Burmese days and early nights. Part of my fortnight in Burma ; see separate entry for Bagan
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
223 Sule Paya Road, Yangon
$75 per night (posh but remote from reality)
5 Signal pagoda Road, Yangon
$25 per night (excellent two star hotel in good location)
(opposite Central Railway Station)
$25 per night (really only good because of its location)