A Travellerspoint blog

Denver Colorado

A very pleasant surprise - the Mile High City

sunny 30 °C

Tuesday September 11

Because this was the anniversary of 9/11, the airport was quiet and on arrival in Denver, that was also quiet too.

I stayed at the economical Ramada Inn on East Colfax, a down at the heels main street east of central Denver. At $90 a night this was well below other Denver prices. The driver of the shuttle van from the airport told me not to walk around at night in this area, but I think he was just a big sissy. Most of the people on the street were down and out but did not seem to be criminals and there were plenty of people walking about (there were two major pop music venues nearby). I soon became comfortable in the area and there was the added advantage of an hourly free shuttle service from the hotel to any destination within 3 miles ; this dealt with my need to get to the Amtrak station.

Wednesday

Quick trip to Union Station, the Amtrak station, to collect ticket for my trip to Grand Junction. It is well maintained Beaux Arts building, but absolutely dead. It was busy when I departed early Thursday morning but lacked the frisson of Union Station is Los Angeles.

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I’d planned a visit to Denver to see DAM (Denver Art Museum) an Daniel Libeskind building. More highly polished steel in a wacky profile (similar to Frank Gehry’s Disney Music Center). Perhaps it is simply saturation but I am finding this style of building tedious. It screams and does not really live up to its initial attraction ( for example I prefer the Milwaukee Art Museum by Calatrava.

http://mam.org/thebuilding/index.htm

The real disappointment of this building is how poorly it serves the function for which it should have been designed. Quirky corners, odd planes and lacking a logical layout, the building obstructs the purpose of displaying art .. even the unconventional art displayed in this modern wing of the museum.

The collection is high quality but (for me) the best was Anthony Gormley's "Quantum Cloud XXXIII"

http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/robinson/robinson10-16-06_detail.asp?picnum=8

This figure of a man ‘disappears’ when you get close to the sculpture and find that it is a collection of short steel rods fixed together in apparently random pattern. Steel in the inner parts is dark coloured ; the exterior is stainless steel which shimmers and gives the work a luminous quality.

A link bridge leads to the main part of the museum and several great collections. This provides a real contrast to Liebeskind’s quirky space and proves that a more conventional space with square or rectangular rooms emphasises the art .. and not the structure. The Asian art is good but I was most impressed by the Spanish Colonial and pre-Columbian collections. The latter included thousands of works (gold, jade, ceramics) from South and Central America.

The Spanish Colonial which I wanted to acquire for my Faith Trash Collection is Death Cart by Jose Herrera (active 1890 – 1910 ), Comment on a modern artwork explains the tradition:

Death Cart can be traced to the Penitente sect of Catholicism, which developed in the remote hill towns of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, in the absence of priests to maintain standard rituals. Carts are still dragged through the streets by Penitente members during Holy Week to remind the faithful of their mortality. As the carved wooden skeletons rattle along the roads, participants see that death is always just a few steps behind.

http://delcorazon.si.edu/galeria_10.cfm

I had never heard of the American painter Clyfford Still, but a room is dedicated to 12 of his major works and a whole museum will be built adjacent to DAM to house Still’s works (and only his works). One of the first Abstract Expressionists, this is exciting art.

http://www.clyffordstillmuseum.org

The nearby Denver Public Library provides free Internet access .. it has a pleasant lively atmosphere.

Normally when I see or hear the word ‘mall’ I flee. Denver’s 16th Street Mall is an exception. I probably would have avoided it were it not for the fact that the Amtrak Station is at one end of it, the library and Denver Art Museum at the other. Free shuttle buses are the only traffic on the street and (at least in the lovely September weather) sidewalk cafes and restaurant terraces can be found all along the street. Many of the buildings are historic ones which have been restored and there is a general air of prosperity about the whole area. There are new hotels and shopping malls off 16th Street but it does seem to show that with proper planning, this type of pedestrianised shopping area can be something other than the wind swept, litter plastered parking lot found in so many cities.

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Perhaps it was the altitude (I only became aware of its effect later in the week), but the walk to Denver Botanical Gardens was uphill in more than one way. The few watering spots on 13th Street proved to be either closed or totally inhospitable. The Botanical Gardens are next to spacious Cheeseman Park and that is a very posh residential part of the city ; grand homes in spacious surroundings.

Frankly, the gardens were a disappointment. Perhaps it was the sculpture from Zimbabwe were littered (sorry, ..dotted ..) around the gardens .. or the wrong time of year .. the flowers were burnt and tired. The redeeming feature was the Japanese Garden. Dwarf pines looked from one viewpoint like bonsai then from a distance it could have been a mountainside scene. Reminds me that I really need to explore the theory of these gardens .. they are places which really appeal to me.

My rant: Well, not quite a full scale rant, but the problem of homelessness in Denver is really shocking. It is hard to find accurate information but a 2006 survey says that there were over 9,000 homeless people .. but there are claims that this problem has been reduced of late (moved on?). An article in this month's New York Times estimates the homeless in downtown LA as 10,000 to 12,000
(NYT 11 Oct 2007 'Los Angeles to permit sleeping on sidewalks'.

My rant is twofold .. I feel sorry for some of these people who obviously need help .. and threatened by some of them who are threatening and aggressive. It is a disgrace that entire zones in the centre of these major cities (Market Street and 7th Street in San Francisco has the same problem) are effectively off-limits because of this is problem.

Posted by MarshallC 09:07 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Los Angeles

A two night stay in downtown Los Angeles prior to my Amtrak trip to New Mexico.

sunny 32 °C

Summary

This was a 2 week tour through the West, the main objective being to visit nephews (multiple) and their families in New Mexico and Colorado. I had a 5 day break in Denver.

I flew from London to Los Angeles, then travelled about 2000 miles on Amtrak using a USA Rail Pass, ending up with a week in San Francisco before my return.

The fine detail

Los Angeles

The shuttle bus from the airport dropped people at smart hotels on the way into the downtown area and I first realized that something was odd when the Asian girl in the van insisted that the driver go around the block and drop her right at her door .. she was not willing to cross the street to her building. He did not seem surprised at this and after she left I asked if this was a bad area .. his answer was (in effect) not as bad as the area where my hotel was located. Great start to a holiday! Even though is was only 9pm no shops were open and there were almost no people walking on the streets. The New Otani is a very smart place and it was quite reassuring. I had a quick clean up and went downstairs to have something to eat only to find that this 434 room 21 story hotel in America’s second largest city stops serving dinner at 9pm (9:30 pm on Friday and Saturday). No coffee shop, and only a small service bar was open. Because the area did not seem safe, I decided it was not wise to look for a place in the neighbourhood (later exploration indicates there is nothing), so I settled for 2 martinis for dinner.

It was a surprise the next morning to find that the hotel is in a fairly lively business district near state and federal buildings including law courts. Lots of people were walking around ; an entirely different scene from last night. I walked to Union Station to collect my Rail Pass and tickets for the train journeys I’d booked on the Internet. It all went smoothly and I was very impressed with Amtrak.

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Union Station is one of the greatest railway stations I’ve seen .. built in 1939 with Chinese, Moorish, Spanish and Moderne influences, it is a classic building which is in a prime state of maintenance. Two landscaped area to each side of the main waiting area provide seating in the fresh air under jacaranda trees (and is a haven for smokers). That station is busy because it serves not only Amtrak but LA Metro lines, and commuter trains ; this means it is a lively place (and has a competent but unobtrusive security force, so it feels safe).

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Just across the street is the oldest part of the city (El Pueblo) which is now a mixed museum/street market selling Mexican (and, I suspect, Chinese) souvenirs and tat. wrestler masks from Mexico caught my eye ; I go to a bar in Mexico City with a huge collection of them.

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The grand old Pico Hotel had a photography exhibition Latinos in Hollywood. Contemporary photos of Ramon Novarro demonstrate why he was such a heartthrob. I was surprised that Rita Hayward was included as a Latino (because of her Spanish father) : I thought she wa pure Irish.

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I walked into the central district through very seedy areas (Spring |Street / Broadway) with shops selling cheap clothing to very poor people. The only highlight was the Grand Central Market which connects Broadway to Hill Street. This genuine market selling meat, fish, fruit and vegetables also has many places to eat, some so popular that we were standing to take a seat at the counter as soon as one was vacated. I enjoyed the idea of Hispanics queuing to eat Chinese food ; multi culture in action.

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Another example of that was a curious exhibit [ Diversity Day] outside the regional transport headquarters. Small stalls promoting Africa, Iran, SE Asia, Mexico and a few other countries while in an entertainment area a trio of musicians (Turkish?) were joined by a beautiful dancer to the delight of the audience and two little Peruvian girls in particular.

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Friday

Disney Music Center

This was the best day in Los Angeles. I walked to the new Disney Music Centre and was lucky to be there just as a free tour started (there are self guided audio tours as well). I am not all that keen on the stainless steel exterior of this Frank Gehry designed building (seems like a copy of his Bilbao Guggenheim Museum), but the interior and especially the articulation of space is impressive. There is a lot of timber (spruce, I was told). We got to see the concert hall itself (often closed to tours because of rehearsals) with its unusual centrepeice “the spiky creation some have dubbed the "box of French fries," which is in fact a 6,100-pipe organ also designed by Gehry” the pipes are not metal but timber. I am really keen to see a concert in this hall.

The major donor, Lillian Disney, wanted a garden included and it is on the 3rd floor with views over the city . It is accessible to the public by staircases from the street but seemed to have no problem with the human flotsam to be found in San Francisco public areas. The trees in the garden are mature .. the fountain of Delft china seemed very kitsch.

"A Rose for Lilly," the flower sculpture that serves as the garden's centerpiece. 'It was designed by Gehry in honor of the concert hall's namesake donor and was inspired by her affection for simple blue and white Royal Delft China - an affection that charmed Gehry, because it flies in the face of crockery snobs.'

We went up to the 5th level of the building (dizzy making) to see the skylights and how the cleaning cradles are used to clean the leaning walls.

http://www.musiccenter.org/wdch/index.html

This part of downtown LA (Grand Avenue) is the centre for financial services, has posh hotels and shops and is a real contrast to the area I visited the day before. The Museum of Contemporary Art might be interesting but I saw nothing that gripped me ; a large portion of it was closed while a new exhibition is mounted. The junk sculpture in the forecourt was eye catching ; it looked like the debris from a small airplane crash.

Pedestrian areas lead to an outdoor concert area and to the newly located (but currently closed) Angels Flight – shortest railway in the world (see below for details).

Clearly the secret to a successful visit to downtown LA is to pay up and stay in one of these hotels ($170 at the Omni versus $109 at the New Otani). My initial impression of downtown LA would have been quite different if I had stayed in this area.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Amtrak Rail Pass
30 days of travel in the West (west of Chicago .. a huge area) for $389 (off peak). This rate is not for US residents ; ahttp://www foreign passport or if a US citizen, proof of residence aboard is required. Once the Rail Pass is issued, you get a ticket from the Amtrak station for each journey but that was easy.

http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=Amtrak/am2Copy/Simple_Copy_Page&c=am2Copy&cid=1081442673945&ssid=296

Architecture

Angels Flight Railway

This tiny funicular, billed as the "shortest railway in the world" when it opened in 1901, sits on the east side of Bunker Hill, adjacent to the northern entrance to the Metro Red Line's Pershing Square station. Privately built and operated, the railway carried residents of the Victorian homes above to the shopping and financial districts below on Broadway, Hill and Spring streets. From the 1920s to the 1950s, the railway continued to serve those who moved into the Victorians as they were converted into rooming houses. Then, as part of an "urban renewal" project, the old houses on Bunker Hill were demolished, and the hill itself was truncated to accommodate high-rise development. Purchased by the city from the last private owner in 1962, Angels Flight hung on until 1969, when it closed and was put into storage - with a city promise that it would be reinstalled in a few years. Nearly 30 years later, Angels Flight was restored and reopened across from Grand Central Market, just a half-block south of the original location next to the Third Street tunnel. Now operated by the nonprofit Angels Flight Railway Foundation, the reopened railway allowed visitors to take a ride back in history (and up a very steep hill) for only 25 cents. Closed again in 2001 following an accident, the funicular is expected to reopen in early 2007.

http://www.downtownnews.com/dtvg/architecture.html

Union Station

Designed by the renowned father and son duo of John Parkinson and Donald B. Parkinson, Union Station opened in May 1939, as the last of the great train stations built in the nation. It's still a hub for the city's bus, train and Metro Rail (subway) lines. The structure includes bits and pieces of Art Deco, Spanish Revival, Mission and Streamline Moderne, with a smattering of Moorish details. The distinguishing observation and clock tower rises 135 feet. [L.A. Historic-Cultural Monument; listed in National Register of Historic Places]

http://www.downtownnews.com/dtvg/architecture.html

El Pueblo: The city’s birthplace

Twenty-seven buildings make up the historic enclave known as El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. Considered the city's birthplace, the once rural Spanish territory was started by los pobladores in 1781. Today, four of the structures have been restored as museums. Chief among them is the 1818 Avila Adobe, the oldest surviving house in Los Angeles. Built by Don Francisco Avila as his townhouse, it served as headquarters for Commodore Robert Stockton during the Mexican American War, and later as a boarding house and restaurant. Visitors can glimpse how life was lived in Los Angeles in the 1840s.

http://www.downtownnews.com/dtvg/architecture.html

St. Vibiana's Cathedral

One of L.A.'s last remaining 19th-century buildings, the former home of the Los Angeles Archdiocese was built in 1876 by Ezra F. Kysor, and modeled after a Baroque church in Barcelona. The façade features classical pilasters crowned with an 83-foot bell tower and dramatic cupola that can be seen blocks away. The cathedral once housed relics of an early Christian martyr whose name is given to the cathedral, St. Vibiana. In early 1996, after suffering earthquake damage, the church began demolition of the site. It became the focus of a major preservation battle, and was eventually saved after the Los Angeles Conservancy filed two successful lawsuits and found a buyer for the property, developer Tom Gilmore. The building has now been converted into a performing arts center, and the site also houses the Little Tokyo Branch Library.
114 E. Second St.

http://www.downtownnews.com/dtvg/architecture.htm

Posted by MarshallC 08:06 Archived in USA Comments (0)

My photo gallery

Links to full sets of photos for my travel journals

-17 °C

Photo Gallery for my Travellerspoint travel blogs

While I like Travellerspoint for the ease of navigation for viewers (and ease for me in writing), I realize that it has limitations with respect to photographs, so I am including this entry to link you to the full set of photos for each of my destinations. This is to photos in the Kodak Gallery .. others are stored on my computer and available on request.

Sometimes access to Kodak Gallery can be a bit odd .. let me know if you have a problem and I will send a ‘guest’ link.

France Paris 2007

www.kodakgallery.com/BrowsePhotos.jsp?&collid
=250759628107.192344034207.1187726156750&page=1

Mexico 2007 (in 5 files)

Mexico 2007 : Guadalajara:

http://www.kodakgallery.com/BrowsePhotos.jsp?&collid
=250759628107.562307701207.1187726205785&page
=1&sort_order=0&navfolderid=0&folderid=0&ownerid=0

Mexico 2007 : Guanajuanto:

http://www.kodakgallery.com/BrowsePhotos.jsp?&collid
=250759628107.215396701207.1187726205785&page
=1&sort_order=0&navfolderid=0&folderid=0&ownerid=0

Mexico 2007 : Zacatecas

http://www.kodakgallery.com/BrowsePhotos.jsp?&collid
=250759628107.659886701207.1187726205785&page
=1&sort_order=0&navfolderid=0&folderid=0&ownerid=0

Mexico 2007 : Durango

http://www.kodakgallery.com/BrowsePhotos.jsp?&collid
=250759628107.790386701207.1187726205785&page
=1&sort_order=0&navfolderid=0&folderid=0&ownerid=0

Mexico 2007 : Mazatlan

http://www.kodakgallery.com/BrowsePhotos.jsp?&collid
=250759628107.594786701207.1187726205785&page
=1&sort_order=0&navfolderid=0&folderid=0&ownerid=0

Morocco (Marrakech) 2007

http://www.kodakgallery.com/BrowsePhotos.jsp?&collid
=250759628107.503716351207.1187726205785&page
=1&sort_order=0&navfolderid=0&folderid=0&ownerid=0

Myanmar (Burma) 2006: Bagan (Old Pagan) and the Irrawaddy River
http://www.kodakgallery.com/BrowsePhotos.jsp?&collid
=250759628107.605181728107.1187726645335&page
=2&sort_order=1&navfolderid=0&folderid=0&ownerid=0

http://www.kodakgallery.com/BrowsePhotos.jsp?&collid
=250759628107.473414728107.1187726645335&page
=2&sort_order=1&navfolderid=0&folderid=0&ownerid=0

Myanmar (Burma) 2006 : Yangon and Mandalay

http://www.kodakgallery.com/BrowsePhotos.jsp?&collid
=250759628107.485579628107.1187726645335&page
=2&sort_order=1&navfolderid=0&folderid=0&ownerid=0

Myanmar (Burma) 2006 : The horrible zoo at Yangon

http://www.kodakgallery.com/BrowsePhotos.jsp?&collid
=250759628107.966871728107.1187726645335&page
=2&sort_order=1&navfolderid=0&folderid=0&ownerid=0

Portugal (Madeira) 2007

http://www.kodakgallery.com/BrowsePhotos.jsp?&collid
=250759628107.603972489107.1187726645334&page
=2&sort_order=1&navfolderid=0&folderid=0&ownerid=0

Spain (Palma. Majorca) 2007

http://www.kodakgallery.com/BrowsePhotos.jsp?&collid
=250759628107.183443363207.1187726205784&page
=1&sort_order=0&navfolderid=0&folderid=0&ownerid=0

Spain (Tenerife, Canary Islands) 2007

http://www.kodakgallery.com/BrowsePhotos.jsp?&collid
=250759628107.719929413207.1187726205784&page
=1&sort_order=0&navfolderid=0&folderid=0&ownerid=0

Posted by MarshallC 13:18 Tagged photography Comments (0)

Burma (Myanmar) : Old Bagan

The 9th Century capital of Burma ; now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

32 °C

It was with great excitement that I set out from Mandalay on the boat trip to Bagan, the old capital from the 9th Century ; going to this place has been a goal of mine for years.
A one way ticket was $25 for the 14 hour journey. I was a bit apprehensive after my terrible experience with the boat in Cambodia last year, but the Shwe Keinnery was a nice boat with two decks. a small restaurant and very comfortable assigned seats. It seems that all 130 seats were taken because many large tour groups were using the service. They really took over the place so I avoided the restaurant until late afternoon. The Irrawaddy is a broad muddy river, quite unlike the dramatic Mekong that I enjoyed so much in Laos. Also, it is a half the length of the Mekong (2000 km vs 4600 km). But I love rivers and the landscape was pleasing, so I enjoyed the trip. Arrival was a real hassle. It was dark and we arrived at a earthen bank (no jetty as such) which was lit by spotlights from the boat which keep moving around, so one minute you had light and the next you were in total darkness. Luckily a porter helped with my bag and also guided me up the hill to the table where each foreigner had to pay $10 for a pass to the Old Bagan Archeological site. That was chaos, but I pushed my way in, bought my permit and picked one of the drivers out of the mass of shouting arguing drivers of taxis, pedicabs, and horse-carts. I was soon in a battered taxi going through clouds of dust to my hotel.

It was late by the time I showered and had dinner but first impression was good and the next day revealed that the Bagan Thande Hotel is really a find. It is one of the oldest in the area (described as ‘riverside bungalows”) 1950s vintage. Suites with a river view go for $200 a night but I had one half of a small cabin set in the landscaped gardens for $24 a night (including breakfast). Air con, telly and a clean comfortable bed .. hot water here was hot (in the Pacific Hotel it was tepid). The front porch had two chairs ; great for sipping beers and watching birds in the gardens surrounding the hotel. There were lovely ferns, palm trees, acacia trees, flowering plants with several nearby pagodas providing a dramatic backdrop. Add a fine breakfast with European or Asian choices (a choice of 5 or 6 lovely fruits) on the buffet and I loved it. The restaurant is situated under huge acacia trees next to the river. The food here was very good and not wildly expensive. Their curry was not as spicy as an Indian or Thai one, but very good and had large chucks of chicken (some of the places I’d eaten in had a mound of rice and little meat). The best meal was a fish fillet from the local riverfish, the butterfish.

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The swimming pool was lovely and there were beautiful pagodas next to it (there are more than 2,000 pagodas on the plains around Bagan) .. it is an amazing place. The hotel was a good reward for the rigours of the trip ; I would really enjoy a much longer stay here ; nice staff and lovely landscaped grounds. The only downside was a nightly marionette show – which grew a little tedious by the third night.

Friday 24 November

On the first day I walked to several pagodas nearby and I was surprised to find that although they look very similar from a distance, they are unique. Frankly they are not quite as interesting as Thai temples because in many cases there is either no access to the interior or the interior is bare. But it is important to say that the building skills of this culture were very impressive ; the brickwork and is complex and skillfully executed. One temple is famous because the king who commissioned it 1057 (not a misprint .. …. 1057) insisted that no mortar be used and the brickwork must be so tight that not even a pin could be inserted between bricks.

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Part of the charm of it all is the countryside with diverse lovely mature trees all around. Also, the Burmese do not seem to be bird killers the way Laotians are (even in remote parts of Laos I saw or heard no birds). Birds are plentiful here and really add charm to the whole experience. On my way back to the hotel, I found a travel agent and booked my return boat trip (only $14 to return to Mandalay) and spent some time with him in the adjacent restaurant .
He spoke good English and was keen to talk, but would often indicate it was not wise to say any more about a particular topic. I was asking about the effect of the ban on tourism and he said that independent travel by British and American people had nearly finished. Most visitors these days were French, German (or Japanese) and unfortunately for him, most were in tour groups with everything planned (and paid for) in advance. This provided no business for the locals. He was certainly of the opinion that people should visit and mix with the locals (and spend their money independently and not via tour groups).

Saturday 25 November

I went on a half day tour ($15) with the taxi driver who originally picked me up from the boat. He was an older guy, his taxi a bit of a shambles but he proved to know the history of the area and its ruins. Like many others I talked to there, he was bitter because he was born in the area but had to move to ‘New Bagan’ when the government cleared the archeological area of all residents in 1990.

Impressions of Bagan: This is certainly worth the trip and a fascinating place, but it does not have the high artistic skills of Angor Wat (which is roughly the same vintage). I also found it hard to enjoy the ruins because of the excessive numbers of people begging, hawking and generally bothering me. In Angor Wat, these people are confined to the fringes, but here they are in the temples .. and the temples appear (for the most part) to have little or no religious significance to the locals. Constantly having to fend these people off is weary making and as one Dutch fellow said to me , ‘It is not easy to be a responsible tourist in this place’. The problem is that there could be interesting people among those who approach you but after only a short time, my answer was NO before they finished their pitch. Luckily I did meet a nice local at the veggie bar/restaurant near the hotel. This is a basic place for locals with good cold beer at $1 for a large bottle ($3 at the hotel). This man spoke good English (he was taught by an American who was attached to a nearby monastery). He was a little more open about the fact that people did not like the government and also he thought that ‘The Lady” (no one mentions the name Aung San Sui Kyi ; the politician who is under house arrest) was wrong in telling people not to come to Burma. Like the travel agent (this fellow does freelance work as a guide), he said that independent travelers had dried up .. now there were only the tour groups and that money all went to big companies (he said that none of them can operate without giving at least part of their funds to the government).

His biggest concern was that overseas charities no longer operated in this part of the country and the standard of education was dropping each year. When I asked about the usual advice to bring pencils and paper for the people, he was a bit dismissive. He said that pencils and paper were cheap in Burma and suggested that basic medications like aspirin, bandages and disinfectants were all in short supply. He urged me to bring some if and when I return and we could visit a village and hand them to the teacher who also acted as primary medical provider.

Sunday 26 November
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It was with great regret that I left the hotel early to catch the 5am boat to Mandalay; I could have easily spent a week in this delightful hotel, exploring the adjacent ruins. The return leg of the journey was a delight .. there were so few people that they did not bother to assign seats .. there were seats in all parts of the ship. It was the same view as I’d seen on the way up, but this time I had a prime seat on the top deck and had a better view. One thing that interested me was that while the farming was primitive, the logging industry was not. There were large trucks carrying the sawn logs to the river and cranes to move them onto barges. This was quite a contrast with Laos where elephants were used to move huge logs which were dumped in the river, chained together and towed downstream by barge. Logging is a government business in Burma and therefore they have invested in it. I noticed on my return to Yangon that one of the smartest new office buildings was the Ministry of Forestry -- while The Ministry of Population was in a crumbling old Victorian pile.

It was dark when I arrived in Mandalay, but the jetty there has some primitive lighting and after some haggling, I got to the Pacific Hotel for a one night stay. I had drinks and dinner at the Beer King, near the hotel .. cheap and cheerful, but with its customers spitting betel juice all the time, a far cry from the sedate hotel in old Bagan.

Posted by MarshallC 05:37 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Burma (Myanmar) : Yangon and Mandalay

Burmese days and early nights. Part of my fortnight in Burma ; see separate entry for Bagan

sunny 30 °C

The Burmese people are the redeeming feature of the this beautiful country. there are a lot of negative features:

Poverty. This is a very poor country and after a while, it is depressing.

Dirt and filth .. the locals seem oblivious to the piles of rubbish and garbage. It seemed odd that shops selling computers or developing films were all crisp, sterile clean, white tiled places, while restaurants were often grubby and unclean.

Transport … trains and boats are slow and distances long, so I found the travel exhausting. I prefer to use public transport when I visit a country but here it was rarely an option. Buses are packed, the “taxis” are small trucks with planks in the back for seating .. normally also packed. There are regular taxis available but these require negotiation skills.

Lights out. Both Yangon and Mandalay closed down early in the evening. By 9pm most shops and restaurants are closed (hotels are still going but seem to lack customers). Perhaps it was just as well that I was forced back to the hotel since walking at night is very dangerous. In addition to the lack of pavements (sidewalks), the majority of the vehicles do not have (or at least do not use) lights. Small trucks, bicycles, cars are all traveling without lights .. only posh private cars , motorcycles and big trucks had their lights on .. but they make up less than half the road traffic. It is dangerous!

Burmese monks. I came away with the idea that religion in this country is mostly business. Monks are very worldly (the young monk with the smart Calvin Klein square sunglasses clutching his cellphone is not quite my image of humility). Many of them travel in great style and have an arrogance that reminded me of the mullahs in Iran as they swept through the crowds with their silk kaftans, seemingly oblivious to the suffering of the masses.

Betel chewing
Betel chewing is a part of many Asian and Pacific cultures and is often chewed at ceremonies and gatherings, and preparation techniques vary from region to region. The nut is either slivered or grated, often flavoured with spices according to local tradition, and usually wrapped in a betel leaf to better extract the alkaloids. It has stimulating, mildly intoxicating and appetite-suppressing effects on the mind. Some people also chew tobacco with betel nut. After about 20 minutes of chewing, the fibrous residue which remains of the nut is spat on the street, where it remains visible due to its characteristic bright red pigment. Trails of bright red sputum lining the sidewalks are a sure indication of the popularity of betel chewing in an area. Source: Wikipedia

This is truly a disgusting habit. At first I thought that someone had been to a dentist and was spitting up blood but then realised not that many people could be having tooth extractions. The walls of buildings, almost any corner of the railway station and the area around teashops are all stained with betel juice. Vendors carry a tray with the ingredients for a betel packet.

The Zoo(s)
Both Yangon and Mandalay zoos are really terrible places with animals confined to nasty small cages, or wandering about on concrete. The chained elephants at each zoo were a pathetic sight.

Burma (Myanmar) is a very poor country and the infrastructure (where it did exist) is crumbling and out of date. Travel is difficult and tiring. Nevertheless, it is such a beautiful country and the architecture is so unusual that I really enjoyed my visit. I am keen to travel on the Irrawaddy River north of Mandalay since that is said to be more spectacular than the river south of Mandalay.

Arrival and culture shock
Yangon International is a small airport and seemed to be an efficient operation. Visas are required in advance, so none of the form filling I encountered in Laos or Cambodia. A taxi into the city was only $6 (seemed like 8 or 10 miles) ; the taxi very broken down, but we got to the Traders Hotel without incident. The driver pointed out a high rise building and said that it used to be a hotel but the military liked it so took it over for their own use. First indication that at least some people here are not afraid to speak out. His story was borne out by this article:

Traders Hotel is part of the Shangri La group, a very posh business hotel ($75 a night for a very smart room). Alas, my room did not have view of the famous Shwedagon Paya pagoda. I was there for 3 nights and it was nice to have a comfortable ‘Western’ atmosphere after the culture shock of Yangon’s streets. This is the Third World .. chaotic traffic, people everywhere, very exotic.

Biggest problem (here and throughout the country) is the poor state of the streets and pavements (sidewalks). There are broken paving slabs and all sorts of hazards .. it is hard to sightsee when you are watching the ground all the time. Like Iran, Burma has ditches near the road which run with open sewage, are foul smelling and unhygienic. The ditch is covered by concrete slabs but these are often either missing or broken, so there is a very real risk of stepping into this mess. In Mandalay there are open areas in the sidewalk of approximately 6 feet by 4 feet wide with a 10 to 12 foot drop into sewage and who knows what),. Even though there were shops operating right next to these hazards, there were no warnings or barricades. It is bad enough during the day .. and possibly lethal at night, when I took to walking in the street. (but see below of lack of light).

Wednesday 15 November
I walked down to the Strand Hotel (at least a mile), and my first impression is that this city is like Egypt .. packed slums spilling out into the streets, broken down vehicles, very poor people, lots of begging. One lady was selling a beautiful selection of roasted beetles but I was not peckish. Insects seem to figure big in the local diet. Much more to my taste was a half pint of Tiger beer (Singapore company) for 50 US cents. This was in a bar/restaurant called the ABC Country Pub .. alas, getting there at night proved too much of a struggle, so I did not get back there.

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Many people approached me wanting to change money. When changed at banks, the rate is 925 Kyat to 1 US Dollar ; blackmarketeers offered over 1200 Kyat. I changed $100 with the travel agent who organized my hotel in Mandalay and got 1220 Kyat per dollar. Credit cards are rarely used here and the US Dollar is the main currency both in terms of prices and settlement for transport, hotels and government fees (totally local places are priced in Kyats but are quick to do a currency conversion).

It was a public holiday and I was just getting my bearings, but kids were everywhere wanting me to buy postcards. At one point I was trailed for 10 minutes by 3 small kids (I looked a bit like the Pied Piper). I was firm in my ‘No!’ and later felt a real Scrooge;
10 cards for a dollar is not extortion!

Oh dear! This first outing quickly showed me that any idea of painting the town was not going to be easy .. I felt safe from crime, but as described, the pavements are filled with hazards and lack of street lights (except at major intersections) put the idea of night-time exploring out of the question. I popped around the corner from the Traders to a bar described in the Lonely Planet as a nice watering hole (Diamond White Bar at the Central Hotel ; actually it is not in the hotel but entered through the side street and is very, very basic spot).. Well, the ‘hole’ part of it was right. Only one other foreigner there .. a real rough looking character (but perhaps he was thinking that about me).

A real dump, but I settled in and had two beers. A Burmese fellow next to me struck up conversation, telling me that he was a travel agent who dealt in ״all types of things, ….. official and unofficial’’. He gave me his card, while repeating the ‘official and unofficial’ mantra, but I did not take him up. He said I could contact him at his office around 11am or otherwise in the bar from 5pm. When I told him that I thought the bar was really his office he laughed (actually roared) .. an almost plausible rogue.

Writing up notes in the hotel later, I was interrupted by the ‘turn down service’. What sort of place am I in? That is the type of thing I hate about posh hotels .. the idea that I am incapable of moving a bedcover seems odd.

Beware of men wearing trousers. The vast majority of Burmese men wore the longhi (a sort of sarong). It seemed that most of the men wearing trousers who approached me were con artists of one sort or another.

Thursday 15 November

Based on a tip in the Lonely Planet Guide, I took the Circle Train which makes a circular tour from the Central Railway Station out through the suburbs and back. This is the train for poor people and seating is on wooden benches on each wall of the carriage. No doors on the train and it rarely reached any substantial speed so people were jumping on and off throughout the journey. I never did figure out the ticketing system ; many seemed to travel free of charge and only those with goods or large parcels were paying.
The locals were curious and appeared fascinated by me ( I read that other foreigners are often herded into the train guard’s area, but I was right in with the people and their produce). People were transporting foodstuff and material to and from markets. Two young men got on with huge bags (6 foot high and 2 feet in diameter .. they were filled with plastic bottles, presumably for recycling). The train was packed and I thought for sure the guard would say No Way, but everyone moved even closer, parcels were shifted and finally they got the bags on. People seem very easy going.

There were vendors moving through the train all the journey ; a popular one was the betel nut vendor .. a really disgusting habit. Betel nuts are a mild narcotic and while I think the world would probably benefit by everyone getting a little high, this is not the way to do it. The vendor smears some lime paste on a green leaf, adds betel nuts and folds this into a neat little package which the user holds in his (or her) mouth like chewing tobacco. The problem is that this seems to create huge amounts of saliva .. bright red in colour .

Clearly these were very poor people but they did not seem grim or downtrodden. While they did not have the ‘ready smile’ of the Thais, they seemed nice enough and (for the most part) people were considerate of each other. I was exhausted on my return .. the seats were hard and I was leaning down all the while to try to see out of the low windows, so the posh hotel and its hot shower were welcome.

Friday November 17

What a breakfast! Omelets made to order, a choice of American, Korean, Japanese breakfast (as it is buffet style, you can have all of the above). The only disappointment (and I put this in writing to the hotel) was that the fruit appeared to have been hacked rather than cut. So odd, since nicely carved fruit is standard fare on the streets in Thailand, and in this posh hotel the fruit appeared butchered and not of the best quality (not ripe enough).

A long walk through the zoo (what a depressing experience!). The ground are beautiful, well landscaped with mature trees, but the poor animals. Old fashioned small cages, lots of hard surfaces: concrete, ceramic tile .. little greenery in the animal areas.

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I was so surprised to see (from a distance) people so close to the elephants. When I got up to the platform, I found that the elephants were chained by foreleg and hindleg and therefore presented no threat to people. I am not an animal welfare person as such, but this type of cruelty is really outrageous. I plan to pursue this with international zoological organizations ; surely they will know of it, but something should be done to help these animals, even if it means closing the zoo.

I continued my long walk, down to the river for a beer at the famous Strand Hotel .. very restrained and elegant, but a bit too posh for my taste. The Post Office is nearby and that is madness .. a huge Victorian building ; two floors of frenetic activity ; I finally found the counter for stamps for postcards .. 30 Kyat …. which is less than 5 US Cents .. it will be interesting to see if the cards ever arrive.

Checked email at the hotel .. odd, because I could access Google and Gmail but access to Hotmail and Yahoo is restricted. It makes me wonder what accommodation(s) Google have made. By the end of my trip, I decided that the bright young computer kids are running rings around the government on this one. At one place, the young man logged on to a game Website and then by going through some link, got to Yahoo. I assume that youngsters know (or are learning) how to beat the system.

On my way back to the hotel I went through the cinema district where many of the posters for films are hand painted (like Thailand in the old days .. now they are either printed or electronic in Thailand) ; it was great to see this even if I was not tempted to see any of the films.

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Yangon’s major tourist attraction (and important centre for Buddhism) is Shwedagon Paya a large complex of buildings, including a huge pagoda covered in gold and encrusted with jewels. This is a fascinating place which really deserves at least a half day to explore and enjoy. There are many people there performing religious rituals but the complex is so large and spacious that I did not feel as though I was intruding on their privacy. Although I am pleased with my photos, I realize that they do not do justice to this unique place. I look forward to seeing it again.

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Saturday 18 November

Up early for the 4:30 am train to Mandalay. A young man self appointed himself as my guide and at first I was annoyed but once I stepped into the chaos of the station, I was glad he knew how to get me to my train. He also ejected someone sitting in my seat and seemed overjoyed with the dollar tip I gave him. I was expecting a modern German built train but this one had seen better days. The good thing was that there was a lot of leg space and the seat was a comfortable reclining one. I was in Upper Class ($43 US … probably 100 times more than the local fare). I had a window seat and enjoyed seeing the countryside (when not snoozing).

One of the most striking images was people watching the train as we left Yangon ; the Burmese women and children wear a white paste on their face to protect them from the sun (or from mosquitoes, or even as makeup … depending on which book you read) These white faces (and especially the children) looked like ghosts in the early dawn light .. almost menacing.

14 hours is a long journey and I was exhausted when I arrived in Mandalay. We came through Pyinmama, the new headquarters for the government – either it is not close to the railway or I was asleep. Mostly I saw lots of primitive farming .. many people in the fields and only one or two tractors during the 12 hours of daylight – most of the carts were pulled by oxen, water buffalo or people. There were none of those small Japanese tractors so ubiquitous in Thailand (they can be used for plowing, irrigation and in a pinch, can haul a flat bed wagon for people transport).

Every bridge of any size had an armed guard posted .. I think they were part of the Railway Police and not the army. Burma suffered a lot from floods earlier this month, so occasionally the rail bed was washed out and at least two of the bridges did not seem all that safe, but we went at a snail’s pace. I was taking a photograph of one of these sites and got a stare from a fellow passenger which indicated I’d best desist.

The Pacific Hotel is right across the street from Mandalay Central Station but I still had to battle my way through an army of people trying to sell hotel or travel services. My room was Superior for $25 per night .. air con, telly (but no English language channels) and the room boy brought hot tea which was welcome. The restaurant in the hotel proved to be hopeless .. huge menu but nothing in the kitchen other than some type of expensive fish … luckily I had a stash of nuts so had a snack before lights out.

Sunday 19 November

I stayed 5 nights in Mandalay .. more time than I originally planned but I had to leave Yangon early because night trains no longer operate. It proved to be too long in this dusty commercial city. In spite of its evocative name, I found Mandalay to be a rather dull place. Perhaps I should have read the guide more closely ; page 236 ; ‘Not much of Mandalay can be seen on foot’. Distances were too long for comfortable walking. I found only one ‘taxi’ (a small pickup truck with planks in the back for seats) which was not overflowing with people ; I got a ride from the zoo back to the centre, following a 3 hour walk out there in the 35 degree (95 degrees F) sunny weather.

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I had my one and only sighting of the power of the military while in Yangon. My room looked down on the roundabout outside the railway station and when I heard sirens I looked out to see all traffic in any direction freeze. (and I mean all … trucks, cars, motorcycles and bicycles all stopped - people even stopped walking). Soon police on motorcycles lead a convoy of 10 or 12 black 4 by 4 vehicles with dark tinted windows, with trucks filled with troops interspersed. You could not tell which vehicle had the Big Man, so I guess you would have to blow up the lot if you were a terrorist. The people did not seem to look at the convoy .. they just stared out into space. This convoy stood out because the vehicles were all new and very clean (quite a contrast to the other vehicles on the road).

While the city was not as polluted as Yangon, it was very dusty and I was coughing a lot. There also seemed to be a huge number of street children ; really wretched looking condition, filthy dirty in rags and often wrapped in a dirty blanket on the street in the mornings. There were many beggars and people going through rubbish tips (every corner seemed to have a rubbish tip). The biggest surprise to me was that monks were begging for money .. in Thailand or Laos, you might give money at a temple, but the monks beg for food in the morning, then go about their work (teaching, praying, whatever). These monks seemed to spend all day begging and were ignored by the locals so I soon learned to ignore them as well.

Monday 27 November

Early start for the Yangon train and this time a member of the railway staff took me to my coach and seat. Slightly nicer train but still a long tiring journey. This trip was most memorable for the two monks sitting nearby. They ate the entire time we traveled (both were already fat) and read some racy tabloids most of the time. I got the impression that religion in Burma is a business (not the only country in the world where that happens).

It was a brief walk from the railway station to my hotel (the Thamada). This hotel is much more to my liking. It is 6 stories, and has a ‘modern’ look to it. … like 1960s. Lots of timber floors and timber trim, nice prints in the bedroom. The Lonely Planet Guide makes a big deal about getting rooms at the back because of the noise, but I had a room on the 6th floor front and loved it. I could see several church spires (from this viewpoint, it appeared to be a Christian city rather than a Buddhist one), lots of trees, the railway station and the city off to the right. Rooms at the back have no view of any interest. The rooms are small but efficient and very clean. $22 a night includes a choice of breakfast (American, European or Asian). I particularly liked the fact that this did not involve filling out and signing checks .. the waitresses were friendly and made me feel welcome. I was there 3 nights and two groups passed through .. staying only one night ; they seemed more civilized that the groups on the boat .. possibly because this hotel is not 5 star.

Yangon was looking a bit better from this vantage point. Actually it was just across a bridge, only 5 minute walk from the Traders where I stayed on my way into the country. The neighbourhood around the Thamada is slightly more prosperous, the pavements (sidewalks) not nearly as treacherous. There were three places to eat in the immediate area, a mini-market, a cheap Internet shop, several watering holes (the Ritz Café is a nice little spot) and the smart clean Shan Noodle Café a delight. It is an easy walk to the zoo and up towards the city lake.

On this brief second trip to Yangon I enjoyed it more ; it is a multi-ethnic city which seems more Indian than Oriental .. it certainly has all the chaos that one associates with India. But there are fascinating things to see and as I learned how to get about with less hassle, I enjoyed it more and more. Away from the centre there are many trees and it is an attractive place.

I followed up on an article in the newspaper and went to an art gallery in the Strand Hotel to see an exhibition called Elephant Parade. It is based on the same idea of the Cow Parade which was so successful in Switzerland (and later Chicago) in 1999. Elephants were made from a stock design (in this case lightweight wood) and then decorated by 20+ local artists. The results were great fun .. I particularly liked Watermelon Elephant which had a green watermelon skin belly and its back was a lovely bit of red watermelon complete with seeds.

The lady from New Zealand who runs this gallery was charming and when we were talking about local art, she took me upstairs to the offices of a British law firm where a very talented Burmese artist’s work was on display. for more detail http://www.indoburmanews.net/archives/archive06/july_06/184 )
His name is Htein Lin and some nice gossip is that he married the previous British Ambassador (Ms Vicky Bowman) and now lives in London. This gallery visit cheered me up but I did not feel like spending $600 (plus shipping) for one of them ; alas there was no catalogue or booklet for the exhibition.

Wednesday 28 November

I walked to the Reclining Buddha (Chaukhtatgyi Paya) which is north of the city lake and as it happens, a very long walk indeed. This is an interesting place because it seems to be popular with Burmese rather than tourists. The statue is in a large complex of monasteries, so there are monks of all ages in great numbers – and for once, these Burmese monks were not begging. En route to this place I walked past a piano factory where men were building and repairing pianos in the forecourt. I was reminded of the film (The Piano Tuner) which I have not yet seen. Odd coincidence.

Although my first few days in Burma were pure culture shock, I had recovered by the end of my fortnight there and think that I really like the place. I will definitely return and I recommend that others see it if possible.

Summing Up

The Go or Not to Go Question

There are strong views of whether anyone should go to Myanmar (Burma) as a tourist and certainly the backpacker brigade seem very opposed to the idea. This is discussed in great detail in books and on the Web. I opted to go because I thought it was possible that by independent travel I could avoid putting any substantial money into the hands of the government. And for practical purposes, (my age to be specific), I cannot wait for a regime change.

Having been there and talked to a few people, I have decided that tourists should go. The Burmese people benefit a little from tourism and it is also important to have witnesses to the conditions in the country (even if you do not see the forced labour or prisons, it is clear that the mass of people are downtrodden).

Reading newspapers in Burma and Thailand, I can see that tourism as a source of income for the government is probably very small beer. The legitimate sources of government funding are oil + gas and logging. Thailand, India and China are all vying for the oil + gas.

Aung San Sui Kyi is quoted as saying that people should not go as tourists. In 1997 she said that one of her chief concerns was that the country was not ready for tourism because locals, isolated and crippled economically hadn’t ‘a chance to develop self-confidence’.

I find this reasoning odd and wonder when she would allow tourists to visit if she were to take power. A bigger danger (as I see it) is that the vacuum of Westerners is being filled by the Chinese – this was most evident in Mandalay. Some analysts already say that China controls the economy. If in 25 years the country is studying Chinese rather than English, the Do Not Go policy will seem short sighted.

Practical Details

Traders Hotel
223 Sule Paya Road, Yangon
$75 per night (posh but remote from reality)

Thamada Hotel
5 Signal pagoda Road, Yangon
$25 per night (excellent two star hotel in good location)

Pacific Hotel
(opposite Central Railway Station)
Mandalay
$25 per night (really only good because of its location)

Posted by MarshallC 05:16 Comments (0)

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