Thursday, July 18, 2013

Myanmar Trip in Feb-March

Yes, Blog Readers, I have finally finished sorting through my hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures which we took on the Myanmar trip, and have now written a little commentary to go with them. I hope you enjoy this - this process helped me appreciate this trip all over again. Brace yourself, it is very long! In late February of this year, we flew to Bangkok and spent a couple of days getting over jetlag. Then we flew to Myanmar to begin a 15 day tour provided by Intrepid Travel, our favorite small group travel company. The airport in Yangon (used to be called Rangoon), seemed very small and we got through customs quickly. Yes, we had to have a visa which could only be obtained by applying to the consulate in Washington DC, and it was expensive. On the taxi ride to our hotel, we saw this welcoming sign:
And then this REALLY nice sign:
Our taxi driver spoke decent English and he spent the whole ride talking about President Obama’s visit, which had happened a short time before. In fact, all over the country the people were very pro-American, and we often saw pictures such as the following one, which is President Obama with Aung Sung Suu Kyi, the woman they call “The Lady”, who endured many years of imprisonment because she is a freedom fighter for the rights of the Myanmar people.
The Asia Plaza Hotel, where our group was meeting, was an older, large nice hotel with good amenities and nice rooms:
The view out our window from the 7th floor showed us the main attraction of this city, the Schweddagon Pagoda, and also one of their problems, air pollution.
Even though this was Feb. 23, it was not winter there, so it was hot. At the 6PM meeting, we started drinking the local beer to cool off:
There were 12 people in our group from several different countries: Canada, Australia, England, and the USA. Our guide was KoKo, a guy from Myanmar. Then we had a delicious dinner at a local nice restaurant within walking distance. We quickly learned that we always had to carry a flashlight because there were few street lights, and the streets and sidewalks are often in terrible shape – full of potholes. A lot of the dishes at the restaurant were similar to the food we had been eating in Thailand:
Beer was fairly reasonably priced, but wine was expensive, even the marginal ones that were produced in Myanmar. This bottle of wine ordered by our table mates cost $22 :
The next day we did a walking tour around the city. There was lots of activity on the streets, such as these people sewing using old-fashioned treadle sewing machines:
Because this was a fairly large city, most of the people live in apartment buildings such as this:
It was very interesting to walk through the street market:
You can see from the picture that there is a very limited space for people because the vendors sit on the street and spread their wares out. Here is a woman selling some nice looking veggies:
These people are selling meat and fish:
People ask for what they want and the vendor whacks it up right there for them. Sometimes people are cooking right there on the street:
On a different street, this girl had a table set up and was putting out all the already prepared food that was for sale:
Then people come along and order what they want and eat it right there:
Right in front of a western style supermarket, these puppies were for sale:
This was something we saw often. Another thing we noticed on our walk around the city was people sitting at a table with phones on it, because most people don’t have a phone in their homes to use so they go here and pay for a call.
Cell phones are fairly rare in Myanmar and the few that we saw were old fashioned large ones, which we were told were very expensive. Our major excursion was to the Schwedagon Pagoda, the holiest shrine in Myanmar. This is a closeup taken from our hotel:
And this is the outside taken as we drove around it:
It was first built between the 6th and 10th centuries, and is covered in gold leaf and has many precious stones embedded in its various artifacts. Supposedly, 8 hairs of the Buddha are enshrined here. There are 4 major walkways to get to the main stupa and all around it are many smaller shrines:
Some of the shrines have buddha statues inside with colored lights around the heads,
and other figures outside:
At a different pagoda, there was a huge reclining Buddha with these castings on the bottom of the feet:
One of the fun parts about going to the Schwedagon Pagoda was being there in the late afternoon and staying while the sun set, then seeing the lighting change on the gold pagoda. Additionally, there were lots of local people who were there to worship, and we saw some great outfits. These were 2 women in indigenous dress who graciously allowed us to take their picture:
This was an adult nun who had these 2 little girl nuns with her, and they posed for us:
The next day we walked around town some more, and we noticed these 2 men walking around selling veggies on these shoulder poles:
At one stall someone was selling mangosteens.
This is a very delicious fruit which we first tasted when we were in Thailand in 2003. Queen Victoria liked them so much that she offered a huge reward to anyone who could bring some to her in England before they spoiled. No one ever collected. This picture is of a man at a “betle nut” wagon.
The betle leaf is from a vine which is valued both as a stimulant and as a medicine. The betel leaf is rolled up with slaked lime and an areca nut, and occasionally, some tobacco. It is rolled up and chewed and the people using it spit quite a lot, and the spit is red. So there are red splotches all over the pavement. The other effect is that it stains people’s teeth and mouths red, and damages the teeth.
There is evidence that people have been doing this is Asia for thousands of years. We saw LOTS of people who had bad teeth from chewing this. There was always so much life on the streets. For example, right along a major street, this man was selling flowers:
It was commonplace to see people, especially women, carrying things on their heads:
People work into their old age there:
Another feature we noticed right off, and everywhere, was that people, especially women and children, wore face paint, a yellowish-white paste called thanaka.
They believe that it is attractive and that it protects them from the sun. It has a nice smell and is also an anti-fungal and helps with acne. It is made by grinding up the bark of the several kinds of trees. This woman is selling pieces of wood which are used to make this paste:
Our group left Yangon and flew on a Myanmar airliner to Bagan. We stayed in a much smaller town called Nuang-U. Lots of tourists stay here, even though it seems rural, so there were many great little outdoor restaurants and access to local businesses. Of course, the first attraction was the main pagoda called Schwezigon Paya. Here we are in front of it:
Some of the embellishments were very intricate:
It was built in the 1100’s. There was a pavilion leading to it with intricate figures:
It was very hot while we were there and we greatly enjoyed eating at an outdoor restaurant called Best Friends Restaurant:
We ate there many times and the food was always good. We got to know the people who ran it and they even bought us beer with our meal the last time we ate there. The next day the major activity was bike riding through the archeological zone around Bagan where the kings of ancient Bagan built more than 4,400 temples in only 230 years between the 11 to the 13th centuries. About 2,000 are left standing, because this is an area of frequent earthquake activity. Here are some pictures of parts of the plains:
Some local people were walking near these:
Many of them have various Buddha images inside them: Some are of gold
Some are just painted:
We were also taken to a lacquer ware factory where the entire process was explained to us and we could see people working on all the stages of production:
There were many young people working there, and it was painful to contemplate sitting the way they did, all day long, doing this painstaking work. Of course, there was a showroom where they encouraged us to buy some of their products:
We also stopped at other handicraft stalls. This was one where they made paper umbrellas:
Other days in Bagan we were able to observe everyday life activities. This was just one of the overloaded trucks we saw:
This was the front of that truck:
And this picture shows that some of their trucks are rather odd contraptions:
Other trucks have been modified to carry both cargo, on top, and people inside the back, LOTS of people!
Many of the women carry various types of loads on their heads:
This woman was carrying laundry on her head across a very large sandy area in flip flops!
And these women were carrying large bags of crops on their heads:
In passing the local school, we saw these boys wearing the typical school uniform:
Some of the boys are monks, and are dressed in this fashion:
And some of the young girls are nuns and are dressed like this:
One morning we were able to witness the monk procession, in which they parade through the town and local people put food and/or offering into their bowls:
Another phase of life we happened upon was some of the harvesting being done by an ox:
And near one of the pagodas, where we went for sunset, we saw this decorated ox cart out on the plains:
This was a rather differently shaped pagoda, where many people gathered for the sunset:
The last evening some of us went to a puppet show, because it was highly touted as one of the cultural things of this country. It was an overpriced meal which was attended by gullible tourists and the stupid part was that they did the show right when they served the food, so it was difficult to pay attention to the performance. The music was provided by a live band, and that was fairly discordant also.
If you ever go to this country, give this event a pass. The morning we left Bagan, we were picked up by horse carts, which is a traditional means of travel in these parts. This is what one looked like:
There was room for one person on the seat with the driver, and then the other person (or persons) had to sit in the back. This is Jane & Michael in theirs:
When we arrived at the Irrawady River, we saw these workers bagging up lots of corn which I suppose was then delivered to some of the local markets.
We boarded our riverboat, which was to be our transport for the next 2 days as we journeyed to Mandalay, by walking up a plank, while some of the boatmen held a pole which served as a hand hold if we were unsteady. This is Elaine getting off the boat, but it shows the arrangement:
There were lots of chairs set up on the top deck of the boat for all of us to sit up there. It was a more comfortable temperature there and then we could see everything happening on the river and the banks.
Here we are sitting together up there:
One of the first boats to go near us was this one which is full of fishing nets:
The people were very friendly and waved to us whenever they were near enough:
Some of the boat traffic informed us about Myamar industries; there were many large barge-type ships like this one carrying huge logs:
In certain areas there were gold dredge boats like this:
You can see the big hoses which suck the river bottom up and shoot it across the flat part of the boat where the gold particles are filtered out. In this picture you can see the gold dredger boats all tied to each other, which was how we usually found them:
On the banks, we occasionally saw farmers harvesting crops using ox carts:
A common occupation of women was washing clothes in the river and then spreading them on the bank to dry:
Here are some women washing clothes in the river and you can see the usual way they do it – getting the clothes they are wearing wet as well.
Once we even watched a woman washing a pig in the river:
The lower part of the boat has the galley and bathroom, as well as a large area where a big table was set up for meals. This is our group, with our leader, Koko Aye, on the left:
The food was very good and plentiful. We were amazed that they could do such a good job with only 3-4 guys on the boat and such a small galley. We stopped along the way at a few small villages and walked up the bank to some of the interesting things such as a place where they made clay pots.
They explained the whole process and demonstrated for us:
After the pots were finished, they were loaded on boats and hauled to Mandalay. One of the children was rolling cattle dung into small balls to leave to dry in the sun, but we never learned why:
That evening, we all were given pads and blankets so we could sleep up on the top deck. Despite the fact that it had been hot all day in the sun, it started to cool down quite rapidly, and we dressed in our warmest clothing:
This is what it looked like with all of us up there:
As soon as darkness approached, we were very surprised when millions of white moths were all over the place. They were so bothersome that we couldn’t even sit up to read using our flashlights, or talk to each other. Prior to that, there was quite a beautiful sunset:
The next day, we stopped at Sagaing to see the pagoda. From the riverboat we could see the large pagoda on a hill, with lots of smaller ones leading up to it.
We were taken up there in truck taxis, which are just pickup trucks with benches along both sides of the back, and a canopy over the top. The seats were padded but it was still not comfortable and we couldn’t see out as much as we would have liked. Inside the pagoda, there was a very large Buddha inside:
Outside there was a pavilion walk with beautiful pictures on the ceiling:
As we arrived in Mandalay, the congestion on the riverbank became massive, and the number of boats tied up was quite large.
Lots of barrels and goods were stacked up on the banks, getting ready to be shipped:
Once we got into town, we found Mandalay to be quite polluted, very chaotic, with crowded streets that were often not paved, or if paved, full of potholes.
There were lots of motorbikes. There was lots of commercial activity and we could see trucks being loaded everywhere:
There were lots of street markets. This picture shows some of the vendors sitting near one of the garbage trucks:
People walk around carrying food for sale in metal cans:
The street markets have quite a variety of things for sale. Here are large amounts of chilis:
As always, there were lots of veggies on offer, as well as eggs.
We even saw preserved eggs for sale:
The eggs are coated with a lime mixture and then buried. After about a month, they are eaten – supposedly they are like jelly inside, and they are a delicacy. Lots of food is being prepared right on the street:
We watched this man rolling out dough, and working it, then he deep fried it. Our group bought a couple and shared them and they tasted a lot like doughnuts.
Once again there were lots of transportation options, such as a bike taxi, like this one:
On our optional day, a bunch of us went to see some of the local industries, such as gold leaf pounding. Pieces of gold are put into packets and men beat on them with sledge hammers repeatedly until a very, very thin gold leaf paper is produced.
The gold leaf is cut into small squares which are sold at the temples so that people can apply them to the Buddhas and other religious statues as a sign of piety. The temples make a lot of money selling these. Another place we went young people were doing intricate embroidery work on large pieces of fabric:
They sit on the floor all day working like this! Here are some puppets, which they also made to sell at this same factory:
Nearby was the area where all the stone cutters worked. They were mostly young boys and they were covered with stone dust:
This is a picture of carved elephants there, but most of the places were making buddhas.
We had already seen so many Buddha figures in this country, we couldn’t imagine that anyone would pay to have any more!!! Of course, one of our stops on this tour in Mandalay was a pagoda. We happened to be there on a special religious day so people were bringing their children all dressed up to the temple for special blessings:
They were proud and happy to let us take their pictures. Later on, when we went to a riverside restaurant (upscale) for lunch, there was another puppet show while we were eating:
Later on we stopped by one of the more unique buildings, a pagoda made entirely of teak:
There are very few of these left, as they are very old and most have burned down. They are also very difficult and expensive to maintain, especially in the climate there. Not far from our hotel area, was Mandalay fort with a very peaceful moat. The British army pretty much decimated the inside when they made it a military base.
We then proceeded to Mandalay Hill, where we had to take lots of escalators to get to the top. You guessed it – there was a temple at the top!
We were mainly up there to see the sunset, and also the surrounding countryside from that high vantage point. Unfortunately, there was so much air pollution, we could hardly see anything. It was kind of fun to talk to some of the locals who were also up there for the sunset. Leaving Mandalay was a relief because the air pollution, noise, and chaos was so bad. Now we had our first driving experience out of a city, so we experienced their roads – terrible. Our first stop was the U Bein Bridge, which is a popular top because it is a teak bridge in somewhat of an idyllic setting. It is 1.2 km long and crosses a shallow lake. It was misty when we first arrived:
Near the area where our van parked there were lots of stalls and vendors selling things, especially unique pictures and craft items. This was also the case up on the bridge. It upset most of us that there were vendors with small cages stuffed full of birds, including one that had 7 or 8 owls in it.
The idea was that tourists would buy the birds, often the entire cage full, and set them free. I suppose when that happens, they then go out and catch them again!!! By the time we worked our way up to the bridge, it was sunny:
As we walked across the first part, we were over fields where people were farming:
Once again, oxen were doing the heavy jobs:
And other jobs require lots of individual labor, a theme repeated in every part of this country:
It is also the reason why their roads are so terrible – the labor is mostly done by hand, and surprisingly, mostly by women. We passed several road crews like this on our drive to Kalaw:
No doubt when this country gets heavy equipment for farming, road building, etc. a lot of people will be put out of work. Also, did you notice that the women are pretty much covered up? This can’t be enjoyable in the climate, which is hot and humid, but is a theme we have seen all over Asia. Women do not want to acquire a tan because that is undesirable in their culture; it probably also indicates that they are a lower class person who has to work outside. Perhaps this is the Asian equivalent of “racism”…. Near our destination, Kalaw, we stopped at a workroom alongside the road where a family was making paper.
They explained the whole process to us and had displays of the various steps. Then they use the paper to make umbrellas, and other items which they sell. We also passed many trucks carrying huge loads of goods to market:
This is one of the old military trucks which has been repaired and now hauls commercially:
Kalaw is in the highlands and the climate was blissfully cooler. Our objective here was to do a 13 km trek so we could see the terrain and how the people there live. This is what the countryside looked like:
These scruffy plants are actually crops, and you can see the buildings tucked in between the hills:
At the beginning of the hike we saw a few banana plants, and here is a banana flower:
but we saw a lot more of these in other places that weren’t so high. These women were picking tea, a common crop at these elevations:
The other surprise was coming across fairly ornate pagodas out in the countryside near one of the villages:
We had a tea break at a small village and were able to take a few pictures of the locals:
This guy apparently had discovered an US Army jacket somewhere and acquired it:
There weren’t a lot of monkeys in this area either, but we did see some throughout our trip in a couple of far-flung places:
Because our trek went up and down through the hills, we noticed that these kinds of fields were found in the little valleys:
And, as usual, the women are the ones doing the actual work:
The trek ended for some of us at this teak monastery, where a very large and delicious lunch was provided for us.
The biggest pain was that after all that walking, we had to sit on the floor to eat! Some of our gang continued the trek in the afternoon, while the rest of us took the truck taxi back to our hotel. One of the more unusual places we stopped was at Pindaya Cave where there were literally thousands of Buddhas:
All through the extensive cave, they are stuffed into every nook and cranny. Some even have cloth coverings, and other embellishments. It is a Buddhist pilgrimage site. Outside the cave, quite an elaborate building surrounds it (a pagoda) and of course, there are many vendors and stalls selling artifacts, crafts, food, etc. The highlight of our tour was the next stop, The town of Nyaung Shwe where we stayed and took boat excursions on Inle Lake. Inle Lake is the second largest lake in Myanmar but it is the highest. There are 4 villages on the shore around the lake and lots of different ethnic groups live in stilt houses over the lake. Tourists are typically taken out in long, thin boats with individual chairs, 5 or 6 per boat:
These are local boats in a canal not far from our hotel:
And this is a picture of locals in their boat, where they sit right on the floor:
Local fishermen are known for practicing a distinctive rowing style which involves standing at the stern on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar. This unique style evolved for the reason that the lake is covered by reeds and floating plants making it difficult to see above them while sitting. Standing provides the rower with a view beyond the reeds. However, the leg rowing style is only practiced by the men. Women row in the customary style, using the oar with their hands, sitting cross legged at the stern. Here is the first fisherman we saw, with one of the very distinctive fish traps they use:
And this guy shows you the way they stand and row:
Fish is the main item of their diet. In addition to fishing, locals grow vegetables and fruit in large gardens that float on the surface of the lake. The floating garden beds are formed by extensive manual labor. The farmers gather up lake-bottom weeds from the deeper parts of the lake, bring them back in boats and make them into floating beds in their garden areas, anchored by bamboo poles. These gardens rise and fall with changes in the water level, and so are resistant to flooding. The constant availability of nutrient-laden water results in these gardens being incredibly fertile. This boat is going down the main channel of one of the villages:
This boat shows a couple of women in indigenous dress going through the village:
The stilt houses are often arranged in villages:
And occasionally we would pass some huge, modern houses such as this, which presumably was built by some of the more successful entrepreneurs of the village:
There is a 5 day market which moves to each village around the lake. People take their items to sell to a different village each day by boat, where they set up onshore in a market area. This is the boat parking lot:
Here are some guys carrying stuff to the market:
Another stop we made was at a shop where some women were wearing the traditional neck rings of the Padaung people.
You can see that the younger girls don’t wear as many rings as the older woman because they haven’t built up to it yet. They start doing this when they are about 5 or 6 and another ring is added every other year. Some people think their necks are stretched by this, but in actuality, the heavy rings press down on their collarbones and that bone is pushed father and father down. There are only about 7,000 Padaung people in Myanmar and some also live in Thailand, near the Myanmar border. One of the villages we visited is renown for the fine silversmith work sold there. Of course, our boat had to stop at several of these places, and some of the smiths demonstrated for us:
Most of our group bought jewelry because it is easier to carry. Needless to say, you have to bargain with them and are never sure whether you did well or not, so you better love what you end up with! One of the more questionable trades which flourishes in this region is making cheroots. The tobacco grows here and since they are easy to roll, local people make them and they are cheap:
This state, the Shan state, is also famous for a distinctive style of weaving, so we stopped at a weaving place. In this picture you can see that women work at this until they are very old:
One of the more unusual workers we saw was this handicapped man who painted lacquer ware with his feet:
Back in Nyaung Shwe, we saw some of the local workers coming back into town in a rather unique conveyance:
Our group had another day of activity in this region so the younger people rode bikes around part of the lake and visited other villages, while the older couples rented a boat again and went back out on the lake to see some places we didn’t get the day before. It was delightful! The next day we all flew back to Yangon. Elaine and I hadn’t gone across the river to see the small village over there, so we did that on our free day. The ferry was very crowded. Tourists have to pay $2 while local people pay about 20 cents. We saw this guy carrying quite a number of chickens on his bicycle:
On the other side, we hired a couple of bike taxis to haul us around the village – it was very hot and we felt sorry for the guys, but they were happy to have the work:
Mostly what we saw over there was people living in a rural-type setting, something we had been seeing for weeks:
As always, the kids were happy and active and we were welcomed everywhere. Our experiences in Myanmar were very unique and interesting. One reason we wanted to go now was because this country has recently been reopened by the rather restrictive military-controlled government, and we are afraid that it is going to be westernized rapidly. Because it is somewhat “backward”, tourist infrastructure is limited, and tours there are rather expensive. The other factor adding to the cost is that the roads are bad so tourists mostly fly from place to place. Because this culture is so steeped in Buddhism, a lot of the tourist attractions are pagodas and temples, which rapidly started to all look alike! Our 4 favorite days were the ones we spent on the water: 2 on the riverboat between Bagan and Mandalay, and 2 on the Inle Lake boats. Overwhelmingly, the most wonderful part of visiting Myanmar was our interactions with the local people, who are delighted that their government has loosened up and they now have a chance to make more money and have a better life. They warmly welcome tourists and unlike other countries, readily agree to having their picture taken and do not expect anything in return. Our trip ended with a group dinner on March 8 and a flight back to Bangkok on March 9.


CaliforniaGrammy said...

What an awesome accounting of a wonderful trip. I enjoyed every word, and loved seeing the pictures. An interesting country, quite primitive in their farm equipment, but such happy looking people. Thanks Mary, this post was a lot of work, I know, but so worth the effort. You'll need to turn your blog into a book or two, or have you already done that. I do it to mine every six months . . . just have it done digitally so I have it as my "journal!" Yours will be far more interesting to look back on than mine.

Sue Pace said...

It's 4 in the morning and I can't sleep. saw your FB post to link your blog. Put it on my desktop for later reading but started looking and now it's 5am and feel like I've been on a long adventure. Great story and fantastic pictures. I hope to see this slideshow and talk at the "Pace Theater" in Q this year. Thanks for sharing. I love going on trips vicariously.

The Roving Pollocks said...

Fabulous post. What a wonderful adventure.

jil said...

Loved traveling there with are awesome...

Keith Johnson said...

These are some amazing posts! That picture with the monkey drinking from the water bottle is beautiful. You must have had an AMAZING trip!

RV 123e