Posts tagged ‘burma’

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July 28, 2009 at 2:26 pm Leave a comment

the juicy tourist

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Sometimes Yangon feels a bit too touristy despite the miniscule number of tourists (compared to the numbers in all the other countries i’ve visited – although unfortunately i’m unable to find any documentation online to confirm this) Although its common to charge tourists more than locals for certain sites (in Cambodia, for example, access to the temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap cost foreigners $20 per day while locals and children were exempt from any fee). However, in Yangon the number of sites that charge foreigners but not locals is simply gruesome. Shwedagon Paya charges foreigners $5 and locals nothing, Sule Paya charges $2 and locals nothing, and a stroll around Kandawgyi lake costs $3 per foreigner and nothing for locals. In a country where the average income per capita income $200 and where foreigners like me come to see life from a Burmese point of view (and this includes minimizing spending to live more like a local) these fees are outrageous. Even the sign is insulting. We come to your country as friends and guests, why exploit us?

One of the refreshing things about Burmese people is how often they talk to you simply for the sake of talking. Usually the chat is a general introduction (what is your name? where are you from?) but sometimes the interlocutor surprises you, like tonight when the Burmese man spoke Hebrew to my Israeli friend.

The Burmese may be the most friendliest group I’ve met traveling in Southeast Asia, despite their country being the most restrictive for travelers (restrictions on where you can go, hitchhiking not possible because no driver would risk being suspected of working against the junta by trafficking foreigners, permission required before staying overnight at a local’s…)

A man approached me yesterday and wanted to tell me about the junta. He looked very tired and sad, his eyes were wet and he didn’t want to let me go. “How can I help you” I asked. “Don’t forget us,” he said.

A country whose citizens look so content from the outside and yet suffer so much discontent? During my trip I met several individuals who voiced their discontent with the government and enthusiasm (albeit weak) for the 2010 elections.

How do you judge a country? One man I spoke with analyzed that the junta is not completely bad and that about 30% of what they’ve done has improved the country. “But they don’t give us any freedom.” Is life without freedom worth the benefits of economic security? (I am not suggesting that Burmese have economic security) I recall Voltaire’s saying, “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This principle has been one of the founding ideas behind my own values… In a world where people think (that is, they have the fortune or misfortune to have access to news and others ideas) is it not cruelty to limit communication among individuals? Or is it my American “brainwashing” as Dmitry used to say that has made me so desirous for individual freedom?

On the flight back i sat next to a Burmese man who left Burma when he was a child. When i asked him about his country of birth he said it was not safe to talk. Only when the flight took off did he turn to me and say “now we can talk about the government!” He mentioned that he has to pretend not to speak Burmese every time he deals with government officials because otherwise they demand “tea money” and that when he rides in a taxi he avoids discussing anything political with the drivers who usually lament about the Burmese situation.. “You don’t know who’s a spy… it’s very hard…”

I’m going to China. I’m going to Hong Kong. And I’m going to have a nice time on my own and meet people with zing who will inspire and teach me and with whom I can share……

A brief summary of Burmese history and current situation.

April 29, 2009 at 3:15 pm Leave a comment

back to Yangon

The journey to Yangoon wasn’t so bad. I was the last passenger to come on the bus. The bus originates from Taunggyi and I think most of the passengers begin their journey there. Regardless of where you get on though the price of the ticket is the same. The bus was a standard non-air-conditioned one. This was my preference. I’m tired of freezing and breathing the stale pungent air of one of western civilization’s least enjoyable contributions to Asia. Unfortunately I neglected to remember the condition of Burma’s roads, many of which are half-paved and full of scattered rocks, pebbles and sand.

Throughout the first hours of the trip from Kalaw to Yangon there was only space enough for one vehicle. So the bus had to pause to make room for others traveling in the opposite direction. Every time this happened (and even when it didn’t) the sandy earth below would get stirred up and enter my window and my lungs and settle on my oily face.

Getting a window seat was somewhat of a struggle too. I wanted to leave Kalaw on the 25th so that I could have time to visit Kyaikto and the Golden Rock but there was not a single window seat available on any of the dozen busses heading to the capital on this day. And since I absolutely cannot sit comfortable or sleep without a window next to me, I booked a seat for the 26th.

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The bus was of regular size but it had 5 seats in a row instead of 4. In the middle there were seats folded out from the right row eliminating the customary passageway through the center of the bus. There was also no compartment on the bottom, so all luggage was stored inside. The tops racks were filled with bags belonging to the early passengers, the rest of the bags were stored beneath the seats. My large backpack was placed in the narrow portion of space intended for my feet. And so I sat with my right foot in the crevice between my bag and my neighbor’s and my left numbingly folded on top of my bag, my sandals stuck inside the handle bar of the chair in front (for easy access and so that they don’t get lost), my small backpack (with my passport, wallet, books and laptop) on my stomach, my head leaning against the body of the bus, the window completely open and the dusty air beating my face which attempted to cover with my hand now and then.

Taking the sweater and scarf I had prepared in advance to use as pillows I settled myself to sleep. And slept so sturdily that my neighbor had to wake me up when we arrived. (I did arrive with an aching back, a sore bum, and a bruised head).

Taxi men huddled around me as soon as I descended, and I wearily told them my price. It wasn’t good enough. I didn’t care because all I wanted to do was stand upright and wake up. But they kept coming and asking “What can I do for you?” so eventually I settled on 3000 kyat ($3). I was led to a car, my bag was put in the trunk and I was told to sit inside and wait a minute for the driver. A minute turned into 5 and then I was told to get out of the taxi and get into another one.

The other taxi already had 3 passengers. I started to argue. But it was in vain. Especially since I wasn’t in the mood to argue and $3 or $1 didn’t make any difference at the moment. Still, I felt cheated and wished one of my friends was here to help me. I was the last one to be dropped off and the driver had the audacity to demand another thousand kyat for driving me 9 blocks from where I originally wanted to be dropped off. Flatly, I told him no. With a broken expression he drove on. What was strange was the care he took to deliver me to the door of my new destination rather than the corner before it, and than the way he did not even help me pull my bag out of the car.

Anyway. I’m in the hotel we stayed in when we first arrived. Near Sule Paya. This is downtown Yangon. These are the Indian and Chinese quarters. Sule Paya is 2000 years old. There are several mosques and churches. There is a synagogue 9 blocks away. Two weeks ago when I visited the synagogue I was told there are only a handful of Jewish families left in Yangon.

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During the day vendors and street chefs set up shop along the streets off Sule Paya and in the late afternoon the number of street shops and their offerings multiply. They sell the most delicious pancakes, “pizzas,” samosas, spring rolls, noodle soups, rice and curries, corn on the cob, vegetables, fruits, palm sugar juice… t-shirts and clothes, batteries, watches, kitchen supplies, electric things and many more gadgets I see but don’t notice.

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Boy wearing thanaka on his face selling mangoes.

Need to use the phone? Here it is.

Need to use the phone? Here it is.

Panties for sale.

Panties for sale.

My room has windows leading onto one of the streets where after sunset a tea shop is set up. A Burmese tea shop is usually an informal place, just a dozen plastic child-size tables and chairs with a thermos of green tea set on each and a main table with snacks for sale. Indoor tea shops usually have more selection. This particular tea shop plays very loud music, from American rock to Burmese pop to Russian rap from the 90s!

By midnight the streets are empty. No people, no cars. Just the street sweeper ceremoniously hulling away the day’s rubbish.

April 28, 2009 at 2:30 am Leave a comment

Inle lake and Kalaw

Almost lost track of days. And then I remembered that the 29th is on a Wednesday and subtracted several dates until I figured out that today is Saturday. When I parted with Dmitry in Mandalay I thought I’d spent the rest of my time in Burma alone. But then Alesha arrived in Nyaungshwe (Inle lake) from Bago (by himself; Alena decided to return to Bangkok and thereafter to India which has been their home for the past 2 years). One day we hired a boat and visited several crafts shops and temples around the lake. Other days we spent trekking through the villages by ourselves.

a boatman in traditional Burmese one-leg rowing position

a boatman in traditional Burmese one-leg rowing position

with long necked - women

with long necked Kayan women

Villagers planting rice

Villagers planting rice

One of my favorite things about Burma is how much the Burmese love tea. Not only is every town and resting point loaded with tea shops (simple cafes that serve several kinds of tea and pastries) but many monasteries also serve you tea when you visit. And it’s not the Lipton variety but real tea: aromatic, delicious…

A street-side tea shop.

A street-side tea shop in Yangon

The room we shared cost only $6 and included a hearty breakfast. The only other expenses we incurred were the fruits and vegetables we bought in the market for dinner. (One of the things I missed most about home was the salads I used to make nightly)

On the 23rd we left Nyaungshwe for Kalaw, a hill town 1320 meters above sea level that had been popular among Brits during Burma’s years as a British colony. Although it’s only about 40 kilometers away but it took us several hours to reach it. First we needed to take a pick-up taxi to Shwenyaung junction 11 kilometers away where we could hire another pick-up to Kalaw, but the pick-up in Nyaungshwe only had 6 passengers (including us) and the driver wasn’t interested in driving us at the fee of 50 cents per passenger to the junction. After spending an hour waiting for more (phantom) passengers we agreed to pay double and left.

some of the passengers in the pick-up taxi...

some of the passengers in the pick-up taxi...

We had a little trouble hiring a pick-up at the junction. We sat on the roof of the one that finally picked us up, amidst the sweet salty smell of tomatoes that were being transported. The car stopped often, first for gas, than to change a tire, then to load more goods… and it drove so slowly that everyone passed us, even tractors loaded to the brim with farmers and youngsters.

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Shortly before sundown we arrived in Kalaw and settled in a hotel that hadn’t had a guest in several days. Throughout our time in Kalaw I only spotted two other foreigners. They were buying a pineapple in the market and we waited for them to leave so that we could bargain. (Although we were just splitting hairs because the food is so cheap here and the prices are generally the same for foreigners and locals. This sameness – the absence of the perception of foreigners as $ generators is one of the wonderful aspects of travel in Burma)

In Kalaw we also trekked. Most of the time I stopped before reaching any interesting destination and sat waiting for Alesha to reach the peak and come back. I just couldn’t walk so much uphill, especially in the heat. I can walk for hours on flat ground, and I have no trouble walking downhill, but my lungs just don’t catch enough air to support me when I walk up and I feel dizzy and stop too often. When Alesha leaves I meditate, although instead of parting with thoughts I become saturated with them. But all the greenery that surrounds me and the little houses in the distance are so calming – that no thought is completely negative.

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I hike in a skirt because it keeps me cooler than shorts – I think it’s funny.

This morning I finally reached a peak of some kind. It was a temple on top of a hill and I reached it after a dozen rest-stops. Thereafter we sat in the temple before trotting back down via a roadless slope (doing which is one of my favorite things in the world)

Alesha left to Mandalay 2 hours ago and tomorrow afternoon I’m leaving to Yangon. The bus ride is going to be 14 hours long.

Just now there was a knock on my door. Another traveler has come to stay at the hotel. He’s from Israel, alone, bald like me, and speaks Russian. He wanted to trade books and left one of his “What the Buddha Taught” by Walpola Rahula.

I hope the electricity does not go while I read tonight. Although Burma has natural gas resources which it sells to China and Russia, electricity has been unstable in every city I’ve visited. It usually disappears several times throughout the night and is completely absent during the day. While waiting for the bus with Alesha tonight I asked several Burmese men who I’d met several days ago why the electricity was off so often. “Ask the government” they answered and laughed. I wanted to know more but they quit the conversation by saying (without enmity) “How do we know who you are? We don’t want to go to jail.”

Before Alesha left we visted a church. It was full of youth, singing hymns in Burmese to guitar accompaniment. They were deeply enthusiastic, the way their faces tensed and the way the hand of the lad in front of me clutched emotively as he sang certain words, this sincerity and enthusiasm of the youngsters singing harmoniously in a language I couldn’t understand (and didn’t need to or want to) put me in a blissful state.

April 25, 2009 at 11:53 pm 1 comment

Bagan

After Mandalay I decided to go to Bagan, the city of over 2000 temples. I booked a 2nd class ticket on the train. It was meant to depart at 9pm, but it didn’t leave until almost 11. The station had a festive air about it because it was the last night of the festival. Even the employee whom we asked for directions to our platform was shitfaced. The cause for the delay was simple: the most necessary element for a train’s locomotive function was absent: the engine.

Physically, this was the worst railroad experience of my life. Although psychologically, it wasn’t worse than the feet of Vietnam.

Sitting stupefied for two hours, knowing neither the cause for the delay nor when we’ll finally move because there are no announcements and no staff to answer questions… I couldn’t manage one comfortable position on the rigid wooden bench. But the hardness of the bench on which my poor bum (sore from being wet all day) sat was nothing compared to the misery brought on by the back of the bench which stood at almost 90 degrees to the seat. Add to this the heat and the clothes clinging to my body. But the most disagreeable sensation was on my face which was so itchy from sweat that I wanted to howl and claw and everything in between.

When the train finally moved, a few more problems became apparent. The scarcity of fresh air due to the smell of the engine coming through the window and the couch’s trembling from tracks too narrow for its girth caused all passengers to jerk and sway 45 degrees or more at least every 10 minutes. And the drunk men singing Burmese ballads…

drunk boys. notice the benches...

drunk boys on the train. notice the benches...

but the view was beautiful

but the morning sky was beautiful

By 7am we finally reached Bagan. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it. Bagan was too hot and the heat rendered me almost completely oblivious to the subtle differences between the temples. So after two days I decided that it was foolish to whither more days like this and bought a bus ticket to Inle lake which is cooler and full of forest (and only 14 hours away).

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please notice the diaper!

April 20, 2009 at 11:55 pm Leave a comment

Mandalay

We should have bought tickets to Mandalay the day we arrived in Burma because the bus station was close to the airport and the upcoming festival would induce tickets to sell out. But we didn’t know. So we spent three days walking around the city before even budging about tickets to Mandalay.

When we finally tried to buy tickets we were told by every vendor that none were available. Not to Mandalay, not to Bagan, not to Bago, to Inle; nowhere. We met one vendor who said he had tickets but the date and price were undesirable. So we frowned and went away.

The next day was a restless one, mostly because of our mood. Dmitry wasn’t happy being stuck and me – I just felt unlucky. I didn’t mind spending more time in Yangoon. I enjoyed the vibe of the city. But I was troubled by one prospect. Being that we were now a group of 4 we were constantly looking to one another before making choices. Have never been in this kind of arrangement before, it exhausted me. I felt like we were a train, a very very slow one. (There are also great benefits to traveling in a group such as constant companionship and always some to lookout for you) But had I been alone I would have bought that ticket to Mandalay for that undesirable price and date. Later in the day Dmitry and I did buy these tickets. We were to depart on the night of April 12. The others stayed in Yangoon.

On April 12 we found our bus. “Mandalay?” “No.” That was my first exchange. And then there was someone in our seats and he wouldn’t move. I was told to sit behind him which I did until a smiling woman with a smiling daughter came to claim their seats and tried to nod me away. “Please…” [get out] they repeated, never loosing those beaming smiles. But I didn’t budge. The bus was crowded and I these were the last empty seats. I waited for D to return to the bus anxiously. I didn’t want to deal with problems on my own. When he came he quickly used his masculine um bravado to compel the man in our rightful seats to move and all was well…almost. It was a long and uncomfortable ride although fortunately I had xanax to help me sleep and a pair of knees to sleep on.

We arrived in the morning, the first day of the water festival. Supposedly Mandalay has the best one in all of Burma. As we rode the taxi on the way to a hotel we both wondered whether we’ll get splashed on the way. We did – just 10 meters away from the hotel.

The water festival lasts 4 days (April 13-16 this year; the dates vary by moon) and leads up to the Buddhist New Year. The reason behind the water is to cleanse all the dirt you’ve accumulated throughout the year. Everyone participates. Children, teenagers and adults throw water on pedestrians, drivers, riders… Some fill up huge tins and use smaller plate type buckets to throw it over others, some simply empty whole buckets. Some pour it down your back, others over your head. The youngest children usually wet your legs. Some do it gently. Some do it with a lot of force (and if they were aiming for your head it does not make your ears very happy, mine still hurt.) Sometimes you walk while they wet you, sometimes you stand still. Sometimes parents guide very young children who are apprehensive about throwing water at strangers. Sometimes the water comes from trucks driving by or a roof above your head. Sometimes you don’t even expect it. Sometimes the water is very warm, sometimes it’s very cold because they used melting ice. Sometimes they use a hose. Sometimes 40 hoses all at once.

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Sometimes you crave it so much because the sun is hot and you are hot and you want to be cooled and cleansed – other times you just want to be dry and left alone but you’ve forfeited choice. You’re going to get wet, soaking wet, several times, every day, for the next four days. Welcome to the Mandalay water festival!

Soaking wet...

Soaking wet...

I started a fever that first night. Only 38’c. Next morning it was 39. I had a really unusual dream, of a kind I haven’t had in a long time if ever, the kind of dream you need chemicals to induce, not just surreal but melodious.

The morning turned into shit. I couldn’t find my Tylenol. I’ve traveled for over 7 months and never used any and now that I needed it I couldn’t find it. I checked my fever again. It was approaching 40. So we went to a clinic in a bicycle taxi, pleading with the splashers not to water me. At the clinic they tested me for malaria and something else (I asked for typhoid but I don’t think they understood) and told me to come back at 5 for the results. Before I left I almost fainted. This sensation of your legs and hands becoming numb and your eyes loosing focus and blackness overcoming your vision…. to be conscious of the possibility that any second now you may loss consciousness is a particular feeling. In this state you are aware of your helpless but all emotions are blocked.

I spent the rest of the day in bed with a 40+ fever, mostly sleeping clothed in several layers and a blanket. I ventured out after sunset back to the clinic. I didn’t have malaria and whatever other mysterious illness they tested me for. It turned out to be a well run establishment, open 24 hours and full of doctors and nurses. Strangely, there were hardly any men on staff. An older doctor listened to my symptoms while Dmitry filled out a form. No one cared about my passport and visa numbers, which is unusual in Burma where all hotels and trains require them. She suggested that I have the usual travelers upset stomach problem and prescribed an intravascular transfusion of salts and oral antibiotics. By this time I had taken something for the fever and was in a more reasonable state.

I lay for 4 hours in a room, separated from everyone else by green curtains. The nurses visited me now and then, one brought me a blanket, another picked up my water when it fell. Next to me a man had smashed his head and a group of a dozen or more people stood around laughing and prodding him. To my left (before the curtain was completely closed off) an old woman was wheeled in. She was accompanied by two adult sons, who resembled each other and yet one was very handsome while the other lacked everything that make a man handsome in my view. The woman closed her eyes. She had that earthen look of old age, serenity, wrinkles. I love old ladies like her and I didn’t want to part with her site. I must have dosed off though because when I opened my eyes she was gone.

By the time I returned to the hotel at midnight my fever was 37 and within two hours I was as boisterous as I usually am at 2am. The next day we visited Mandalay hill which required a fatiguing climb up many steps to the top. The view wasn’t impressive, mostly because it was a cloudy day. We passed hundreds of drunken youth, vivaciously dancing to Burmese pop set to American melodies and eagerly inviting us to partake in their fun. Mostly we declined. Had I been feeling better I’d probably join every dancing party.

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April 19, 2009 at 1:19 am 1 comment

Yangon, Burma’s old capital

Arrived April 9. That sweet smell in the air that’s so common in
India and other south east Asian cities i’ve visited is absent in
Burma. The traffic here (unlike Thailand) is right-sided but all the
cars have their steering wheels on the right too. The majority of cars
look at least 2 decades old, the busses at least 3. Burma’s numeric
system differs from the Latin one so reading numbers has turned into
a guessing game. I’ve learned one word and i say it (mispronounce it)
frequently: se-zu-bey (thank you).

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The downtown area where we’re staying is very charismatic, full of
shops, vendors and people. Burmese pop blasted through the street
beneath our room last night till midnight. Gastronomically, this could
be an alley way in culinary heaven. Vegetarian options are plentiful
and we can eat really well on less than $2 per meal for the 4 of us, a
meal consisting of several vegetable side dishes, rice, fresh fruit,
fried bananas and spring rolls.

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An eccentricity among the Burmese are the longi that the men wear
(skirts) instead of pants and the thanaka bark that women, men, and
children cover their faces with to protect from the sun.

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This morning i applied for a Chinese visa. For nationals of almost
every country in the world the fee is $30; for Americans it’s $130.

ps. This site is censored so i’ll be updating via my mom who’ll post
on my behalf.

April 16, 2009 at 9:56 am 1 comment

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