Category Archives: Burma

Mandalay — What’s in a name?

From Bagan we had another bumpy 7 hour bus ride to our final stop: Mandalay. This bus was PACKED. It had about 45 people in seats and then in the aisle there were jump seats with another 15 or so people (including 4 monks). The dude next to me alternated between laughing uncontrollably at a Burmese sitcom on the TV and falling asleep on my shoulder. Could have been worse: A few seats up a little kid vomited for the entire ride. Poor little guy seemed really sick and he sat on his dad’s lap the whole time. I tried to find some candy to give him but couldn’t find anything that didn’t seem like it would be a choking hazard. It’s debatable whether this ride or the Inle to Bagan ride was worse. This one was shorter and slightly less twisty-turny but Kat and I both had to pee SO BAD and there was no way to get to the driver to tell him to stop due to all the people in the aisle. I kept sane by looking at the monks and thinking that they also probably have to pee and that they were remembering that the urge to urinate is impermanent and thus so is this suffering. My suspicions were confirmed as when we got to a rest stop one monk bolted to the bathroom.

This is good advice if you are ever stuck on a Burmese bus and have a tiny bladder

This is good advice if you are ever stuck on a Burmese bus and have a tiny bladder

So, I didn’t know much about Mandalay. The name evokes some kind of oldey-timey romanticism due to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Road to Mandalay” and due to fancy hotel and resort names like “Mandalay Bay.” Well, let me tell you about Mandalay – this place is a hot, dusty shithole. No way around it. It’s a big city lacking any charm or distinguishing characteristics. Like Indonesia, the sidewalks are deathtraps with random sinkholes that plummet down 10-15 feet into rivers of raw sewage. I also found the people in Mandalay to be a bit different than the people in Yangon. They seemed a bit more cosmopolitan but also less friendly. There were lots of stares and few smiles. Fortunately, we’d be spending minimal time in the city itself.

Kat showing us exactly what she thinks of Mandalay

Kat showing us exactly what she thinks of Mandalay

After some confusion (we had to place a call from the “payphone” at the bus station – meaning, a dude with a 1980’s office phone on a desk) we were met by our driver at the bus station. We were tired but he immediately whisked us away to do some sightseeing around Mandalay itself. It won’t surprise you what we saw: Temples, buddhas and monasteries.

You should know from our previous posts though that the real treasure of Burma is not the sights and the places (and definitely not the food) but its people. Our driver, Ko, (pronounced “Joe) was perhaps our favorite part of our time in Mandalay. He spoke excellent English, was incredibly funny and smart and we had a blast chatting with him for hours in the car. He was about our age and had a wife and a young son and it really seemed that he was as interested in us as we were in him. We told him the places we’d been and the places we were going and he said wistfully that “one day” he hopes to see the world. It was a subtle reminder of how repressed people still are in Burma and it certainly gave us a jolt to remember just how lucky we are to be taking this trip and for having been born in a free and prosperous country. Ko can speak 4 languages but is starved for information about the world outside Burma. It blew his mind to learn that, in America, there are different foods that are typically only eaten at breakfast. He wanted to know when “rainy season” was in America. He was stunned that it would take FIVE HOURS to fly across the country (“I thought New York to Los Angeles, maybe 2 hours!”) All that said, he’s already seen the new James Bond movie, his son spends hours playing Playstation 3 and he is a huge Arsenal fan. Being a driver for tourists is a pretty good job in Burma, but it was clear that he wanted more for his son (he is only seven but he already takes lessons outside of school in English, business, and computers). We didn’t talk explicitly about politics because doing so could get Ko into trouble, but we did dance around the issue a lot. Ko said we couldn’t go to certain places “because of the military. No good. Very bad.” He made references to things being “very very bad a few years ago” but he says “In past few years, things getting better.” You could hear in his voice how hopeful he is for the future but also a wariness that he might not get the country he wants for a long, long time, if ever. Whenever I think of Burma, I will always think of Ko and I’ll forever hope that he and his family are able to live the life that they dream of.

Because Mandalay sucks so hard, we instead visited some of the smaller towns outside of Mandalay, which each used to be a capital of Burma years ago. We saw the famous U Bein bridge (the longest teakwood bridge in the world at 1.2 km). We also went to a working monastery to see hundreds of monks (some as young as five years old) line up with their alms bowls to receive their one meal of the day. This was our absolute least favorite part of Burma. I hated it more than the crap food, more than the 10 hour ass-bruising bus rides. There were hundreds of monks lined up and to get their ONE MEAL of the day, they had to parade through a gauntlet of hundreds of old, white, package tourists shoving cameras in their faces, flashes popping off. These tourists (mostly French and German) had NO regard for the monks and showed them no respect and I was ashamed and horrified to be there. Many of the monks were novice monks as well, meaning that little kids had to go through this crowd of insane foreigners – it must have been really scary for them. One woman was even taking pictures of the monks bathing. If you are going to go to Burma PLEASE show the monks respect. During an uprising several years ago, several monks were killed by the government trying to protect fellow protestors. They deserve to be treated like more than window dressing for a cool photo.

Imagine if you had to deal with these idiot meatbags every morning just to get your breakfast.

Imagine if you had to deal with these idiot meatbags every morning just to get your breakfast.

For dinner, our driver pointed us to a really awesome barbecue restaurant somewhat similar to other places we’ve been. You go pick your sticks of stuff (Pork, tofu, pig ears, etc) and they grill up the sticks and bring them to you. It was a bit far from our hotel, so before he left, Ko arranged for us to get a ride on the back of the motorcycle of a waiter there. We needed two motos, so the waiter enlisted a buddy of his to help. I got on the back of the bike with the waiter and Kat with his friend and we zipped off. 10 minutes later we arrived at the hotel – or, rather, I arrived. Kat was nowhere to be seen. So we waited. The longer we waited, the more agitated my moto driver became. After 10 minutes, he motioned for me to wait and he zipped off. He returned five minutes later and asked me “Still no?” “Still no.” He was getting very upset. I have a feeling if you lose a white tourist entrusted to your care really bad things happen to you. I don’t want to know what was running through this guy’s mind, but this was not a good situation for him. He (and, really, I as well) were on the verge of panicking when Kat’s moto showed up. I never was worried about Kat being kidnapped or in any real danger (Burmese just don’t do that) but I was worried that they had been in an accident. Turns out that they’d just gotten lost (HOW they got lost I can’t figure out since Mandalay is on a numbered grid system). They drove around until a kind lady selling gasoline out of plastic water bottles on the side of the road had given them directions and even rode on her bike along with them until they got on the right path. Burmese people, man. They ALWAYS WANT TO HELP. When they arrived, Kat was laughing hysterically about how lost they had gotten. My motodriver and I did failed to see the humor. In fact, the my motodriver had some pretty harsh words for his friend (I imagine along the lines of “THIS ISN’T FUNNY, ASSHOLE!”) and zipped off.

We went back to the barbecue restaurant the next night and saw him again. The look on his face was priceless. “Oh LORD I thought I was free of you meatbags and you came BACK?!” He hid from us the whole time we were there. This presented a problem as we had no way to get home. There are NO taxis on the streets of Mandalay for reasons I cannot understand. There are, allegedly, mototaxis but unlike Thailand, they don’t wear uniforms so you have no way of knowing who is a mototaxi and who’s just a dude out for the night. So we stood on the corner awkwardly for about 15 minutes. Our hotel was about 2.5 miles away. We COULD walk but it would be rough going – along a highway at night, dodging the random sinkholes. Eventually, a trishaw driver stopped and offered us a ride. A trishaw is just a dude on the bike with a jumpseat on the side. The passengers sit back to back while the poor trishaw driver huffs and puffs (there’s only ONE gear on this bike) and eventually gets you home. We told him where we wanted to go and he hemmed and hawed a bit as it is a bit far, particularly for him to haul our two fat white asses. Kat offered him 3000 kyat (nearly $4), a preposterous sum of money as that would have gotten us a cab home. The driver, stunned by this offer, readily agreed and off we went. People stared and laughed at us as we slowly rolled through the dark, dusty streets of Mandalay. Kat and I laughed and laughed the whole way. When we finally got to our hotel, Kat snapped at me “You give this man A TIP!” So I gave him an extra 500 kyat on top of the already ridiculous 3000 kyat fare. The man smiled SO brightly and thanked us profusely. That guy earned it. I hope he was able to knock off work early for the night because of us and our fat white asses.

The next morning we went to the Mandalay airport for fly back to Bangkok. The Mandalay airport is a gleaming monument to what awful idiots the Burmese government are. The airport is an hour drive outside of the city, in the middle of NOWHERE. It was built about 12 years ago and is bright and shiny and new. The idea, apparently, was to use it to welcome all kinds of international visitors to Burma. This plan seems not to have worked and the airport is eerily quiet and empty. There are about 30 gates, but our flight was the ONLY flight due to depart. There are electronic screens that WOULD show arrivals and departures, but as there’s only ONE flight, the screens are dark. There are numerous corridors that in a normal airport would have shops and restaurants that are either totally empty or entirely closed off. The government spent millions of dollars on this thing and, meanwhile, people in their own country starve. The whole building is a monument to corruption, callousness and ineptitude.

We were hungry so we thought we’d try to get some food. An airport directory pointed us towards a “Restaurant and Café Zone” but when we go there, there were just empty storefronts save for one tiny room that had little tables and tiny plastic stools. In the back of the room were a bunch of pots on the floor holding curry and rice. A woman was washing dishes in a basin in the corner. This is a pretty standard scene for a Burmese streetside restaurant, but I was shocked and appalled to see it as the ONLY “restaurant” in the Mandalay International Airport. Still, I was hungry so we sat and ordered food. It wasn’t good (of course) AND I was feeling the effects of it for a few days afterwards – only the second time in 3 months that I’ve become ill from eating. We met up with a friend of ours who was on the same flight. I had some Kyat leftover that needed spending (the food was less than $1 per person) so we bought some beers (It was 11 AM in Burma but five o’clock somewhere in the world). The first round was something extortionate like 1500 kyat per can (about $2). After that we were running low on kyat but wanted more beer. Our friend Martin said, “Well, this is sort of a bullshit operation, so let’s see what we can do.” He got 3 more beers and told them that all we had left was $3 and we wanted all of them for that. The Burmese ladies sort of shrugged and took the money and that was that. I challenge you to find me another international airport where you can haggle down the price of your beer!

With that, we were set to depart. I buckled into my Air Asia seat. The guy next to me was Burmese. He had a new iphone and I just assumed that since he was actually able to leave Burma and because he had an expensive phone that he was a bad guy connected to the government. He was reading a tiny book that had a picture of Barack Obama on it. So I asked him what the book was about. He said it was about the President’s speech in Yangon a few months earlier and about US-Myanmar relations. I told him “That’s my President. We are so proud that he came to Myanmar.” He said “Oh! You’re American!” Then he pulled out his phone and, to my shock, showed me a ton of photos of him and his family in America – at Niagara Falls, on a trolley in San Francisco, in front of the White House. Then he showed me a photo of him with Aung San Suu Kyi and he was SO proud. I told him it must have been a great honor to meet her. He said he had hosted her recently when she came to Mandalay. I was pleased to know that he was a good guy! He then insisted on showing me a video on his phone. He had recorded Obama’s speech in Yangon with his phone by recording his TV with his iphone and he wanted me to watch it. I have to say, I was really, really proud to be American when he showed me the video and it made me feel so good to see my country and my president being a force for good in the world. I asked why he was going to Bangkok and he said something about going to hospitals for pharmaceutical something or other. I didn’t really understand, nor do I really understand how he is able to travel around the world and have money and somehow not be connected to the regime, but it was a really nice way to end our time in Burma.

If you are ever sad or worried, just remember -- Buddha's got you, boo.

If you are ever sad or worried, just remember — Buddha’s got you, boo.

NOTE — unfortunately, not too many photos of Mandalay because we (and by “we” I mean Kat) dropped our camera. Sad corollary to this: For a week the camera refused to turn on, so we bought an expensive new camera. Not TWO HOURS after we bought the new camera, the old camera miraculously came back to life. *SHAKES TINY FIST OF RAGE*

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Bougie in Bagan

Bagan was on my bucket list for this trip, along with Chiang Rai, and they were two things I was pretty bossypants about seeing.

Kat in Bagan

Kat in Bagan

This meant, of course, a beastly bus ride. At 7am sharp a pickup truck with a mattress in it came to fetch us at our hotel and we crawled into the back of it. Then we got on the bus for a grueling nine hour ride. Let me tell you, the ride in the pickup truck was smoother than this bus ride. The next day our butts still hurt and we had to sit funny. My butt hurt laying in bed on my back. I do not wish that upon anyone. Or their tailbone.

However the bus ride was a distant memory by the time we got to Bagan.

Check out the VIEWWWWW!

Check out the VIEWWWWW!

We stayed in a lovely hotel,  Blue Bird, which was real luxury and an amazing value. One of the owners is french and the hotel served fresh, homemade yogurt with breakfast. I just about died.  For long-term travelers in Asia, dairy products are the ultimate luxury right behind water pressure, towels that don’t feel like sandpaper, and filtered coffee.  Even a pool is like, whatever, when there is DAIRY.

I loved Bagan so much. What’s to say about it?  It was gorgeous. Everywhere you looked were temples, pagodas, monasteries, and other holy buildings. You can hire a car, a bike, or a horse cart and take in the sights. Fully embracing our “Bougie in Burma” mantra, we went car. We had a hilarious driver who “spoke English” who made us laugh all the time because how we might say “Excuse me” or “sorry” to interject into a side conversation, he said “HELLO.” It wasn’t just a “hello?” IT WAS A COMMAND. HELLO.

We saw a ton of Buddhas:

Buddha being mindful

Buddha being mindful

Buddha!

Buddha!

 

superman Buddha!

superman Buddha!

 

We saw a ton of pagodas:

fancy gold one

fancy gold one- when the wind blew the chimes would ring which were amazing

pagodas!

pagodas!

pagodas!

pagodas!

pagodas!

pagodas!

 

 

We saw a ton of temples (and their guardian lion-dogs)

Dave enhancing the view

Dave enhancing the view

lion-dog!

lion-dog!

Temples!

Temples!

 

We made some merit, by pouring water over the Buddha associated with which day of the week you were born (Dave, a Thursday. Monday for me) once for every year you have been alive and one more for good luck.

Dave and Thursday Buddha bro-ing out

Dave and Thursday Buddha bro-ing out

Also, the old-fashioned way, MONEY!

Dave wishing for a spectacular sunset

Dave wishing for a spectacular sunset

 

We were dusty, exhausted, and I loved every minute of it.

We watched sunset with our feet dangling over the side of a temple after climbing up some very tiny stairs lit with rapidly shrinking candles. It was romantic to see the whole of Bagan– over 50 km– of temples as far as the eye could see as the sky turned pink and purple.

pre-camera death

pre-camera death

To enhance the mood, Dave started doing that “I love to sound like a jaded long-term traveler” smug thing he does when his eyes glaze over and he just ranks places he’s been that are further plane rides than places you may have been on a plane. OR NOT!  He decided sunset in Bagan was not as climactic as being in Angkor Wat.

So, I told him to shut up.

Then the camera broke.

So much for making merit.

We were then mindful of the impermanence of both Dave’s smugness and my hot temper about the camera breaking and went to go drink beer.

being mindful of our faces

being mindful of our faces

 

 

 

Inle Lake; we were on a boat!

So after two days in Yangon where we were just getting the hang of feeling a bit like local celebrities, it was time for one part of the journey that we had been dreading since we left Thailand – the overnight bus where we’d stumble off at 4:30 at the morning into the darkness that is Kalaw. Kalaw is a town where many people begin their treks to Inle lake. Dave and I are not “let’s walk for 3 days to get to a place people” when a 3 hour car ride would suffice so we did not trek. Not even a little bit.

We had bought “VIP” bus tickets the day before and were dropped off in the INSANELY LARGE BUS STATION. Holy crap, it was like a mini city! We spotted our chariot and then we were a touch less worried about our transit. We ended up paying 25,000 kyat per person for the very nicest bus we could afford.

The bus, was the nicest bus I have ever been in, in any country. There were two seats on one side, and one across the aisle. There was a very lovely attendant lady to look after you. There were thick, clean blankets and your business class type seat reclined nearly the whole way. They showed Myanmar beauty pageants and we had croissants.

We were huge dummies and didn’t really sleep though. We were really concerned — most things we had read involving getting off at Kalaw were the bus barely coming to a full stop as it swung down a road and you dove off. We slept maybe 2 hours on the bus before it pulled up to Kalaw at 5am. The lights came on and it was clear that “hey, you white people, GET OUT”. If you want to book this yourselves look for a “Higer” express bus. It was worth the money.

We were greeted by a man with Dave’s name on a sign (my long-ass name was too complicated, which I do not begrudge them) and we hopped into the man’s car (a better name would be a “nap-mobile”) and drove off into the dark to Pindaya. I promptly fell asleep. We awoke to have a ritzy hotel breakfast as it was the only place open at 6am sharp. Then we were off to the Caves at Pindaya. In one cave temple there were 8,700 Buddhas. It did not disappoint.

We watched sunrise over the temple

The mist you see in all pictures of Myanmar is unreal

The mist you see in all pictures of Myanmar is unreal

and I snapped 400 pictures of Buddhas. This were to be the first 8,700 of the 4.67 MILLION Buddhas we would see in this beautiful country.

Buddhas!

Buddhas!

more Buddhas!

more Buddhas!

 

After the caves, which may have been my favorite thing ever, we fell asleep again and when we woke up we were bumping along an unpaved road. This — again — would be the first of many bumpy, unpaved roads in our future.

Finally we arrived at our hotel in Nyaung Shwe, which was nice enough but should have been $30/night and instead was $80/night.  The staff were very sweet though. Also there were avocados with breakfast. I ate many avocados in Myanmar as the food left something to be desired and avocados seemed to be a “thing”.

Nyaung Shwe was nothing special, in my opinion. There’s some OK food. I guess. We met some characters (including a lovely, kooky, lady named Hope who was (of course) an organic farmer from Denmark). We either were on the lake or drinking beer on our tiny hotel room porch.

Dave would like for me to confess to making a grave error. Our beer of choice in Myanmar was — shocker– Myanmar Beer. It is partially owned by the government but what isn’t? It’s practically the national drink. What kept us coming back was an American favorite , a gimmick! Under the bottle cap you could peel away a layer of plastic and each bottle cap would reveal whether or not you won: nothing, 200 kyat off your bill, 500 kyat off your bill, or a FREE BEER! Well, we won a free beer in Inle (you can tell because all others are in Myanmarese — 200 or 500 off looks like Burmese script spelling the word “glow worm” if you were reading Burmese as English. You will find yourself doing this when you cannot make sense of any signs around you and your brain is desperate to process things. However winning is easy.  You know you won a free one because it says “Myanmar”. The longer phrase means “thank you! you win nothing! Now buy another beer!”.

Anyway, I dropped our one “we won a free beer” bottlecap between the slats in our front porch. I know. I am terrible.

ANYWAY…..

On the lake we had our own private boat!

We were on a boat!

We were on a boat!

And took in the views.

PURDY!

PURDY!

 

We saw the famed fishermen of Inle lake perched on the tip of their boats with their legs wrapped around the oars.

my camera has a serious zoom

my camera has a serious zoom

i do not have this balance.

i do not have this balance.

We got a bit of government-approved for tourist sights of the villages where people build on top of the Lake, even farm on it!

Science!

Science!

And the best part, which should no be skipped, Indein Pagoda and the surrounding village, which were breathtaking.

From the top of our hill

From the top of our hill

pagodas! SO MANY!

pagodas! SO MANY!

We scampered up a small hill and were all alone with a small pagoda and took in the views and both felt in that moment, both very small, and very fortunate.

we were up here!

we were up here!

 

 

 

Yangon — Burma’s not that hard, is it?

Kat and I spent so much mental energy preparing for our trip to Burma that we actually didn’t think much about what we’d DO there. We had no idea what to expect when we landed in Yangon and were a bit nervous. We needn’t have been. Yangon is a very unique city in SE Asia and it has some of the friendliest “city people” in the entire world.

The Yangon airport is small but modern. Clearing immigration was easy though they did give each and every passport a very good hard look. I tried my best to look like an “office manager.” I must have succeeded. We then changed two crisp $100 bills into 170,000 Kyat, which was delivered in two thick bricks of 1,000 kyat notes. They gave our bills a once over but didn’t go too crazy.

Our cab driver from the airport spoke excellent English (as most cab drivers in Yangon did) and we had a chat about our itinerary. He advised us that one day was enough in Yangon and that we should move on as quickly as possible – which is what most tourists do. I am pleased to report that he was wrong and we quite enjoyed our 3 days in Yangon.

It's not every city that uses a 2,000 year old paya as a traffic circle

It’s not every city that uses a 2,000 year old paya as a traffic circle

Let me get this out of the way here. Yangon was for many years known by the British name Rangoon. No, they do not have crab Rangoon here. They never have. It’s not a Burmese dish. I have no idea where the name comes from. Let’s move on.

In Yangon we stayed with our friend in his huge apartment just north of downtown. This was a really interesting place to stay because normally we would have stayed in the noisy, crowded downtown area. Instead we were in a shady tree-lined neighborhood filled largely with ex-pats and diplomats. I think If we’d stayed in a different part of the city we might have felt differently about it.

View of Shwedagon Pagoda from our friend's apartment. Not too shabby. Out of frame -- the pool a few floors down. This backpacker lifestyle can be ROUGH sometimes.

View of Shwedagon Pagoda from our friend’s apartment. Not too shabby. Out of frame — the pool a few floors down. This backpacker lifestyle can be ROUGH sometimes.

One downside of staying a bit out of downtown was that we had to pay a small fortune in cab fares. Yangon is juuuuust a bit too spread out to be walkable. Things would be 3-4 kilometers away from each other. Maybe you walk to one, but you have to cab to the next one and then cab home. The cabs only cost between $3-4 but they start adding up quickly. The cabs themselves are interesting — mostly Toyotas from the late 80’s. Also, while Myanmar drives on the same side of the road as the USA, most cars come from Japan, so the steering wheel is on the right side too. You don’t see many new cars because of international sanctions that have been levied against Myanmar for decades. Also unique to Yangon among Southeast Asian cities – very few motorbikes.

It was fascinating to walk around a modern city and see almost ZERO American cultural influence. There are no Starbucks, McDonald’s, 7-11’s or any western chain or business at all. Some people have cellphones, but not most people (There are “payphones” on the street, which are literally just office phones on a desk on the sidewalk – the man dials the number and hands you the phone). Some people were dressed in western style, but the vast majority of people (men and women, young and old alike) wear longyi which is basically a wrap skirt.

Despite being a major city, people in Yangon didn’t seem like “city people” (the type who even if they saw a flaming elephant tap-dancing and playing guitar on the head of a pin would shrug their shoulders and keep moving because they have places to be). They were friendly, warm and helpful (except one lady who we bought samosas from on the street – she was pretty mean, but woman made one kickass samosa).

One night downtown we stumbled upon a huge crowd of people seated on tiny little plastic stools blocking off an entire street. Hey, look! It’s people! And they’re doin’ stuff! Let’s go check it out. We stood around awkwardly for a while and eventually some guy just ran over to us with two (larger, white-person sized) stools. Just to be nice. What the crowd was waiting for was a pretty awesome dance troupe celebrating Chinese new year doing all kinds of acrobatic stuff while parading around a giant 20 foot long paper mache snake. People in the crowd were puzzled to see us, but there were countless smiles, shared laughs and waves from children.

People! Doin' stuff! That's gotta be interesting, right?

People! Doin’ stuff! That’s gotta be interesting, right?

Our travel agents are Burmese but they work out of the US Embassy in Yangon (where our friend also works) so we went to the embassy to pay them (in cash, in US dollars obvi). It may sound a bit corny, but when Kat and I saw the American flag flying above the embassy we both got a little emotional. I didn’t think it would affect me like that. We got even more emotional when our friend greeted us at the gate with a slice of true, homemade pecan pie that he’d won in a charity auction. Neither one of us really likes pecan pie, but it really and truly tasted like home. It was also hilarious to see all of the same government furniture and supplies that I left at my old job – it was like my desk had been recreated in Burma.

There’s not a ton to see or do in Yangon and the nightlife scene was a shock coming from Bangkok, the party capital of SE Asia. In Yangon, it’s hard to find dinner past 9 pm and the streets of downtown are pretty well deserted by 10 or 11 pm. The main thing that everyone comes to see is Shwedagon Pagoda, which is the holiest site in all of Myanmar.

Mrs. Banh Mi at Shwedagon. No mugging permitted in this photo because only Buddha is permitted to mug at this holy place.

Mrs. Banh Mi at Shwedagon. No mugging permitted in this photo because only Buddha is permitted to mug at this holy place.

In Burma we saw literally hundreds of not thousands of pagodas, temples, payas and stupas, but Shwedagon is pretty damn impressive. A giant stupa made out of gold which is said to house relics (usually hairs or teeth) of the four past Buddhas.  I found the pagodas and temples in Burma to be interesting in that while they were religious sites, they also seemed to act just as regular meeting places for Burmese people to hang out and chat and there was a ton of commerce going on inside them as well. This is an interesting contrast to Thailand as Burma is considered a much more devout nation than Thailand but I found the Thai religious sites to have a much more somber and holy ambiance to them.

Yangon’s downtown was hot and chaotic and basically every block on the main roads had an open air market spilling off the sidewalks into the streets. It was intense but fun. Still, after 3 days while we felt like we’d barely gotten to know the city, we felt like a trip to cooler, less hectic climes might be in order. So we bought bus tickets to our next destination and topic of our next post – Inle Lake.

Burma – Pre-trip prep and initial thoughts (ie – We are not Burma experts)

Some of my friends (and Kat) like to tease me that after I’ve been in a foreign land for any length of time over five minutes, that I will act as an “expert” on that place and claim to know everything there is to know. I think they’re ridiculous, of course, but I can say one thing with certainty – after a few days in Burma (or “Myanmar” as it is officially known) I am not an expert. I don’t think you can be. This is a place where you can observe very closely and still have no idea what’s really going on. It’s perplexing and in many ways indescribable, but I am really happy to be here.

Burma is experiencing a real moment right now. The quasi-military government is slowly engaging in a reform program, so instead of being REALLY bad guys, they’re not-as-bad-as-we-USED-to-be bad guys (Even as I type this the government is waging a mid-scale counterinsurgency against several ethnic hill tribes and many of Burma’s Muslims are locked up in camps). Most notably, they released Aung San Suu Kyi from years of house arrest and she now holds a seat in Parliament as the opposition leader. President Obama visited the country just a few months ago becoming the first U.S. President ever to visit Myanmar. Search for Burma tourism tips on the internet and you’ll be flooded with articles with the same basic message: Everything is changing in Burma and you need to come NOW before tourism ruins it forever.

This surging popularity has pros and cons for tourists. We’d heard horror stories about travelers planning on finding accommodation on arrival in each place and finding that there are literally NO rooms available in an entire city. There’s just so much demand and not enough supply. This also has led to skyrocketing costs on just about everything. If you see a price quoted in a 2012 guidebook for a hotel, it’s likely double that now.

Given competition for hotels at the major sites as well as the fact that the internet just baaarely works in Burma (“fast” internet is probably something like AOL from 1995 – you can check email but that’s about it), making it hard for us to plan ahead outside the country, Kat and I did something we have never done: we hired a travel agent (located inside Burma). Our travel agent helped us set up an itinerary, book hotels and work out logistics, including transfers to/from hotels, bus stations and airports. It’s a good thing we did. Our travel agent told us that we got, literally, one of the very last rooms available in Mandalay.

Still, we like to be independent travelers so we made some things clear to our travel agent. First, we’d be in charge of all our own meals, this allows us to keep costs down by not eating in tourist restaurants. Secondly, we would not travel at all internally by air. Burma’s domestic carriers have very old planes and suspect safety records. Tourists fly them all the time, but I think they are just accidents waiting to happen (in fact there was an Air Bagan crash just a few months ago that killed 4 people). Taking buses will keep costs down (A bus will cost $20 while a plane will cost $100), and a lot of money spent on air travel winds up in the hands of the government, which is something we are trying to keep to a minimum. The bus rides are long and bumpy (we’ve got 3 bus rides, 8-10 hours each) but they are safe(er) and ethical.

Just getting to Burma here is a pain and I really wasn’t sure it would be worth it. The first issue is that you must get a visa to enter Myanmar. This is usually not a big deal, except Burma uses its visa process to try to weed out journalists, aid workers and other types who the government might find undesirable. The visa application requires you to fill out an employment history. This presented a problem for Kat and I – Human Rights Campaign and Department of Homeland Security would probably both raise some red flags with the Burmese consular officers, so we had to be…creative…with our work history. For the record, Kat has enjoyed a long successful career as a “party planner” and I am currently an “Office Manager” at an internet startup company. We hear that a few years ago, they used to be much more strict about denying visas, but from our experience, it seemed like they didn’t really care about politics and were just much more interested in collecting the fee and getting you out the door.

The second irritating issue about traveling to Burma is money management. There are no ATMs in the entire country and nowhere takes a credit card (I did see an ATM at the airport in Yangon – another sign of big changes coming to Burma – but it was unclear whether it was working) and so you need to bring your entire budget with you in cash – and if you run out of money, you can’t get more except through wire transfer (and I don’t think anyone under the age of 50 even knows how a wire transfer works). Oh, and another thing, you can’t get Kyat (Burmese currency) outside Burma, and they will only accept US Dollars for exchange. Ah, sorry, one last thing – they prefer $100 bills (you’ll get a worse exchange rate for smaller bills) and the bills have to be PRISTINE. They cannot have a fold, crease, mark, tear. We couldn’t carry our money in my wallet because it would bend the bills. So our last few days in Bangkok was spent going from bank to bank trying to change Thai baht for BRAND NEW $100 bills. When we changed some money at a Yangon hotel, the guy at the desk closely examined the bill, eventually deciding that he would accept it – but not before taking out an eraser and cleaning up some microscopic smudges on the border of the note. Why is it like this? I have no idea, but as a friend of ours said in response to this “Woah, so they only will accept brand new hundos? That’s pretty baller, Burma.”

Kat and I were pretty frustrated with all of this. The stress of the money and the visa, the stress of not being able to travel as independently as we like and having to map out our entire itinerary in advance. We at one point discussed bailing on Burma altogether – but I am SO GLAD WE DIDN’T.  There are lots of amazing tourist sites in Burma and I am excited to see them, but even after only a few days I know that I will forever have a spot in my heart for this place because of the kindness of the Burmese people. People here are genuinely excited that you are visiting their country and want you to feel welcome. Walking down the street you will be smiled and waved at by everyone from babies to grown men. Teenagers on buses will pass you and yell out “HELLO! HEY MAN! WHERE YOU FROM?!” In other countries in Southeast Asia, this is the beginning of a scam or an attempt to sell you something. Here in Burma, it’s just because people are excited to see a foreigner and want, just for one fleeting second, to make a connection with you. It’s heartwarming and wonderful and even though this place is WEIRD for a bunch of reasons, you never feel unwelcome or uneasy. People stare at you everywhere, but it’s just because they are curious and when you wave or smile at them, they’ll break out into a huge grin and wave back. If you say hello in Burmese (Min ga la ba!), this will cause an eruption of giggles. When we say we are Americans we invariably get the same response: “America great country! Mr. Obama! Very good! Very very good!”

One down side of Burma is for sure the food. It’s…brown. Food is either deep fried, covered in oil or both. It’s sort of an odd mélange of Chinese and Indian food without any of the personality of either one. One really unique and tasty dish is laphet thoke, which is a slightly spicy fermented tea leaf salad. It tastes almost like a light pesto. The local beer, Myanmar Beer, is actually quite good though. One of my favorite things about Burma, in fact, is that all bottles of Myanmar beer are themselves a bit of gambling. Under each bottle cap you have a chance of winning a free beer (or having the beer you’ve just drank taken off your bill if you are at a restaurant) or getting a 200 kyat discount (about 25 cents).

One last observation on what makes Burma a bit odd: All the tourists here are OLD. I mean, 60’s and 70’s Europeans on package tours. Burma is relatively expensive for SE Asia, hard to get to and definitely not a place to party. Because of this, you don’t get a lot of the 20-something gap year backpacker kids that are an inescapable virus throughout the rest of the region.

Still, while it’s wonderful to be here it’s frustrating too. You never know exactly what is going on. People still can’t really openly discuss politics without fear of government persecution. You never know exactly where your money is going – you try to make sure your money isn’t being spent at hotels or restaurants that have government connections, but you really can’t ever know for sure. People seem so joyful and happy, but this is a country with a painful history and people still are suffering today due to the government’s oppression. I’m happy to be here and I can’t wait for more of what Burma has to offer, but here more than anywhere else, I feel more like a tourist and less like a traveler. One thing’s for sure – I’m no expert.

NOTE: No pics for now as we’re still in Burma and the internet is suh-looow. We look forward to uploading pictures of this beautiful and amazing place (and telling you more stories about the specific places we’ve been) once we return to lands of faster webbernets.