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Mandalay. Onward and upward as we left Kalaw to Mandalay, the former royal capital second largest city. It is dominated by the former royal palace fort which is surrounded by a large moat and filled with trees, a military base and a facsimile of the old palace which was destroyed during World War II. The palace itself is inspiring for its evocation of former grandeur but also somewhat empty. S. and I agreed Mandalay city authorities should create a Central Park of the east, an arboreal retreat in the middle of the city. Immediately to the north stands Mandalay Hill. The top is ennobled with a spectacularly-sited Buddhist temple and the flat plains of central Myanmar strike off in all directions. Low mountain ranges loom faintly through the haze to the west and east. For the rest, the lazy Irrawaddy river pulses slowly south, in a few short months to be awoken to its monsoon glory.   

Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw. These towns are known as hill stations in the old British vernacular. Retreats from the broiling heat of the summer and are dotted with colonial teak mansions. We took a train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw and crossed the famed Gokteik Viaduct on the way. This tottering steel lacework is set across a deep jungle valley and far below some trickle or other. First class train travel was a delight. Cushy seats with enormous open windows allowing food to be easily purchased on the station floor from the comfort of our own seats. The train shook from side to side as the rail gauge is less wide than standard. From Hsipaw we trekked into the Shan State tea-growing hills against the advice of our hostel in P.O.L., warning there was strife (shooting) between the Shan State army and the Myanmar army…


Our guide explained much as we puffed our way up the steep hillsides. The terrain was very different to Kalaw/Inle with lush green foliage, clusters of towering bamboo, verdant crops, burbling streams and the occasional soldier. The ascent to leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi (Nobel Peace Prize Winner and daughter of the Father of the Nation, General Aung San) has ushered in a slew of ceasefire agreements between many of the warring armies but it bubbles up now and again. Each village is protected by its own ethnic army often funded by drug production (opium, heroin etc.) who also replenish their ranks by forced conscription which is why young men like our guide are so keen to keep out of the villages! He is building a school for the village which had the most amazing view I think any school can claim. This to educate the children who otherwise have no education whatsoever. He himself had a primary school in his village and had to live in a monastery for seven years for high school. The monasteries in Myanmar function also as an open-to-all school for people who can’t afford otherwise to attend. The hillsides are dotted by the occasional tea plantation but for the rest lushly coated in jungle, hill after hill fading away into the distance like some Chinese watercolour painting.


Bagan. Home to the most famous of Myanmar’s tourist attractions, the ~4,000 temples dotted around the plains of Bagan stand mute testament to the glory of the civilisation spanning 1,000-1,200 A.D. Their fanatical building spree meant we, via electric scooter, were able to judder along dirt trail after dirt trail and uncover temple upon temple, I really felt like a tomb raider! The whole area covers some 13×8 km and we decided to go all in and plump for a dawn balloon trip to really get a sense of the scale. Just an incredible feeling of peace, soaring above into a cloudless sky, punctuated by the roar of the gas burner keeping us aloft, the dry bush below stippled by the stupas and pagodas of a fallen civilisation. Scattered villages with herds of goats driven out in the early morning, farmers scything obscure plants and the knowledge that at some time, in between all these isolated temples, a giant wooden city was once there and now no more.

Ngapali Beach. The beach paradise of Myanmar complete with the whitest of white sand, swaying coconut palm trees and incongruously expensive luxury resorts. Hands-down the best seafood we’ve had on our trip so far; red snapper, sea prawns, grouper, squid, octopus, shrimp, barracuda and king mackerel.

   

Now back to reality for S. and back to Netherlands for a month and as for your scribe, I shall journey onto parts unknown. Mountains, rivers, unusual animals, bustling hives of humanity and a kaleidoscope of ethnicities. To be continued…


Title note: Speech by Aung San Suu Kyi, 1990. 

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We last left you hanging, as it were dear reader, on a sheer precipice of anticipation. Do the plucky couple make it to the safety of dear old Rangoon or are they waylaid by bandits on the coach trail round the desolate plains of western Mon State? Au contraire mon ami, we survive and my negligently late entry of record now appears.

Bago. Departing from Mawlamyine we hit Bago, a dusty and industrious former capital of some ancient empire or other which sadly did not excite and all I have to relate of this time was an anecdote. Peering over the railing of a small bridge spanning a rubbish-choked culvert (which no doubt delivers great benefit during the monsoon) we saw wonders performed as the dried-up football field for a horde of children. Woe betide the player who overshoots and lands his ball in the greenish, greyish slime trickling either side. The 2 hour train ride to Yangon was an experience in cattle class, an on-board policeman unceremoniously evicted some off-duty policemen and a few ladies and seated us together. The monk who was squatting on our reserved seat, was left in glorious isolation as he contemplated his smartphone. Monks occupy an honoured place in everyday life, VIP seats in buses and dispensors of wisdom. Steel shutters raised, we rattled our way to Yangon along the picture-perfect countryside, every square inch tilled this close to Yangon, the lack of cold storage for produce meaning time-to-market is key. Hawkers selling skewers of BBQ’d baby chicks and vague and frightening bags of uninterminable contents waded along the packed standing commuters.

Yangon (the city formerly known as Rangoon). Blasting into the furnace as we entered the commercial capital (and former country capital) of Yangon and its welcoming embrace of 37 degrees. The city is a grid, logical and easily navigable. The city is a ethnic mishmash with Indians, Chinese, western expats and the grand swathe of Myanmar ethic diversity. Glorious traffic jams of cars were noticeable as they have blanket-banned scooters and motorcycles. Sweating our way along the wide boulevards, we stumbled towards the shining 325ft stupa which dominates Yangon, the Shwedagon Paya (pagoda). Shwedagon is a golden Buddhist temple which rises above the flat city and the most important temple in the country. It is covered in 27 tonnes of gold and jewels (5,448 diamonds, 2,317 rubies, sapphires and other gems, 1,065 golden bells and a single 76 carat diamond at the top), belted by a ring of 64 smaller golden stupas which made for an impressive view as we emerged from the covered walkway into the blazing sun. Many smaller pagodas on the hilltop play host to dozing pilgrims, chanting monks and families stuffing cash into donation boxes in order to cast off karma for themselves and their families. We followed this with a visit to the National Museum where I share the description of the LP, ‘appallingly labelled and lit’, despite this it still showcased the historical grandeur of the old monarchies and the deep and diverse history in this land.


Weakening, we elected to treat ourselves to food which we knew we would like. Dinner with a local friend of a friend took us to the best Thai food we had eaten on our whole trip (including Thailand!), Green Gallery, and a cafe of stunning coffee and food artisanship, Easy, hosted us for a half day. Then onto a night bus to the north and cooler climes.

Inle Lake (Nyaungshwe). The lake is roughly in the middle of the country and is a delight of people living completely enmeshed and dependent on a shallow lake filled with fish and encircled with marshland. We arrived at 6am and immediately booked a day-long boat trip in a carved, wooden dart powered by two children steering a behemoth of an engine. They churned us at full speed towards a fisherman performing an acrobatic feat balancing one foot on the boat, one leg wrapped around his paddle and holding aloft a conical bamboo fishing net. Despite the beauty and the ‘classic’ nature of the iconic photograph, my hand was stayed by the cheapening effect of the row of boats before us lining up to stop, glide alongside as the fisherman showed us some flapping fish (a sort of carp) and asking for money. Grafting fisherman vs. performance fisherman. Does the viewer at home know the difference? More highlights included our Japanese companion with 120 countries under his belt and honking laugh, jumping cat monastery sans jumping cats, whole villages built on stilts joined by flimsy threads of bamboo bridges, whole vegetable gardens floating on marsh weeds, bobbin gently in our wake, narrow creeks grooved into the mud reminiscent of a journey to the heart of darkness in Apocalypse Now and our eventual destination. Inthein Paya is a stunning cascade of ancient stupas erupting from a small hill. We wandered in the heat amongst these monuments to piety, the occasional tree bursting out of the top, ruined and crumbling bricks and the occasional restored and freshly mortared devotedly with the help of an e.g. family Schwartz from Germany.


Kalaw and a trek. Embarking on the cultural mission of our journey, we trekked over two nights from Inle to Kalaw through farmland and gentlest rolling countryside. Guided by a physics student earning money for his university degree (US$500 per year) who also luckily had four languages under his belt, we were led into a dry land studded with the occasional tree, villagers toting slingshots (for snakes, three villagers killed in past few years), ochre-stained earth which feeds the whole country. Shan State is the most fertile region of Myanmar and grows ginger, onions, potatoes, chillis, mustard seed, eggplants, pumpkin, tomatoes … all of which we sampled that evening in the home of a villager. There was no electricity and the primitive conditions allowed us to more closely observe their lives as ruled by heavy chores; up at cockerels crow, ladling water to wash by hand, pounding wheat in mortars, threshing grains with reed pans, cooking with kindling cut and carried from deep in the countryside, bullocks harnessed to wooden carts hauling produce, furrows in the hard sunbaked fields prepared for rice season by hacking sharp hoes. All the time, development was apparent. The occasional house finished in homemade cement blocks, one lonely tractor, sun panels providing enough to charge a car battery for two bulbs and 5 smartphones, proud family portraits with children in academic robes and progress/it’s all worthwhile. I hope they can find a solution to the very apparent slash-and-burn approach to agriculture though as it seemed the scarcity of trees was not being increased by replanting. So long as they depend on wood to heat and cook I guess it will continue.

Kalaw itself was noticeably cooler and an old British ‘hill station’ meaning somewhere the British escaped to when the heat got too much in the cities. Delicious Nepali dinner, coincidental meeting of S.’s colleague in the market and a day of blogging and study in the Sprouting Seeds cafe where westerners go to chew time when they are waiting for a nightbus.


Title note: Burmese Days, George Orwell

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!