Thursday, October 30, 2008

Burma Trip: Yangon, Mandalay, Pyin U Lwin, Bagan


It was raining cats and dogs when we left Holland. It feels good to be away. Yangon, Sunflower Hotel. We took a taxi from the airport into town. The chauffeur showed us the different hotels on our list and after we had chosen one he brought us to a place where we could change money on the black market. Cars drive on the right side of the road, a strange detail is that the steering wheel of the car is also on the right side.

We slept a few hours and ate biryani. Yangon is crowded, the real Asia. It is more like India than like Thailand. I feel at home and at ease when we stroll on the streets in the evening. The people are very friendly and they don't hassle you. It is clear that this is a poor country.

Had a good night. We are going to need it. We have to catch the bus to Mandalay at five PM. Yangon is okay but there is not much to see and we have to stay here on the way back.

Shwedagon paya is huge and all the gold, glittering in the sun, is almost painful to the eyes. In travel guides they write about it in the way they write about the Taj Mahal. What is the matter with me? Am I still too tired from the flight? Is my mind still in Holland? This Shwedagon Paya doesn't reach my soul at all! On the streets you can buy fried grasshoppers. They showed me how to eat them, you tear off the wings and put the whole insect in your mouth. We took an Indian thali instead.


The bus was okay and the guest house (Royal guest house) is fine. Traveling takes a lot of energy, it makes me forget everything else.

Do India and Burma so look alike because they both are poor countries? Nothing seems to leave a factory in a brand new state. The coloured lights on the ceiling of the bus are real Asian, as are the lights on the side of big trucks.

We visited the Royal Palace. It demanded more paperwork to enter this building than to pass customs. It is a beautiful building but the thought that it is rebuilt using forced labour makes me feel uneasy. On the way to the palace we had a chat with a former policeman. He had the hope that this country will become a democracy sometime in the future. Now everything is strictly arranged by the rules of the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration). Silent expressions of this disgusting regime are the slogans, sometimes in english, on signs.

After breakfast we tried to find the bus to Mandalay Hill, but we didn't succeed, too difficult to find out which bus or pick up truck goes to our destination. We asked a man to help us. He answered in perfect english, but what he said was complete nonsense. His breath smelled of alcohol. He told us that he was a professor at the university, teaching english, but that the university was closed now. He left us with the excuse that "he had another fish to fry". We hired bicycles and this turned out to be the ideal form of transport. Even I can find my way in Mandalay because of the numbered streets.

On top of Mandalay Hill it is a real fun fair, food stalls and souvenir sellers. On the way up there is some devotion. There are almost no other tourists. We visited also some paya's in the neighbour hood of Mandalay Hill. The entrance fees are high 3-5 $ and we know the only benefiter is the SLORC, so we try to avoid paying by using side entrances. Sometimes we succeed.

This morning we went together to Mahamuni Paya. I decided that I wanted to spent more time there so our ways parted. The atmosphere is very friendly in this paya. The Mahamuni Buddha is impressive because of all the glittering gold and the devoted people paying their respect. I spent a lot of time strolling on the temple grounds.

I cycled to the hospital. I promised a friend back home to make a picture of an ambulance so that was a good excuse to visit the hospital. I found an ambulance but the people around it didn't understand what I wanted. They took me to a doctor in a kind of emergency unit. He spoke two words of english and didn't understand me either, but it gave me the opportunity to make some pictures. I found an internal ward, old and dark and filthy. There was a nurse who spoke some english. She told me what the patients where suffering from and what treatment they got. They still drain as a cure for hypertension. Walking around I met a French engineer. He and his colleagues were installing a generator for the hospital. There is an alliance between this hospital and a French university. Every year the engineers come to Burma for a few weeks to make some improvements to the hospital. The engineer showed me the new buildings and equipment they installed during the past few years. It looked very good. Simple, but clean and working. This seems to be a good way to help these people. After the visit to the hospital I cycled to the river. A very, very poor neighborhood. The scenery reminded me of Laos.


We took the pick up truck to Pyin U Lwin. On the way up you see the poverty and when you keep your eyes open you see the forced labour. I had a conversation with the chauffeur about Dutch football. Here they play golf he said, but only the rich people and the army people. Pyin U Lwin is a bit disappointing. Maybe it is the guest house where we are staying (Ruby guest house). It is depressing and dirty. We spent a few hours on the market. I like Asian markets, it are the best places to see the local people and there is always something amusing to discover. We had tea at a tea shop. After a while an elderly woman joined us at our small table on the pavement. She began to talk to us in Queens English, ordered more tea and sweets and told us about her life. Her name was Sheila and she was in her seventies. Between the lines she fully admitted that she used her education to talk to foreigners and ask them to support her with a few dollars. I really enjoyed her style. During the evening Pyin U Lwin changed from a dull town into an entertaining place to walk around. Some people here seem a bit shady.

MANDALAY (again)

Early in the morning Pyin U Lwin looked a bit like a desolated village in a wild west movie. A very peculiar atmosphere. We had a nice breakfast of banana parati and milk tea. It is completely accepted in this country that I'm in charge of the money and not Albert. We took the pick up truck to Mandalay.

On my own. First to the market, Chinese style and that means load and loads of the same stuff. Now I'm on the grounds of a beautiful paya. Lots of buddha's, the tinkling of bells, shade of old trees, the buzzing of children voices and a little breeze. There is a beautiful tiled floor in pastel colors. I found a place to sit with a view on a silver Buddha and two old women. I want to stay here for the rest of my life and forget all my silly (and serious) worries.

In the afternoon we spent some time in a tea shop. Being small is a blessing when you have to sit on these small, low stools. First a Sikh takes a seat at "our" table. He has a mobile phone and drinks his tea in a hurry but he is hospitable as his faith demands him to be and he insists on paying for our tea and sweets. Our next companion was a vicar who spoke a little English but it was almost impossible to understand what he was trying to tell us.

During my absence this morning Albert was offered a Burmese woman by a taxi chauffeur. We already made jokes about the purpose of the cell like rooms on the first floor of our guest house but they are seriously used by prostitutes.

We had dinner in a Shan restaurant and afterwards we walked into a kind of street festival, fun fair. A few merry go rounds and lots of children exploiting home made games. A boy of about 7 years old acted as a fully qualified croupier in a kind of roulette game. They sold paya's made of cigarette cartons and of course lots of snacks. A little boy and girl were singing and making music with little drums, rattles and bells. It was moving to hear these clear voices and see these big brown eyes, surrounded by kohl, in the small faces. Very nice to walk around and smile back at all those smiling people. Like this morning on the temple grounds it is impossible to catch the atmosphere in a photograph, so my camera stays in my bag and with all my senses I enjoy this moment and store it in my heart.

A day of leisure but with a lot of information about the awful circumstances the people are living in. There is a lot of hunger up in the hills. There is enough rice in Mandalay but the people are not allowed to bring it into the hills. The government takes the rice. People have to pay for all the medicines they need, also when they are admitted in a hospital. The medication costs a lot of money and is of very poor quality. Almost everything I have seen is much older than the date of expiring and it is certainly not stored in a refrigerator. The universities are closed since 1996. The government blames Aung San Suu Kyi. The real reason is that it is a threat to have all students gathered in one place. Besides it is more safe to keep the people ignorant. Not that the universities were that good. They study chemistry without ever seeing a laboratory on the inside. Doing an exam implied learning by heart a part of a text and reciting it (or you could pay your way out). The percentage that succeeded was high, good for the statistics.


We took the slow boat from Mandalay to Bagan. It takes a whole day, but it was nice to stare at the riverbanks. A lot of poverty on the banks and on the boat itself. People searched the wastebasket on the tourist deck, hoping to find something useful.

We spent the day cycling around, visiting paya's. This place is incredibly full of them. It looks like a moon landscape scattered with paya's and the remains of them. Some are really impressive. I liked the Ananda paya most of all. It is very big and there are four beautiful standing Buddha's inside. One of them has the Abhaya mudra. Today we met Maung Maung a horse cart driver. This evening he picked us up and we went to his village. On the veranda of his bamboo house we were spoilt with a fantastic dinner. From the other side of the table the whole family watched us eating. It made me feel uneasy. We tried to eat enough to be polite and to leave a lot on the table knowing that they would eat it when we were gone.

Today we visited again some paya's, including Shwezigon Paya. It is described as the most beautiful paya of Bagan. And yes, it is spectacular with all its gold glittering in the sun, but it didn't move me like the Ananda paya did. We spent some time sitting in the shadow, looking at this building, talking about religion being opium for/from the people.


At five in the morning we took the bus to the Lake district. The road was in a poor condition sometimes and the suspension system of the bus not too good, but the scenery was beautiful.

Didn't do much today. Cycled around. It is not possible to reach the lake on a bicycle. Why should you make a road when you have a river and a boat?! It took quite a few dead end roads before Albert realized the logic of this situation. We talked a lot today about work, plans for the future, travelling together for a year or so. We have fun. This trip is good for both of us.

What do they do with the corps when somebody dies? I didn't see grave yards or cremation sites. The lady of the guest house has a heart condition. She had to pay $15 for an ECG and a blood test. That's a lot of money in this country. She showed me all the tablets she is taking and asked me for an explanation of their effects.

Today we made a boat trip. First to a market, partly a tourist trap, but with a lot of local people. A little boy followed me for about 15 minutes, saying nothing, only staring at me. I talked to him in Dutch and even that didn't change the expression on his face. At last he said "Hello" and disappeared. On this market you could buy all kinds of intra venous medication (exp. date: 1997). We visited an almost deserted village. There was a long gallery up a hill finally arriving at a small paya. This paya was surrounded by a lot of little stupa's, a lot of them were almost overgrown. The wind made the bells on the stupa's cling, a peaceful sound. A weird place with a nice atmosphere. At the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery we saw the famous jumping cats. The cat jumps through a hoop that is hold up by a monk. Amusing, but more beautiful is the collection of Buddha's in the monastery and more interesting are the toilets. The toilets are cubicles with a kind of saloon door (western style) and a hole in the bottom right above the lake.

We did a "trekking" yesterday. The lady of the guest house who organized the hike promised us many, many villages. We saw exactly ONE village. Well it was a good fitness training. The village was very poor. The clothes the people were wearing consisted more of holes than cloth. The Lonely Planet guide names a literacy rate of 81.5%. I don't understand how they come to this high number. Most of the children I see are not going to school. The children in these kind of villages definitely never see a classroom on the inside.

We are waiting for the bus in the direction of Rangoon now. This morning we visited the market of Nyaungshwe. Beautiful people. I love markets. A little boy wanted to give us something. My first reaction is to refuse it because I expected that he wanted something in return. But he handed me a sweet and said hello, that was it. He only wanted to be friendly like the little boy who gave me a flower yesterday. This Asian country isn't spoiled yet. Please let it stay this way for some time.


The bus trip took 19 hours, but the bus was very comfortable, so no problem. On the video they showed a Sylvester Stallone movie and a Burmese version of Romeo and Juliet.

Bago is dirty and dusty and the humidity is a lot higher than at the Lake. After a few hours of sleep Manni, a trishaw driver showed us around. I knew his name from a web site about Burma and like they say he is really worth the money. His English is reasonable and he knows a lot of nice places. First we went to the Shwemawdaw Paya. Outside of it there is a sign with the text: "Please provide necessary assistance to the international travellers". It doesn't make my opinion of the government any better. Manni took us to a very big monastery. It is impressing to see all these monks study the Pali language. Even more impressive is the very big pot they use to cook food for 1000 monks. Finally we visit the reclining Buddha. Measuring 55 metres it is bigger than the one in Bangkok, but I liked that one better. Manni is a good source of information. I liked the hours we spent with him.

We booked a taxi for the trip to the balancing boulder temple of Kyaiktiyo. We leave at 7 o'clock after seeing the monks (about 500 of them) going on their alms round. It is a 2-3 hour drive. After that we have to wait for almost an hour for the truck to fill up with people before it departs for a trip uphill. Thats not the end of it. We have to walk uphill for 45 minutes before we reach the famous balancing boulder. The trip down with the truck is a good test for the stomach (and the nerves).


We have an early breakfast in the tea shop opposite the hotel. They have a remarkable cigarette lighter made of an old dynamo. It takes about 2 hours by bus from Bago to Yangon. I spent the afternoon on the market and in the Pagan bookshop. The owner sells copied hardcovers of books about Burma. He has a nice collection.

We had dinner in New Delhi restaurant. After that we went to the Kali temple. It is a bit strange to "meet" this bloodthirsty goddess in this Buddhist environment. The atmosphere in the temple is a bit mysterious. As always I am almost impressed by it. Seeing a guy playing with a computer game in the middle of the temple brings me back to earth. We walk on the streets of Yangon and have a last cup of tea in a tea shop. I love the evenings in an Asian country.

In these few weeks I learned to love the Burmese people. I admire their capability to be very friendly and cheerful despite the difficult conditions they are living in.

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