Sunday, December 5, 2010

12 Days of Fame

After the minor interrogation at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok to get the visa and withdrawing a ton of US dollars, I was off to Myanmar (you may know it as Burma since the US and many other countries do not recognise the legitimacy of the ruling military government that changed the name in 1989).
As much of a hassle as the government makes it to get there and spend (they will only accept perfect, crisp US bills-- literally one with a pencil mark was rejected!!!), the Burmese people make it well worth the effort.

This is one of the best places I have been, if not THE best based on the local people. They have little, live under an oppressive military junta, yet are the most gracious, kind, peaceful and friendly people in the world (and now I feel I can say that having been to a large chunk of it). Numerous people along my travels encouraged me to go to Myanmar- boy were they right!

And as an added bonus, I got to experience it with Evaline who made the trip from Chicago for some major culture shock!

I arrived in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) to an eerily quiet airport and a taxi driver who was driving around with his "lady"- I think I was the third wheel on their date!

After a quest to find breakfast we headed for the National Museum (where they rejected my $5 bill) to see the famous 26ft-high Sihasana (Lion Throne), which belonged to King Thibaw Min, the last king of Myanmar. The museum was seriously like a grammar school science fair. Sure the Throne was cool, but the photocopies of ancient script less so. They also had a foreigner only toilet that we still don't understand- it didn't seem the standards were any better.

When traveling to Myanmar you make efforts to avoid government run facilities or transportation (e.g., the railway or Myanma Airlines), but unfortunately this $5 went right into the hands of the generals. However, we felt good about scamming our way into other places or simply not going to avoid giving them money- sure they miss that $20 we withheld! ;-)

After lunch at Taste Myanmar Foods, where we could pick from an entire buffet of local food (we picked something crazy spicy, but there was one thing I wanted that they refused to serve me knowing it would blow my head off), we spent a few hours by the pool until the main attraction.

The Shwedagon Pagoda was awesome and the amazing guide we hired at the entrance, added so much to the experience-- we now have lots of health, wealth, good fortune and a long life based on him having us water our planetary post (aka day of birth symbol- I am a tiger), ring a big bell, pick up a stone (Nixon did it and his wish came true to be President... uh oh!), fan a Buddha and climb under a bell (still not sure what that was about).

The 321.5 foot stupa, the most sacred site in Myanmar since relics of the past four Buddhas are enshrined within, is gold plated every 5 years and has a 76 carat diamond atop, along with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. Sure you can't see the diamond (I had questioned if it was fake), but from one obscure point you could move a step each way and see how the color changed from purple to blue to red, etc. It was super cool!

Koko told us that some of the diamonds were blown off by the Tsunami a few years back- some people returned them to the monks and others kept them- I said those people must have thought their prayers for wealth had been answered ;-)

Afterwards we walked to a nearby restaurant along a sidewalk with frequent giant holes to fall through (the restaurant was closed- apparently a lot closed when tourism took a blow after they shot monks in the street a few years back, go figure!). Instead we had a drink at the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel right on the lake (my Green Spider cocktail tasted just like mouthwash) with a fabulous view of the most ridiculous government built monstrosity--- Karaweik, a huge, concrete replica of a Burmese royal barge built in 1972.

The next morning after a trip to J Donuts (it was that or the basket of crickets/roach looking things in the basket outside) we went to Bogyoke Aung San Market where Evaline haggling over $1 on placements as I spent a whole $1 on a bamboo ring (that I received some compliments on).

On the way to 999 Shah Noodles (my favorite, bargain hole in the wall) some random man was offering massages. Per my previous Asian blogs you know how I like a massage, but "I like you, I want to massage you" was not so enticing!

After more pool time, or an attempt at pool time since for some reason they open up the hotel pool to a school group (we were not happy to be joined by screaming kids and maybe complained), it was time to make the hour trek to the bus station.

Oy, I have been to a lot of bus stations, but this one was seriously the worst by far- unpaved, dirty, chaos! We then departed on a 13 hour ride where par usual they played loud music and sitcoms on the TV. Evaline was still confused that the bus was lacking business class style seating, but thankfully "Gossip Girl" on my laptop got us through! Plus, of course, I had my Ambien and managed to sleep through another breakdown (this time they locked me in the bus).

Arriving in Mandalay was hilarious, first because the mini blue taxis that took us around, but also because we were celebrities here--- literally bus loads of people would be waving to us and people on motorbikes would say "welcome to Myanmar"- so sweet! As you can see from the picture- a bus load is a lot of people! Driving on the roads here is so retro since all the cars are so old--- you feel like you are in a bad 70's show.

The Lonely Planet ("your guide" since it is the only one) walking tour pretty much took us to all the central sites (that didn't require the government entry fees) including the produce market, more wats and several random run ins with Mr. Htoo who made us look him up in Lonely Planet (he was very proud).

Running out of attractions we took a blue taxi to a teak monastery where we had our first run in with the Malaysian photographers. We were sitting on the floor of the monastery and realized the Malaysians were photographing US-- all this way to shoot Americans in Mandalay? Then they started art directing-- wanting a "natural look", "pose", "supermodel". It was pretty hilarious and confusing at the same time.

Later we attempted to see the sunset from Mandalay Hill, a stupa-studded hill looming over the flat cityscape, but our little tuk tuk that could (or couldn't) didn't really get us there in time. However, we did get to chat with some little monks (13 & 14 years old) who were practicing their English before being personally escorted down the zillion steps in the dark by two slightly older monks. I had a lovely chat about Chinese movies (he doesn't like them since the fighting is unrealistic), American movies (that he likes because of the action- doesn't sound very monkly?) and "Harry Potter".

Sweetly our rickety tuk tuk waited for us- little did we know it had no lights so we were nearly run over by a tour bus as they laughed at us, before running out of petrol (awh, felt bad for our driver).

All was good though, since we then learned that Aung San Suu Kyi was just released. The strange part- we didn't know if any of the Burmese knew since they don't have CNN. It was really too bad we didn't stay in Yangon one more day to celebrate!

Then the day just got better when we met Gypsy. We thought he was going to drive us to Nylon Ice Cream Parlour in a blue taxi, but turned out he was a trishaw driver. We were not game to have someone bike us across town, but Gypsy was persuasive in his down jacket (we were in shorts- it was NOT cold and we totally teased him about it!).

We hired one of the decent blue taxis we had already taken around town for a day trip. Mae Mae (who also hates Chinese movies for the same reason) took us pretty much everywhere.

Before hitting the sites we saw pretty much every handicraft shop-- Buddha sculpting, gold leafing, silk weaving, wood carving, tapestry, puppet making, etc., etc. All of it a ton of manual work! And no commission for him- we didn't buy anything.

Then it was off to Amarapura and Maha Gandhayon Kyaung, a monastery with thousands of monks who eat in total silence at 10am. First they line up and process into the dining room through a crowd of tourist snapping photos (of course the Malaysians were there!). It was an odd experience.

Following the monks eating we walked across U Bein Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world (1.2 km), where i met Josef, the worst salesman who tried to sell me "real jade, not plastic" for $1 and told me how they overcharge the French and Italian tourists. We did go back later for sunset, but I couldn't find Josef anymore. He did have all sorts of helpful tid bits-- kids here are so clever!

We also had our pictures taken again with some local women who hold your hand--- not sure why they want a photo with a white woman, but it happened several times. This time I made sure to get a pic of them as well ;-)

Good thing we walked across the bridge before we took the sunset boat ride and could see how deteriorated some of the poles are keeping that bridge up!

Afterwards we hiked up another long flight of steps to yet another wat before driving to Ava (formerly Innwa), capital of Burma from 1364-1841. First you have to cross the Ayeyarwady River by boat and then hop a horse cart to all the sites, including a leaning watch tower (structurally sound?, doubt it!) and another teak monastery (victory, we snuck in with a tour group to avoid the government fee).

Next up: Bagan, but first we need that taxi to show up! Yes, we had a 5:30 am taxi scheduled, but none came. It was a hour of mega frustration and snippiness (an oddity since service in Myanmar is amazingly good), but eventually we got in the "nice" car they were sending for us. Yes, per Evaline's vision it was a black luxury car, it just so happens that black Mercedes was beyond retro, complete with holes in the floor!

Once we arrived in Bagan it was all good. We were greeted by Kyaw at Bagan airport. He was offering his tour services, but generally happy to chat and was pleased we were avoiding the government fees. Sadly, he said that he was trying to live a good life now since he felt they were being punished for past wrongdoings with the current government- perhaps they will have a better king in next life. Awh :-(
The (touchy) guy at the Kumudara Hotel was very helpful in planning our route around the 4,400 temples that have dotted the landscape for over 800 years. Apparently the way to get around the temples is by horse cart. Not the quickest transport, but Lucky eventually did get us everywhere we needed.

Our favorites were the temples you could climb atop to see spectacular views of the countryside's different style and sized stupas.

On route we visited a small village where the most adorable 12-year-old girl, Zha Zha, showed us how they spin cotton, weave, make sesame/peanut paste, cook, make bamboo frames, plus we got the extra bonus of seeing their reservoir. She always wanted us to "sit/take photo, no problem." I so wanted to take her home- she was SO clever and just had the misfortune of being born in this tiny village in Myanmar. (Oh, you might be wondering why the locals all have a paste on their faces-- it is sandlewood and used as sunscreen- Zha Zha really wanted to apply some to my cheeks).

At one of the nice temples we ran into yet another group of camera crazy Malaysians--- but this time they were actually posing the wee monks-- it was comedy!

We also ventured a little out of the way for the "sunset for the adventure seekers." Apparently everyone is an adventure seeker because it was packed full of people, but the sun going down over all the temples was a brilliant sight!

We got back in time for a delicious dinner at the hotel restaurant and an interesting conversation with the restaurant manager who was very frank about life in Myanmar, specifically New Bagan which was created in 1990 when the government forced all the residents of Old Bagan out with force.

The next morning we opted for bikes as opposed to the rather uncomfortable horse cart. We thought it would be way quicker, but little did we know we would run into more chatty locals while on bikes. One woman seemed to want to tour us around until we made a quick escape when she turned into a temple and we didn't follow--- it was ridiculous.

We rode around all the temples of Old Bagan with other locals guiding us inside the temples (some with flashlights) in exchange for us looking at their wares for sale. Okay, I will by some lacquer ware!

After another swim and a few tasty meals at The Moon, sunset at The Elephant and dinner in Nyuang U, we were ready to say goodbye to Bagan.

Hello Inle Lake!

Inle Lake is a pretty rural, with a town on land, but the bulk of action on the lake where there are floating gardens, stilted villages and crumbling stupas.

After we "rocked up" at The Amazing hotel who found us a room despite it being full (we sent them an email to book, but since there never appears to be Internet access they never got it), we explored the market since it was the big day in town (the market rotates to a new location every 5 days).

We had more greetings of "Welcome to Myanmar," once from a monk on the back of a moto as we biked the wrong way (aka more difficult) to the hot springs, through a village and across the lake befort returning to town with a sore bum.

In the village we ate some mystery thing fresh out of the hot oil. Later we were both sick-- was it this? meat? some friend crisp thing in the market? Sadly Evaline took the bulk of it-- my system must be sufficiently hearty after brushing my teeth with local water around the world.

When in Inle Lake you MUST take a boat trip around the lake to see the sites. After an hour and a half we reached the market where we haggled over some silver jewelry and a woman attempted to nurse evaline back to heath with various remidies and suggested she go to the medical tent (if you saw this village you woudl be sceptical of the medical tent!). It was very
sweet how they all wanted to help.

Like Mandalay, we again visited a lot of handicraft shops on the lake including: silk/lotus weaving (you need something like 8000 lotus plants to make one scarf!), cigarette making, a blacksmith, paper umbrella making (complete with some long neck women that I found beyond disturbing) and silver making.

We also drove through the floating gardens--- dad, you like water and tomatoes, maybe you should pack your bags??? Not sure how it works, but they have rows and rows of crops floating and tend to them by boat.
The highlight was the monestary with the jumping cats. When we arrived we were told the cats were not jumping today- lazy! But guess who was there--- our Malaysian friends from Mandalay! We were very excited to see eachother. And thankfully a monk did put on a cat jumping show for us. Again- strange!

Oops, my paper umbrella blew away!

The next day we moved from our $56 Amazing hotel to a $12 guesthouse made of bamboo walls (aka loud) since the town was sold out due to the annual Fire Balloon Festival in Taunggyi, about an hour or so from Inle Lake.

Since we had time to kill and not much left to do it was time for some pampering-- it has been days since my last treatment ;-) This was a goodie-- a pedicure that lasted forever and a gift from the local woman--- toe art!!!!

We drove to Taunggyi in another rickety, retro vehicle with a frenchman (this place was full of French for some reason) and a Malaysian woman, plus two locals basically sitting in the trunk. I had to keep making sure the passanger side door stayed shut since I didn't want Evaline falling out!

The Fire Balloon Festival was great. The vineyard we stopped at on the way was far from great! When we arrived there were hundreds of small balloons in the air- the belief is that you are purging your sins with the release of the balloon.

There was also a big carnival, food and several stages with live performances-- we loved the Royal Whisky area where we were stared at like aliens.

But the real fun starts at 8pm when the competition begins. I am not sure if each balloon is for a town or a club, but either way you have amateurs lighting a balloon with fire very close to spectators.

Some were covered with thousands of tiny candles, but the really cool ones had a trelise of fireworks attached that went off forever as the baloon rose. Sure, great idea, until the balloon doesn't lift in enough time. My photo essay on baloon gone wrong:

Yes, a fireball! The crowd running and the 1930 fire engine to the rescue. Priceless! You can see above what is should have looked like. When it all works it is a pretty cool sight to see.

The next morning we fly back to Yangon for a night before catching our flights out of Myanmar. The Sedona pool served me well, since I didn't do much other than sit there.

The bellman informed us that one of the General's daughter was getting married there with 1,700 guests. We camped out in the lobby to get a glimpse, but then were pretty sure it was just a wealthy local, no government official.
In fact the bellman was right, just the wrong day! When I left the next day outside the hotel was like a miliary zone--- and I had no idea sitting inside the lobby that anything was going on. Now that would have been some interesting people watching!!!!

Back to Yangon Airport where I couldn't help but notice that political correctness skipped Myanmar!!!

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