Monday, October 13, 2008

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

"To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive." - Robert Louis Stevenson.

We had decided to go first to Bagan by way of Pyay. This would take us two days. At 9am, having had breakfast, Phone Kyaw arrived to pick us up. We checked out of the hotel, loaded our baggage in the boot of the car and were ready to commence our up-country trip. We were lucky: it was dry. Or more precisely, it wasn't raining ...

While driving out of Yangon I observed the people and noticed how centuries-old traditions are still part of everyday life. Men as well as women still wear the longyi, the traditional Burmese lower garment which looks like a sarong. It also looks like very decent and sensible wear. I had read in a guidebook that what men wear under their longyi is as much food for jokes as are the Scottish kilts. I decided to ask Phone Kyaw to reveal the secret to me - not literally of course. He laughed and said like most people in Burma he never wore underpants. There! At last I knew.

I noticed only very few men wear trousers. Monks deviate from the longyi routine and wear the traditional robes which range in colour from yellowish over orange to dark red. This is not to indicate a difference in status, it's because of the dye used.

The Burmese are generally attractive people. Most girls and women have beige-coloured spots on their cheeks, sometimes combed into beautiful patterns such as leaves. That's thanaka paste, the Burmese cosmetic. It's made by grinding the bark of the thanaka tree and mixing it with a bit of water. It's much more than simply make-up. It serves as a sun-block, helps prevent the skin drying out in the cool season, prevents premature ageing by controlling the greasiness of the skin, has a slight, agreeable scent and makes the face look whiter. Many pale Westerners nowadays own a sunbed or visit a tanning centre on a regular basis. The people in Burma adore white skin. Nobody anywhere seems to be happy with the way they look. Perhaps we should be able to swap places temporarily?
I also saw women smoking green cigars. These are another typically Burmese thing: 'cheroots', cigars hand-made from leaves, tobacco, wood-chips, roots and herbs and said to be very mild because of the low tobacco content.

We left Yangon. Traffic became lighter. We got our first look at the countryside. Very beautiful, very green. The road was wide and quite good. I remarked upon that to Phone Kyaw. He laughed and said the good roads would soon be finished. He wasn't kidding! Near the small town of Hmawby the road deteriorated and narrowed considerably.

All in all it was a pretty monotonous ride, due North. The landscape was very green, but agricultural, not jungly. Everywhere I looked I saw people, most of them working in the paddy fields. It was rice harvesting season so there was a lot of activity. We walked into the fields, carefully avoiding slipping into the deep mud. Everywhere there were holes in the soil, the residences of countless land crabs.

We met the farmers. Very, very friendly people who were glad to meet us. By means of Phone Kyaw we were able to communicate with these folks, an incredible advantage of hiring a car and driver! The workers told us they were in a great hurry to harvest the rice because of the bad weather. The rice had fully ripened - all brown - and needed to be cut before the rain destroyed it. If that happened the consequences would be catastrophic for the population, they said, because the price would rocket. I hoped the rain would stay away but, looking at the sky, was sure it would return soon enough. Unfortunately.

We passed through several villages and townships, which were completely 'different' for us but basically all looked the same - a characteristic of travel in Third World countries, maybe. The journey did, however, offer a great opportunity to get to know Phone Kyaw better and ask him lots of questions about the country and its people. He answered them to the best of his knowledge, which seemed to be all-encompassing. He said he was a religious person, practised meditation and "kept his morality", i.e. adhered the five basic Sila rules for laymen (don't kill, don't steal, don't commit adultery, don't lie, and don't take intoxicating substances). And indeed, right from the start he radiated calmness, trustworthiness and self-control, great virtues for a driver in this country.
Being a driver in Burma is no sinecure! Traffic is slow, but one has to be attentive all the time. On the roads - and especially in the built-up areas - pedestrians, bicyclists, rickshaw drivers, bullock- and buffalo-carts, cars, trucks, buses, dogs, pigs, ducks, chickens, goats and various other animals all jostle for space. Passing a car and especially a truck or bus is very tricky indeed, as driving in the country is on the right hand-side but the majority of cars have the steering-wheel also on the right side. This is a direct consequence of general Ne Win changing the driving customs from left to right one day in 1970, supposedly following the advice of his astrologers who informed him he ought to "move the country from left to right". As in most developing countries the people seem to have to developed their own set of traffic rules which are totally unofficial but seemingly very effective. When a vehicle wants to pass another, the driver usually honks the horn and makes himself visible in one of the mirrors of the vehicle in front. Normally, the driver of that car will then switch on his direction-indicators: left when it's safe to pass, right when it's not. If the manoeuvre has been executed, the passing driver briefly honks the horn a couple of times and/or sticks his (there are no 'hers' driving in Myanmar) hand out of the window to say "Thank you". Compared to, say, India or Lebanon traffic is leisurely, but this courtesy makes it appear much safer than it actually is. Phone Kyaw informed me that it's one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, not only because of the hazards mentioned above, but particularly due to the consequences if there is an accident. Every accident, no matter how small, will require the driver to cough up at least 20,000 Kyats, more if the police get involved. If a victim has any bone fractures and the police are notified, the erring driver is sent to jail for at least one year, possibly up to three. Running over and killing a Burmese would result in about 10 years, killing a foreigner in lifelong imprisonment! And one can rest assured that sentences in Burma are effective; there is no chance of release on parole.

Shwemyethman PayaMany hours after we'd departed from Yangon we arrived at the boundary of Shwedaung township, where a Buddha image in the Shwemyethman Paya can be seen wearing golden spectacles. Apart from being unique in the world, that wouldn't be too spectacular were it not for the fact that the Buddha is 6 metres (20 ft) high and the solid gold frame of the glasses is thus enormous!

The wife of a blind man repeatedly came to this pagoda to pray to the Buddha, hoping her husband would be given back his eyesight. When this miraculously happened, the couple donated the spectacles to show their gratitude. This paya is a peaceful, untouristy place to visit and a stop is definitely recommended if you have your own set of wheels. In Shwedaung one can also see a relatively new bridge spanning the Ayeyarwady river. From there it's only about fifteen minutes to Pyay.

Pyay, or 'Prome' as it became known in British colonial times, is located just north of Sri Ksetra, the ancient capital of the Pyu, a group of people who established city-kingdoms in northern Myanmar between the 1st century BC and 800 AD. We were only going to spend a night there, but even in that very short time I fell in love with the place. It has a lovely, tropical setting and there's a very colonial feel about it. The city's roads are largely unsurfaced and if they are, the asphalt is broken. There are trees and other greenery everywhere. Humidity was high.

It was quite late in the afternoon and - knowing we had to leave for Bagan early next morning - we wanted to see the Shwesandaw Paya, one of the holiest spots in the country. It's a magnificent place! A covered stairway guarded by two big chinthes (mythological animals, half lion, half dragon) leads up to the pagoda, which is built on a hill and is just one metre taller than the famous Shwedagon in Yangon. Looking to my right, I saw two huge connected towers topped by the typical Burmese tiered roofs. An elevated walkway leads to the paya. For only 1 Kyat one can use an elevator inside the towers to get up to the walkway. I expected a ramshackle device pulled up by rusty old cables ready to snap, but no, what we stepped into was a state-of-the-art Japanese lift, complete with attendant!

From upstairs the views in all directions are truly stunning; quite simply some of best I saw in the country. The atmosphere throughout the sacred grounds is serene. The impressive pagoda, supposedly containing another few hairs of the Buddha, is completely gilded; some blue-painted structures at the base make for a nice contrast. In several subsidiary buildings jataka scenes (Buddha life stories) and local tales are depicted. It's in one of these buildings that we met one of the trustees of the pagoda, a really nice chap and quite informative. We offered a donation - totally unsolicited, I'd like to add. We'd find out later that there are trustees who keep other morals!...

By the time we'd finished looking around, the sun had set and the lights in the city had been lit. We still needed to find a hotel. I asked Phone Kyaw - who didn't interfere with any decisions we made - if he knew a good place. He said he had stayed with other travellers at the Myat Guest House and they hadn't complained. We decided to have a look. The friendly proprietor showed us a room. The price asked was $20 for a double with A/C but without attached toilet/shower (the latter are down the corridor but immaculately clean, as are the rooms). No bargaining. Having paid $20 in Yangon and seen the prices quoted in the Lonely Planet guide for other places, I thought it was acceptable. But the room was too expensive, though I didn't know that at the time. After all, only after spending a while in a country does one get to know what's a fair amount to pay (for anything) and what is not. It didn't matter that much really; we had a great shower, had a wonderful night's sleep and the best was still to come: the breakfast in the morning, prepared by the owner's sister. She had studied chemistry at the University of Yangon before it was closed in 1996 (the 'Visit Myanmar Year'). All the country's universities have been closed ever since; the military junta decided it was necessary after anti-government demonstrations by students.
Later that evening we wanted to have dinner. We ended up at the Hlaing Ayeyar Restaurant right on the bank of the mighty Ayeyarwady river, which is poetically known as 'The Road to Mandalay'. It was a fantastic location and it felt great to be sitting outside at night with a temperature of around 25°C (and still no rain!) whilst at home people's butts were nearly freezing off. It was pitch dark except for the illiminated silhouettes of pagodas in the distance and the bridge crossing the river at Shwedaung. The only audible sounds were the gentle rolling of the water when a boat passed by, and the cacophony produced by numerous insects. I loved this place, especially as the Chinese food served was superb. In the Lonely Planet guide this restaurant is slagged off but in my humble opinion totally wrongly.

When we got up the next morning it was raining. Yes indeed. Again ...
We had no time to explore the ruins at Sri Ksetra - we had never intended to visit them anyway; from what we heard they're only interesting to true archaeology buffs. We saw one of the Pyu stupas not far from the main road heading North, just out of town. Its conical style was unusual but the heavy showers which were coming down by then prevented me from fully appreciating it. We were glad to be inside the car again. The rain was really heavy!

Phone Kyaw needed to fill up the car so we made a stop at Pyay's MPPE petrol station (government - owned). It was quite an experience in its own right: an employee, walking around barefoot in the ankle-deep mud which was royally mixed with fuel, filled up a jug at a central tank and then emptied it into the car's fuel tank by means of a big metal funnel, which collected quite a bit of the pouring rain. In the meantime our driver handed over a little red book to another person. In this it was registered that Phone Kyaw had taken that month's three gallons of petrol in Pyay. It looked to all the world like a communist procedure, and when I inquired later I heard it is indeed a legacy of Burma's 'socialist' period (I wonder if that's why the book was red?).

After Pyay the road became even narrower, making passing ever more difficult. Sometimes we had to pull into the muddy roadside where unexpected pits or rocks lurked, ready to cause plenty of damage to the car's suspension. So were the innumerable potholes, especially as they were full of water, making them almost invisible. On several occasions the road had simply been washed away. We often saw self-appointed workers clearing the roads of mud or repairing them as well as the conditions would allow it. These 'road-workers' are simply poor local people trying to make a living. They count on the gratitude of passing motorists whose trip has been made easier. And fortunately for them, most people are indeed grateful and throw small change out of the car window. It's both comic and tragic to watch banknotes being thrown out of several car windows at once and whirl about in the turbulence behind the cars to finally fall into the mud or water. The workers don't mind; they're extremely adept at fishing the notes out of the mire. Seeing how these people strive to make a living, we easily adopted this Buddhist way of gaining merit by giving to them.

On either side of the road were ruts made by bullock carts, which are still an important means of transportation in Myanmar and can be seen virtually everywhere. We primarily drove past rice fields and sugar cane plantations. There were people visible everywhere on this route, most of them soaking wet. This may sound weird but one of the more difficult things to do here was take a piss. For the Burmese it's quite easy: they just squat, lift up their longyis and go ahead. For us, the smart guys wearing pants (so needing to stand up), it's not so easy because everywhere you look you see someone - it's like in these Vietnam war movies where the NVA troops seem to come out of nowhere - and you don't want to offend anyone.
After a while I noticed the vegetation was changing and was becoming scarcer. Phone Kyaw said we were entering the Dry Zone, the arid central plains in the rain shadow of the Rakhine mountains. "Dry Zone?!?" It just started raining more heavily. It was truly terrible. I think we averaged a speed of about 45 kph (28 mph). Phone Kyaw said it was very unusual to have such heavy rains in this area.

We passed a really big cattle market and decided to have a look-see. It was a pleasant visit. The people there were so astonished to see foreigners that we soon felt as if we were on sale. Not too long after we'd left, Phone Kyaw said we had arrived in Magwe. "Phew! Only a few more hours", I thought, "and then we'll finally be in Bagan." How wrong could I be? Only moments later we arrived at the end of a long queue of cars and trucks. My first thought was that there had been an accident. Phone Kyaw said: "It's a creek." "A creek? What's the problem with that?" "Well, it's been raining in the mountains near Mount Popa and now the creek is full of water. We'll have to wait until the water is gone." "How long will that take?" "Not very long, I think. Probably a couple of hours." "A couple of hours?!? And that's not long?" "No. A long time means we have to stay the night somewhere around here. Maybe in the car...", he laughed out loud.

I got out and headed towards the creek. I expected to find a fairly narrow brook blocking the muddy road but still passable if you had the guts. Another mistake... What I saw, was the swirling, 200-300 metres wide result of a flash flood, impossible to cross. A bus driver, apparently with the biggest balls in the world, had attempted to drive through. Extremely foolish! His bus had been turned upside down by the strong currents and was now almost completely submerged. A spot with fierce turbulence was the only thing giving away where it was.

At least a hundred Burmese, most of them also wanting to cross, were standing near the edge of the creek looking at the water as if Moses himself was going to open up a passage. That was until we arrived. Suddenly the water wasn't important anymore; all heads turned towards us! I tried to make some conversation but nobody spoke (decent) English. The only thing I could find out was that it was going to take around two hours before the creek would become passable again. I returned to the car. Clever local sellers had set up small stalls with fruits, snacks and drinks. It was a great opportunity for them to do some good trade. Together with them, child beggars had appeared and were swarming around our car. I ignored them at first. Suddenly a young boy noticed the word 'Saloon' on the car seat covers and spelled it out: "S - A - L - O - O - N". He looked at me for confirmation that he had done so correctly. I nodded. He was extremely happy, apparently, so I let him read a couple of other, simple words. He did well and even understood the meaning. I got out and asked him where he had learned the language. "In school", he replied. We continued practising. At first his friends continued to ask for money, pens, candy, etc., but soon they too joined in. There must have been about fifteen of them. I was teaching my first English class. After a while the clever kid started to teach me some Burmese symbols. It was a nice way to pass the time and from a social point of view this was also much more beneficial to them, compared to begging.

When the estimated two hours waiting time had passed, the creek was still quite wild. We'd have to wait "another hour or so". The 'or so' became two and a half more hours. Then we noticed that local farmers with bullock carts or tractors were pulling and navigating vehicles through the creek, in which meanwhile the water had reached an acceptable level to allow this. Obviously there was a non-negotiable charge for this: 2,000 Kyats. That was fine by us; better than sitting around doing nothing for several more hours.
Phone Kyaw carefully drove through pretty deep mud to a spot where it was possible to enter the creek. One end of a rope was tied to the front of our car, the other end to a tractor. A plastic bag was fixed over the exhaust pipe with rubber bands, the three of us got in and the tractor started to pull. There were some deep gullies in the creek bed. Gosh, the water was much deeper than we had expected! The car was actually floating in the water, which soon started to seep inside. Because the tractor needed to follow a zigzag trajectory to escape the worst spots, the total distance was far greater than the actual width of the stream. We safely made the crossing but there were some hairy moments, especially when the current got hold of the car.
By the time we were pulled out on the other side the water level inside the car was just below the seats. We continued for a couple of hundred metres, past the queue which had formed here as well, then stopped to scoop out the water. We cut up some empty water bottles and began. Luckily there was only a little bit of water inside the boot, or our backpacks would have been completely soaked. While we were busy bailing out, we were approached by a bloke who wanted a ride. I didn't mind but I heard Phone Kyaw talking to him. During the conversation the man regularly looked over his shoulder as if checking that nobody else was listening; he appeared to be a bit nervous. Suddenly Phone Kyaw handed him some money, and he quickly disappeared. I asked why we couldn't give him a lift. Phone Kyaw answered that the man was an escaped convict. He didn't fully trust him so he had opted to give him some money for a bus ride rather than take him along. Personally, I thought our driver was a bit over-protective, but on the other hand he was in the best position to evaluate the situation.

It was getting dark by the time we were on our way again and except for breakfast and a couple of bananas, we hadn't eaten a single thing that day. We stopped at the Country Rest House & Restaurant near Kyauk Padaung. It didn't look too clean at first but the food turned out to be wonderful and quite safe. We were waiting for the meals to be served when I heard a rhythmic but rather strange sound coming from a building at the back of the restaurant. I asked Phone Kyaw what it might be. He said he wasn't 100% sure but it was most likely a loom. When the boy waiter (child labour is omnipresent in Myanmar) arrived with the food, Phone Kyaw asked what the sound was. It turned out it was the Chinese cook chopping up the meat. Sounds more like a Swedish cook to me!

We were ready for the last leg of the trip: Kyauk Padaung to Nyaung U. It was the worst part weather-wise. Sometimes the visibility was almost zero and we nearly broke an axle when driving through a puddle - or what Phone Kyaw thought was a puddle. It turned out to be bloody deep! We were lucky to stay on the track. On top of that we had to pass through a second creek! It wasn't as wide as the previous one nor was it as wild. Actually there was little water in this one; it was full of deep mud. I warned Phone Kyaw not to drive into it but he ignored me and went over the edge. We could drive only a few feet, then got hopelessly stuck. Before my eyes flashed scenes in which we had to get out and stand in knee-deep slush, hopelessly trying to get the car out, but suddenly ten or so 'road workers' appeared from nowhere to lend us a hand. I wanted to get out to lighten the vehicle but they wouldn't let me. They wanted to "give us a good service"... Surprisingly it didn't take too long before we were freed. On our way out, Phone Kyaw and I threw several hundred Kyat notes out of the window. The workers deserved it; they had done a wonderful job.

At Nyaung U there was a ticket booth alongside the road; it looked like just another toll-booth for collecting road- or town-tax. A couple of unfriendly government officials inspected our passports and collected the 10 Dollar entry fee for the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Looking back I can honestly say it was worth every cent. Whether you stay for one or ten days, the fee is the same. Previously, $10 was only good for two nights (every extra night was $2 more), but that rule has now been abolished.
The Lonely Planet guide I was carrying was virtually useless. A new edition of the book was desperately needed (it was out by the time I returned home). Only a handful of hotels were listed, whilst there were in fact dozens of them. The supply was far greater than the demand. Phone Kyaw said he knew the staff of the Silver Moon Hotel well because he almost always stayed there. It's located in New Bagan (2nd Street, Khan Laung Quarter).

New Bagan is a couple of miles from Nyaung U and you have to drive in between the many old temples and other religious buildings to get there. The area is pitch dark at night, so at every turn one such building or another loomed ahead of us. Sometimes we were concentrating more on what was happening in front of us; the rain water had formed brooklets which ran across the roads. Some were over a foot deep.

The Silver Moon Hotel is in a quiet location. It's an excellent place, especially for the price. They wanted $20 for a double room with all the amenities (incl. good breakfast, TV and telephone) but because we were with Phone Kyaw we got a $5 discount! The place is modern and extremely clean. The people working there are friendly and helpful. It was simply our best deal in the whole country; I thoroughly recommend it. We stayed there all of our four nights in Bagan.

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