Posted in mandalay, myanmar by moonwire on November 24, 2009

After four days in Yangon, I got myself an overnight-bus ticket to Mandalay. The trip takes anywhere from 12 to 15 hours and I wasn’t looking forward to it however, you don’t really have a choice. Yes, you can take one of the domestic flights. Dodgy track record thrown in for free. Or you can take the train, which actually takes longer than the bus, but you’ll be able to book a sleeper (foreigners aren’t allowed to book regular train tickets). However, the problem with the train is that it’s 100% government run, and I believe the planes are either government or joint ventures. I know that by visiting Myanmar I am already putting money in the pocket of  the ruling military junta by paying money for the visa, the airport exit fee and 12% on bus tickets and guesthouse expenses however, you can still make your choices wisely to ensure as little as possible disappears into the pockets of those bastards. Having said that, the money made off of tourism doesn’t amount to that much. I read somewhere that Myanmar receives less than 200,000 tourists a year.

So the bus it was. I was actually surprised the bus wasn’t totally falling apart. It was an old Japanese tour bus with decent, yet very small seats. There was aircon as well as a TV blaring cheesy Burmese pop videos at maximum volume for hours at end. I can’t really sleep on those buses but I had my iPod which also blocked out the puking sounds from the lady next to me, who threw up during the whole duration of the 12 hour ride. Little bags of puke everywhere. Oh, it was an adventure.

After a few hours we stopped for a bathroom and food break in the middle of nowhere. Just looking at the food made me want to join my barfing seat mate, but I had to go to the bathroom. I opened the door and the bathroom,  basically a hole in the ground with a bucket and a scoop (I can deal with that after all those months) was filled with what I believe to be black widow spiders. There were hundreds of them. I never peed so fast in my life and basically got out still pulling up my pants.

The ride was surreal as there is no such thing as street lighting, the only time you see something lit up it’s most likely a prison. Everything else is dark. Some parts of the road were actually quite good, other parts were extremely bumpy.

We made one more of those stops and we had to get out of the bus for 2 ID checks. I was the only foreigner on the bus and I’m sure I held everybody up because they needed to meticulously browse through my passport and record a bunch of details with pen and paper. Luckily, no ‘tea money’ was required to get the go ahead and finally after 12 hours on that bus, we arrived at a dusty parking lot just outside of Mandalay at 5 AM. It was very dark, because there was no electricity. It was kind of eerie, too. Lots of buses were coming and going and I had no idea where to go as I did not have a hotel booked. I looked at my Lonely Planet guide and a taxi driver approached me. I told him I wanted to be dropped off at a certain guesthouse. He took me to his taxi, which was one of those tiny little blue Mazda pick up trucks you’d expect to see in Cuba. I climbed into the back and off we went. The funny thing is, that guy knew how to speak a little Dutch. It was just bizarre. When we got to the guesthouse it turned out to be full, so he suggested another one, just a block away. Sure, what was I gonna do at 5.30 AM…. He took me to E.T. guesthouse and it looked pretty decent so I got a room there. I took a quick nap and went for a walk around ‘downtown’.

My first impression of Mandalay was that it wasn’t very pretty. Whereas in Yangon, there’s a lot of old quite interesting (yet crumbling) architecture… no such thing in Mandalay. I honestly felt a bit lost there add exhaustion and 37C to the mix and there’s a recipe for misery. I then decided that I was not going to do Bagan, which meant another 8 hours on a bus to get there, and another 16 hours to get back to Yangon.

I got some half decent Chinese food, walked around town a bit to see if there was anything going on. There wasn’t. At night there was absolutely nothing to do so I decided to make it an early night and I ended up going to bed at 8 PM.

The next day I woke up early and I went for a walk around the Mandalay palace. There were some pretty sights but nothing that really blew me away apart from the huge propaganda posters with statements like “The Tatmadaw (the military) will never betray the cause of our nation.” Pretty eerie.

Went back to the hotel for brekkie and decided I might as well check out some of the temples as there wasn’t much else to do. So when I was walking down the street, a tri-shaw driver approached me. His English was very good and he talked about a few places where he could take me. I decided to give it a go and hopped into the tri-shaw.

His name was Mr. Htoo and he turned out to be an excellent guide and also companion. He pedaled me around town for the entire afternoon and showed me a bunch of temples, which were okay but not breath taking. However, the most interesting part of our afternoon was making stops at the tea shops where you sit on tiny stools and just sip tea and eat snacks (those are very good btw. I ended up living on those things for the last few days because they were very tasty, yet not very healthy as they’re all deep fried.). I much enjoyed talking to him. He then told me that he was mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide and yes, indeed he was there. The guide stated that he rents out bicycles but unfortunately he no longer does. He told me that after the 2007 anti-government protests that were lead by the monks (the government actually started shooting at the protesters and about 30 people ended up dead and more than 1000 people were arrested) tourism came to a halt and he was forced to sell his bicycles so his 4 children could go to school. He’s hoping to open his bicycle rental business again in the new future but a bicycle costs anywhere from 40 to 70 USD and on an income of about 30 USD a month, it takes a long time to save up.

Htoo picked me up later that night to take me to ‘The Moustache Brothers’, one of the few evening entertainment options out there. The Moustache Brothers are Par Par Lay, Lu Maw and Lu Zaw and their show is a mix of stand up comedy, Burmese dance and pretty harsh criticism of the Burmese government. The theatre is actually in their garage and it’s pretty neat to be there. Locals are not allowed to attend, but it’s safe for foreigners. I honestly couldn’t believe some of the things that were said about the generals and their ‘government’. As it happens, Lay and Zaw both served 6 years in prison doing hard labour for criticizing the government and yet they continue. Pretty courageous.

The next morning Htoo picked me up again to go to Mandalay Hill and see yet a few more temples. The cutest thing was when I got out of the temples, I saw him polishing up his bicycle. He had just put on new tires and was very proud of his possession. Once again, we ended up in a tea shop and drank Star cola (Burmese version of Pepsi), tea and ate snacks. We also invited a little girl who was selling newspapers. She didn’t speak English, but she told Htoo that she has to work to add to the income of her family so she can’t go to school. Pretty heart breaking. It was also very cute to see her drink the Star cola. She wasn’t used to drinking carbonated drinks so she sipped very very slowly however, she wolfed down the snacks in no time.

That night, it was time to go back on the bus. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t as bad as the ride to Mandalay even though it was an hour longer. I arrived at the Okinawa Guesthouse once again and all was well.

I kind of regret not biting the bullet and make the trek to Bagan. Even though Myanmar was a bit boring in some regards, I did find it the most interesting country out of the bunch. The people are very friendly and curious. Other than the moneychangers, there are no blatant rip offs like you can expect in Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. Talking to the locals is quite easy, even their English is sometimes limited. I’ve had conversations with quite a few people there and it surprised me they were quite willing to talk about the political situation in their country even though it was mostly done in a roundabout way. After all, openly opposing the government could land them in prison for many years.

And even though I hate the thought of the military junta getting any of my money, I am glad I did go. There are lots of ways of minimizing the money that goes to the government. Don’t take domestic flights, don’t stay in government owned hotels and don’t take the train, which is government run as well. All the people I’ve talked to were glad to see foreigners visiting. After the anti-government protests tourism virtually came to a halt and it was devastating for a lot of people, like Htoo. Also, from what I gathered the Burmese feel that as long as there’s at least some tourists, they are not completely isolated and a few hundred Kyat tips here and there go a long way. However, despite the friendly people and their optimism and openness, I couldn’t help but feel sad for them. Whereas in Cambodia, I feel that despite the rampant poverty, they’re on their way to something, whereas in Myanmar…. I couldn’t help but feel hopeless most of the time. Maybe next year’s elections will bring a change of scenery. Maybe not…

I didn’t take many photos in Myanmar, but here’s a few more shots:

There aren’t any public phones in Myanmar. When you need to make a phone call, you go to one of these: just a table with a regular phone.

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yangon (rangoon)

Posted in myanmar, yangon by moonwire on November 22, 2009

I got my Myanmar visa sorted on Thursday afternoon and on Friday morning I caught the plane from Bangkok to Yangon. When I got off the plane, I immediately sunk into culture shock. I expected it to be somewhat like Cambodia. Somewhat still quite familiar, but it was totally different. Outside the taxi drivers were waiting, chewing betel nut and wearing longyi, some sort of sarong.

When I actually got to the taxi, I was completely shocked at the state of the taxi. The seats were half gone, the inside of the back door was gone and so was the window. Natural airconditioning! When the driver started the car, I was afraid it would blow up or break down. And a lot of the cars on the road are like that. Not only is it very expensive to own a car, the import of cars is also restricted so they will drive them til they fall apart, and then drive them some more.

I didn’t have a hotel yet, but I had done a bit of research and I asked the driver to take me to the Okinawa Guesthouse downtown. The ride was interesting. While keeping an eye on the door in case it would fall off, I watched the people making their way around town. Really old buses packed to the max with people on the roof top. Wreck like cars that would have been taken apart for scrap metal two decades ago in any Western country, people riding rickety bicycles. But not a single motorbike in sight. As it turns out, motorbikes were banned from Yangon twenty years ago. Probably a blessing.

When I got to the guesthouse, I was pleasantly surprised. It was a tiny little house in a  run-down street with the biggest potholes imaginable. They had a few private rooms and a small four bed dorm upstairs. I checked in, took a little nap and then walked around downtown looking for food. Yangon must be cholera cart capital. I ended up settling for some Indian style food, which was pretty awful. Not at all the Indian kind of food I’ve tasted anywhere else. Very bitter and sour.

Later in the afternoon I decided to walk around in order to find a place where I could get a drink at night. Mmmmmm no such thing. There are no bars. Instead I headed back to the guesthouse to have a Myanmar beer there. It tasted actually really good so all was well. At the guesthouse I met a Belgian guy, Lieven, who had been to Myanmar four times already. I asked him about bars and he said he knew of a place up the street where you could get cheap Myanmar draft. So off we went, to this tiny hole in the wall restaurant. We had a couple of beers there and ended up hanging out for the next few days.

We had more awful food, more cheap Myanmar draught, walked around town and visited the Shwedagon pagoda, as well as the meat market. Absolutely shocking. The meat market is in a damp basement of an old building. When we went in, the power was down (which is very often the case) so it was pretty dark but we carried flashlights. The floor was covered in blood, dirt, guts, shit and god knows what wildlife was running around there. The cut up animals were just lying on the dirty floor, rotting away. And this was meat for sale. It sure made Phnom Penh look like Singapore compared to that. We didn’t stick around too long as the stench was just horrendous but it sure made a deep impression on me.

A few interesting things… First of all, money. When you arrive in Myanmar you need to have USD on you (though Euro’s can also be exchanged, but only in Yangon). The bills need to be new and pristine. No ink stains, no creases. You cannot buy the local currency, Kyats, outside of Myanmar, so you’re at the mercy of the black market money changers. This is tricky. I needed to change some US dollars and was well aware of the money changing scams out there. A guy approached us on the street, he showed us a stack of 1000 Kyat bills. Counted them in front of us, but he did it very quickly. I said I wanted to re-count myself. So while I was counting, one of the guys held out the counted money in front of him. I was wearing my sunglasses so he couldn’t see my eyes and while I pretended to be counting the money in my hand, I watched his hands and I noticed that in a split second, he took a few bills from the bottom of the counted stack and put it behind his back and into his pocket. I looked up and told him ‘I saw that’. He denied. I gave him the Kyat back and walked away. This is a very common scam and you have to be very careful when changing money. Of course, never give the US dollars til you have ensured you are getting the right amount of Kyat.

Electricity… Or lack thereof. It seems completely random, and perhaps it is. There might be electricity for a few hours, then it goes off again for hours at a time. Lots of shops and restaurants have generators and the sound is deafening. Unfortunately, the Okinawa guesthouse does not and at night it was very hot. Just imagine about 35C and being forced to sleep under a mosquito net that doesn’t let any of the breeze in, if there is any. I guess I’m a bit of a princess but I found it very hard to deal with and did not sleep well at all.

Also, perhaps related to the lack of electricity… there isn’t any at night, so almost everything shuts down at around 9 PM and the city goes black. A flashlight is an absolute necessity to carry with you at all times, especially at night walking the streets because the potholes are huge and there’s a lot of open sewers.

Another interesting thing is mobile phones. There is no international roaming in Myanmar but you are given two options. One of them is to buy a temporary sim card, which costs 20 USD and cannot be reloaded and will expire after a month. Those 20 USD won’t get you far, making/receiving calls on a mobile phone is very expensive. The other option is to buy a post-paid SIM card. Just the card itself costs USD 1500. Needless to say, very few people have mobile phones in Myanmar. It is sheer luxury.

However, on Sunday night we decided to live it up a bit and we went to see the Michael Jackson movie ‘This Is It’. The theatre was surprisingly nice. Quite retro for our standards but the screen was good, and so was the quality of the movie. Though most memorable was when the movie was over and the lights went on…. the garbage left on the floor was shocking. It was as if a garbage truck had crashed and toppled over right there. Very strange, because the Burmese take a lot of pride in appearance and they mostly look well groomed and very proper. We were about the last people to leave the theatre because we couldn’t stop looking and couldn’t get over the mess all around… and the sad looking empty garbage cans nobody was using.

Another interesting visit was a stop at the Myanmar Tourist & Travel office. Lieven wanted to go see the Sea Gypsies in the South. He wanted to find out how to get there by bus and boat. Well, the answer was ‘not’. The only way he’d be able to go was to sign up for some $1000 tour and apply for a permit (turn around time about two weeks). He’d have to take a plane as foreigners are not allowed on the roads in that area. He asked about other places. The answer was pretty much ‘no’. As a foreigner, you are highly restricted in your movements around the country. You can go to Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake, Bagan and a few places to the North and West but that’s it. He ended up taking a bus to Pegu, to visit a monastery with a 100 year old snake and I ended up taking a 12 hour night bus to Mandalay.

In the next installment, my impression of Mandalay a variety of other tidbits and why you should go to Myanmar.

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