Friday, 21 February 2014

Burmese Days – A country of contrasts

Burma, or Myanmar, was an almost unknown to us as we boarded our flight at Bangkok Don Muang airport headed for Mandalay. We were pretty ignorant with the exception of our pirated Lonely Planet guidebook found on an island in south Thailand and the UK news coverage of “The Lady”, Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for so many years. What we found during our 3 weeks is a country of vast contrasts in terms of geography, culture, history, wealth, climate and fortune. But a country united by religion and, amongst the people at least, a wish for democracy and for The Lady to return.

Burma gained independence from the British in 1948 however the military took over in 1962 and ruled the country for 50 years through fear and terror. Even now elements in the north east of the country still rebel against the government, they have done for decades, fighting a guerrilla war in the forests and mountains of Shan state. When we were there, trekking in the hills, we heard artillery fire in the distance, a battle between the Shan army and government forces. Our guide said the Shan rebels still come to the villages in the hills to recruit young men. This is one of the reasons why foreigner travel within Burma has been so restricted over the years and in the northern states is still very limited.

However, as you travel through this vast country you can feel the political change in the air. Aung San Suu Kyi  is free and part of the political process again, there are pictures of her everywhere, every home, bar, restaurant and shop. People won’t talk politics, they’re still too afraid, but they will talk about The Lady and the forthcoming elections next year. We felt we couldn’t really ask people about the past, but those who did volunteer information just spoke of hardship, poverty and fear. Everyone however is positive about the future, a democracy, tourism, international trade with countries other than China and unrestricted travel nationally and internationally for its citizens.

Myanmar prides itself as being one of the most Buddhist countries in the world, there are stupas and monasteries wherever you look, every village, town, city and prominent hill is covered with them. It is compulsory for every male to spend time as a monk, either for a few days or as long as a lifetime. Women too can be nuns, although this is not compulsory but is certainly praised. Monks and nuns are treated as first class citizens, getting the best seats on buses, boats, trains and planes, there own waiting areas, people give up their seats in the shade for them and they live off food donated by the people.  It is a real honour and matter of great pride to have a monk or nun in the family. Buddhism is everywhere and the approach to life in general is a Buddhist one, once a buffalo or ox is too old to work the fields it is released into the forest to live out its days rather than end up on the family’s dinner table.

We timed our visit well, only 2 states had major restrictions on foreigner travel and we were able to go most places we pleased by boat, bus, train and plane. Everywhere we went we found smiles and waves and shouts of “Mingalabar” Hello!

Wherever we travelled in Burma we felt safe, whether waiting for a bus at 5am in downtown Mandalay, arriving at a train station in Shwebo at 1am or traipsing through the backstreets of china town in Yangon. Crime here is very low and people are genuinely happy to meet foreigners, practice their English and help you out wherever you are or need to go. It is a country full of diverse cultures and beautiful scenery, from the high Himalayas in the north to the tropical beaches of the south.

The Shan people were probably the friendliest, they had the biggest smiles and cooked the best food, their rice noodle soup was fantastic. They’re actually related to the Thais, their name comes from the old name for Thailand, Siam. The Shan hill tribes around Hsipaw, their tea plantations and farms were a real highlight of the trip.

In Pyin Oo Lwin, formerly known as May Town, we saw the finest remains of the old colonial hill station from where North Burma was governed during the hot summer months. The old Victorian teak houses, red brick churches and traditional horse and cart taxis are all that remain of that bygonne era. The vineyards planted towards then end of colonial rule, thanks to recent French expat influence, are starting to flourish and along with the local fruit wines it wont be long before Myanmar wine hits the international market.

Spending 3 days drifting south on the Ayerawaddy river provided us with a glimpse into the real rural Burma, away from the roads and few tourist traps. Mixing and chatting with locals, staying in isolated villages where the river is their only lifeline to the outside world. A life of buffalo, oxen, tilling the fields and following the cycle of the river. The Ayerwaddy is to Burma what the Ganges is to India and Bangladesh, the Mekong to Vietnam and the Nile to Egypt. It is everything, transport, water, food, latrine, waste disposal, fertiliser, fortune, lifeline – everything. Sadly it is so polluted with sewage, litter, fuel and now the by-product from gold mining that how fish survive in its murky brown waters is a mystery. It is refered to as the brown python that snakes its way south through the heart of the country, but unless something is done quickly to curb its pollution this snake may turn into Ouroboros and consume itself and everyone else with it!

We visited 3 of the previous 5 capitals of the last 1000 years of Myanmar history, each with their own style of architecture and living, but all displaying the wealth that was once here with fertile soils, abundance of water, regular rains, rich forests and mountains full of precious jewels. Hopefully this new generation will rise up and restore wealth and prosperity to this troubled land.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Too soon

Onwards we flew to the coastal town of Myeik, in Southern Burma. Our plan was to find a way onto the neighbouring archipelago of islands so we headed to the jetty. Greeted by red mouthed locals chewing betel nut and spitting we were told that foreigners were not allowed to go to the islands. One thing we've learnt so far is to never accept one persons advice. So we tried the local ferry company, enquiries were hampered by language limitations. Furthermore neither party had a map of the area, us because Lonely Planet had not got there yet, and them because the locals knew where they were going already. After the third boat company also said that the government did not allow foreigners to visit the islands we finally admitted defeat. We were disappointed that the last leg of our journey in Myanmar to visit these beautiful islands turned out to be a dead end. We were trying to follow the old Spanish proverb 'traveller, there are no roads, roads are made by walking' but access restrictions meant we were too early on the scene to go galumphing about the islands. We did find a way to tour some of the islands with a diving company living onboard a yacht, but at £1000 each for 3 nights we decided we could wait a little longer to see this amazing, untouched archipelago. 

Accommodation costs were steep down south so we decided to cut our losses and head to Thailand. We travelled by the speedboat ferry to Kawthoung, passing through the islands we desired to see, our compensation was a blurry view through dirty, smeared windows. Despite the bad visibility we could still see hundreds of islands covered in mangroves and jungled peaks, with huge limestone cliffs and beautiful white sandy beaches zooming past us. We vowed to return. At Kawthoung we had our passports stamped for the last time at immigration and boarded a longtail boat to Ranong, the Thai side of the Kra Buri river.

We caught a glimpse of the Sea Gypsy communities as we weaved through the archipelago

The hundreds of beautiful islands we past so tantalisingly close and yet still so far out of reach - must get own boat!!

As we approached the border Myanmar's military presence became more blatant

Farewell Kawthoung, farewell Burma, thank you

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Lions can dance

The second day of the Lunar New Year, we returned to China town to watch the Lion dancing competition. 

We didn't know what to expect so looked up a few links before we went, these ones are good to read - and and there are many more informative websites on the matter. 

The beating of a traditional drum, symbols and gongs marked the rhythm for a procession of flags and chinese lions to parade down 18th Street. The street was blocked for the competions for three days. Along with many other spectators we waited patiently for each lion to begin its dance. 

There were around ten yellow metal posts set out in a line, with some stands slightly offset and at different heights between 5 and 10 feet tall. Each lion was formed of two guys, one controlling the head and front legs and the other the back legs (like a pantomime horse). Bounding up the podiums they performed an expressive and athletic dance, which was humorous, powerful and awe-inspiring. We were transfixed by the drums and the lion in perfect harmony. Lucky, we got some of the dance on video, snapped through the crowds, which we will try and share with you. 

Dancing Lion Video

Chinese Lions preparing for the evening dances

18th Street is packed waiting for the dances to commence

Last year's champions open the show

Brings a whole new meaning to the term "pole dancing!"

Arrival at Yangon

On Friday 31st January we flew from Mandalay to Yangon, the cultural capital of Myanmar. It was Chinese New Year and we'd read in the paper that there was going to be events to celebrate the incoming Year of the Horse in China town, so we headed over. 

We passed the famous Shedwegn Pagoda and admired it without paying the entrance fee to go in. 

In China Town we walked around for an hour or so admiring a Chinese Temple and houses decked out with New Year decorations. A helpful chap told us that the dancing competition was the following day.

There were lots of street stalls selling unrecognisable food things on a stick. Every restaurant had their tables streaming onto the narrow, smelly, lanes. We found a place to have some very delicious steamed dumplings and watched the locals, expats and tourists passing by. It took a while to get used to seeing so many people again.

A British couple joined our table. They were the first Brits we'd met in a month and they came from Norfolk! Harleston in fact, about 30 miles from Sarah's folks. It was good to hear about their 3 months in Asia and swap stories. We had a great evening with them and hope that they managed to get their flight to Kuala Lumpur in the morning! 

The Shwedagon Pagoda in all its glory dominates central Yangon

China Town's amazing street food

Lanterns everywhere celebrating Chinese New Year

The hustle and bustle of 19th Street full of tourist, expats and Yangon's Chinese community

Burma Observations

Back in Mandalay we rejoiced in laying on a bed with a mattress in a clean hotel room. One thing I haven't mentioned is the general dust; dry, dry, dry, dirt. It gets everywhere. It is everywhere. Everything outside the hotel is covered in dirt: steps, bus seats, streets, nuns and every fruit and vegetable sold. At night when I wipe my face it is dark brown, when I blow my nose it is black. Clothes soon blacken. Table tops are wiped but it is only at best a ceremonial act as they are still caked in dirt.

Here are a few of my other observations from our time in Myanmar so far:

Greetings - Out of the cities we are stared at all the time, I guess out of curiosity. Normally a wave breaks their mesmerisation and they gleefully wave back. Often they wave back and turn away and the turn back and wave again like a shy child. Occasionally people shout 'hello', we smile and say hello back and 'mingarlaba'. They often seem surprised that we know throw to say hello in their own language!

Some people want to shake our hands. Once one person does, it ends up with you greeting most of the street as they call their neighbours to come out and shake our hand also.

Shoes - Most people seem to wear flip flops as an inconvenience as they hardly ever fit their foot. I think that their arches must really lack support. When not 'in town' many people seem to go bear foot. No matter what job their doing from working in a shop to constructing a building to labouring on road works with hot tar the flip flop is the footwear of choice.

Water - We always drink bottled water but many houses provide water on the street for passers by. A small covered urn and stainless steel mug chained to the lid are a common sight outside houses for any traveller, neighbour or passing monk.

Toilets - Toilets are a shaped hole in the ground that you balance over. It's surprising how easily you can adapt. Firstly by necessity, then it becomes second nature. Like Thailand, once you've finished there's a hose at the side of the toilet to wash, then you can dry au-natural or bring your own toilet paper. Must not put paper down the toilet as there are no sewage systems.

Pavements – not a common site but where they do occur they are immediately treated by shops or restaurants as an extension to their property and are covered in chairs, tables or items for sale. Otherwise they are used to park motorcycles or stack construction materials. Where they are free the curb is over a foot high and they are so full of holes or broken manhole covers over open sewers that its more like a steeplechase with a very unappealing water jump!

Pets - Cats are not as common as dogs here. Cat with tails seem a luxury and in Sinbo we saw a man riding a motorcycle and his bike key ring, he confirmed, was a cat’s tail. Maybe he thought it was a good luck charm?

Horns - the beeping kind, are plentiful and used with gusto at every opportunity. Car use their horn twice or thrice every time they come up to overtake, and sometimes after overtaking too. There are no real road markings in Burma, so if your driving up to a junction you just go through the junction, beeping as you go. If a car hits a motorbike, then, regardless, it was the cars fault. This makes motorbike drivers quite arrogant, and they just pull out into the road without looking. Bike drivers hoot cars, and bicycles, and people - it's often much better to walk on the road than the excuse for a pavement. So living next to a street is very noisy. There are also no restrictions on when horns can be used, so if the bus is leaving at 5am, then it will start honking about 4:30am and about every five minutes until departure when a great crescendo of honks will signal the off. Trains honk coming into a station, again at any time of the day or night. Boats also signal their imminent arrival loudly and frequently until they are moored. I can see the concept, it's like the ice cream van singing, 'I'll soon be with you'. But the noise! I have been known to sleep through fire alarms (not a good quality) but the horns beat me in Burma!

River Trash

More rubbish on the riverbanks

Dust, dust, dust, dust......

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Out for a duck!

Fried bone with some meat is how I'd describe the protein here. Chicken is the main stay and pork is often an available option. They cook all of the animal so chickens feet and pigs ears are included. We'd got pretty fed up with eating bone by the time we had got to Bhamo and instead have eaten vegetables and rice (of course, fried aswell).  So when we saw steamed duck on the menu and hadn't eaten meat for over two weeks, we went for it. We ordered it a day in advance and, salivating, arrived at the agreed time. We got a well steamed duck, the meat fell off the bones. Good steamed vegetables accompanied it. It tasted great and my half had the tongue.

The beak is on the right of the plate!


The reason for our premature departure from the Mandalay Express was to spend a day exploring an archaeological sight 12 miles to the south east of Shwebo called Hanlin.  Set on an imperceptible rise it sits very slightly above the pan flat surrounding plains. With this geographical advantage plus hot salt springs and fresh cool springs this small plateau has been inhabited for millennia.

In Shwebo we’d struggled to find an English speaking guide but that evening  we got chatting to a retired Burmese teacher who spoke good English and for the price of lunch would accompany us to the site having never been their himself.

The next morning he met us at our guesthouse and introduced us to his friend, Kyaw Soe, who provided motorcycle transport to and from Hanlin and did a little guiding too, speaking pretty good English. So with our two guides and on our two motorcycles we headed out to Hanlin.

On the outskirts of the town we turned off the tarmac road on to a track that followed a canal system used to irrigate the fields.  As it is the dry season, the canal was more of an empty moat with a few inches of stagnant water in the bottom. Nevertheless it was still being used for washing and bathing by the villagers we passed by. After about 5 miles we crossed the canal by wooden bridge and continued down a second track which got rockier and bumpier and eventually became a rutted cart track requiring pro-BMXer skills just to stay upright – thankfully neither of us were driving just clinging on!

The villages we passed through became more and more basic, motorcycle gave way to cycle and the ox-cart was the only vehicle for moving cargo and crops.

Hanlin is a walled site around 540 hectares is size which developed and flourished from 200BC to 900AD by the Pyu, a civilisation characterised by their sensitive adaptation and development of their urban forms to the landscape.  They utilised the topography and geography to irrigate and expand agricultural production and develop the surplus necessary for urban population expansion, labour specialisation and active participation in the growing regional trade networks.

The other amazing feature found at Hanlin is the visible transition from earlier Iron Age cultures through to the Pyu as the site has been continually inhabited, including use of burial sites and reuse of religious structures.

We toured the site visiting burials, stupas and other excavations, stopping briefly for some green tea and rice pancakes with egg – delicious. Both our guides told us about the site, the people, the villages around Shwebo, the crops being grown and answered all our questions.

On our way back to town the kids in the villages were coming home from school, they all waved and shouted to us as we drove down the street, “mingalaba, hello, byebye..” smiling and waving back we felt like film stars.

The hot springs are used for bathing and washing clothes by the villagers

The only other traffic on the road

A group of 10 ladies threshing this plant to remove the seed which is a major myanmar export. The branches are then used for firewood and making brush fencing.

The whole site is covered in stupas, some derelict and tumbling down, others repaired and some brand new

A quick stop for peanuts

An old temple dating back to the early Pyu period, complete with small standing stones, very reminiscent of Phranang beach in Railay

The graves of bronze age and Pyu people, the nature of the soil here means the bodies have been very well preserved, the bones have partly calcified and therefore almost fossil like. This lady's stone and metal bracelets can still be seen on her wrists.

Pots of food and other grave goods are placed upon the person to help them with their journey to the afterlife

Our fantastic guides

Nice crash helmet Sarah!

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Mandalay Express (or choooo choooo bump!)

At Katha we caught a very dusty bus to Naba train station. The 12 mile journey took an hour along the bumpy twisty unpaved road. It took over thirty minutes to book two seats in first class, the last tickets for the train. The train had ten carriages and over 800 of us were packed in like sardines. We were lucky, as Naba station were only allowed to sell two first class tickets (& no other type of tickets) to 'foreigners' per train, so it was a good job we were travelling off the beaten track!

It would have been difficult to commute to work on this train. Firstly electricity was intermittent and obviously there was no internet to check your emails. The buffet car was non-existent (no latté) but this gap in the market had been taken up by many fried food entrepreneurs; fried sparrow anyone? Thirdly, it was bumpy enough to give a Grand National jockey an aching bottom!

Timetables were visionary, by that I mean just out of sight as both the station master and the ticket collector were unsure at what time we would reach our destination. When the train got really slow, passengers jumped off at a station to by a drink and then were able to rejoin it a few carriages down. When the rails got really bad, the train stopped, as if to rhetorically ask 'do I really have to continue?' 

'First class' meant you had a seat. It was a great travelling method to met folks, especially as they were literally at your feet. We were offered to share sticky rice steamed in bamboo, oranges, sunflower seeds and a beer. We responded by proffering some boiled sweets about the carriage.

Jolting into Shwebo station at 1.15am we disembarked into the cold darkness onto the wrong side of the tracks. We could see some small fires on the other side. Stepping in the direction of the platform we found ourselves standing between our departing train and an incoming train, both awkwardly stuttering forward. For a second I was a train jumper in the Great Depression.

Katha's river front and monastery

Cows seem to roam freely, its more like being in India

Tomatoes are obviously a popular dish

Nabba train station

More free, fat and happy cows wandering the tracks, it seems udderly crazy!

View from 1st class