Ming A Lah Bah!
Greetings from Myanmar.
I haven't updated the blog in this past week primarily because internet is fairly average in Myanmar and secondly because I've been too distracted with all the amazing things going on around me! It's now Thursday, and I'm back in Yangon, getting ready to fly out to Bangkok tomorrow and to Delhi on Saturday to begin the Indian leg of my adventure.
As it's been about a week since I last wrote on Thursday, I have quite a lot to write, but I don't want to leave out any detail either as this country is completely amazing and I'd like to be able to reflect back on my first experiences here. Read on if you can be bothered!
On Thursday night we arrived the very short flight from Bangkok - flying with AirAsia was much easier than I thought may be. Our hostel had a bus to pick up all its passengers and as we drove through the city I couldn't wipe the smile off my face - head out the window, hair blowing, wide grin and tail wagging. Everything I saw I loved, and everyone I smiled at smiled back.
That's actually one of the most prominent things I have realised from just a month in South East Asia: the power of a big toothy smile. I've smiled more in this past month than probably the last six in Sydney, and not because I am permanently ecstatic here or nor because I was depressed in Sydney, but rather I suspect it is because 1) it defies language communication barriers, and 2) Sydney-siders (myself included) take themselves too seriously and are a bit too self-important to smile at strangers. Virtually every time I smile at someone here, it is reflected back at me graciously - only wider and with authentic kindness. Maybe we're just not as happy as these people...which seems backwards considering how little they have in comparison to us.
Anyway, my first impression of the city of Yangon was in appearance it was very similar to other Asian cities, but for me it held some air of excitement. Many people wore 'longyi', which are like a type of skirt for both men and women which twists at the front to fit. Lots of people also, mainly women and children, wore a type of pale yellow facepaint, either all over of in parts of their face. It is a very curious culture indeed.
We arrived at Motherland Inn 2, which I would recommend to guests not because of the facilities but because of the staff - everyone is quite friendly, happy to arrange onward travel and there is a great free breakfast included. Anyway, we got settled and met a German guy staying at our hostel named Ben who had been working in Myanmar for a year and a half for an NGO. We got some great advice from him, and exchanged our USD into kyats with him for a great rate which is good. Currency in Myanmar is quite funny - you pay for accommodation and some buses/boats etc in USD, however these must be PERFECT. No folds or creases, tears or marking, they often check the serial number (I'm not sure what for), and one girl I met even had her note rejected as Benjamin's nose was 'too shiny'. The rest of things you pay for in kyat (pronounced chat). The rate you get is higher if you exchange $100 notes, and lower if you exchange small denominations like $20 or $50. So there is no set rate. But by changing with Ben we got the highest rate I've seen (810kyat/$1) as he simply wanted to get rid of some of this kyat. I also got his email and may see about getting involved with the NGO he was working with here, as it sounds quite interesting.
Later that night Riley and I wandered up the street to get some food and had a great meal, served by some funny little local boys. Halfway into our meal I could hear a man next to us trying to coax his young son into saying 'hello, how are you', which I thought was very cute, so I went to sit with them and Riley soon joined. The man's name was Mimin, and he could speak English, Thai and a bit of Korean, and was very warm and generous to us. His son was wearing an adorable Pikachu outfit, and we discovered that the facepaint is made from a wood and is used to keep the skin nice and healthy and young. After an hour or so speaking with him we left, but were given his address and will hopefully visit him tonight or some time before we go.
On Friday morning I woke up early, as usual, and Riley slept in, as usual. I went for a short walk to get a feel for the town and was impressed by beautiful little nothings. A young girl came up to me and said hello, but it was clear she couldn't speak much English so we just walked together. Eventually she built the courage to ask where I was from and 'Name?', but we couldn't do much more than that. It was just another friendship built on a smile.
I was quite worried about accommodation for the trip as I'd heard it can be difficult to get and had wanted to book early, but Riley assured me there would be local guesthouses we can stay in. As usual, the lady was right, and I spent about three hours in the morning with a very generous and patient young lady at reception organising our trip. We decided on visiting Pyin U Lwin, Mandalay and Bagan, and hopefully Mt Popa and Pakkoku as side trips, although they didn't eventuate. I actually quite enjoy planning things so it wasn't a burden at all, and was satisfied when it was all sorted - we were to board the overnight bus that night.
During the day we didn't do much, but met some people at the guesthouse who were ending their trip and got some advice, and even scored a free Lonely Planet Myanmar guidebook which has been awesome. We also went for a walk to see if we could get a good rate to exchange some more money (though gave up pretty swiftly) and just had a peep around the streets. Some boys were playing a game on the side of the street and one kept following Riley, who started trying to teach him how to whistle, it was pretty cute.
The rest of the afternoon we just hung out in the hostel, and I changed all the stuff I'd need into my very small backpack and a handbag - which I am SO grateful for. I completely underestimated the benefits of travelling light, but it really does make things so much easier and I'm not looking forward to using my big bag again (which the hostel kindly minded for us)
Late in the afternoon we got a taxi to the bus depot, got some food, and eventually we boarded the bus, which was surprisingly spacious and comfortable (as far as an overnight bus goes). After a few hours had a stop off. Funnily, I went to look for a bathroom and when entering a cubicle a lady quickly whisked me out and directed me to a 'western style' toilet rather than the hole-in-the-ground ones. Of course I don't mind either way but it was a funny and cute gesture - the people here are very kind and thoughtful. For the first few hours of the bus they were playing a Burmese TV show, which, although I didn't understand a word - was HILARIOUS. The actors are absolutely terrible and it appears they've tried to imitate typical Western TV shows - guy is player, then meets a girl he actually loves, and is caught in all sorts of sticky situations when it appears he's cheating but is not. It was classic, and funnily since then we've seen the main actor everywhere - posters, billboards, other TV shows etc. Very fun. One thing I will say about the bus though is it gets FREEZING. We'd been warned about this but I had not expected the extent of the cold - at about 10pm they just shot the air con up completely and it was so cold.
At about 4am we arrived in Mandalay (not even close to the 7am they'd suggested) at a big bus depot, with absolutely no idea where we were. Our main agendas were to book a boat to Bagan and to find a way to Pyin U Lwin. It was surprisingly easy, as we found an agent and a moto driver and sorted it all out within an hour or so, and were soon on our way in a shared taxi up the hills to Pyin U Lwin, about two hours away.
For some reason which I cannot explain, Pyin U Lwin (pronounced Pyin Oo Loo) was probably my favourite place we stayed. The hotel was quite nice (Bravo Hotel) - a bit pricey at $25 between us, but everywhere else was booked out due to our late booking. There was a wait before we could go to our room, so we went to a tea house around the corner and played cards and ate delicious samosas. The people working there were really friendly too, and I don't think they get foreign visitors that often. Riley fell asleep when we got into the hotel (I really don't understand how he sleeps so much - I think he's been asleep for 60% of this trip!) and he continued to sleep for 8 hours! But I was happy with that as I enjoy exploring on my own. I went for a few walks around town, interested in the beautiful architecture and relaxed feel of the area. It was an old British colonial town, and there is still much evidence of this in the church-style buildings, clock tower and horse and carts all over town. There also appears to be a much higher Indian-Burmese population in this area than there had been in Yangon, which I think must have something to do with the British using Indian troops in their colonisation efforts of Burma.
On one of my walks I came across a beautiful little boy, though he was quite dirty, who was begging with his mother and grandmother. I have a bit of a problem with giving to beggars in Myanmar as I believe it will encourage it and possibly foster an environment similar to Cambodia - which I would hate, but I couldn't help giving his mother 500K and the little boy 200K of his own (which probably equates to about 90c). I still couldn't get their beautiful faces out of my head so I bought a bag of nuts and loaf of bread and gave them to him and he ran off to share it with his family. I don't really know the best way to help these people but I guess I'm just trying to do little bits where I can.
That evening Riley finally woke up at about 7pm, and after a brief encounter watching The Princess Diaries and Twilight on local Burmese TV we decided to go to an Indian Restaurant called 'Family Restaurant' for dinner. There was an interesting array of food, which was pretty good, though I soon found out this was not conducive to solving Riley's diarrhoea issues, which he seems to have no problem discussing with me in detail unfortunately.
The next morning we woke up quite early as we had a busy day ahead, and had some average breakfast on the roof. We had organised motorbikes to drive us around for the day which was really fun and convenient. First stop was the Strawberry Farm near Pyin U Lwin. It was just as it says; a strawberry farm, but more idyllic than you could imagine. Rows of colourful flowers, trees and strawberry plants, birds tweeting and butterflies flying round, all set on a hill with a valley backdrop. It seemed quite set up for tourists, however when I drove past later in the day I only saw locals sitting at the huts there drinking coffee (and I assume eating strawberries) so maybe it's not as touristy as we'd suspected.
Next we made our way down deep into the valley to the village of Myaing Gyi on our way to Peik Chin Myaung - an amazing area full of extensive caves which house hundreds of colourful statues of different gods and stupas. It's truly amazing and gets more and more interesting the further you go in. I took numerous pictures but they don't really do it justice, but it was very cool. There were many Burmese tourists there which indicates to me it may be some important area of worship. At one of the main areas of worship, where mats were set in front of a shrine, was a small family sitting around. A young girl named Zhong (I don't know how to spell it but I think that's how it was pronounced) came up to me, who spoke very good English. She was very interested in talking to us, and apparently her mum said I was 'very cute'. She'd studied law in Yangon but was working in Dubai airport Duty Free Store and was being placed at Singapore, and had traveled a bit in between. I think she's probably the first Burmese person I've met who has traveled abroad. Her dad took a photo of us with her sisters, and we had a nice chat, but I wish I'd got her email or something and been able to keep contact with her, she seemed really interesting. Maybe next time I'm at the Singapore Duty Free store I'll meet her again!
After this we headed back through Pyin U Lwin to Anisakan Falls, which is down towards Mandalay (though my driver had to stop a few times as Riley and his moto were too slow compared to us speed demons). When we got there I remembered reading that it was something like a 45 minute walk down the mountain to the waterfall, and started to question my choice. A big Burmese family including grandmothers walked up puffing and smiling at us, and it looked like walking up would be a total bitch, but I figured if they could do it - I can. When we finally made it down it was well worth it. The shrubbery and rocks along the walk had not lent any hint of a look at the falls, and so when they were revealed in their full glory it was spectacular. The water was the only blue water I've seen in all of South East Asia, the waterfall was big and tall, the rocks a rich yellow sandstone, and a golden stupa was beside. It was really beautiful. We hung out there for a few hours and met an English couple, but most people there were big local families. I desperately wanted to swim in the blue water, but it appears it didn't even cross the locals minds and I think it may be considered a bit disrespectful. Eventually we mustered the courage to start the walk back up, and although I'd anticipated it to be difficult, it was much worse than I'd though. Due to sheer stupidity we were walking back in the 1pm heat, and I had only had about half a bottle of water all day. I felt sick and dizzy and as if I'd vomit, but luckily Riley was patient and allowed me to stop every few minutes. There were a few stopping points and at one I laid down where there were a few local boys carrying bags of what I assume is rice down the bottom (there was a small food and drink stall at the bottom). One of them saw that I was sick and gave me a frozen lolly type thing - they were disgustingly sweet but the ice was so nice on my face and they were so kind. Riley tried to give them 400K (50c) but the man would not take it and ran back down the hill. Riley eventually slipped it in his pocket when we were back up the top, but the man looked almost offended - these people are incredibly generous.
We got back on the motos to the main road where we left our drivers and hopped on a 'pick up' to Mandalay, which is basically a Hilux ute where they stick wooden planks for seats on the ground and far too many people. On our pick up were two young girls, probably about 12, who spoke no English but were pretty interested in us foreigners. Something I've noticed about Myanmar is their obsession with Justin Bieber, particularly 'Baby', and I discovered I had it on my old iPod (don't ask why it's on there). I gave them earphones and played it for them, which I think they loved, and in return they gave Riley and I dried fruit sweet type things. One girl also pulled out some photos, which I discovered had been taken at the caves we had been at earlier today! We couldn't communicate this, which is unfortunate, but it has inspired me more to learn Burmese.
About 2-3 hours later we landed back in Mandalay and the driver found our hostel, AD-1 Guesthouse. Riley had a nap (of course) and I went for a walk, getting some street-side chipati and some ice cream at a shop that had been recommended in the Lonely Planet - man I miss ice cream. That night we went to see the renowned Moustache Brothers, who are a comedy trio (two brothers and a cousin) who are famous for their risky political comedy. Two of them have been jailed for I think six years for making jokes about the government during a show at Aung Sun Suu Kyi's house in the late 90s, and again in 2007, however part of their release conditions is that they can only perform to foreigners in their home in Mandalay - I guess the government appreciates the money they can receive from tourists. The show was very interesting and funny, sort of slapstick style, with many depictions of traditional Burmese dance by Lu Maw's wife and sisters. His adorable grandson (about 2yo) also featured in the show, which was absolutely adorable!
After the show we got an trishaw back to the hostel and then decided to find some food. It was late and most things were closed, but we stopped at a street side restaurant, and although the food was very average, we met the most lovely man ever. He was the owner of the shop, named Kimng Win (pronounced Kimmo Win I think), and I think that foreigners mustn't visit him very often, and he was very keen to practice his English and make sure that we liked his food and had much to eat. We spoke to him for a while, helping him with his English by writing things down, and he appeared genuinely sad that we were only in Mandalay for one night. He wondered why we came, and he couldn't understand so I wrote 'We want to see your country. Myanmar is very beautiful. I love Myanmar'. He was very touched and it highlighted to me that these people really appreciate foreign contact and knowing that other nations have an interest and care for their country. We promised to visit his restaurant some time in the next few years, and he wanted my number though it doesn't work in Myanmar, and we gave him our emails. If you ever visit Mandalay and don't mind sacrifice a not-so-delicious meal for some beautiful company, go to the corner of 26th and 86th street at night. But bring mosquito spray - as Kimng Win will apologise profusely about them as if they are his fault! When we left he gave Riley a packet of Burmese cigarettes and his young son gave me a type of leaf-wrapped cigar type thing. I'd tried one of these at the Moustache Brothers show, and didn't really like the flavour, but it was quite luxurious and very sweet of him to do. Riley felt bad and wanted to return them the next day or something, but I think it's important for them as they like to give gifts and have this strange sense of offence if someone will not accept a gift willingly. It's strange and kind of difficult to be faced with generosity when we have so much more than them, but it's just evidence again of their incredibly selfless and kind spirit.
On Monday we were up early again and got some breakfast at the hostel before getting on a moto to the boat pier. The boat tickets we bought were pretty pricey at $40, but I couldn't scope out any alternative (there are slow boats for $10 on Sunday and Wednesday but these are government run and slow, taking two days or so - the fast boat is about 11 hours as it is!). As such, only tourists were on the boat. Funnily, a few people we'd seen at the Moustache Brothers show were also on our boat. I spent most of the time trying to sleep or listen to music, taking photos and relaxing as I wasn't feeling very well. The overpriced food on the boat made me feel even worse, but having a day of doing nothing wasn't too bad after the busy day before. There were only a few highlights. One was a large headland we passed covered in temples and stupas. It was really beautiful and looked like and island, but it may have just been a jagged shore of the mainland. Either way, it looked idyllic and almost what I imagine Santorini to be like except golden and pointy instead of blue and rounded.
At one point after I'd dozed of I woke up to some excited screaming from outside the boat. Out the window were about four or five older ladies holding bunches of bananas, trying to selling them to tourists on the boat. It was amazing and mesmerising and the lady threw me a bunch of about 14 bananas and I threw her 1000K - I don't know any woman who would get waste deep in water to throw bananas at people and then swim after $1.10 floating down the river. I didn't even want them as I already felt ill, but the desperation and determination of these women was incredible that they at least deserved something.
When we finally got into the dock at Ngaung U (the area of Bagan we were staying) we got picked up by trishaws, paid $10 for entrance to the 'Bagan Archaeological Zone' (the government) and got to our hostel (May Kha Lar - would recommend except you have to pay 4000K for Wifi - not actually that bad but I was disappointed as I was under the impression it was free...I kind of conned my way into getting the password and a refund anyway). I felt even worse than before and stayed in the room, while Riley went out. It was good to have time to myself, especially when ill, and after a sneaky little chunder I felt much better and was able to sleep quite well through til about 5 or 6am.
I woke up not feeling 100% again, but decided to ignore it and take an easy day anyway. I honestly can't remember doing anything eventful except going for a couple of walks around the street, but no where too adventurous. I tried a few meals at local restaurants, but Burmese food leaves a lot to be desired and their take on Western food ain't great. Riley rented a bike and later in the afternoon we bumped into each other at a tea house. A beautiful monk was sitting opposite us and had the kindest eyes I've ever seen. He didn't speak a word of English but seemed to absolutely adore Riley and kept filling his tea cup and lighting his cigarettes. I took a few photos of him which he looked at and laughed at and for some strange reason just thinking about him and his hairy little chin and gummy grin makes my heart warm.
Later in the evening Riley showed me an Italian restaurant he had been to the night before where we got pizza and pasta. It was expensive and personally I thought it was pretty crap, but I guess it was nice to have something a bit different. Not feeling great again, and just generally tired, I went to bed early while Riley went out with a Polish guy he'd met the night before.
Yesterday morning we were up bright and early at about 5am to see the sunrise at the Bagan temples. We got a horse and cart out there, which looked pretty luxurious and had been on my to-do list, but wasn't quite as comfortable as the mattress made it look. Still, it was fun - and of course Riley manage to sleep even on the 10 minute ride. We went to a temple to climb on top of to watch the sunrise. We were the only ones there and the only people I could see for miles, other than our driver and a small family that lived in a shack at the bottom of the temple. It was quite cold and we had to wait about 15 minutes for the sun to rise (of course Riley slept in this time - on top of a freezing temple). I stayed for a while and took a lot of photos. Riley couldn't handle the cold and saw that the family at the bottom had a fire and went to sit with them. I stayed for a while longer until most of the fog had cleared, before joining him. There was an older man and woman, and small child playing with a broken plastic truck. They didn't speak any English but got us pieces of wood to sit on on the ground around the fire, boiled us tea and gave us sweets. Yet another example of Burmese hospitality, and they expected nothing in return except for us to sit and smile.
As it was early, other temples weren't open yet, and we got some mohinga (their national dish - a weird noodle/egg/sauce thing) for breakfast - which didn't sit too well with me unfortunately. A man came up to us selling sand paintings, and Riley bought one (although I maintain that he really doesn't have the money to burn, but I think it'll work out fine). A young boy was also selling 'postcards' - pieces of paper with drawings of monks/elephants etc. The looked very kitsch and cute, but in hindsight I'm thinking that they were probably made by adults and just sold by cute kids with sympathetic eyes. Either way, it's pretty funny.
Our driver took us around to a number of temples in the Bagan area, many of which were beautiful and had great views when you climbed to the top. Simply going through Old Bagan was cool anyway, as there was a number of small restaurants like a little village. One large temple we visited, Ananda Phaya, had some small stalls with shelves lining the entrance and people selling puppet, knick-nacks and lacquer ware, which Myanmar is apparently renowned for. I wasn't interested in buying anything but began speaking to this lady, who had quite good English. She said she wanted to give me a bowl, which due to the various tactics I've heard of employed in places like Cambodia, made me sceptical, but she was really just wanting to give me a gift. It's a small heat-proof, bendy bowl made from horse-hair. It doesn't have any intricate design like the other ones they sell but it was absolutely sweet of her. I went for a look inside the temple, which contained an amazing enormous golden statue, and on my way out spoke to her a bit more. She told me about her children, who were studying at university, and apparently her son collects currency. I insisted on giving her some Vietnamese Dong and Cambodian Riel that I'd kept, and reluctantly she accepted. She also said if I want to learn Burmese, to come back and meet her some time. Maybe I will!
We saw a few more temples, and at the last one we visited (I forget the name) I was feeling pretty crappy, but there was a man wanting to show us around. As I understand it, each temple has a caretaker that open and close the temples and look after them, and the caretaker here was particularly attentive. There were great views across all of the 2400 temples of Bagan (there were originally 4500 but many were destroyed in an earthquake I think is 2008). I ended up buying a sand painting from him. I'd wanted to stay away from handicrafts, and went from looking at the smallest cheap ones, but ended up with the largest most intricate ones. It is a colourful depiction of an elephant with 7 heads, as 7 is a lucky number. I think it'll make a great addition to my home one day, and for now will send it with Riley to my mum to give her new properties luck!
When we got back from the temples, I was sick again and rested for a while, reading and relaxing. Late in the afternoon I got some lunch, as I'd been craving a chicken burger - but it was absolutely terrible. I've settled that Burmese really can't do Western food. At 6 our night bus to Yangon came and we piled in. This one seemed fine as well (though the terrible videos were of child stars with terrible voices and dance moves to match), though after about 10 minutes down the road the seats were filled, and then chairs were folded down from the sides into the aisles and the aisles were filled too. Economic, but funny. Tourists were only put in the side seats and locals in the side or aisle seats, and I was a bit apprehensive as there was a baby on the bus. Adorable, but babies on night buses aren't always a good idea - however another thing I've noticed in South East Asia (particularly Myanmar) is how well-behaved children are. Babies rarely cry and children don't have tantrums. It's quite perplexing really.
And here we are! The bus got in at about 4am and we headed back over to Motherland 2. Of course our room wasn't ready and I slept on the wooden chairs in the foyer, until one of the kind workers pulled a fold-out stretcher/cot for me and I slept well. At about 7 or 8 I kind of realised that I was a sleep right in the middle of the foyer of the guesthouse and quickly moved to a less central location. And since then I've just been chilling. I just found out our room is ready so I'm going to go have a shower (it's been a while...) and probably a nap. This afternoon we're going to the renowned Shwedagon Pagoda for sunset and then sadly tomorrow we leave! But hey, I have India to look forward to!
I'll update tomorrow or the next day, and hopefully it won't be such a long post you have to endure! Congrats if you made it all the way through.