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Tearing ourselves away from the pleasures of the Thai coast, we determined to head north to Myanmar (or Burma for those readers still stuck in the colonial past). I will now give you a quick primer on this long-isolated state. Population of ~60 million, majority Buddhist but many Christian and Muslim, ethnically ~60% Burmese but also many minorities, land area about 2.5 times the size of NZ. Most of you will have heard of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning former political prisoner known locally as ‘the Lady’ (cumulative time under house arrest: 15 years). Myanmar was an independent kingdom till it was progressively brought under the boot of the Imperial British Raj by 1885. At this time it was known as Burma and was famous for its teak wood, tea, rubber as well as gemstones (today Myanmar is the source for 90% of the world’s rubies). George Orwell lived there and wrote an anti-colonialist novel called Burmese Days (reading it as we speak) so will share more about this history another time.

In 1947 it gained independence until a military coup in 1962 led to a dictatorship till 2010. In recent history, Suu Kyi, daughter of the general that led the independence struggle, and her party, the NLD (National League for Democracy), won the 2010 election in a landslide. Challenging negotiations led to the military ceding some power but reserving key veto power under the new constitution as well as immunity and control of key ministries. The current situation appears a somewhat halfway house between a dictatorship and a democracy. Over time, people hope things will improve (currently workers earn an average of US$3 per day), as the sclerotic government and its ministries will improve under the tentative opening of the economy. The military and its cronies have their claws into all nooks and crannies of the economy and corruption is all-pervasive (Transparency International Corruption Perception Index country ranking of 136 out of 176).

From Thailand’s border port of Ranong, we crossed a land border, which actually consisted of a long-tail boat trip across the river mouth, dotted with customs and immigration guard posts. The Myanmar side is called Kawthoung and is nothing to write home about, so I won’t. Saddled with a thick wad of the local notes, kyats, we flew to Dawei. This 1 ¼ hour flight probably saved us 14 hours on a terrible road. The south of Myanmar has been closed to tourists for many decades and previously the only way in was by living on a boat and going on dive trips to the Myeik archipelago, a 800+ island nirvana. Mark my words, this area will become the next big thing once Myanmar hits the next stage on its tourism evolution.

Dawei is a cute, dusty town and the capital of Tanintharyi Region. Things that have struck me so far have included the general application (by both male and females) of a cosmetic paste made from the bark of the sandalwood tree which is applied to the skin as protection but then also applied extra thickly to the cheeks and face in intricate designs. Our taxi driver had the stuff around his eyes to make him look like a tiger or something. Swirls, loops, circles, swatches, it’s all been seen. Ladies and children also love wearing brightly patterned pyjama pants, often with matching tops. This is apparently not considered strange, in fact the western idea of pajamas as nighttime clothing was stolen from the Asian colonies who were just wearing comfortable clothing. Otherwise the national dress is longyis which are patterned cloth which is wrapped around the waists of men and women. Very breezy and cool in the heat of the summer’s day. Another piece is the use of betelnut as a stimulant. More on this in a future post.

Departing at 5am we embarked on a 7-hour juddering, rollercoaster of a minivan-ride from Dawei to the third largest city in Myanmar, Mawlamyine (capital of Mon State and also known as Moulmein) which pounded my spine into each and every pothole as we streaked (ha!) north along the economic heartline of the south, curlicues of mist wreathing the palm trees standing sentinel on the flat coastal rice plains of Tanintharyi Region before entering Mon State. This ‘highway’ was being widened for most of this route from 1 ½ lanes to 2 lanes wide using road-building techniques which reminded me of the way the Roman’s used to build their roads. The swarms of locals shifting wicker baskets of stone, tar being liquified in oil barrels over slow fires and the occasional steamroller will no doubt drive development. The road was further cushioned by rubber tree plantations as well as legions of military villages fringing the road. I must have counted 20+ bases in 150km of road. The military of Myanmar (the Tatmadaw) has 500,000 men, one of the largest standing armies in the world and busy with suppressing the independence movements of minorities since forever. On a positive note we also almost ran down a wedding party crossing the road, about to start their party at 7am (!) with all assembled guests dressed in their finery, pink chiffon adorning the roadside restaurant. Beautiful!

Mawlamyine was the capital of British Burma and as such has a certain faded and mouldy glamour. George Orwell wrote an essay in 1936 entitled ‘Shooting an Elephant’, informed by his experiences as a colonial policeman whilst stationed here. The rough-and-tumble development is not really that apparent. No high rise buildings, traditional bustling markets remain, dusty main roads and limited foreign presence. The drooping old teak mansions are slowly being replaced by concrete Chinese-style McMansions adorned with chrome balustrades and slick gaudy tiles. I get it. Who wouldn’t want a waterproof, plumbed, wired, warm and long-lasting house to live in? We tourists like authenticity and photogenic uniqueness but we don’t have to live here.

A pagoda visit was on the cards and we ascended to the ridge-top from where we had an excellent view over the river, the city and the notorious ex-British prison dominating the center of the view. The internet in general is terribly slow and we have purchased a local SIM card provided by Telenor, one of the new mobile providers which has spread its internet crack across the nation. Can you imagine – most of the country internet-free till 2010 and now you can buy a cheap-as-chips SIM and access the world through your phone! Embarking on an early-morning excursion across to ‘Ogre Island’, a neighbouring landmass hosting a population of 200,000 and a 5min and 500 kyat (EUR 0.30) boat trip away. I saw how rubber bands are made (an incredible process!), writing slates and slate stylus’ for school children, bamboo hats, saw longyis woven (also such an intricate skill by girls who would still be at school in a western nation) and a wood-working knick-knack workshop.

On my return I sat down to lunch (an eggplant curry and a seafood curry with rice) and was delighted to have the opportunity to talk to a member of the Mon State Hluttaw (parliament) who had come from his morning debate in the parliament building. He is one of 19 members of the democratic NLD (military 8, rest 4, total 31 seats) and grew up on the island. He was one of the original tour guides in the area (>20 years ago) and we had a fascinating discussion about government priorities (hospitals, schools), the corrosive nature of corruption, the embedded special interest blocs in positions of power beholden only to state ministries and therefore dismissive of democratically-elected officials, the tragedy of the hundreds of thousands Mon State remittance workers in Thailand, Indonesia and on fishing boats, the human trafficking, the deliberate addiction of many of these workers by their managers on ya ba (a particularly nasty local amphetamine that enhances energy levels and ruins the body and mind) and the too-slow progress in replacing the dictatorship-era bureaucracy mindset with a more modern development-focused one. He excused himself and returned to the business of governing. I can only wish him the best.  

Next up: Hpa-an, Kyaito, Bago, Yangon and photos when we find decent internet!  

Eventually Chiang Mai was too dangerously addictive to stay so we elected to make the long bus trips to Siem Riep, Cambodia in order to visit one of the modern wonders of the world, Angkor! I had previously visited Angkor and written about it (even somewhat humourously) so I would direct you to my 28-year-old impressions here. However, this was now to be undertaken with S. and the delightfully cosy hotel we arrived at after 24 hours of travel was welcome for its pool as well as the effort they took to strip the garden of flower blossoms and flax to create a botanical artwork adorning our bed congratulating S. on her birthday (slyly informed).

To provide a short recap, the Angkor civilisation was the premier power on continental southeast Asia from ~900-1300 AD. Their power covered much of modern-day Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia and the Angkor city was the largest urban settlement in the world for more than 300 years. Pretty impressive and now all that is left are the massive stone temples which represented the physical embodiment of the devotion of their ruling kings to the Hindu gods and Buddhism. After the gradual fall of the civilisation, the wooden sprawl of the cities were subsumed into the hungry jungles, and only stone remained.

Siem Riep itself remains a madhouse of touts and keen masseuses so in order to celebrate properly we visited a social enterprise in the form of Marum which provides hospitality training to former street children and other disadvantaged youth. They are part of a network which consists of 7 restaurants in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Ethiopia. The menu was inventive and delicious with red tree ants and BBQ’d frog legs finding their way into our mouths.

Early in the morning we embarked on a 25 km tuk tuk trip  to the Banteay Srey temple north of the main temple complex in order to try to avoid most of the tourists. As luck would have it we were travelling just after Chinese New Year so had to battle hordes of tour groups for prime photo opportunities. However the reddish pink sandstone bore witness to the sheer artistry employed by the Angkorians. Fierce devatas (warriors), delicate apsaras (dancing ladies) and growling garudas (bird with massive talons and a sharp beak) had been carved across the temple devoted to the Hindu god Shiva. Later on (like many Angkor temples) it had been retrofitted to also pay homage to the Buddha.

We visited many Gormenghast-esque temples including the famed Angkor Wat at dawn to take the classic photo which even adorns the national flag. However for the second time the clouds thwarted my ambition and I was reduced to taking a snap of the enormous crowd with the pros encamped with their camera tripods in one bedraggled clump. Our favourite temple was Ta Phrom, otherwise known as the Tomb Raider temple for its cameo in the movie with Lara Croft. The big stars are the strangler fig trees bestroding various walls and holy temples. Their roots are works of art in themselves but the combination with the ancient stone gives one the feeling you’re uncovering the relics of a long-lost civilisation. Which I guess is the point. Archeologists are now enthusiastically chopping down these titans of the jungle in order to protect the stone unbound by either mortar or steel rebar.

We retraced our steps once we had imbibed our fill of Angkor and headed to the coast of the Andaman Sea northeast of Krabi Town via a train (and one missed connection), three buses and two songthaews and one tuk tuk. Our aim was Bananas Bungalows which had the benefits of a stratospheric tripadvisor rating coupled with complete isolation. Stunningly located within a mangrove, picture-perfect bamboo bungalows (as advertised) led to a wooden pier which provided perfect sunsets and lazy hammocks for reading.

We also loved the communal dinners, perfect for getting to know the other guests, the warm hosts (including volunteers working for food and board helping out the German owner) and the general slower pace of life with some staying for weeks at a time. The highlight was the plethora of animal life with the owners’ seven Chihuahuas running around, two aviaries stuffed with doves, tropical birds, guinea pigs, rabbits, parakeets and even a golden tree snake which cheekily devoured two chicks before being spotted by yours truly during my breakfast which led to a fatal beating by the gardener. We also encountered a banana spider the size of my hand, vast casts of crabs migrating their way across the low tide desert of the bay, an irate monkey making off with a water bottle out of our kayak and a cheery frog squatting on top of our mosquito net in the morning as we woke to yet another day in paradise. After five fun nights we moved a little to the south to Klong Muong beach to meet S.’s father and stepmother before we head to Myanmar.