Monday, October 13, 2008

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

"It is not enough for a landscape to be interesting in itself. Eventually there must be a moral and historic interest." - Stendhal

Chapter Ten - Finally off the beaten track

Our route to follow first brought us to Thaton, the ancient centre of the Mon people. As a visitor you cannot believe that this sleepy, leafy town once was a capital. The place has a very tropical appearance; the thoroughfare is lined with old, often decaying colonial buildings. The nice atmosphere is what makes it attractive, don't come here looking for remnants of a glorious past. There's hardly anything left. We had a drink in one of the tea houses. Immediately it was clear that Thaton is not on many people's itinerary; everybody was smiling and staring at us, right from the moment we entered. A guy - one of a table of four - stood up and came up to me and initiated a conversation. I didn't understand much of what he said but it was clear that he was trying to make friends - friendship is always highly valued in Asia. In the end he invited us over at his house. When his mates heard him do this they jumped to the 'rescue'. I could make out that they convinced him this wouldn't be such a good idea, not because of me but because of possible troubles with the police. I understood and didn't want to be the cause of problems for him, so I friendly denied his offer - something he clearly appreciated judging from the shy smile of relief.

Beyond Thaton the scenery becomes quite spectacular. In the distance rise hazy rock formations with unusual shapes from the wide, green expanse. We were looking towards the Kayin state, which is the Burmese name for Karen state. Shortly before the border there's an army checkpoint where military intelligence officers scrutinise passports. Surprisingly there's no checkpoint at the border itself, just a sign to welcome visitors. It's worth stopping there for a while; the views over the plains are very good.

A couple of miles further on, one of the curious rocks is virtually near the main road. Not only is it a wonderful sight, inside of it is the Bayin Nyi Cave, housing several Buddha images. I didn't find it very impressive after having seen the Pindaya and Maha Nan Damu Caves - however, do look for the stalagmite resembling an elephant; it may be the best thing inside - but the monastery in front of the rock is. It's very picturesque, situated behind two water reservoirs fed by hot water springs. The chief monk is a wonderful chap.

The rock is home to a huge monkey colony. Fortunately the long-tails are not (yet) aggressive here. They could soon become so, though, just like on Mt Popa. The people don't understand that feeding the monkeys harms the animals' natural feeding pattern. The primates quickly figure out they don't have to find the food but instead the food comes to them. A problem is that the visitors never carry enough to satisfy the needs of all monkeys. This can lead to internal strife in the troop and to aggressiveness towards the feeders. Of course there are hawkers selling 'monkey food' in all these places, and Bayin Nyi is no exception. Even more than caring for the monkeys, Phone Kyaw wanted to financially help the lady selling the stuff and bought several big bags of it. It took him ages to distribute it all.

There are a few simple cafes near the entrance but the people weren't very talkative. If you want to have a chat, better see the chief monk or the paya trustee near the entrance (but bring someone to translate).
A visit to this place is recommended. Foreign visitors are definitely still a novelty.

Zwe Kapin rock, Hpa-an It's a very, very beautiful region : yellowish rice fields dotted with lone palm trees, tropically lush towns and the fascinating and unusual rock formations. The most imposing of those is Zwe Kapin near Hpa-an, the capital of Kayin state; it has a very characteristic shape.
It's possible to climb it. It takes about an hour (but is killing in the oppressive mid-day heat). The view from the top is mind-blowing.

For views of Zwe Kapin itself we were directed by locals to a low hill facing it. But when we arrived on the top, the views were completely obstructed by bushes and trees. There was nothing to see up there apart from a functioning waterworks and a deserted bunker used in the not-so-distant past.

Hpa-an is lovely. There's nothing going on really, but it has a very charming atmosphere. A great place to spend a couple of days. We went to a nice little place where locals came to watch movies during the daytime and sang karaoke in the evening. Such a wonderfully friendly bunch... Incredible !

The film which was on in the afternoon was a Chinese action flick, subtitled in English. It was not only very violent but also contained a lot of sex scenes (and I mean quite expressive shots). Everybody, including a couple of early teen girls, was watching it seemingly emotionless. That is, until a couple of young lads noticed me... I had quietly entered the room and taken a seat in the back. From the moment they knew I was there, these boys shyly smiled at me every time a racy scene was shown.

A good road leads from Hpa-an to Mawlamyine. Still it's not possible to achieve a decent average speed. The problem here is not the condition of the road but the many checkpoints. The first is just before the Thanlwin river crossing. The officials are polite but the checking is thorough. On the other side of the stream we had to stop briefly but weren't checked. In a slightly wooded section of the route a shed came into sight. I thought it was yet another road tax booth. It wasn't. The shack was a checkpoint manned by a single boy-soldier - I think he was not older than twelve. He carefully examined us - not our documents - at gunpoint. He spoke to our driver about something. Once he was satisfied we weren't threatening elements, we could continue. Phone Kyaw said the boy was Karen - there are many children in the Karen resistance armies. He never had a childhood. When he was born, his family was fighting the government troops and he grew up amongst it. Such a shame... A child his age should be playing with his friends, with toys not guns. But only a person who's never seen war can think like me, I guess...

We arrived at another bridge, spanning the Gyaing river. Before we could cross it we had to undergo another identity check. And this time the military in charge were not polite ! We were shown into a small building by a guard. The two military intelligence (ain't that a contradiction in terms !) officers present were sleeping on their beds - it was clear that not many foreigners passed through here. They were very annoyed that because of us they had to wake up - something we hadn't wanted... A military policeman wearing an unusual dark blue uniform apparently made sure we didn't make any wrong moves; he was a very rude man.

The two officers tried to convince Phone Kyaw to turn back by threatening him. Phone Kyaw, however, didn't budge - he didn't want to disappoint us. The road was officially open and all documents were in order so legally they couldn't touch him. The thing is that legality means nothing in this country, so it was quite courageous of him. Eventually the information in our passports was copied (in writing) and meanwhile we were asked several pointless questions. I wonder why these guys were in charge here. They weren't even able to distinguish my passport number from my height in centimetres; they just wrote it down as one number.

It's important to stay polite at all times. There's no use in insulting the military because it will only make things more difficult for you, and even more so for the Burmese. Your driver, your friend or just the people nearest to the army men you made lose face will get a hard time because of you. Therefore I feigned a friendly good-bye to these guys. It was, however, not responded to. I didn't really care about that - I was glad we were on our way again.

We didn't get far, though. Another bridge (across the Ataran river) came up. I was surprised we only had to slow down but not stop. No check. It was a short-lived joy, though : before entering Mawlamyine we had to park the car and follow a traffic policeman to a tent where soldiers took note of our passport details. Then a security officer was sent for. The big, stately man walked out of a nearby building and was actually friendly. A very cursory glance at our documents and we were on our way again.

I knew we had arrived in Moulmein (the old colonial name of Mawlamyine) because it was the first big built-up area after a long while, but I couldn't believe this was Myanmar's third biggest city. It's very, very green, there are many buildings dating back to a bygone era, no high-rise constructions except for the pagodas and hardly any private cars, just the typical semi-wooden buses and some taxis. Standing atop the hilly ridge in the east of the city, the best viewpoint, I actually got the impression of looking into the past - at least a hundred years back. An unusual feeling manned me because this wasn't the past... This was the present day !

This viewpoint, which is on the western side of the ridge and is marked as such, is a great place to meet interesting locals. I met many there and notwithstanding they were all unique individuals, basically they all told me the same : that it is very dangerous to talk to foreigners because the secret police is everywhere. "It's like the Gestapo in Nazi Germany." The government hates the Mon people and keeps Moulmein extremely backward; instead of progressing, the city goes back in time. "Just look at this city... Is this a modern city ? It's still the same as when the British left it." It's true; it's probably hardly different. Great for us, visitors, because it's what we like to call 'authentic', but for the people who have to live there, it's a very painful truth.

The best about Moulmein is Moulmein; a walk around the city is extremely pleasing. It's a really leafy place with an exceptionally colonial feel about it and the people are very friendly and fun to talk to, although their stories often have a sad undertone. There are certainly worse things than a late afternoon stroll on Strand Road, the boulevard along the Thanlwin river which for all the world feels as if it's right by the sea.

There are many churches in Mawlamyine. The most famous is the First Baptist Church but purely esthetically speaking, I appreciated the dark red brick St Matthew's most. Joseph, the priest at St Patrick's Roman Catholic Church, invited us over and showed us around the interior and graveyard. Nothing particularly interesting but the father was interesting to talk to; his mother and father had died in the Second World War when Moulmein was bombed. Unfortunately his intentions were all motivated : as the herd of only a handful of Catholic parishioners amidst an overwhelming majority of Buddhists he was a very poor man; he hardly had money for himself, let alone for the decoration of the church. It turned out he had only conducted this 'tour' in the hope of getting a good donation. I could see he was indeed struggling, so I would have given him something anyway, but it's a pity that most of what he said and did was intentional. But then most of what we say and do, has an ulterior reason...
There are also several mosques in town. I found all of them terribly neglected, most likely because of lack of funds. The best of the lot is the Kaladan Mosque near the northern end of Lower Main road, on the way to Mawlamyine Hotel, but again : it has seen better times.

Kyaikthanlan PayaThere's no lack of funds for the Buddhist temples in town. The most important ones are all located on top of the ridge I already mentioned. The Kyaikthanlan Paya with its 40 metres high golden stupa is visible from far away. For only one Kyat it's possible to take an elevator up to the main terrace from where there are great views in virtually all directions, even better than from the designated viewpoint below. It is probably here that Rudyard Kipling wrote the opening lines of 'Mandalay' : "By the old Moulmein Pagoda looking lazy at the sea, there's a Burma girl a'settin, and I know she thinks of me", although it's impossible to see the sea from here.

The landscape to the west is dominated by the huge square prison, a landmark which elicited sarcastic chuckles from the locals when they saw me staring at it.

Looking to the right I saw the Mahamuni Paya, the largest Buddhist complex in Moulmein, built in typical Mon style and named after its famed namesake in Mandalay. The main image gives an idea of how the latter would look without its thick gold covering.

The Mahamuni is connected to the Kyaikthanlan by a staircase. Walking down it, one can see the Taunglay Lone Monastery, founded by King Mindon. Also interesting, is a pavilion housing very curvy reclining Buddha, surrounded on two sides by statues of his disciples. It's an image very similar to the one in the U Zina Paya but bigger, newer and more beautiful.

The U Zina Paya, a wish-fulfilling pagoda enshrining one of the many hairs of the Buddha, is not terribly interesting in itself but its trustees are. They're such nice folks; I spent almost a whole day talking to them.
When I said to the younger trustee that I didn't like all the flashing, electric halos around the Buddhas' heads, he replied that he had to renovate because otherwise nobody would come. "The Europeans like old things very much; they know how valuable they are. But here... Here, the people want to break down the old stuff and reconstruct. They have no knowledge of the value of antiques. And that's mostly because they're uneducated", he said.

The eldest of the two men was kind of prejudiced towards me at first. He asked me where I was staying. When I told him so, he answered he could live a whole month of what I paid for one night in the hotel. I explained to him that not only he was exaggerating, but also that everything was relative - remembering good old Einstein. In Burma I may be a rich person, but at home I'm just an ordinary guy in working trousers and not wealthy at all. After he had admitted his wrong we could get along much better. I like to think that before trying to get to know someone better, it's important to get the misunderstandings, the prejudice, out of the way first. There are a couple of other payas on the ridge but none of them terribly interesting.

In Mawlamyine we stayed at the Breeze Rest House on Strand Road. Spacey doubles with fan and attached toilet/shower (cold water only) go for $14, no bargaining. An unnecessarily big room upstairs costs $20 and is way overpriced because it offers no extras, it's just big. I tried to pay for the room with two ten dollar notes which were perfectly legal tender, they just had been 'used', i.e. they were a bit yellowish, definitely not torn or dirty. The reception clerk as well as the manager refused to accept them. I told them I didn't see their point because every bank would except them - I even got them at the bank. They wouldn't budge and the clerk arrogantly demanded "new money". I said I didn't have any 'new money' and insisted he'd accept them. To no avail. Unfortunately I saw no real solution to my problem so had to give in, but I knew that almost no-one I'd paid before had any change, so forked out a $100 bill and said : "Here ! And I don't want any FECs in return !" A small miracle happened : it took a while but they managed to change it.
The room was very decent but I didn’t find it a particularly friendly place and the next day we decidedly left because the generator, which was virtually next door to our room, was so noisy we couldn’t catch any sleep. Definitely the thumbs down for this one, especially for the price. Breakfast is really lousy too (it’s included in the price, but is worthless).

We went 'shopping' for alternatives to the Breeze Rest House but the cheapest option we found was the Shwe Hintha Hotel, which is (much) more expensive at $30 for a double. The rooms, however, are very nice and the (mostly female) staff is extremely and genuinely friendly. The hotel's very quiet and clean and has all the mod-cons you’d expect it to have. The included breakfast isn’t something to write home about, though, and as it was quite unacceptable in the Breeze, it certainly is at this price level.

I think I checked out all the places to stay (there aren't that many) and the best is no doubt the long - established Mawlamyine Hotel. It's also the most expensive ($36 single, $48 double) and I actually only went there to satisfy my curiosity. It used to be a government hotel but is now privatised.

When the Breeze Rest House solves the generator problem and maybe installs a hot water system, and doesn't raise its prices, it'll easily be the best value-for-money in town. When we were there, though, that honour went to the Shwe Hintha.

Moulmein is not the place to go to for a culinary experience. Apart from the Mawlamyine Hotel's dining room the food is not particularly good - at least, that's my humble opinion. The Phone Gyi Restaurant (the sign is only in Burmese) has only a very small selection of Chinese fare, and unfortunately it's not very clean. As a matter of fact, the kitchen smelt unclean - to get an impression of how it smelt, cut up some chicken, don't clean whatever you cut it on and leave it like that for a couple of hot summer days. Thát smell. The dishes don't exactly come cheap either.

Better, but still far from wonderful, was the Pikin (Peking) Restaurant (also with a sign in Burmese only).
My 'secret' tip is Lashio Noodle Shop, a tiny eatery where bowls of very tasty Shan noodles are served in a friendly atmosphere. And perhaps best of all : the food is cheap. It's near St Patrick's Church, across the road. By the time you read this, however, it may have moved because the owner's rental agreement had expired. You should have no trouble finding it by asking around in the immediate vicinity of the church, though.

There aren't many destinations south of Mawlamyine which foreigners are allowed to visit and even fewer where they're allowed to spend the night. One place where we could go, was Mudon, 29 kilometres to the south. There's only one checkpoint on the way, but none of the three of us noticed it. We all did on the way back, and the military certainly remembered us - not very difficult when only a few foreigners a week (or even month) pass through. We were in big trouble initially - driving through a military checkpoint without stopping is a serious offense in Myanmar. Well, actually we weren't hassled at all; it was Phone Kyaw who got all the curses and threats. Eventually he was let off by buying a carton of mineral water from the soldiers - another one of those things they do on the side.

The road passes through a verdant area. Rectangular sheets of rubber hung over ropes to dry, leave no doubt about the local industry. Just before Mudon there are rocky formations on either side of the road. On top of the one on the left is a Hindu temple dedicated to Skanda. The outcrop on the right is crowned by the usual Buddhist pagoda.

Mudon is just a simple provincial town. The point of going there is to see the construction of the largest reclining Buddha in the world. I do say 'construction', because it's not finished yet. I'd seen a picture in a guidebook, which showed it nearing completion. Well, apparently the abbot responsible for the project didn't like the proportions of the head compared to the body and had it largely dismantled. Unbelievable, especially considering the huge amount of money involved. Nevertheless it's already very impressive. I didn't really appreciate its size (169 metres or 555 feet) until I saw a couple of welders sitting on the steel-construction of the head. It's truly gigantic ! This also shows inside : it's an extensive maze covering many floors. The foreman of the workers guided us around. Only a small shrine was completed at the moment of our visit. Sculptors were busy creating statues representing scenes from the life of the Buddha; some had been completed (and were very beautiful) but most were still being worked on. Once everything's finished, this is going to be one amazing place. Unfortunately that'll take at least five more years. Following the completion of this gargantuan, the world's biggest standing Buddha will be constructed. I heard there are plans to make it almost 250 metres (820 feet) high.

A side-road (the start of which is marked by an 'elephant gate') diverts from the thoroughfare and leads to the site. It is lined on the left of its entire length with statues of monks with alms bowls, a representation of one of the life stories of the Enlightened One.

The next day we left Mawlamyine. On the roundabout near the outskirts of town is the government's view of building a better nation : representatives of Myanmar's army, navy and air force are flanked by a farmer holding a sickle and a labourer holding a hammer. It's clear that the military are the superior forces in this country.

We returned the way we had come, via Hpa-an, Thaton and Waw. In Waw we stopped for lunch in the Yatana Oo Restaurant. The service was extremely unfriendly but the food was good.

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