Category Archives: Myanmar

Myanmar, Part II: Mandalay, Inle Lake

Mandalay

From Bagan we took a slow boat to Mandalay.  It was supposed to take 8 hours, and ended up being closer to 14 (in fairness they did tell us it would take 11 hours when we got on, which almost made us reconsider, but we decided to go for it).  Turns out in the dry season the boat takes longer because it has to navigate around sandbars in the shallow river.  We ended up getting stuck on several sandbars, and in some spots had to wait for another boat to pass before being able to squeeze through the navigable path in the river.  Once we got caught up next to a cargo ship that seemed to be anchored in the navigable path of the river for the night.  But after wiggling back and forth and getting into a very slow motion collision with the cargo ship, we were free!  We saw both sunrise and sunset from the boat.  At first I wasn’t sure how I’d make it through the ride without going crazy — I quickly figured out that the A/C on the boat was so weak as to be basically non-existent, while the temps were in the (thankfully, low) 100’s at this point.  But it’s amazing how beer and books can pass the day!

 

Sunrise
Sunrise

Mandalay

Hunting for shade
Hunting for shade
Sunset - still on the boat
Sunset – still on the boat

Once we found our hotel in Mandalay we ventured out to find dinner.  We ended up at a street food stall serving noodle soup.  We were the only white folks around.  As seems typical in Myanmar, the kids run the show — our 12-year-old waitress smartly showed us a bowl with the four noodle options, had us point to what we wanted and asked us if we wanted “water” (broth) with it.  We all opted for water.  Although we saw others eating hot pots and stir-fry noodles, they just brought us what seemed to be their main attraction – a really good spicy noodle soup with pork.  Of course this was fine with us, it was good and there is no need to complicate things.  When the army of child waitresses sat down at the table next to us and stared at us while we ate, we realized we were a spectacle, which was both funny and new.  In fact, we were stared at more in Mandalay than anywhere else.  Apparently not as many tourists include Mandalay in their circuit and venture out for street food. 

Mandalay is much rougher than Yangon.  We must have missed the shiny new part built with Chinese money that we had heard about, because the Mandalay we saw was grungy.  The roads were closer to dirt than anything, and the tepid refrigeration made the heat feel almost unbearable.  But the city has its charms.  When we hiked up Mandalay hill we were like celebrities – everyone wanted us to take photos with them and their kids, even the monks!  We toured around to some of the artisans in Mandalay and to the old cities surrounding Mandalay (each of which was the capital of Myanmar at some point).  We saw how gold leaf was made, which the Buddhists use to guild certain Buddhas as a form of tribute.  Of course after Ilene purchased some gold leaf, the only guild-able Buddha we visited didn’t allow ladies to get near it.  So the gold leaf went unused.  Myanmar is the only place (so far) I’ve seen this gender discrimination in the temples. 

Pounding the gold leaf - the process takes about 6 hours (yikes!)
Pounding the gold leaf – the process takes about 6 hours (yikes!)
Piecing together the gold leaf squares
Piecing together the gold leaf squares
Woman are not allowed to touch the gold leaf Buddha, but you can't stop them from praying to him!
Woman are not allowed to touch the gold leaf Buddha, but you can’t stop them from praying to him!
Fun barricades
Fun barricades
So many frescos
So many frescos

Mandalay

The long necks weaving a scarf
The long necks weaving a scarf
Weaving with a hand-operated loom
Weaving with a hand-operated loom
Working the pattern on the hand-woven fabric
Working the pattern on the hand-woven fabric
So many Buddhas, overlooking the city
So many Buddhas, overlooking the city
Mirrored tile is everywhere
Mirrored tile is everywhere
It's the ice cream man!
It’s the ice cream man!
Our horse cart awaits...we had the sweetest old driver in Inwa (he even turned over the seat cushions when we were out looking around, to keep them from getting too hot in the sun)
Our horse cart awaits…we had the sweetest old driver in Inwa (he even turned over the seat cushions when we were out looking around, to keep them from getting too hot in the sun)
The old monastery in Inwa
The old monastery in Inwa
The clever sales man who followed our horse cart on his bike, acted as our tour guide, and then sold us postcards (in the ancient town of Inwa)
The clever sales man who followed our horse cart on his bike, acted as our tour guide, and then sold us postcards (in the ancient town of Inwa)
Another wat
Another wat
And another bell
And another bell

 

The teak bridge (didn't feel super sturdy)
The teak bridge (didn’t feel super sturdy)
Venturing out onto the teak bridge
Venturing out onto the teak bridge
It's an ogre fight!  The puppet show on our hotel rooftop.
It’s an ogre fight! The puppet show on our hotel rooftop.
At least the steps up Mandalay Hill are covered!
At least the steps up Mandalay Hill are covered!

Mandalay Mandalay

The many steps up Mandalay Hill
The many steps up Mandalay Hill
A photo with the monks, at their request.
A photo with the monks, at their request.
And the they found Steve at the top of the hill for another photo op.
And the they found Steve at the top of the hill for another photo op
One of the many kitty friends Steve made
One of the many kitty friends Steve made
The view from Mandalay Hill
The view from Mandalay Hill
Walking to the palace...it makes a decent hat.
Walking to the palace…it makes a decent hat.
The palace
The palace

We also visited a monastery to see the monks do their morning procession for breakfast.  Apparently it’s the tourist-approved monastery, as there were many tourists there to see this.  We actually felt a bit bad about making the monks into a spectacle.  But the young monk Steve be-friended didn’t seem to mind the tourists.    

The girls
The girls
The baby monks lining up for breakfast
The baby monks lining up for breakfast
The tourists making a spectacle of the monks, and themselves
The tourists making a spectacle of the monks, and themselves
brooms!
brooms!
Pretty tree at the Monastery
Pretty tree at the Monastery

Inle Lake

We took the train from Mandalay to Inle Lake, which required an overnight stop in a little town called Thazi.  The train from Mandalay to Thazi was just shy of 3 hours, and since we got the tickets day-of, we ended up in “Ordinary Class.”  It was a lively ride with lots of vendors coming through.  And not having A/C wasn’t a huge deal for such a short ride.  The ride was dusty though, and we all emerged covered in a layer of dirt from riding with the windows down. 

The train to Thazi
The train to Thazi
Thank goodness for these fans!
Thank goodness for these fans!
There are more horse carts than cars in this town...guess we'll take one to our guesthouse!
There are more horse carts than cars in this town…guess we’ll take one to our guesthouse!
The Thazi train station
The Thazi train station

Thazi is super small and that was the only time we had a bit of trouble getting food.  We wandered into a random place (Ilene and I being the only women in there) and tried to point to what we wanted.  We ended up eating – some fried rice with egg and some flat bread – but it was the simplest meal we had in Myanmar.  We stayed overnight in a cute guesthouse, very simple, with only fans against the heat.  It was all fine until I locked myself out of my room at 11:00 p.m. — and with the heat I was basically in my undies, which isn’t a great thing to wander around in in this super conservative country — and I couldn’t find the owners anywhere.  Apparently I can’t be trusted to go down the hall for the toilet!  Thankfully the box of keys to the unoccupied rooms was unlocked, so I crashed in another room until morning.  I didn’t sleep well though, as I was worried about missing the early train if the owner wasn’t up at 6:00.  But in Myanmar the locals get up early (I often heard locals playing their morning music before sunrise) and it all worked out. 

Unfortunately I woke up feeling a bit off.  I had some coke and crackers in the time we spent waiting for our train (it was an hour late), but this didn’t accomplish anything apart from earning me a new doggie friend on the platform.  When the train arrived, we were shuttled on, only to be told we had to move at the last minute because the porter mistakenly put us on the wrong car — interestingly, while the seat/car numbers are written in the Roam alphabet on the train tickets, the train is labeled in the Myanmar alphabet, making it impossible for us to match up where we’re supposed to go.  For this ride we were able to get “Upper Class” seats, but they were not much different than the “Ordinary Class” ones on the (apparently) nicer train from Mandalay – no more than bench seats with a bit of thin cushion on them, still no A/C, and the train was super old and dirty.  

So I was feeling really nauseous by this point, and as we were hurrying between cars I lost my coke and crackers – giving everyone on the train a good show as I puked three times while making my way down the length of the train.  Seeing no alternative to the 8-hour ride ahead of us (which ended up taking almost 11 hours) I declined Steve’s offer to abort.  Instead I spent the ride trying to sleep.  Ilene and Steve were nice enough to give me a whole bench so I could just about lay down with my legs crunched up — assuming the fetal position.  Sitting up was more than I could handle!  I tried to hold down water, but had two more rounds of losing my cookies.  The most exciting was when I got up to use the toilet, but barely made it to the open side door of the train in time to puke out the side of the moving train.  Some locals sitting in the seats by the door saw this and sweetly asked if I was okay (using a questioning thumbs up sign) and offered me a piece of fruit.  I said thanks, but hand-signed back that if I ate the fruit it would also come back up, so no thanks.  Somehow I made it through the hot, rocky ride on the train (the narrow gauge railroad cars rock so much that at points I was sure we’d derail).  It took two rounds of antibiotics to clear this thing, so much of my time in Inle was spent eating rice and resting. 

What I did see of Inle was beautiful.  What is sad is that the air quality is not great – likely because they burn all their trash right out in the open, often right on the side of the road – otherwise the mountains surrounding the lake would be more visible.  On the days I felt well enough to go out, I joined Ilene and Steve in exploring the town on bike, got a Myanmar massage (mostly similar to Thai massage, but not a rough), saw a traditional puppet show, and did a full-day boat trip.  From the boat we saw the floating villages and the fisherman (including the ones who just seem to pose for tourist photos right at the entrance to the lake), and of course were escorted to many local artisans – weaving, woodworking, silversmiths, blacksmiths, cigar making, etc. – who all wanted to sell us souvenirs.  It’s amazing how quickly Myanmar has got the tourist circuit mastered, considering the country only recently opened officially to tourism.

This puppet plays football!
This puppet plays football!
So many puppets!
So many puppets!
The pervasive betelnut leaves, pre-rolling
The pervasive betelnut leaves, pre-rolling
Time for a boat ride!
Time for a boat ride!
This guy was camped out at the entrance to the lake, just waiting to pose for tourist photos (for a price, of course)
This guy was camped out at the entrance to the lake, just waiting to pose for tourist photos (for a price, of course)
I guess he caught at least one fish before posing for photos
I guess he caught at least one fish before posing for photos
One of the floating villages
One of the floating villages
Fishing
Fishing
Fisherman on the lake (one is using their foot to paddle, as is their custom)
Fisherman on the lake (one is using their foot to paddle, as is their custom)
On the lake
On the lake
Boats in the water, with the water plants
Boats in the water, with the water plants
The plants lurking under the water
The plants lurking under the water

 

Farming on the lake
Farming on the lake

 

In the floating villages the streets are made of water.  The locals had both bigger commuter boats and small boats for getting around town parked in front of their houses.
In the floating villages the streets are made of water. The locals had both bigger commuter boats and small boats for getting around town parked in front of their houses.

 

So many colors - at the weaving mill (of course they weave by hand too)
So many colors – at the weaving mill (of course they weave by hand too)

 

Stopped at the silversmiths -- again they do everything by hand here
Stopped at the silversmiths — again they do everything by hand here

 

At the blacksmith (we all bought knives from these guys)
At the blacksmith (we all bought knives from these guys)

 

Steve enjoying his giant coconut
Steve enjoying his giant coconut

 

These coconuts are huge!
These coconuts are huge!

 

Cruising up the river
Cruising up the river

 

We opted not to take this route up the hill in our flip flops
We opted not to take this route up the hill in our flip flops

 

The old monastery - we were hunting for how to get up to a temple on the hill at our stop up the river, but never did figure it out (none of the tourists we saw did)
The old monastery – we were hunting for how to get up to a temple on the hill at our stop up the river, but never did figure it out (none of the tourists we saw did)

 

Keeping the flowers fresh
Keeping the flowers fresh

 

One of the many little bridges over the river (that's just bamboo laid across in the middle there)
One of the many little bridges over the river (that’s just bamboo laid across in the middle there)

 

A farmer letting his hard working water buffalo cool off in the river
A farmer letting his hard working water buffalo cool off in the river

Around Inle, the locals do all their bathing and washing in the lake — it was really common to see whole families in the water splashing around with soap in their hair, having their afternoon wash.  They also grow lots of produce on the lake, which is interesting.  The lake is really shallow and water plants are visible on the surface or right under it in most areas.  But the farmers have also set up fields on top of the water to grow all sorts of produce.   Pretty ingenious.  Another impressive thing was the bamboo lock system on the small river we went up.  The first one looked like a dam made out of bamboo, and I thought maybe we couldn’t go any further.  But there was a small slot cut out of the middle just wide enough for the long, narrow boats to slip through.  The boats fit through that slot one at a time, passing through the locks to make their way up or down river.  Pretty cool! 

Going through the locks
Going through the locks

It’s Myanmar (not Burma, thanks), Part I: Yangon & Bagon

Most everything I read about travelling to Myanmar said it’s a country that time forgot.  I won’t echo that well-worn sentiment here, but I will say it is the most un-tourist-tainted country I’ve been to.  Yes, there are English menus in all the major cities, you can find your way around between cities without much problem, be quoted prices in English, and even find Western food in most areas (although we mostly steered clear of it).  But, the locals still dress conservatively in their traditional longhi, paint their faces with a thanaka root-water mixture to protect against the sun, chew betelnut and smoke hand-rolled cheroots all day, burn trash on the side of the road, don’t seem to mind tepid refrigeration, do most everything by hand (including road work), and are happy to see tourists in their midst.  I’ve never been stared at, prodded (mostly by women, thankfully), and photographed by locals the way we were there (of course some of that may have been helped by Steve’s impressively thick beard – we saw only a handful of locals with some scraggly facial hair).  It was also funny to see very traditionally dressed Myanmar locals tucking cell phones into the waist of their longhiis and kids in remote areas playing handheld video games.  So I don’t really agree that time has been forgotten in Myanmar.  But it is a special place nonetheless. 

Yangon

Yangon was Rangoon to the British and it almost seems like not too many changes have been made to the city center since the imperialists left their capital in 1948.  The infrastructure is in need of some repair and I can easily imagine how my friend Ryan fell through the sidewalk here.  However, after seeing Mandalay and some other spots in Myanmar, Yangon appears to be the most well-developed of the cities – after all, it does have paved roads, stop lights, sidewalks, high-rises, and well-placed parks.  Although much of the infrastructure is crumbling and blackouts are the norm (there was one most nights, and many places were prepared with generators), Yangon’s crumbling beauty makes it feel like a very special place. 

Our first beers (and the ubiquitous peanuts) in Myanmar.  We finalized our plans for the trip over these beers!
Our first beers (and the ubiquitous peanuts) in Myanmar. We finalized our plans for the trip over these beers!

Although some tourist have complained to us about the food, we were excited to have it given our love for Burma Superstar in SF.  We had a lot of curries in our first couple of days, but Myanmar curries are pretty heavy and oily (not at all like the Thai curries I have become addicted to).  So we decided to venture to the street venders in Chinatown (passing through a very colorful street produce market) for some whole grilled fish and skewers of squid and veggies.  This simple meal was one of the best we had in Myanmar (the other being another whole grilled fish in Inle Lake).  The fish comes with some amazingly tasty dipping sauces, and we learned that chopsticks are the best way to pick apart a whole fish (you can get all the meat).  This feast along with enough beer to make us happy was also only $5 a person.     

Night market on the street (literally)
Night market on the street (literally)
Maybe some crickets for a snack?
Maybe some crickets for a snack?
Overlooking the madness of the night street market
Overlooking the madness of the night street market
We drank many of these!
We drank many of these!
Grilled whole fish and so much more!
Grilled whole fish and so much more!
Steve is sooo happy about that whole grilled fish we just had!
Steve is sooo happy about that whole grilled fish we just had!

Overall the heat in Myanmar can be a bit oppressive.  When we ventured to the Shwedagon Pagoda (the symbol of Myanmar), we were therefore grateful to have a very good English-speaking guide who did a heroic job keeping us in the shade during our visit.  He told us about our birthday animals, which are determined by the day of the week you were born.  I was born on a Friday, so my animal is a guinea pig.  Given that there are dragons and tigers to choose from, I felt a bit gypped.  But we nonetheless each took turns paying tribute to our animals and Buddha — pouring water over their statutes in our birthday corners around the pagoda.  As honorary Buddhists for the day, our guide encouraged us to ring the big bell, three times, which notifies everyone that we had done a good deed for the day.  Reportedly paying tribute to our birthday animals counted as a good deed! 

Yangon

Buddha under the banyan tree
Buddha under the banyan tree
I just love the look of the language
I just love the look of the language
Sweating it out at Shwedagon Pagoda!
Sweating it out at Shwedagon Pagoda!
One of the many marble "rugs"
One of the many marble “rugs”
Paying tribute at my Friday corner
Paying tribute at my Friday corner
Mustn't forget to douse the guinea pig!
Mustn’t forget to douse the guinea pig!
Ringing the bell - 3 times!
Ringing the bell – 3 times!

Yangon Yangon

The mythical animal that is 6 animals in one (fish, dragon, bird, horse, elephant, antelope)
The mythical animal that is 6 animals in one (fish, dragon, bird, horse, elephant, antelope)

One of the any things that is really interesting in Myanmar is the driving.  Now although we saw plenty of kids a the wheel in Myanmar, foreigners are not allowed to drive or even rent motorbikes (although we could rent e-bikes, a weird loophole).  But after seeing the driving there, I was totally fine with this restriction.  Apparently after the Brits left, the government changed the rules so everyone is required to drive on the right side of the road – you know, to further distance the country from its colonial period.  But the funny thing is most of the cars still have the wheel on the right side, even new cars (actually there is no standard, as it seems perfectly okay to have a car with the wheel on either side).  To account for this difficulty (I mean the passenger can more easily see if it’s safe to pass on the left side when the driver is on the right side of the vehicle), Myanmar drivers use their horn.  A LOT.  From what I gathered, honking is required at least whenever (1) you approach an intersection without a traffic light (which is most intersections), (2) you are passing someone on the road (this applies even if the other vehicle is in the other lane of a multi-lane road, because you just never know when land lines won’t be followed), (3) you just want others to know you’re there, just because you do (we saw several drivers just honking intermittently), (4) you’re merging, or (5) you see any vehicle trying to enter the road and you don’t plan to yield (I never saw anyone yield).  In the few times we had e-bikes or push bikes, I learned that a driver honking to pass was more the sign for “hold your line” versus “move to the right.”  Once you get used to all the honking, it starts to make sense. 

These funny little trucks are so common (and loud)
These funny little trucks are so common (and loud)

Bagan

From Yangon we flew to Bagan (after hunting down the Air Mandalay office in Yangon to pay for the reserved tickets in U.S. cash – yes, they still only take brand new U.S. cash money for many payments in Myanmar).  The town around Bagan is cute and very manageable.  We got bikes from our hotel the first day and rode around a bit.  We went to check out the big “new” (active) pagoda in town.  Now most of the locals are super nice and helpful.  So when one directed us where we could park our bikes, we didn’t think much of it.  But then that nicety came with being led by the hand to their souvenir stalls inside, where we were basically forced to buy something. 

I was totally cleaned out (of like the $20 worth of cash I had on me).  After having some jade rings forced on me, I made the mistake of asking about a puppet (puppetry is big in Myanmar, who knew?).  After she wouldn’t be bargained down any lower, I indicated that I couldn’t go lower because I actually did not have any more money on me – making the point by pulling out my last $11 in bills.  Now we were haggling over a 1,000 kyat ($1) price difference but she wouldn’t budge.  When I tried to walk away she grabbed the money in an iron grip and wouldn’t let go.  She simply would not let me end the transaction and walk away with my money.  She asked me for something else to make up for the perceived $1 shortfall – my perfume, lipstick, something!  When I said no way and offered her my Kleenex, she finally gave up and let me have the thing for $1 less.  We had all been basically forced to buy something we didn’t really want or need.  After that experience were all a bit wiser about the hard sell tactics (although we honestly never again met women that were that bad – they were the exception). 

Visiting our first temple in Bagan - Shwezigon Paya
Visiting our first temple in Bagan – Shwezigon Paya
Steve never met a bell he didn't want to ring
Steve never met a bell he didn’t want to ring
So much gold!
So much gold!
Our bikes (mine has some suspicious looking leaves on the seat)
Our bikes (mine has some suspicious looking leaves on the seat)
Peppers - yum!
Peppers – yum!
The colors of the marketplace
The colors of the marketplace
I spy Ilene in the market
I spy Ilene in the market

We otherwise did the requisite touring of only some of the many thousands of ancient pagodas in Bagan.  Seeing both a sunrise and sunset, as required.  We rented a horse cart to take us to see the sunset.  We thought it was a genius idea – drive out to watch the sunset, grab some beers on the way, no problem!  Well, when we bought beers, our driver bought whiskey.  After he tried to take us to a closer pagoda to watch the sunset we did get him to take us to the recommended one, which was further out and of course which we had bargained for ahead of time.  This required some more bargaining with the head of what we dubbed the horse cart mafia — all the horse carts seemed to want to take the tourists to the closest pagoda on the grounds that the big popular one was too crowded.  We made it to the larger one, and it was honestly pretty crowded.  Squeezing up the dark, narrow internal stone staircase was a bit scary, but it was worth the extra effort and crowd fighting.  We were probably up on the pagoda for about 45 minutes, and when we returned our driver was clearly drunk.  He ran the cart up the curb a few times and we were sure we’d go over.  But our decision to end the ride was really made when he…let’s say…got a bit too chummy with me.  Thankfully although this was our first horse cart ride while in Myanmar (we had three other horse cart rides after that one, it is a very common way to get around, actually), it was the only one with a drunk and inappropriate driver.

 

The horse almost bit me as I tried to pet him
The horse almost bit me as I tried to pet him

 

Ready to go!
Ready to go!

 

This temple is not big enough for sunset...onward!  (the horse cart mafia seems to take all their foreigners here)
This temple is not big enough for sunset…onward! (the horse cart mafia seems to take all their foreigners here)

 

A blurry picture of one of the may temples we passed in the horse cart
A blurry picture of one of the may temples we passed in the horse cart

 

Such a popular spot to watch the sunset, it was impossible not to get others in our photo
Such a popular spot to watch the sunset, it was impossible not to get others in our photo

 

Now this is more like it...
Now this is more like it…

 

Sunset
Sunset

As I mentioned, we were allowed to rent e-bikes, which are basically just slower motor scooters, and that really helped with getting around in the heat of the day.  After the horse cart incident, we decided to make our own way around for sunrise the next day.  This also gave us the freedom to see old town Bagan at our own pace.  We generally hid out at the hotel pool during the hottest parts of the day, grateful for a pool even though it seemed to come in lieu of good A/C in the room.  The hotel also had a beer garden, where you could get $0.65 draft Myanmar beer.  A cold lager is just perfect on a hot day!        

Sunrise time!
Sunrise time!

Bagan

Eating our boxed breakfasts on top of the temple
Eating our boxed breakfasts on top of the temple
This sweet dog really wanted some of our breakfast
This sweet dog really wanted some of our breakfast
One of the balloons at sunrise
One of the balloons at sunrise
Temples as far as the eye can see!
Temples as far as the eye can see!
Another temple
Another temple
Old frescos of Buddha
Old frescos of Buddha
One of the many gold Buddhas
One of the many gold Buddhas
Pulled off the side of the road for a short visit to some temples
Pulled off the side of the road for a short visit to some temples
It's cool in here - I can see how worship can be a reprieve in this heat!
It’s cool in here – I can see how worship can be a reprieve in this heat!
Graffiti in one of the small old temples we stopped in
Graffiti in one of the small old temples we stopped in
All of our modes of transport - bikes and e-bikes
All of our modes of transport – bikes and e-bikes
Sunset drinks overlooking the river
Sunset drinks overlooking the river