Monday, October 13, 2008

Myanmar: Twenty-eight Days in the Golden Land of Burma (Part II)

"The climate of our culture is changing. Under these new rains, new suns, small things grow great, and what was great grows small; whole species disappear and are replaced." - Randall Jarrell.

Chapter Two - Running from the rains

Important pre-departure preparations included reading up on the country (and I read quite a lot), getting the necessary vaccination boosters and arranging a visa. There's no Burmese Embassy in Belgium or Holland so I needed to go to Bonn, Germany to apply for a visa. The procedure was very straightforward. I got there in the early morning, filled in three forms, handed over three passport-size photographs, paid the fee of 40 DM and was able to pick up the visa in the afternoon.

A couple of months had passed since we had obtained our visas and I'd been eagerly awaiting the departure date. Eagerly but also a bit nervously because I had tried to go to Myanmar before but only made it to Bangkok. There I had several hours to kill in transfer but decided to go and eat something outside of the airport. I shouldn't have; I got severe food poisoning, forcing me to return home without having seen the country I was actually going to. This time I was luckier! I made it!
Kris, a colleague I'd told I planned to go Burma got interested himself, and asked to come along. He was very inexperienced as a traveller but we've all been like him, I guess...

To get to our destination we had to change planes twice: once at Frankfurt, Germany and once in Bangkok, Thailand. Air traffic over Germany was extremely busy and our Lufthansa plane had to circle for a fair while before getting clearance to land. We only had about fifteen minutes to get to the gate to board the Thai Airways flight to Bangkok. We hurried to Passport Control. Being Dutch and Belgian nationals, we chose the line for EU Citizens. Great was our astonishment when we found nobody manning the desk. We were forced to move to All Nationalities and there only two people were checking identities - two people to handle a queue of several hundred passengers! On top of that they were complicating things by making bitchy remarks and insisting people keep their toes behind the designated waiting lines. Ridiculous. Each passenger took an average of five to ten minutes (!) to pass through. Everybody wondered how long it would take to handle the whole queue, which was still growing. At some point tension reached such a level that several passengers stormed forward, cursing at the immigration staff and simply going through without showing their passports. The inefficiency displayed by German immigration here was one of the worst cases I've ever seen. We hardly expected then that we'd be treated to more when we returned from the trip. More of that later.

The Thai Airways flight to Bangkok was smooth but the standard of service on board was much lower than I'd come to expect from the airline. When we disembarked at Don Muang airport I noticed a sign saying "Welcome to the Land of Smiles" but no matter how hard I looked, I only saw unhappy faces in the building.

Over four hours later we finally were on our way to Yangon. Service on this Thai flight was up to its usual standards, a relief.

Slightly over one hour later we landed at Yangon International Airport. There was a slight drizzle but the temperature was agreeably warm. I had a quick look around and noticed only a few other planes, all owned by the national carrier. This was definitely a low-traffic airport! Inside everything was well-organised and surprisingly straightforward. Unfortunately, so was obtaining the dreaded FECs, the third currency in use next to the Kyat and US Dollar. FECs (Foreign Exchange Certificates) are 'banknotes' issued by the Burmese government to get their hands on the much-wanted dollar. The value printed on a FEC always equals the same value in US dollars. If you're a Foreign Independent Traveller (FIT), i.e. not a member of a tour group, you're required to change a minimum of 300 US dollars into FECs! A really rotten rule because FECs are only valid in Myanmar and you can only reconvert whatever you have left at the end in excess of 300 FEC.

Escape from changing FECs was impossible. Security was tight. I tried to sneak through but was intercepted and directed to the appropriate counter. The person in front of me slipped a 10 or 20 dollar bill under his passport. Instead of taking it as a bribe, or 'present', the lady in charge treated it as an extra note to change! Bribing the security officers who intercepted me would have been very difficult indeed: there were four of them, in plain sight of the - no doubt - many other intelligence officers. Kris handed over two Traveller's Cheques. Each carried an 'exchange commission' of 1 dollar.

Once this necessary evil is done with you can collect your luggage. Next, continue to customs. It's wise to declare all foreign currency in excess of US$ 2000 and all valuables including photo/video equipment. Just fill out the details on the declaration form which you'll probably already have received in the aeroplane and hand it to the officer in charge. He'll staple a small leaflet into your passport. It'll be removed upon leaving the country; no questions will be asked about the items specified.

Whilst collecting our baggage a friendly man approached us and asked where we were planning to stay. Suspecting him of being a tout, I said we were going to the Beauty Land Hotel (which wasn't at all certain). He nodded and said: "The Beauty Land? ... That's a nice hotel." He didn't suggest any alternatives. I asked him if he knew a clean, cheap enough place, preferably with a view of the Shwedagon Pagoda, something my travel companion kind of fancied. The man suggested the Guest Care Hotel. We decided to check it out. A taxi into town cost us only 1 dollar (normally that ride would cost $4-5 according to some Internet friends), provided we wanted to have a look at ... the Guest Care Hotel! Whether a clever touting scheme or an incredible coincidence - probably the former - the Guest Care, 107(A) Dhamma Zedi Road, Bahan P.O., had quite nice rooms and a friendly staff. We saw no reason to go elsewhere. Rooms normally come at $15 for a double with A/C, private toilet/bath (hot water) and including a mediocre breakfast, but if you want a view of Shwedagon they charge $5 more. A very good view costs yet another $5! If you decide not to have breakfast they'll give you $5 reduction on the room price. Definitely a good idea! During my first night there I got several flea bites. Maybe I was just unlucky?

We had a nice but overly enthusiastic itinerary in mind. We'd first spend a day or two in the capital to get accustomed and then try to get to Mrauk U using a combination of road and boat. Soon road travel all the way from Yangon to Sittwe will be possible - the last couple of bridges are being completed - but at present it isn't. Nevertheless it's quite well possible to travel there without reverting to flying, although it's apparently almost never attempted by foreigners. To get there it's preferable to hire a car (4WD during rainy periods, normal wheels will suffice at other times). The first day, drive from Yangon to Pyay and spend the night there. Allow the whole of the next day to get to Thandwe (yes, the road is indeed thát bad). In Thandwe, the following day, you board a boat that will take you to Sittwe. On day four you can then continue to Mrauk U if you like. Allow the same schedule for the return trip.

Our plans had to change much sooner than we'd expected! A tropical cyclone passed over the Bay of Bengal, bringing heavy rain showers to Myanmar. Fortunately we escaped the worst: the core of the storm hit the Indian state of Orissa, killing several people and leaving many homeless. Nonetheless the weather was quite severe where we were. During our first night we were woken up by a really heavy rain storm. Water was pouring down continuously and hit the room windows with such a force it was impossible to get to sleep again. The next morning we asked someone if the weather forecast had been favourable. He laughed out loud and told us: "No, not at all! You know, the plane which arrived right after yours has had an accident due to the weather." "Accident?!?" "Yes, the pilot couldn't see the runway because of the rain and put the plane down with one landing wheel on the grass. The plane skidded and as a result the airport is now closed for the day." It would become two days; fortunately nobody got hurt. This much was clear: the weather made a visit to Rakhine State quite impossible. Sailing through the Bay of Bengal in a rickety vessel, trying to get to Sittwe, didn't seem very sensible. We briefly discussed the whole thing and decided we'd better forget that idea and go somewhere else instead.

But where? Away from the southern coast, that was for sure. Would there possibly be new areas which could be visited? We asked around and were directed to a friendly guy called Phone Kyaw (pronounced 'Pong Chaw'). He knew all about the areas open to foreigners because he was a driver who chauffeured tourists all over the country. Unfortunately it turned out that the options outside the usual tourist quadrangle were very limited :

  • It's possible to travel to Myitkyina by train from Mandalay. However, there's not that much to see and the military won't allow travel outside of the town except for a couple of places within a 14 kilometres perimeter around it, and sometimes only if using an escort. From Myitkyina you're allowed to travel to Bhamo by road. There you can take a boat back to Mandalay; on the way you can see sweet water dolphins.
  • Travel to Putao (in the North, close to the Chinese border) is only possible by air. The same goes for Myeik (in the extreme South).
  • Travel East of Taunggyi is possible for only a very short distance. Forget about going further East or South to Loikaw.
  • You can visit the forests East of Taungoo (Bago Yoma) to see the timber elephants working. There are confirmed rumours of the existence of a National Park in the deep jungle of the Chin hills not too far from Monywa. It will cost you almost an arm and a leg, though, and the environs are apparently very 'hostile': deep mud, lots of malarial mosquitoes, bears, pumas, etc.
  • Hsipaw and Lashio can be visited (by road or train) but continued travel to Mu-Se on the Chinese border is only possible if you're a Chinese businessman. Trekking around Hsipaw is very limited, contrary to before. The government considers the area unsafe again. You can visit some Shan villages in the vicinity, but that's it.
  • The Padah-Lin pre-historical caves near Pindaya are definitely off-limits.
  • Travel from Kyaiktiyo to Pa-an in Kayin State and on to Mawlamyine in Mon State is allowed.
  • South of Mawlamyine only a few nearby places can be visited, e.g. Mudon.

There was, however, a surprising new destination: Nagaland! Really! It was even announced in the government's propaganda newspaper, the 'New Light of Myanmar'. It was only opened about a month before our arrival, and I doubt many people have seen it yet. I haven't, regrettably. Kris felt we were not equipped to attempt going there. If you'd like to try, arrange transport (e.g. taxi) to Kalay from Mandalay. In Kalay local transport should get you to a village where you can arrange a trek to a Naga settlement. Ask around in Mandalay before commencing this trip, though, as I can see this to be a short-lived destination. You never can predict the whims of the Myanmar government ...

We'd see what was possible whilst on-the-road. Phone Kyaw advised us to move to the Dry Zone (the arid central plains), away from the South as soon as possible. So we would have to hit the tourist circuit right away and stay on it at least until Mandalay. Our first destination would be Bagan. There was one fly in the ointment, though: my travel mate had seen the totally overloaded pick-ups and 'buses' and the soaked, dripping figures hanging onto them. He didn't quite see himself doing the same thing. I think talking to Phone Kyaw had inspired him to arrange a car. We discussed all the pros and cons of both public transport and hired car and eventually concluded having a car at our disposal wouldn't be such a bad idea. Cars in Myanmar always come with driver; you're not allowed to drive yourself unless you hold a business visa. You can rent a fully licensed taxi, a taxi with local license or a private car. The last two are illegal, i.e. not allowed to take foreigners on up-country trips. There's a big difference in price asked for renting a fully licensed car and the other two, but not necessarily between the two illegal methods, the difference being determined by whether the trip is 'legal' or 'illegal'. Illegal cars are considerably cheaper but if the police catch the driver you'll lose one or more days, depending on how quickly the driver (and/or you) pays the fines and eventual bribes. There are four known checkpoints which are allegedly impossible to avoid but checks aren't carried out on a permanent basis, so if you're lucky everything will be fine. If you hire an unlicensed car, make sure you know what you'll be charged for and remember that the driver may hassle you for all kinds of extras (although this is probably rare), that he may not speak English very well, may be an inexperienced, unsafe driver and may have a poor knowledge of the places you want to visit. Note the word 'may', please.

Prices always depend on the rental period (the per-day price for longer periods turns out cheaper than when renting for only a couple of days) and the proposed itinerary. Several elements will be taken into consideration. The primary factor is the total distance covered, not particularly the number of days. Fuel is a problem in Myanmar. Foreigner-licensed taxis can get 90 gallons per month (whereas private vehicles can only get 60 gallons) and a maximum of three gallons at a time. All petrol stations are government-owned. All cities and towns where they're available have a different limit on how many times per month a driver is allowed to obtain fuel. Only in Yangon can a driver get fuel every day; in other places the limit is three times, twice or often even just once a month. This means that, to get around, the driver will have to buy fuel on the black market, costing two to several times (e.g. in mountainous regions) the normal price. The higher the estimate of black market fuel consumption, the higher the cost for the car rental. Roads known to be in extremely bad condition (are there any good roads in this country ?) increase the price. On top of that, all roads in the country carry a Road Tax, many towns a Town Tax and several bridges a Bridge Tax. When negotiating a price, therefore, it is best to have in mind a rough outline of the places you want to visit. If you deviate too much from your proposed route, the driver will charge extra for it. If you suggest a very complicated trip, but in the end stick to the main tourist circuit, the price will not be reduced and the driver will pocket the difference.

I worked out a route and discussed the total cost. Bargaining didn't get me very far, unfortunately. Phone Kyaw drives a fully licensed car, meaning more money but fewer hassles. The price came to $870 for 27 days. That's $32 per day ($16 per head), all-inclusive, which is not bad. The same trip done illegally would probably have cost us about $600.

We decided we'd stay in Yangon the rest of the day and move up-country the next. Because of the severe rains we decided not to go to Shwedagon Pagoda immediately. It's one of the country's most stunning sights, so we postponed a visit until we came back. I always find photographs in the rain a bit miserable and we were quite confident the weather would improve by the time we returned to Yangon. Instead we went to the Botataung Paya. On the way we passed Kandawgyi Lake with the impressive Karaweik restaurant and also caught a glimpse of Shwedagon. It was stunning, even from a distance. Rangoon, as the capital is still known to most of the world, is a beautiful city. Shady trees and former colonial buildings line wide boulevards. The golden spires of pagodas vie for attention.

Botataung Paya is located in the downtown area, not far from the Yangon river. It's a nice place. At the entrance girls were selling flowers and a lady tried to convince us to release a caged bird. I chose not to, because a few moments after the bird is released it simply returns to its cage - a poor way of gaining merit if you ask me.

We left our shoes in the car and spattered through the puddles. Footwear is strictly prohibited in Burmese pagodas and should not only be removed before entering inside temples and shrines (as is common practice in most other Buddhist countries) but before entering the grounds of any pagoda or monastery. 'Footwear' means all footwear including socks but apparently not nylon stockings. I can't imagine why any woman would want to wear pantyhose in this climate - and besides, they get dirty or run - but it seems to be tolerated.

The rain made the gold of the 40 metres high pagoda shine as if it had just been polished. At the time we thought it was very impressive. The first pagoda you see will always make a great impression because it's unusual and you have nothing to compare it with. Now that I've returned home and look back on the trip I can say that on the outside it's not that great. It is, however, a revered pagoda because it houses a hair relic of the Buddha (later, a tooth and many valuables were added). 'Bo Tataung Paya' literally means the ‘Pagoda of 1000 Officers'. According to tradition, one thousand military officers awaited the arrival of the sacred hair, now over 2,000 years ago. The original pagoda was destroyed during the Second World-War by Allied bombs intended for the nearby Yangon ship wharves, but was rebuilt. The river is only a short walk away fortunately, because there's not a great deal to see.

Much better was Kyaukhtatgyi Paya, which is not a pagoda. The word 'paya' is often mistakenly translated as 'pagoda' - although it often applies - but in fact it means 'Holy One' and is thus used to indicate all sacred constructions, including Buddha images.

Kyaukhtatgyi is a Buddha image, and not your average one! A big hangar-like building houses a huge reclining figure, measuring 70 metres (230 ft) in length, making it 15 metres (49 ft) longer than the Shwethalyaung Buddha in Bago. I found the image in Yangon more beautiful than the more highly revered and better-known Shwethalyaung. The latter, however, has the advantage of being almost nine centuries older!

A fortune teller who said he 'advised' many Western people, wanted to do the same for me. I politely told him I'd rather not know what the future would bring, that I didn't want to be disappointed. Something he didn't quite understand... The Burmese value highly the advice of such 'seers' and will often make decisions according to what has been predicted. I don't have their faith in these practices; knowing exactly when disaster will strike, could make me slightly nervous.

Meanwhile, the rain was coming down by the bucketful and although we were carrying a large umbrella we still got soaked. Luckily it never gets cold here! We decided the only sensible thing to do was visit something indoors. Something like the National Museum (at 66-74 Pyay Road). The people who collect the five dollars admission fee at the entrance are very unfriendly, a sad first encounter with government officials. Rudely we were told to leave our cameras and bags in a locker or pay the camera fee. Out of curiosity I asked how much that would amount to. "1500 dollars", a woman said. "Fifteen hundred dollars?!? Surely you mean Kyats??" "No. Dollars.", confirmed the woman, pointing up to a sign saying so. I was truly baffled and my already low impression of the place took an even greater dive - and I hadn't even been inside. The collection is very modest, in my humble opinion. I've visited many museums and I think it's fair to say this one is poor. Definitely not worth the high entrance fee. Or perhaps only if you are confined, as we were, to indoors.

After having a good look around the four floors we waited at the entrance until the rain was slightly less. I hailed a taxi and asked to be taken to the Indian restaurant on the corner of Mahabandoola and 39th Streets, near the Sule Pagoda. This ride cost us K200. The Bharat Restaurant is friendly enough but the food is quite terrible, especially for the money asked! The chicken we'd ordered with our rice consisted of just bones, bones which looked as if they'd been cleaned by a Burmese dog - and I can assure you these canines do a wonderful job!

When we left the restaurant the rain gods had taken a break. We were virtually next door to the Sule Paya, the very heart of the city. On our way there we were approached by countless money changers, most of whom were obviously of Indian descent. I didn't risk changing there for several reasons. First there were the stories of short-changing and demonetised notes I'd heard from fellow travellers. Secondly, most of these people didn't look trustworthy and wanted to make the illegal transaction on the street. They're probably not, but for all I know they might just as well be working for the police. If you want to change money on the black market - and believe me, you do want that, the official rate is around 6 Kyat (pronounced 'chat') to the dollar whereas the black market rate was always at least K326 in Yangon - it's best to ask around carefully and let yourself be directed to a shop with a reliable 'reputation'. This is very much a matter of trust and there's at least as much risk involved for the shop owner (probably more!) as there is for you. For obvious reasons I cannot recommend (here or privately) any trustworthy black market changers.

We met Hillary. He introduced himself as a guide/interpreter and insisted on showing us around the Sule Paya. He spoke English very well; he'd been a sailor and had docked at many of the world's main harbours. He was a likeable fellow but unfortunately fell into promoting himself a tad too soon. His intention was not to show us around the pagoda but to act as our guide during the rest of our stay in the country. He boasted of having met several internationally important businessmen, celebrities, Lonely Planet's Tony Wheeler and Joe Cummins and Aung San Suu Kyi. Never intending to sign him up, but curious nonetheless, I enquired how much he figured to earn per day if we employed him. I was quite stunned when he said he counted on about $30! He was very knowledgeable but 30 dollars was ridiculous, especially in a poor country like Burma.

I let him show us around the pagoda, which is really worth visiting. It's situated right in the centre of Yangon and serves as a monumental roundabout. The central stupa, enshrining a hair of the Buddha, is 48 metres (157 ft) high and quite unusual in that it has an octagonal shape. Around it are several subsidiary buildings. The most interesting of the lot is the shrine dedicated to the Sule nat. Nats are guardian spirits originating in animistic, pre-Buddhist times. Belief in them was so strong that instead of being eradicated the nat cult blended into the new religion. It's probably the result of the lack of a super-being in Buddhism; the Buddha can only be regarded as a teacher, he cannot personally interfere with people's present lives. Nats can, and reputedly will. But if they interfere, it's always to make life more difficult than it already is. Nats should be respected and made happy by offerings - yes, they can be bribed too. If they're neglected they come for revenge. The Sule nat is the guardian spirit of Singuttara Hill, on which the Shwedagon Pagoda was built. Therefore he points at it. The devoted flock around the nat's image, which is decorated with scarves, and offer him coconuts, bananas, money and even smokes. It's a funny sight to see the people put a burning cigarette between the figure's lips.

The primary reason for coming to the Sule Paya must be to observe the people around it; there's such a lot of activity. Apart from the worshippers there are numerous fortune-tellers, astrologers and people trying to sell you flowers, candles, images, incense sticks, etc. I was even approached by a handsome woman in her mid-40s who wanted to give me a massage. She looked for all the world as if she'd do a wonderful job, but I decided to take a pass.

When we left, Hillary asked if we wanted to visit a nice, non-touristy monastery. As it had started to rain again, and we had nothing particular in mind anyway, we agreed but not before I had told him we were not going to pay any ridiculous money for it. He accepted. We drove to the outskirts of Yangon through an extremely poor neighbourhood. Stunningly beautiful girls who really looked out of place in their mini-skirts were waiting for the bus. I remarked that I was surprised by the huge contrast. Hillary whispered they were prostitutes working in Yangon bars where rich businessmen and government officials were entertained.

We emerged from poverty and were confronted with wealth again, passing a golf club not far from the airport. Then, after another five minutes or so, we reached the monastery. It was late afternoon and the monks were relaxing in their sleeping quarters. We were heartily welcomed by them. None of them could speak English but I had Hillary to translate for me. I put many questions to the monks, about their religion, the reasons for their beliefs, their vision of the outside world, their aim in this life (because not necessarily all of them remain monks all their lives)... In return I answered their questions, most of which were rather unusual for me. For example , "What is the meaning of the cross Christians make when they enter a church?" I could answer them, of course, but they were not everyday questions!

When we left it was dark - dusk comes early in Myanmar; at 5.30 the sun was already down! We returned to downtown Yangon and had dinner at the Yuzana Snackbar, a good, cheap enough place to go for very tasty barbecued chicken and pork sausages. There we offered Hillary a meal of his choice, added a nice tip and thanked him for services rendered. I asked him many questions, including political ones, to all of which he responded at length. He was a great source of information but he couldn't control his greed, and demanded an extra ten dollars! I reminded him of what we'd agreed upon before we left for the monastery, said good-bye, left and walked back to our hotel.

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