Sunday, January 8, 2012

19 DAYS IN MYANMAR


So, here’s the plan—we have our house rented and that gives us 2 months to visit Myanmar, Thailand and southern India; first up being Bangkok for a week in order to procure visas to Myanmar. We arrived in Bangkok, went to the Myanmar embassy and got the visas the same day, but we still have a week before our flight to Yangon, the capitol. So we spent 2 more days in Bangkok sightseeing and sampling the foods from the street stalls (wonderful) then headed down to Hua Hin, on the coast, for a bit of a beach holiday.
Hua Hin is a pretty big city that very popular with ex-pats and tourists from Europe, mostly Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Holland and Germany. The place is chock-a-block with European restaurants and bakeries, and many, many seafood spots serving some of the most beautiful and fresh seafood imaginable. We dined every night on fish, squid, tiger and jumbo prawns, mussels and crab—can one tire of this? So, the food is great, but the city itself is pretty boring. The beach is fine white sand and the waves are good, but enough old, white Europeans already! Some obviously live here year-round but there are lots of snowbirds who come down during the cold Scandinavian winter to play golf, hang out on the beach and eat western food. Then there are all the older white men walking around with younger Thai women on their arms—aren’t they lucky! Christmas was evident all over town with standard Xmas music and decorations.

Finished with this initial Thailand leg of our journey, we’re off to Myanmar where credit cards are not accepted and there are no ATMs, so everyone must bring in US$, and if they are not crisp, perfect dollars they won't be accepted. We have heard that internet usage is slow so I know what that means—no chance of uploading photos or this blog post. I’ll have to wait until we are back in Thailand mid-January to upload this post with photos.

Now in our 9th day in Myanmar and there is much to report—not all of it positive. Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the capitol and largest city is big, dusty, full of car and truck fumes and so spread out, that there is no center in which to walk around to peruse restaurants, shops, museums, et al. We stay at mid-range & budget hotels when we travel because we spend so little time in our room we don’t feel the need for anything fancy or upscale. The Motherland Inn was our choice in Yangon and a good choice it was—small, decent room, hot water, clean, free hearty breakfast (more about food later) and a wonderful, helpful staff of young women. Being in the Lonely Planet it is a favorite with both backpackers and older, independent travelers (like ourselves), so we met and talked with many fellow travelers from all over the globe. Everyone was comparing notes and trying to figure out where to go and what to do. The only drawback is that it was in a lousy, funky, out-of-the-way neighborhood, so one has to take a taxi to go anywhere. But we found a decent local restaurant in the area and learned to walk most places.


The first thing one must do in Myanmar is change $ into Khat (pronounced chat)—no problem—our hotel took care of that. The next thing to do in Yangon is to go to the fabulous Shwedagon Pagoda in the center of town, and fabulous it is—gold, gold, gold.  We went to a couple of museums, some local and some tourist markets, tried some of the street food (not too good), visited the old synagogue (which is kept in good repair and very interesting) and walked a lot. There is not that much to see or do in Yangon so we spent a couple hours at a movie theater seeing a recent Hollywood film, TinTin.
You probably want to hear about the food, but there is not much to report in that department. There are tourist restaurants, and these are okay—Italian, Chinese, Thai, et al, but the Myanmar eateries serve pretty bland food—of course, lots of rice and noodles, served with various sauces, none distinctive. Oh well, it will be interesting to see what is put on the table in the rest of the country.

As I have said, the city is not very colorful or beautiful—it is mostly grey and dull with no sense of beauty anywhere, and no architecture, just simple block buildings. The roads and sidewalks are in need of repair—badly, and the horn honking is incessant. We had a few surprises when we came upon a modern shopping center and supermarket. Have I mentioned the monks?  Many and ubiquitous!


During this time in Yangon we were planning the rest of our stay here, thank you Lonely Planet. There are still some places that are off limit, both for political reasons and as a result of Cyclone Nargis of a few years back. Everyone seems to go to the same places, mostly because they have the most to offer and have hotels and restaurants. So after 4 days here we took an overnight bus to Inle Lake, one of the big 4 destination spots that everyone goes to. The others being Yangon (check), Mandalay and Bagan.


The bus ride brings up an entire issue that might as well be discussed now, kiddies--the infrastructure or lack of such. To put it bluntly the roads here suck, big time. They are rocky, bumpy, sometimes asphalt, sometimes dirt, but always bad. On top of that the buses for tourists are not up to international standards--read cramped seats. This leads to a problem which did not foresee--how to get around this country. Many tourists know about this problem and fly using local airlines, but this is fairly expensive (believe it or not) and we did not bring enough money in with us. So we were stuck with ground transportation.

The ride was 14 hours with a dinner stop and a couple of toilet stops. We arrived in Inle Lake at 5:00 AM having had no sleep and a miserable night, and luckily our hotel, the Teakwood Inn had our room ready for us so we went right to sleep. Why is Inle Lake a tourist stop? Because it is a small town on the edge of a large lake that offers some trekking (declined), some chilling, bicycling, some eateries and hotels and the chance to spend a day cruising around the lake on a long, motor boat checking out the local lake life.


One day we bicycled the area (saw a really cool, old teakwood monastery that is still active) and went out on a canoe for a few hours exploring the narrow backwaters. Our day-long motor boat trip was beautiful and enlightening--the weather being clear and sunny, as it was the entire trip. We spent the day with 2 other people as the boat has 4 chairs--a German woman and an Oregon man who were both fun and interesting and made for good company. Things we saw on the lake--life as it has been lived for centuries--fishermen, farmers, kids, mothers et al; weaving with thread from the lotus leaf stem; potters; silversmith; floating gardens; and a large market for both locals and handicrafts for tourists.

Next stop--Mandalay, and how to get there. We settled on a shared taxi, which was cheap and only took 8 hours, but went over the same lousy, bumpy roads. Oh well, here we are in Mandalay for New Year's Eve without a party to go to--can you imagine?!?






Mandalay is smaller and more manageable than Yangon, but shares with Yangon the same, dusty, polluted air, loud trucks and buses and boring food. Butt--and this is a big one--we saw the Moustache Brothers! These 3 men in their 60's have performing for 40 years; 2 of them spent 5 years in prison in the 1990's for political remarks against the government. They are out now and were granted the right to perform in their home, but only in English and only to tourists. They were great and a highlight of the trip! There were jokes galore, singing and dancing and all with great verve and enthusiasm. Plus I bought a Moustache Brother t-shirt!




Note:  Have I been sounding a little negative? Don't get the wrong impression--Myanmar is a fascinating place to visit; a disappearing world and I don't regret being here. There are many beautiful, eye-opening things to see and experience. It is just the cities that are forgettable--the pollution and noise seem to overwhelm at times. Even now, as I sit in the small town of Nuang U the traffic outside is so loud--the drivers use their obnoxious blaring horns non-stop and the young people on their loud motorbikes create a big distraction. Oh, yes, young people--this is a young country, so many more people are young than old. I don't know what the future holds for these people, but the youth seem curious about the outside world and intent on being part of it. Posters of Aung San Suu Ky are ubiquitous and she is revered as the hope of their future.



Next stop on our tour--Bagan, which is the Myanmar Archeological Zone for the temples, monasteries and stupas built in the 11th and 12th century that are being restored, and an amazing place it is. We stayed in the small town of Nuang U which gives easy to the area, which is huge--many, many acres. The town caters to tourist so has quite a few decent restaurants, even real, fresh salads, plus a good Indian and Italian restaurant--good pizza. One night a perfectly steamed river fish with a simple lemon garlic sauce--wonderful!

The trip to Bagan was the best transport yet--a large, comfortable boat that took all day and had an okay restaurant. We spent our time on the deck in the sun.

This was to be our last leg of the journey before heading back to Yangon for our flight out, and luckily the town and environs turned to be a perfect place to end up. We spent 6 nights here in a comfortable, hotel, again with great, friendly hosts. The first day we took a horse cart out o ride around and examine up-close the stupas and temples. This was really a cool way to take it all in as the ride was slow and relaxing, and although it is almost impossible to see all of them (and who would really want to, anyway?) the driver (and Horse) took us to some of the highlights.

They are spectacular and when you climb up high you can see the size and scope of the area--hundreds upon hundreds of these structures. The next few days were spent bicycling and walking around the area, talking with people and relaxing. Luckily, there was the annual full-moon festival going on at the beautiful Ananda Temple which had it major shindig while we there. What an incredible scene--monks upon monks receiving donations, kids playing on rides, and pilgrims coming to pray. We also climbed the 770 steps to the top of Mt Popa for a spectacular view. A truly unforgettable experience, and a great way to finish up our time here. Tomorrow we hop on another bus, zip(?) down to Yangon and the next day fly to Bangkok.

 The weather has been perfect the whole time here--sunny and warm, but not too hot.

As I have said, not very many tourists.

The food has been just okay--local cuisine pretty simple and basic. Twice we tried Shan food, which is an assortment of small dishes--meats and veggies--all tasting pretty much the same.
 We ate a lot of fried noodles, usually overcooked--this country need to learn the concept of al dente. The street food was, for the most part unidentifiable and, although I tried a few things, the best I had was a perfect chapati.
 In some photos of people, especially women, you will strange, yellowish face painting.  This is Thanaka which is peculiar to this culture only and is the paste made from grading wood from the Thanaka tree and mixing with water. This paste is then applied is varying patterns focusing on the cheeks and often in very unusual, clown-like designs, especially on kids. What the hell is this for? You ask. Well, the most common answer is for sun protection, but we have also been told conditioning of the skin. Whatever, it is strange.

 The people are generally friendly especially in the smaller towns and villages. We visited a few villages that I have not mentioned and the locals are warm, smiling and open. The kids are adorable everywhere.
 We hear that the Chinese are investing a lot of money in Myanmar, and I hope it is for the good, they are known for exploiting. The government as it stands is a military dictatorship which bring in a lot of money from natural gas and oil sold to China and Thailand. And, of course, gems!

Modes of transportation taken: 4 kinds of boats, 2 horse carts, 2 motorbikes, 2 pick-up trucks, 3 taxis, 3 buses 3 trishaws (similar to rickshaw), 2 bicycles.

 Tourism could be big here, but first, how about some infrastructure and the use of credit cards and ATMs. The thing is, we would have spent more had we been able to use plastic to pay or at least withdraw from a machine, but once out of cash, out of luck. As it turns out, I'm glad we didn't spend more, for now we have more money for Thailand and India!
If you are at all interested, you can see my complete album of photos at the following site:
 https://picasaweb.google.com/hank.abramson/Myanmar?authkey=Gv1sRgCKm4ubLD4ZGw4wE




4 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences! I always look forward to your emails saying you have added to your blogs....Vicarious enjoyment...Cheryl Thompson in Santa Fe

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  2. Hi Barbara and Henry... I finally found the time to check out your blog and what a great lot of adventures you are having. I loved meeting you guys in Bali...particularly in such a wonderful location as Gaia. Wishing you well on your travels and I hope we meet up again soemwhere... Bali or maybe even Byron! Who Knows ? Take care and 2012 Blassings Love Julie

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  3. Hi Henry and Barb,
    Glad to see you still waving the flag for exciting adventures. A very interesting read on a place that I know nothing about! Say Hi to Barbara and hope to see you soon!

    Regards
    Dean P.

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  4. victoriabochat@gmail.comJanuary 8, 2012 at 10:01 PM

    as always.. sounds amazing. I am happy to hear you are not starving, BTW. Wish we could be with you (less the 14 hour busrides and 8 hour cab rides). Costa Rica is another place best to take small planes instead of driving some of the "worst roads imaginable", she reported still suffering joint problems from the road to Arenal. Lots of Love to you and the kids xxxx VB

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