the very young teacher didn't look up; it was an odd experience after the schools in Nepal, India & Tibet. Next door was a large, rutted dirt road so took it for a few minutes to see what was ahead. Ran into a Burmese guide with an extremely red-faced older couple, returning from their overnight at this Palung village. So this was the trail and it was the usual village that all the guides took tourists to! He said there was a Shan village 45 minutes ahead, so continued uphill to this village.
It was interesting; went in and sat down at a family's long bench, just to have a rest. The older man gave me some jaggery packed in palm leaves, sweet and delicious, and I gave the kids my pastry and orange. They were happy to have photos taken when I went inside their house (it's good living in Asia and being comfortable just walking into someone's house!) and dressed the little guy/girl up in pink. The house was a raised thatch hut with bamboo platforms on a higher level for sleeping, kitchen on ground floor, sunlight filtering into the house. Pretty and simple. Had a coffee down the road at the only 'teashop' where they charged me 100 kyat for coffee! Someone should be teaching people about tourism so they can get in on the money making. It was another kid-photographing event, fun. Back down on the small road to the hot-springs, I stumbled back in the mid-day heat, stopping to watch a woman weave a bamboo ball for her son, playing soccer a bit, and amazingly was offered a lift for part of the way back into town by a sort of tractor. Thank god, as I was finished. Sitting on the great deck of Mr Charles, just outside my latest room (whichI think is the best room in this building, on the corner off the deck).
Meals haven't been spectacular here after such great food in Yangon. I've been looking for good Shan noodles but really haven't found them, and the Thai soups here have an odd flavor. Kailan fried with garlic is always available though not always on the menu, and almost all of the restaurants are meat-curry or grilled meat oriented, interspersed with very greasy fried samosas. I ate at Mr Food's Chinese place last night and the food was a bit better than San's, which wasn't the best and overprices. Tour group at dinner last night for the first time in Burma, 25 of them, so dinner took ages. Thank god again for cold beer and potato chips, which come quickly ... Had a delicious starchy, grilled brown sticky rice with jaggery sprinked on top, served on a banana leaf off the street for desert. 100 kyat!
TAXI TO MANDALAY
Had a mostly uneventful shared taxi ride from Hsipaw, leaving at 10 AM and stopping for a meal at 10:45. I sat in the front, which I had to book, with three Burmese that didn't say much in the back. The scenery was pretty just outside of Hispaw but became dusty and nondescript for much of the rest of the drive. The exciting section was the bends that led down to the river and back up, where the train crossed the high viaduct. Trucks went very slowly and took wide turns, so the taxi turned inside, switching lanes. It was a bit hair-raising, especially as our taxi should have been taken off the road years ago. Apparently they've done a clean-up of old taxis and lots of drivers are out of work. We stopped again just at the industrial part of Pyin Oo Lwin for another meal at 1-ish, and then continued with the hot drive. The highlight was driving past a long, colorful procession of people dressed to the T. I'm not sure what the occasion was but think it was nation/region-wide, something Buddhist? Adults, kids, elephants, loud-speakers, horses, the works ... The parade continued through the only shady section of the drive, a teak-forest outside of Pyin Oo Lwin which I hadn't noticed on the way up.
I splurged just a bit for a nice-ish hotel in Mandalay as they are impossible to book (always full) and the mid-range ones are mostly not great, so stayed in the Mandalay View Inn, owned by Hotel by the Red Canal where the fantastic rooms with decks overlooking a pebble-filled stream are over $200. I went on the third night for drinks and wifi by the pool, with local music, a wonderful oasis (although the wifi didn't work well).
I loved being a tourist in Mandalay. Arrived from the shared taxi ride just before 4 PM ready to go and see sunset on Mandalay hill; the guy at the desk told me to hurry, so threw bags into my room, rushed outside, jumped onto a motorcycle taxi and sped off along one side of the moat to the far corner, just beyond which the steps up to Mandalay hill began. Passing two 'chinthes', guardian lion-dogs, the climb was fully on steps through a covered walkway. Not having read anything about it I was surprised t the number of small shrines en route up; each was a maze in which you had to find your way to the next set of steps. There were no tourists around, no souvenirs, very few locals. I climbed for about half an hour and finally, confusingly, reached the final viewpoint which was truly spectacular. You could see that Mandalay had been the capital of a large and wealthy empire, and the flat, green plains spread out as far as the eye could see on one end, and were thwarted by the Ayeyarwady River and hills on one side. Temples studded the landscape, and we also looked down on a university, monasteries, a patchwork of terraced fields and the rest of the old and new city. Just an amazing view. I wandered up top past the colorfully-tiled temples that glimmered in the late afternoon sun, enjoying the peace and solitude. Until the hoards approached, mostly from the steps up from the road, a 5 minute walk. Germans, French & Italians on large tours flooded in and crowded over the bars for the sunset. So was glad to have arrived accidentally an hour + early ...
Found a local spot next to the hotel for vermicelli soup with prawns and cold Mandalay beers, delicious.
The next day I found a motorcycle taxi at 8:00, one that didn't speak English but was a bit older, and we headed towards the three ancient capitals: Inwa, Sagaing & Amarapura. One of the best parts of the day was riding on the back of the motorcycle in the morning mist; we passed through small, shaded streets and then through the stone-carving street where buddhas in various stages of development waited to be finished by artisans with metal hammers and woman with towels shining the soon-glowing faces. It took us about an hour to reach the ferry to Inwa, a five minute ride to the other side of the river where horse carts where waiting to take tourists to the sites. I got one and headed along the small, tree-lines lanes, bells jingling.
Inwa is an amazingly peaceful, rural area scattered with pagodas, green ride paddies, ruins and other ancient structures dating back to the mid 14th century when Inwa (also known by the Europeans as Ava) was the Burmese capital after Saigang. (Saigang had fallen to the Shan of the north). We visited the incredible teak Bagaya Kyaung monastery, full of young monks and a strict monk-teacher, the watch-tower of Nanmyin, the huge Maha Aungmye Bonzan royal monastery made of stucco-brick next to another collection of ancient payas and stupas dating from the Bagan period. And a few other buddhas in ruined payas, reminiscent of Anchor Wat on a very small scale. I loved Inwa for it's cool, green and quiet streets, nothing like the rest of Mandalay; and I missed the tourists by about half an hour so was mostly alone with a few Westerners on bikes for most of the morning.
Bought some inexpensive paintings (all over Burma) before heading back across the river to my motorcycle taxi and we drove to Sagaing, the short-term capital of an independent Shan kingdom in the early 14th century after Bagan had fallen and central Burma was in a chaotic state. Most of the structures in Sagaing are on the top or surrounding a large hill, which again I climbed via a covered walkway. I met a nice, young British guy Byron, partly Burmese on his mother's side, who was with a once-monk-now-disident (and perhaps tourist guide) who I hung out with the rest of the afternoon. The views from the monastery-topped summit of Sagaing Hill would have been amazing at sunrise/set but mid-day it was hot and the surroundings were washed out. Still, an incredible number of gilded payas, monasteries and stupas around, many monks and nuns in the monastery complex, and broad vistas to Inwa and the surrounding hills and river.
Leaving Saigang, we crossed the Ayeyarwady River along the long Sagaing Bridge and headed for Amarapura, 'city of immortality', capital of Burma from the late 18th century for seventy years. King Mindon dismantled much of this capital and brought the buildings to the next capital, Mandalay, from 1857 on ... The site that everyone goes to see is U Bein's bridge over the lake, the world's longest teak footbridge, an incredible site. But first lunch of grilled fish and laphet-ot on a shady veranda restaurant nearby. At around 3:00 I got restless and wandered down the bridge, which is very long and scenic. Fishermen wade through the shallow waters of Taungthaman Lake with long, bamboo poles, or glide silently on flat-bottomed skiffs propelled by a long paddle, local woman with conical hats plant rice in the verdant paddies, monks chat as they cross the bridge, kids cross the rickety planks on old bicycles and locals take refuge from the baking afternoon sun under the many small verandas along the bridge, most of which have vendors selling grilled crab, snacks, souvenir and drinks. A fortune teller waited under another one. Endless opportunity for photos, with nets being thrown, ducks being walked and honking as they reentered the lake and the sun falling lower in the sky. White and gold payas dotted the ends of the lake ...
We finally got a boat to cross back over the river at sunset, along with hundreds of other tourists, to photograph the bridge at sunset. The whole afternoon was sublime ...
DAY 2 - MANDALAY
Back on the motorcycle taxi at 8:00, we drove to the ferry terminal for Mingum, a collection of unique pagodas along the river. One of the highlights was cruising upriver for 45 minutes on a motored (tourist) ferry to get there. The sites are the Settawya Paya right on the beach, guarded by white 'nats' lined up along the steps leading to the pay, with buddha's footstep inside. Mingun Paya, started in 1790 but stopped when King Bodawpaya died in 1819 is a massive brick landmark. You can climb to the top for views over the village and sites. And the Mingum Bell. The Hsinbyume Paya all in white stucco, is a beautiful pay with steps to the top. There are marble or jade buddhas in all of the payas/pagodas, sheltered in white or blue niches. Interestingly, this pay is supposed to be modeled on the Sulamani Paya that sits on top of Kailash. I'll have to check this out, don't know the story. The cruise back was much more pleasant downriver, and I grabbed a lounge chair under the umbrella (tarp) ...
Met the driver and did some massive sightseeing mid-day, which was hot. First to Chanhaya Paya which was very interesting with three styles of pagodas inside and no tourists; locals worshiping in small groups in the many cool temple niches. Drove down a small, atmospheric street to Shwe In Bin, a beautifully carved teak monastery set in a sandy quarter under palms. It was commissioned in 1895 by wealthy Jade merchants and stands on teak-trunk poles about ten feet above the ground like the one at Inwa. Inside the teak monasteries look ancient, this one no exception, the buddhas looking as if they've looked over the monastery for a thousand years. After this we went to the more famous Shwenandaw Kyaung or Golden Palace Monastery, an other teak monastery-temple built originally as the royal apartment of King Mindon, and where he died. His successor, King Thibaw, moved the monastery outside of the palace complex and converted it into today's monastery. Last I had to visit Mandalay Palace as I'd paid the $10 ticket for Inwa, and it was really something to see. I had to take another motorcycle taxi into the center of the complex - most is military and controversial. The British ejected the Burmese elite from their teak houses, deported King Thibaw (see 'Glass Palace', a great read) and turned the palace into the residence of the governor and a club. The rest of the place caught fire in 1945 but the newly rebuilt central palace is quite impressive and very interesting.
Sightseeing finished, I spent the evening at Hotel by the Red Canal ....
Sitting on the small deck outside my room, finally in the shadow, on a canvas and teak lounge chair watching the long-tail boats go by and the sun starting to set over the lake and village of stilt houses, lotus, floating gardens and silvery reeds ...
Yesterday morning I took a shared taxi back to Mandalay airport as I'd arrived over a week before, and took a very short flight to Heho, the airport an hour away from Inle Lake. The landscape on the 20 minute flight was greener, more patchwork than I'd seen before, and the drive via taxi to the jetty at Inle was green and scenic. A scruffy, long-haired German, a typical Berliner artist/traveler type, approached me to share a taxi in the terminal. Outside, after having waited 1/2 hour for our bags, he got a bit manic saying we had to get a taxi quick, there was the strongest taxi mafia here in all of Burma, we couldn't take a pick-up truck (which I have a special fondness for) because the road was terrible and if we waited we'd be stuck here without a ride. The situation seemed so desperate and I was eager to calm him down, so into a taxi we jumped and cruised down the wonderful, paved road to Nang Shwe, the town at the head of Inle Lake. I was dropped at the ferry and got in a long-tail boat driven by an 18-year old local (Intha) the 45 minutes to my hotel, Paramount Inle Resort; the first 15 minutes or so was leaving the long channel, and then we entered the large lake, first passing through a sort of wetlands/bird sanctuary. Lots of seagulls. Saw the first Intha leg-rowers, and locals out on their flat bottomed skiffs that look as if they were hollowed out of a single log, pulling in nets or rowing sitting on the flat front. The lake is written to be 13 1/2 miles long and 7 miles wide, but it's a maze of lotus-choked channels that you don't see until you're right next to them, green villages which are actually connected by waterways and have no land-access and swampy areas. It's truly a sublime setting, and would be very peaceful if it wasn't clogged with tourists. Still, it's easy enough to get away from it all ...
Later in the afternoon I relaxed at the hotel, which was baking hot in the afternoon. I tried to explore but found that we truly had no access to any land, and the tower above the resort wasn't very exciting. So settled down in the lovely lounge to work on my computer. They have wireless in theory and after putting a proxy server had one or two successful Facebook messages sent but that was it. Frustrating because I've got a backload of mail and watched nothing happen for a while. Settled down to my photos, watched sunset and was overwhelmed by tour groups in the lounge. It would have been more fun with a friend/boyfriend/husband ...
DAY 2 - INLE LAKE
Today had a great day day on my private longtail again; we left at 7:30 and headed directly into the maze of small canals near the hotel, passing small local boats and winding our way through stilt-houses, and eventually some small bridges above the canals as they widened. The canal was often so small that it wasn't apparent in front of us and I was worried that the motor would get tangled in the reeds. But all was fine, the driver knew what he was doing obviously, and about 45 minutes later we reached the end of the canal where I jumped out and walked through Tandung and the outskirts for half an hour to the market (weekly or daily I'm not sure). Which was amazing. There were no other tourists there for about an hour, and then they started to arrive. But for a while I finally found a part of Burma that I hadn't seen besides in the cities where no one notices a tourist, and life goes on normally for most inhabitants.
The market was full of locals from the surrounding hills, called Pa-O; the women (and some of the men) wrapped their heads turban-style in red, orange or yellow thicker scarves and have more Mongolian-looking features then the Burmans. The look a lot like the Rais of Nepal. The market was lively, with lots of food to try (glutinous rice cakes/fried doughnuts, a spicy-sesame rice-noodle and tofu salad (delicious, not quite salty enough), sweet, spongy brown cakes, papadams made of rice brought to the market in baskets the size of a large water tank you might find on a roof, other salty fried snacks, bagged veg that looked like something Thai, fruit and veg and many food-stalls serving oily meat curries and rice. And the usual market-goods. Took some video for a change which was fun. Back to boat, passed by ox-carts loaded from the market and woman with baskets on their heads as well as woven plastic grocery bags. They carry the colorful 'lama bags' that you find all over southeast Asia, but not as nice as the ones I bought at the Lao/Burma/China border 15 years ago.
Shot back through watery channels to Nan Pan, another village on stilts, incredibly scenic and fun to cruise through. They are supposed to make cheroot here but we didn't see any. Then continued to In Phaw Khone nearby, a similar village that specializes in weaving. Was going to skip seeing the weaving but as it was another watery village to take the boat to decide to go, and we stopped at a smaller 'factory' to see the weaving, partially done with lotus fibers. Interesting. The scarves were rough, like hemp; apparently they make monks robes. They also weave in cotton and silk and of course I had to buy a few scarves, actually beautiful colors and texture. The young girl giving me the tour was very perfunctory at first but when I persisted in asking her questions not related to weaving she loosened up a bit, and then I met the owner. On the way out stopped to sit in a lounge chair on the entrance deck with boat-driver and another man, who turned out to be the owner and spoke a bit of English. He told me that he lived in the house across the canal which was over 100 years old. I was wondering how long the wood submerged in water would last. He said they have to replace the bamboo which is also used for the bridges/walkways more often but the wood for the houses could last for a long time. He showed me the high water marks (Sept) and how high the water reached the last time it flooded, years ago. It's very cool under an awning and although it would drive me mad not being able to walk anywhere, it's a beautiful way of life.
Next back to the monastery in/near Nampan called Alodaw Pauk Pagoda, also on stilts, the oldest on the lake, after which I was required by the boss to have lunch somewhere on the lake. I'd had lots to eat at the market so wasn't hungry but guessed that he would have a free lunch. Saw the nearby (over a bridge and down a sidewalk amazingly) Phaung Daw Oo Paya, said to be the oldest religious site in southern Shan state. Piles of gold rocks were displayed on a throne in the center of the ornate, golden monastery which I discovered later, upon reading about them, were actually small, ancient buddhas covered in gold leaf and paraded around the lake once a year. Next to the 'Jumping Cats' Monastery, also called Nga Hpe Kyaung, with intricate gilded statues inside and cats that jump through hoops. It's just around the corner from the hotel I found out as we left, idyllically set with canals all around it, and also on stilts. I met a friendly monk as I was looking to see what was down a lonely pier. He knew where Nepal was right away - Kat-a-mandu - and we chatted across the canal for a while, he joking that he should put the rest of his robe on as he was dressed only from the waist. He invited me into his room, which had the setting of a $200/night hotel room on the lake, painted in pastels, lovely. He was reading a western novel and had lots of Western books in the room interestingly, and a TV, camera, stuff.
Enough sun beating down on my head so headed back to the hotel just before 4:00 and spend the afternoon in my room and on the deck. The woman at reception, Kin, mentioned perhaps not being able to sleep tonight because of the 'monkeys', and at about 6 pm, just after the serene sunset, the hotel exploded in young testosterone. English speaking Burmese boys, and a few girls, had taken over the hotel. Terror! I showered, pre-packed a bit and went to reception to ask if there was another room. Lin gave me on of the bungalows on the waterfront, where I am sitting now having finished my dinner and (only one) beer on my deck. No room in the dining room - really - and who wanted to eat there anyways with 30 screaming kids eating buffet when I had my luxury deck thanks to this loud bunch?
I discovered that after sunset for a few hours the monks from all the nearby monasteries chant mantras into the night, a fantastic way to eat coconut prawn curry with rice, washed down by a Mandalay beer. Curry not great but setting perfect with the lights of the hotel reflecting off the lake. Again, too bad there's no company ...
Moving to a hotel in Nang Shwe tomorrow as they have no rooms here.
DAY 3 - INLE LAKE
Had a lovely night with a bit of light outside my window and the monks chanting most of the night (for the full moon today?) although woke with a migraine at about 4:00 in the morning. Still, lying awake with the chanting echoing across the channel was haunting ...
Barely made it in and out of breakfast before the terrors headed in, and then went back out in the boat to Inthien. There is a weekly market there but it wasn't the day; I wasn't sure what was there except that there were some pagodas. We motored for about half and hour down a shallow canal, popping up over bamboo 'dams' which channelled the water through a very narrow passageway. We passed through Ywe Ma where the very touristy floating market takes place, and should have taken place today but didn't because of the full moon festival) and I noticed silversmith shops. Once at Inthien I hike up through a white pillared hallway which led from the river all the way up to an incredible assortment of newly golden, ancient brick and stuccoed pagodas that stretched up the hill from about 1/4 of the way from the river to the top of a hill. Further on there was another group of pagodas on a hill which I wasn't allowed to go to, not sure why. There were Pa-O and Intha people offering fruit and food on ceremonial silver or ceramic plates for the full moon ceremony, a wonderful event to be lucky enough to witness. The Pa-O had more traditional outfits on that at the last market; the same colorful head-scarves but with black Thai-style outfits. And all very friendly. Obviously they hadn't seen many tourists, oddly. A few families invited me for food and finally I sat outside under an awning with a Intha family and shared some of their snacks: sticky rice cakes, one a larger rice variety with corn, slightly salty and oily, another a small rice that looked like millet and jaggery (delicious) and a third which I didn't try but which was sticky brown rice, larger rice. And puffed rice cakes. They also had pakora which were all over the market but I also couldn't stomach that so early; all washed down by the ubiquitous green tea. Many offered their kids up for photos, which I gladly took. In all it was a vibrant environment, a bit of worshiping and then lots of eating and laughing. It wasn't so crowded so think a larger ceremony was going on somewhere?
On the way down I noticed that the pillared walkway sheltered a gigantic tourist souvenir market; and as I got further down the tourists ascended, by the boatload. The same things I'd seen (and unwittingly bought) at the small market yesterday. I'd already noticed that my silver ring had turned coppery dipped once in the river water. Whoops. And it wasn't cleaning up over time, with soap. All the crafts that were NOT for sale in Hsipaw were on offer here, like in Mandalay, and I'm sure Bagan will be the same. The same thing happens in Kathmandu but perhaps I don't notice it much anymore; perhaps the tourists are more spread out in Nepal? I'm under no illusions about being a tourist, I just don't like it ...
On the way back having passed perhaps 35 boats of tourists, the driver asked if we were going to see the Padung women. I've been confused about where they live, but found out that they are on display as the 'long-necked women' at textile shops in Ywe Ma. Ok. 'Photos OK'. Get me out of here (although I did take a photo).
We motored through some floating gardens, very interesting. Apparently the gardens are staked down with bamboo shafts? And apparently Inle is famous for its tomatoes but I didn't see any; lots of green and some creeping beans and not sure what else. Vegetables weren't obvious. I guess the locals make enough with their harvest of vegetables to subsidize buying rice, sugar, tea and the other essentials. Kin at the hotel told me that they were considered quite well off here compared to much of Burma. Water is either piped in from the hills or comes from wells (although the monk told me that the villagers had to carry it back from the mountains, presumably on their boats). This was followed by another floating village, wider and more open than yesterdays but with gardens interspersed. All interesting, not many tourists. They were all still up at Inthein or taking photos of the Padung women?
Back at the hotel, relief. Somehow although it was a great morning at the monastery at Inthien, the aftermath of blatant voyeuristic tourism got me down. Why does it have to be like this in Burma? One reason I know is that so many parts of Burma are still not opened. Another reason concerns acceptable tourist hotels. I'm not sure if I'm looking forward to the Ngapali coast.
Drove back to the jetty passing tourist boats all the way en route and tried to pay for that last day. Of course the last day had suddenly become vastly more expensive and my young driver sulked when I mentioned that we had agreed on a sum on the first day. I had his tip in hand but what I ended up paying was obviously part of what he wanted. So we left on not the best of terms, and I luged my pack to the Teakwood Hotel where I was seduced with ever more expensive rooms - which were admittedly much nicer! Spent all of the afternoon that I envisioned spending on the deck of my lovely room in a pancake restaurant that had very slow wireless internet. 5 PM and I'd had it, realizing that I had to arrange a ride to the airport tomorrow and do some shopping. So my afternoon slipped away. I was planning to have dinner at the hotel restaurant but felt I needed a bit of local grunge, so headed a block downtown and just finished a vermicelli noodle soup and a plate of fried vegetables, and quite a few beers. Feel better!
TRAVEL TO BAGAN
Enjoying one of the only leisurely mornings I've had on the trip as I wait to board the 3:30 flight to Bagan. I'm staying at Teakwook Guest House, a really wonderful place with all sorts of rooms run by a mother and daughter, the mother obviously stunning when she was young. I was shown two rooms and finally a third upstairs on the corner of the balcony, a great room which of course I took at an inflated price. Am sitting with banana trees and bamboo waving gently next to me now, and the clamor of what sounds like hundreds of pigs heading to be slaughtered just across the alley and children chanting their lessons (or monks chanting?) across another alley. I spent the afternoon at a pancake cafe with wifi after not being able to use my computer at the wifi cafes in town. It was unbearably slow but did manage to send a few mails pasted into Gmail, which opened in a basic HTML mode. Had dinner at one of the ubiquitous beer-restaurant with open fronts, cold Myanmar beers, kailan and Thai soup, which is always different and become a standard. Next AM had a nice breakfast on their spacious deck packed with other travelers and then spent the rest of the morning in the sun at the pancake cafe trying to get online again. Did some writing in front of my room on the deck until the next inhabitants came, and then left for the hour's drive back to the Heho airport, finding delicious watermelon en route. After a long wait in the small airport, we headed to Mandalay and then to Bagan, a scenic flight over mostly flat landscapes, checkered with colorful fields.
In Bagan, got a taxi to my hotel which Louise recommend, the Bagan Thande Hotel, a perhaps once-grand hotel with a great location on the Ayeyarwaddy next to the Bagan Hotel which looked more expensive and other upscale digs in Old Bagan. The grounds were green with lots of palms and trees, the rooms I guess a bargain at $30, the hotel had a nice, shady pool with deck chairs and the buffet breakfast was amazing. It was nice being right in the middle of Old Bagan except that you were a prisoner of the high prices of the hotel food or the few restaurants a 5-10 minute bike ride away. I met a nice kid when I first arrived; took a look at the sun getting ready to set over the river and decided I needed a walk after being sedentary all day. The boy was one of the ubiquitous sand-painting boys, only topped in persistency by the post-card kids. He was sweet, though, 16 and perhaps an artist although probably not. Anyways, he showed me around a small bit of Old Bagan near the hotel and a pagoda to climb. Just as I got up I noticed that the sun was a huge orange orb just about to set over other pagodas; had thought it was long gone. So took a few photos of the amazing surroundings, a massive field filled with pagodas of all types and sizes, and met the Hungarian guy up top with me, just finishing his beer and getting away from the other tourists. Rented a bike for the next 2 days and after a shower rode the 5-10 minutes to one of the restaurants just out the massive gates of the old city ...
Despite thinking perhaps it wasn't worth another look at Bagan given the incredible number of tourists and tour buses, it was. I remember it being almost deserted years ago, biking all over on small lanes without seeing anyone but villagers and a few tourists. It's not that way anymore! As I was staying in the thick of things, I figured I'd head out into the plains with my bike and see how it went. Not well! The paths turn into sand-pits and often lead to fields. One time I carried my bike down a small hill trying to avoid the thick sand and acacia that were everywhere, and ended up with a dog barking at me menacingly while two pens full of white oxen stared at me. But another time a path led me to the small, thatched hut of the man who was the caretaker of some of the pagodas. It seems as if wealthy Burmese 'adopt' a pagoda and pay for its renovation. I met the young girl who had worked for the woman who 'owned' the pagoda next to the hut. And she was also a post-card girl, but a sweet one. I asked if it was a tea-house because there was a small table under the awning attached to the hut but she laughed and said no, but did I want tea? She was taking care of her adorable little sister who I held for a long time without having her break out in a fit of terror; in fact she was one of the most cheerful kids in Burma! Dad came home soon afterwards and also spoke a few words of English. We decided to pain my face with tanaka which was fun. The girl took me to a nearby pagoda which turned out to be full of the most incredible murals inside, and to another one for a view. I can't remember the names of any of the pagodas except for Ananda, which is one of the gems of Bagan.
For the most part the murals can't compare to what you find in Nepal & India but once in a while they started to. There wasn't the detail, more the mass and scope of what had been painted on the walls. Inside some of the pagodas were cavernous hallways with rounded roofs, filled with small niches housing buddhas (or sometimes not), many with the faded remnants of gigantic buddhas, sitting or sleeping, many with mughul-style small windows or doorways at the ends of the hallway letting light into the dark interiors. Almost all had two or three concentric rings that you could walk around, with giant buddha sculptures around every corner. Some were incredibly impressive, others exquisite, and others just had a feeling. The best part of some of them was climbing to the top for a view of the plains dotted with pagodas by the thousands. It's hard to describe the scope of the plains, the sheer number of pagodas of many shapes and sizes, some newly restored and guilded, others crumbling, their ancient brickwork showing their long history.
Many have a story behind them of a sinister nature; of a builder entombed inside, a king's extended family murdered, etc. Others are actively worshiped at by visiting Burmese, which was one of the most interesting parts of visiting the pagodas. Still others had neon lights flashing behind the buddha's head ...
I spend two full days on my bike, looking around. The first day was haphazard, not seeing so many temples but getting lost a lot, at the end of the day making my way through some of the more famous ones which I found were signposted off the main roads. The next day, after repairing the many punctures in both tires, headed south and ended up finding a sort of 'young debutante' festival, where about 15 young girls were carried by horse-cart to a monastery down the road. All the girls were made-up to the T, with gold jewelry and looking like miniature princesses. I was taken there by a souvenir-seller and then followed the procession for about an hour, an interesting experience. The girls smiled when they were photographed and giggled to see the photos, noticing how beautiful and grown-up they all looked. After that I missed my next few pagodas accidentally and ended up at one of the most amazing ones in Bagan I thought, way down south. Just before arriving there a young boy on a bike started biking along with me, and turned into the pagoda. He was going to me my new guide apparently; only he didn't speak any English. But he was sweet and quite innocent and wanted to give me information, and I enjoyed his company. The view from the top was just breathtaking. From the south, even mid-day, you could see almost all of the pagodas and spires in Bagan and the sky was blue. Sublime, and magnified the scope of the empire that had thrived here hundreds of years before.
The most comical thing that happened the entire trip came next. I was really feeling the heat and intense sun beating directly down on me, and as we were getting ready to leave I discovered that my back tire was, again, totally flat. Fortunately there was a tire fixing station (pump) right next door and some Burmese from Shan that I'd met up top and my friend tried to pump up the tire. No luck. It was next to a small restaurant and soon a woman came to help, telling me the charges per puncture (which were very reasonable given where I was). Inside the 'dhaba' I ran into an American couple I'd said hi to on top of the pagoda; they were real travelers and passed on some great info while I waited for my tire to be fixed, and downed a liter of cold water. My young friend had told the Burmese that he lived near the pagoda where I needed to go on the way back to Old Bagan, which was though the 'desert' on sandy paths which often bogged down. He said he would go with me and I was very grateful as I'd surely get lost and die of heat without him. So we set off, pedaled harder to make it through the thick sand, avoided a man herding his cows and made it to this wonderful pagoda. After spending an hour there, I asked if he was coming or staying (as I thought he lived near there, but where?) He signified that he was coming and I said 'Old Bagan' several times to make sure we were on the same page. We started off, he stopped, hesitated and said 'No' and turned around, looking towards me and nodding to come along. Good, smart kid, he was on the right track. Twenty minutes in the blazing heat later, again pedaling hard to make it through the thick sand and feeling as if I didn't get to the pool at my hotel in five minutes I'd have a meltdown, we arrived. Back at that same 'dhaba' where I'd fixed my tire. If I wasn't so totally spent it would have been hilarious, but on the verge of a heat meltdown at 2 PM in the desert, things were looking grim. A guy came in when I ordered another bottle of water, repeating 'Old Bagan, Old Bagan?' and said, 'Are you tired?', 'What country do you come from?'. The woman, understanding the situation a bit more, gave me a fan. I gave my friend 1000 kyat for his help and figured it would be better for me to just get on my bike and go. I was faced with the desert and sand-bog trails again or the long way through New Bagan, a very long way. Thinking of the desert for the third time made me want to cry so I headed for the paved road, opting for a bit of wind. Soon enough I was back at the hotel and after a swim felt much better and I was better able to appreciate the comedy of the afternoon!
Cycled to dinner both nights, just outside the old city gates, no bargain and not the local beer-restaurants that I like but also much cheaper than the hotel fare.
BUS TO MAGWE
It was an early start to Magwe, having to be at the bus-stop at 6:30 for a 7 AM bus. Found the ticket office, bought an overpriced ticket with a seat number that meant nothing, and waited half an hour to board. I jumped into the front seat, right in back of the door, which was always crowded with the two bus assistant yelling 'Magwe, Magwe' to people on the street, and loading and unloading people's baggage, most of which was piled in front or along the middle of the bus. One of the more interesting pieces of luggage was a tied bundle of rusty, jagged, round tin tops of drums or something that shape, right next to me or in front of me (I couldn't decide which was less safe) which would have been the end of me had we gotten in any sort of accident. We started off fairly empty and filled to overflowing half-way, people then getting off at their stops and leaving the bus airy and spacious again. The trip was fun, just what I needed, a bit of raw travel, the sounds and smells of Burma surrounding me. At one point as we passed through desert scrub a young girl exuding the scent of coconut oil, sat down next to me. I felt as if I was on my way to the beach ...
We passed through small villages, passing horse carts, motorcycles, trishaws, people on bicycles, women carrying tied-up bags on their heads, pick-up trucks packed in the back and on top with passengers and loads, other rickety buses and large cargo trucks en route. The villages were mostly wooden or bamboo-slat houses, raised off the ground, and most of the towns were small. We made a nearly hour-long stop at one truck-stop at a village, where I had time to examine every local specialty on sale at the stalls. Women and men selling fruit, small fried chicks, rice sweets and other snacks moved along the sides of the bus, selling small bags of food to the passengers inside. An odd-looking man dressed entirely in drab green army attire with high boots and a long beard got off a bus at the same stop and pulled a camera out of an army bag of the same color. The towns grew larger, we crossed the Ayeyarwaddy or other rivers a few times, one time on an old wooden bridge. Once in a while, near the towns or the rivers, the land-scape turned green with palms and rice paddies but for the most part it was arid and parched. Just as I was feeling nauseous from the heat and bumpy bus trip, we reached Magwe, mid-day, and was immediately surrounded by trishaw drivers. Got my ticket to Pyay for the next day and found an older driver to take me to the hotel. The first recommended in the LP was a disaster, so went to the 'overpriced' one which was great if a bit more than I thought I would pay in tiny Magwe. Still, it was huge with a cavernous bathroom and AC.
I took my computer out to see if there was internet around, and found a little AC cafe down the hot road, a welcome retreat from the incredible mid-day heat, which in Burma is stifling. I can't imagine what the hotter months are like! Later had some laphet-ot and some sort of vegetable dish that goes with rice normally, and felt thoroughly sick afterwards. Went looking for a coffee which I found in a little stall with plastic tables and a girl who went to the nursing school and spoke a bit of English. She directed me to the river a few blocks away. When I found it, past a small monastery where many people were devoutly praying and counting their prayer beads, it was an incredible sight. The Ayeyarwaddy is huge here, with banks that stretched out for nearly half a kilometer on this side, and there was a breezy esplanade which extended a few miles under shady trees. I walked one way, passed the many food and drink stalls set up on make-shift 'beaches' next to the sidewalk and right on the sidewalk, and then descended down to the beach below. Was approached immediately by a group of female students who wanted photos with me, so we posed together. Boys played soccer closer to the river, and women and kids washed in the small pools closer to the sidewalk. The Magwe bridge loomed impressively ahead. Back up on the esplanade, I made my way towards the bridge to where the real side-walk cafes began, the same plastic tables and chairs with similar menus, but sweet and must have been packed and full of young energy at sunset.
I found a small, shady lane to return on and figured I'd walk and take a trishaw back since I'd lost track of where I'd walked and there is no map of Magwe to be found. One street up I found myself in the midst of the remnants of the daily market, similar to what you might find in Cochin or another port-town in India. The shops were pastel-colored and piled high with white flour-sacks of goods, others held heaping piles of onions, potatoes or garlic, and the usual plastic and small-goods shops. The sun was filtering through palms above the side-streets, filling the dusty alley with a stage-like yellow glow. The sun was nearly setting on the other side of the river, one street down, and this was the perfect spot to be for some dusk atmosphere. As I was taking a photo of women pealing garlic, I noticed that a young man was taking a photo of me as well. Laughing, they invited me over and gave me a chair and bottle of water. The guy ended up taking a video of the ten minutes that I sat there, very funny ... More photos of the sun reflecting on hanging bananas and the rest of the thinning market, and wandered until I somehow found my way back to the hotel. This was Burma more as I remembered it from 15 years ago, more rural with a small-town feel, friendly, slightly eclectic with out-dated anomalies from the British period, a mix of sophisticated English speaking older gentlemen, tanaka-cheeked girls with jet-black hair dressed in colorful longis, cheerful women with beetle-nut stained teeth, rick-shaw drivers in dingy tank-tops and conical hats and sweet-faced children, some waving and others screaming as you walked by. People really don't mind or are eager to have their photos taken, in direct contrast with Hanoi for example, where you might be yelled at to not take a photo trying to buy a baguette.
Finished my idyllic afternoon by trying on my Mandalay longi; after asking the young girl at reception to help me put it on, she said 'half hour' and took it from me, returning with it sewn up the side. Of course, that's why I couldn't walk in it! She dressed me up, took a photo and I headed down the small, dark alley-way in search of dinner, stopping to adjust and pull up my long numerous times along the way. Found another similar beer-restaurant for dinner and ended up with beers, kailan and a huge Thai soup of the sort that I had in Hsipaw. Tried to edit photos but kept spilling broth and quail eggs on my computer, and a very drunk man who tried to translate my dinner for me leered over me and spit beetle-nut on me as I worked. So showed everyone the videos I'd taken on the bus that and some from Tibet, which they were very interested in.
BUS TO PYAY
I woke at six the next morning, still dark, and at a quarter to seven took a walk around the neighborhood. The morning wasn't cold but there was a chill in the air; smoke from the many leaf-fires and the dust from sweeping up the evening's leaves saturated the morning mist and lent to the streets the feeling of a stage-set. The sun sent it's early rays through this hazy air, filtered through palm, tamarind and other large, old trees, obscuring the other morning walkers and sweepers. Small 'bhattis' had their fires lit and were frying the morning's pakora and snacks. 'Good morning, dear. May I ask what country you come from, dear?' came from a middle-aged woman, her dark hair in a bun, sweeping her front patio. Many people here speak a bit of English and some older people seem to know (or have learned) it. There is a university and a nurse training vocational school here as well as other lower-level schools, so there is quite a high level of education in Magwe, students coming from around Burma to attend. Took my trishaw back to the bus-stop and found my junky bus, a sort of 'luxury' bus compared to the last one but the kind you don't want to ride in because you're jammed into a seat with people sitting on small stools in the aisle so it's impossible to get out (and go to the toilet which I have to do once every half hour on buses), the windows are all broken or stuck open/shut and the dirty curtains blow everywhere if the windows are open. Ugh. Spent seven unbearably hot hours on this bus, with only one stop for food and a few forced pee stops. Met two young girls who were traveling doing work-related research and helped me figure out what was happening. The comic relief was a slick-looking man with dark shades who handed out plastic barf-bags and then started on a half-hour long talk, obviously rehearsed, about something or other. The girls later told me he was an 'advertiser' which became clear as he sold small plastic bags of red and orange rectangles to almost everyone on the bus. The girls told me that it was some kind of medicine, like for acne ... Anyways, he had everyone on the bus including me in stitches. The bus trip was even more desert-like with low shrub for the first few hours, and I was glad I hadn't decided to bike tour here. Surprisingly, about three hours into the trip, the landscape suddenly turned vivid green and I realized that we'd turned back towards the Ayeyarwaddy and were nearing a town of thatched huts and wooden buildings, followed by the usual town center. We crossed a few small bridges and reentered more arid land, eventually arriving an hour early (3:30) in Pyay.
Retrieving my unbelievably dirty backpack from under the bus, I found another older man to take me to the hotel in his trishaw. It was a long, hot trip down the main road and I didn't yet love Pyay. The hotel, Lucky Dragon, was an amazing oasis right on the Ayeyarwaddy and just past the small night market. It's all small chalet-type rooms with gondolas, grass, pools with goldfish between and a small pool, paradise. There was only one other Western couple staying here during my 2 1/2 days, the rest Burmese. After a shower headed for a walk along a similar esplanade as at Magwe along the river at sunset and then came back to bask in the AC and try their wifi (which of course used a proxy and didn't load emails). I went to the Pyay Star, a seedier than usual beer-restaurant near the roundabout, and sat on the second-floor balcony eating very mediocre food but using their slightly better wifi, a fair trade off. I guess was more dehydrated than usual because woke with a terrible hangover the next morning after my usual two Tiger beers. The next day sorted out my plans for the upcoming days. I was headed towards Ngapali Beach in theory but after the second long, hot, bumpy day of buses, making my way through the vomit of other passengers in the center aisle, I'd had enough. I had almost decided to go by AC bus back to Yangon and either fly to/from the Ngapali coast or skip it altogether when the owner found a man with info about an AC sleeper bus (no beds) from Yangon going directly to Ngapali. I'd have to pay the full fare and pay for part of a hotel room as it left at 7:30 PM, but it sounded much better than the only other alternative, a local mini-bus which drove all night over the hills to Taunggok, arriving 12 hours later. From there it's another few hours by local transport to Thandwe and Ngapali, with checkposts all along the way. Couldn't even imagine that as beat-up as I felt after the trip from Bagan, but after a good sleep with AC felt like I might be able to do the AC bus.
That sorted, walked along the river (but not right on it) towards the huge market, which is one of the most interesting and bustling markets in all of Burma. The first half kilometer or so was all women selling tanaka wood (sandalwood I think), and after that the usual vegetables, fruits, food stalls and fish mongers. There was an abundance of women selling chicken parts (and was shown a chicken with 3 feet ... ?). Inside a huge warehouse of a covered market, there was dried fish/shrimp, shrimp paste and other dried commodities, as well as more meat and fish. The stench was becoming overwhelming having realized that I was actually quite hungover and in the mid-day heat, so headed in the direction of the hotel, getting helplessly lost and wandering in circles most of the time. Nuns with baskets or silver bowls on their heads made the most of the busy market, one older one even stopping for a smoke of a large cigar squatting my hot coals. Used clothes were also everywhere, which reminded me of the markets in India. In fact, again, I could have been in Kerala or Karnataka or sometimes even Vietnam except for the conical hats in the case of India, and tanaka on everyone's faces. People were friendly and again laughed seeing their images on my camera and wanted me to take photos of all of their friends and relatives.
On the way back stopped at a shaded lassi-stall, a god-send, where I met 'Scott', who used to be a tourist guide but has had this lasso stall for the past 20 years. What an interesting guy; over a delicious salted lassi I heard how he volunteers teaching English at a small monastery-run school out of town four days a week. The kids at the school are too poor to go even to the government schools where they have to pay yearly fees and wear uniforms; he invited me to go with him for his class at 3:30. Meanwhile, I was getting to know the adorable girls from the quite wealthy government school right next to Scott's yogurt stall. Five young girls befriended me, and after photos and lassis, we agreed to meet the next day at noon. After a swim and rest at the hotel, Scott picked me up and we rode for about ten minutes to his school, which was really just a collection of thatched huts around a dirt square, with a large tree in the center. The kids were amazingly talkative and friendly, not at all shy, and clamored around to ask questions. Some were really smart and spoke descent English (a a few phrases) but most, although eager, didn't speak much English. We looked around a few of the other classrooms and then went to Scott's Class 7 where there didn't seem to be any intention of teaching English. So we sat and talked, the kids all asking me questions; one boy right in front spoke by far the best English and came up with intelligent question after question, very interesting. Everyone was interested in hearing the answers to my questions, they weren't just reciting English, and nodded their heads knowingly when I answered. It was all very touching as the kids didn't have any uniforms but were so obviously dying to learn. All were super sweet and I fell in love with the entire school. Some of the girls gave me a present of a plastic bracelet, very cute.
The way back was beautiful with the afternoon glow turning the dusty streets golden; Scott dropped me near the night market and I walked the few blocks to Pyay's famous pagoda, apparently one of the country's most revered pilgrimage sites. The pagoda itself was similar to a smaller Shwedagon like many of the gilded pagodas in Burma, with a long, covered, pillared walkway to the top. Burmese were praying reverently in front of the statues; it's interesting that they pray for something rather than praying for this life or the next as in Tibetan Buddhism. Gave my banana chips from the Magwe bus-ride to some hungry kids who I took a photo of, and then found a place to watch the sun setting over Pyay, the Ayerawaddy and the pagoda spires, beautiful. Young couples sheltered behind pagodas which branched off from the main one, and along the steps, finding bits of privacy as they have to do in Burma. Back down, the hazy street was again very atmospheric with monks walking, muscled, sweaty men playing that kind of bamboo ball hackey-sack and the small tea-shops getting ready to close down for the night. Dinner same, for the sake of email.
Woke this morning early with the intention of going back to the market before the sun hit it, but realized that I deleted all of yesterday's photos as I left the hotel, whoops. So finished the walk to the market which wasn't perfect in that light anyways and spent all morning trying to recover the photos, which I finally did at a computer shop at 11 AM. They didn't charge me anything and then gave me a rose for Valentine's Day! Also got another rose in another shop after making my 15 photo-copies for the night bus! Sweet ... Did a quick walk for exercise although it was really too hot, away from the market along the river. It turned quite rural, more food-stalls and tea-shops on the river side and poorer houses. Made my noon meeting at Scott's lasso stall and received a present of sweets with a note on top from my young girl-friends! More photos with one girl's camera and more questions. I just love the kids in this town! Then met Scott's teacher, in his 70s, who was born in 1980 and lived first with the British, then with the Japanese and finally got the Brits back again before independence in 1948! Next two other guys in their early 20s who spoke English and were friend's of Scott's sat down and chatted for a while, again incredibly sweet and innocent, and asking intelligent questions. Scott, who is 40, is unmarried because of his financial situation he says. He's got quite a tragic story. His mother and father died when he was 5-6, both of diseases, and then his older sister died later. He lives in the school next to his lassi-shop somehow and has a very simple life but is very educated and has such a good heart. Rest of the day back at the hotel enjoying my last afternoon in my lovely AC room, and a quick swim with some Burmese boys.
BUS TO NGAPALI
Got a ride with a sweet, worldly now-rickshaw driver to the bus pick-up point in the middle of nowhere. As we waited he (Zinko), told me about going to Malaysia to work as a waitor to try to earn money, trying to start a travel agency here and other jobs he had before resorting to driving a rickshaw to try to support is family. He's younger than me, about 35, but really having a hard time making ends meet in Burma. Scott has the same story but without having a family and I hear it over and over again. It's perhaps worse here than in Nepal where many people can get in on the tourism trade, but the same in that the rich get MUCH richer and the poor just get poorer. The bus arrived near 8:30 and I found my seat amongst all Burmese. The ride was insanely bumpy with chairs that didn't really recline, stuffy inside with incessant check-post stops (I had to bring FIFTEEN photocopies of my PP with me) and there was never a bus-driver that drove more slowly through the hills heading west, which I was grateful for thoughout the long trip. Somehow, after several tea/coffee stops throughout the night and sitting next to a large Burmese with a body temperature on the verge of melting, I felt OK in the morning. The most incredible part of the day was the scenery after 6 :30AM as the sun rose over the rice paddies and a sudden golden pagoda rose over the morning mist. We crossed a very old wooden bridge very slowly and carefully and passed through the outskirts of Nagwe, where old men were already out in the fields in their conical hats. Soon I was dropped at the bus station and helped by the Lonely Planet saying I could get to Ngapali on a pick-up for 500 kyat, managed to avoid the taxis and rick-shaw rivers offering me a private ride and found a trishaw driver who, for 300 kyat, took me to the pick-up truck pick-up point. Perfect. I had a chance to fill up my mug with several packets of 3-in-1 coffee which I now love, and waited for the truck to fill up. A very bumpy and scenic ride later, in the back of the pick-up filled with what seemed like the local women's club, I was dropped at my hotel. In the meantime, the assistant had been dropping off lunch in tiffin containers to the security guards of $$ resorts nearby, and fresh milk to tea-shops. Roving grocer, great.
At the Royal Beach Hotel I was offered breakfast as I waited for my room, and went for a hot (and short) run on the beach, walked though part of the nearby fishing village, heaven ... The water is balmy but still refreshing, and there are umbrellas of coconut fronds and lounge chairs on the beach, under coconut palms. The beach is truly idyllic; no trash, not crowded and a perfect, long crescent of white sand dotted with mostly upscale resorts, but not at all crowded with them. It's what the beached of Thailand and India used to be like, women selling fruit from bowls on their heads and cutting them for you, small kiosks with jade and pearl jewelry and just a few local sea-food and drink seaside restaurants right in the middle of the beach.
I'm eating at one of them now with the waves lapping at the shore just in front of me and the food was amazing. Grilled squid, an entire plate of it, for 3000 kyat (300 NRP/$4), a beautiful payaya salad Burmese style and of course one too many Tiger beers (but they only had large bottles ....). In front of me about 100 fishing boats shimmer in the distance. A young Burmese guy who wants me to go on a snorkeling trip on his boat took me to another larger fishing village on his scooter, very interesting and very scenic at sunset. They were drying sardines by the millions, and slightly larger silvery fish. It was quite clean, or seemed so at sunset, and bustling with activity.
I met Barbara Moore, a great American woman from Denver, very briefly the first evening here, introduced by our boat-guy as two single women who were looking to share a boat. I ran into her the first morning here, having wandered with my cup of coffee to the nearby fishing village, where I had seen the boats start to come in from the evening fishing. We wandered around the fishermen's beach together, two kindred spirits joking with the kids and wondering at the amazing scene opening up in front of us. The fishing boats were brightly colored, vivid in the morning sun, fitted with lightbulbs along a post running from the bow to the stern. Men were unloading heavy plastic buckets of sardines, carrying them to shore on a bamboo posts, one man to each end of the bamboo. I tried to lift one but couldn't get one an inch off the ground. The beach was covered with straw, and on top of that the village women rolled out long, blue mesh netting to hold the fish. The sardines were then brought in the buckets with bamboo posts and pored in piles on the blue mesh, later spread out evenly to dry on the mesh. The area covered is large, backed by thatched huts and palms on the land side with just a bit of beach free for small trucks and motorcycles to drive along. Some of the small trucks were also filled with the sardines. Sometimes a man who seemed to be in charge supervised piles of fish going somewhere or other, but mostly the villagers seemed to be spreading their own fish to dry. Before hitting the blue mesh, the larger fish were removed from the plastic bucket and dried in a separate place. Even larger fish were brought fresh to the market. We saw barracuda, red snapper and similarly large fish go by ...
The kids played on the beach and in the water, picking up any spare sardines from the ground and putting them into plastic bags. Other slightly older boys had triangular nets that they scooped spare fish up from the water. Some women had set up food stalls, mostly sticky-rice items and pan. Many men and some women smoked big cheroots, others spit beetle onto the white sand, leaving splotches of blood-red. One man sold balloons. It all had a very festive air although it's done each morning.
The next morning Barbara & I took a long-tailed boat around for a few hours, doing some pretty uninteresting snorkeling but mostly just enjoying the 15 & 19 year-old boys singing Burmese songs as they motored us by small islands. We passed a huge red jelly-fish, the size of four or five soccer balls, scary but beautiful in a way. Later we stopped for a few hours at a beach on an island that we could see from Ngapali Beach; and we looked back at our beach chairs from where we sat, under umbrellas on bamboo chairs. But it was a stunning location, and felt like being on one fo the most beautiful and deserted beaches ever. Here we heard about a plane crash at the nearby airport, almost a disaster but ended up with no one hurt. We met several people who had been on the flight which had had a very rough landing and then bounced up and slammed down several times, apparently not being able to stop until the pilot steered them into a sand bank. Scary for all on board. A quick trip back to our beach ended out (long) morning out ...
The morning after that we cycled to the local fishermen's market, just 5-10 minutes from our hotel. It was magical in the early morning light, filtered through the coconut palms, and the market was busy and interesting. I found tomatoes and we bought a few sweet rice-based snack; otherwise the market wasn't out of the ordinary although there were lots of flowering things that looked edible, but just had a nice, intimate feel and the people were friendly, laughing with us and the morning light was wonderful. Stray dogs wandered pathetically throughout the market, looking for scraps. The dogs here are really in terrible conditions; we even saw a dead dog on the beach at the fishing beach the first morning. At the end of the lane, past the ox-cart overloaded with hay, was a small bridge leading to our fishing beach.
One morning I took a long walk down to the end of the beach, that I've repeated several times later in the day. It's about 45 minutes to the end of the beach, a crescent-shaped sand-spit with shallow water great for swimming. On the far side of that is a cliff and a rocky-coral platform. En route you pass by a sculpture of a mermaid perched on a rock on the first sand and rock promontory, quite cool. Many umbrella-shaded jewelry, souvenir and shell stalls provide a distraction, one of which is owned by my favorite Burmese family. The girl is 22, the man 26 and they have the mort adorable boy, 1 1/2 years old, who runs to me with open arems after our first encounter. I pick him up and throw him in the air and he laughs and comes back for more. I've spend a few afternoons playing with him ...
Another jewelry women, Oma, is 42, married with two children and her beautiful younger sister, 29, isn't. They work just down the road from our umbrellas, which we claim with beach towels early each morning. Oma made me new beaded belts for my bathing suits and we designed some other beaded jewelry together, fun and inexpensive. The kyats are running low so have to be careful!
Nights have been to the same restaurant every day, each evening with more and more people. Barbara had met a Swiss couple, Freddy & Joanna, and a gay male couple from Berlin and a Danish couple that were part of the group on the plane that crashed the previous day. We all had dinner to gather last night, a very social group of 8, with many beers and avocado salads coming out of our ears. The owners of the small restaurant were happy that we'd come, and kept bringing us odd 'presents' like prawn crackers after we'd had fruit for desert. Finally made a decision about when I would leave and booked my flight for the 22nd. It's the 19th today, my 5th night here. I could stay forever but: 1 - money getting low and no way to replenish. 2 - Sunscreen almost finished and it's crazy $$ here (and don't have much money). 3 - The internet really doesn't work at all, and although I'm enjoying the time 'off', still have a bit of stress about all the mail I can't read. I'm less stressed on a vacation when internet works and I can check in and keep up. Still, it's been so wonderful here on the beach that the days fly by and I don't think much about work. Just what I needed. 've had time to think about things like having kids, where I want to live after Kathmandu, relationships, reminisced about living on Maui, a good 'cleansing'!
I've moved rooms once already and have to two more times to be able to stay, so will have been in 4 different rooms in 7 days here ...
Waiting for the truck to take me to the airport, almost everyone else from our sweet group gone already, only the new Swiss/Swedish couple still here. Went for one last trip to the fishing beach this morning, first photographing the boats floating in the misty haze at the far end of the beach, blues and greasy. Noticed larger fish drying on raised slats, sliced into five parts. Last evening also went for a walk through the fishing beach and rode two giggling girls on the back of their bicycle. The beach isn't totally covered in shit as it might be in India, but it's not clean either. Still, it's beautiful and atmospheric in the mornings and evenings.
Went for a wonderful walk to the end of the beach today as I've done every day; it's about 1/2 hour - 45 minutes to the far end, where there's a calm spot for swimming. I returned and spent some time with my favorite family, a young girl (22) and husband (26) with their 1 1/2 year old son, such an adorable kid who loves to be thrown up in to the air and play with his green ball. He also loves the ocean but his dad signified that he coughed after the last time we played in the waves. I've spent time with them every day this week and it's sweet to see how he responds to me now. They gave me a bracelet for a present today, a coconut yesterday. Went back to Ohma, my jewelry designer down the beach, again yesterday and had a few last things made with the dregs of her beads. She's really a talented designer and I'm thinking of somehow working with her in the future. She also gave me a shell necklace present today, and dried bananas. Saw Chip (pronounced something like 'Chith'), the boat-guy again on the beach as I do most days, a nice young guy who speaks passable English. They only work for 5 months out of the year, and the rest of the 7 months need to find some other way to make money. The same for all the fruit and jewelry sellers on the beach. Saw a shrimp net being dragged in front of my friend's stand yesterday: a long-tail boat dragged a long net thrown out in a semi-circle back in and shook all the small shrimp down into the center. Last night had a last dinner at our favorite small restaurant on the beach, Ngapali Bay, a last meal of papaya salad and grilled shrimp.
It's such an amazingly beautiful place, I'm sad to leave. I wonder what will happen to this little piece of paradise over the next few years. I'm sure it will develop quickly ...
En route out of Ngapali, after the half an hour pick-up ride to the airport, we took off past the crashed plane still on the runway, very reassuring. Landed late afternoon in hot Yangon, good to be back and see Louise again. We went out to our favorite Burmese restaurant and feasted on grilled vegetables, spicy seafood salad and grilled squid. The next few days were really too hot to do much, very different than a month ago. We did go out to a mid-range restaurant called Inya 1 and met the eccentric Indonesian owner, Jane. We ended up hearing about life in Yangon from her and the younger British designer, interesting. Another day Louise took me for a drink on Inya Lake, near where Aung San Suu Kyi lives, and later we stopped into a shop where we met a sophisticated looking Burmese woman who spoke good English and told us a few things about Burma, including the 'nats' which even she still worships.
We also spent a morning at 'Scott' market where I'd met an interesting shop-owner, a Chin man and his wife and kids, all running the shop together. This man was a wealth of information about textiles and history of ethnic groups of Burma, and gave me hints about spots to see various ethnic groups, sea gypsies and find textiles.
Next time ...
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