Saturday, December 29, 2012

Lake Inle

This post contains notes from my writings on the road in Myanmar, but is still a work in progress.  

The following installments of this traveler's tale are posted with photos:

Inle Lake and Bagan be edited and posted shortly (but not today :-(so, stay tuned :-)

Lake Inle is a destination, like saying you're going to Lake Tahoe. Fine if you're in San Francisco, but when you near the lake, then where? It turns out there is a road junction that the bus drops you at. First I must mention that in late December, and you are rising in altitude, it's cold at night. I had a flannel shirt and a fleece, but my coat was in my pack. I also had an under-layer of pants in that pack (stored in the baggage hold under the bus) but was wearing on the bus only my khaki ones. When the bus stopped every few hours en route and everyone got out and the doors were locked, the later at night we traveled, the more it was cold waiting for them to open. I got chilled. And the bus reached the junction at about 3:30 a.m, way too cold and too early. 

Fortunately there were cabs there, and the drivers seemed to know which hotels were full. My driver agreed to take me to the Remember hotel in Nyaungshwe, which I couldn't even pronounce at the time. On the way we stopped at a roadside kiosk where I had to pay $5 foreigners entry fee to the Inle area. My driver woke up people at the Remember hotel but there was a tour bus outside that had booked all the rooms. We were heading for another that he thought might have rooms but he pulled off at yet another place he thought might work, where he was able to rouse people. The lady who ran the place appeared and said she could accommodate me for 2 nights not one. She had no time for one night stands she said. This would be the following night and next, not starting this one. For this night, wee hour of the morning actually (still dark outside) they had a bed I could use (turned out to be a divan in the common room off the dining area). She took the money up front, $50 a night, so I paid $100 on the spot. Later I found that this was a routine ritual for people coming in from Mandalay. Get off the bus, get pitched up at Teakwood Hotel, pay up, be promised a room, and then crash on the beds and couches in the upstairs dining area. 

I had trouble with that at first. The nearby paya was playing loud music for ceremonies at 4:30 a.m. So I tried to get on the Internet. That wasn't working so well, so I went back up to my couch. It had hard pillows but I had my blowup one and the hard pillows over my head blocked sound, and I cratered and slept till past 8:00 and only barely made it to breakfast by 9:00 which was when they stopped serving, officially, but in fact, as I noticed in the days ahead, they took all comers whenever they wandered down for breakfast, since this was Burma, not France.

I was awake now but not all that rested. Breakfast was good, fish noodle soup a palatable option to any kind of egg. I met some Canadians at breakfast who clued me in on some of the things to do in Inle, like go on the lake for starters. So while I was waiting for my room to be cleaned I went for a walk. The main street was typically Asian and as it assimilates travelers, travel shops were cropping up advertising boat trips, trekking, bus and plane tickets. I made my way past a pagoda to a bridge where there were boatmen asking if I wanted to go on a journey. I wasn't ready for it at the moment, though I went the next day.

The Canadians had said they were going to rent bicycles and ride around, and that is what I ended up doing. When my room was ready, I moved into it. It was comfortable and I ended up extending my stay for a third night. I needed the rest, I realized, and in Inle basically I bicycled around the first day, went on the lake the second, and pretty much relaxed the third, and organized my trip to Bagan, which was not all that straightforward, so I ended up spending a 4th night there trekking in the hills above the lake.

In Inle, or Nyaungshwe, the city just up the river from the lake, I was beginning to feel the press of other tourists. It started with trying to find accommodation that first night, with being told I could have the room for two nights, not one, and pay up front, this was a seller's market. We were between Christmas and New Years. A few years ago I was in Laos at this time and didn't feel this kind of pinch, but Mayanmar was full to bursting with tourists. I was starting to find I couldn't just do whatever I wanted, when I wanted.

At least I had accommodation for two nights paid so I decided to take a cue from the Canadians and rent a bike. There were rough hand drawn maps at reception showing that you could cycle left or right from where we were. Right went over the bridge where the boats depart each morning to take tourists out for all day trips on the lake. Trips start at 15000 kyat in this seller's market and went up to 20000 if you wanted to extend the trip to Intien, and that was for the whole boat. I didn't know all this my first day there, but the sellers made it difficult for tourists to share boats with other tourists. They tried to get people to book boats the night before and the people who booked his way were disinclined to share when they turned up at the wharf. I tried later that day to organize some sharing from my hotel and through an agent opposite the hotel, but this would mean one less boat going out that day, so in the end, when I went on my trip next day, I was alone in a boat, and I saw other tourists alone as well. I tried up to the last minute to team up with a lone tourist but I didn't see any where I was standing. By then I was prepared to pay the $25 but I got a last-minute price, only 18000 to go to Intien as well as the market on the lake for that day.

The markets rotated every five days. When you decided to go, the boat would take you to the market town for that day, and on the day I went that town was Nampan. I might as well describe the trip now. The boat landing by the bridge is very picturesque with a silvery pagoda next door. Boats went whizzing under the bridge carrying boat loads of monks and other interesting passengers and cargo. The boat traffic in the morning was generally heading down the river to the lake to take the tourists on this day to Nampan. My boatman was only 17 years old but had lips and teeth stained with betel. He spoke some English and was a friendly chap. He seemed kind and considerate. Later in the trip he told me that taking one passenger around was easy. He had a set route, and he delivered on all his promises.

At the mouth of the river right on the lake there were fishermen fishing with iconic Inle baskets. They had a way of manipulating the oar with their ankle while they balanced and positioned their baskets, very photogenic. My boatman pulled next to one and the fisherman showed me a fish and went through a routine like a dance. Since we lingered there I had the uncomfortable impression I was expected to pay something. I tried to be polite, but stopped taking pictures. I wasn't sure what to make of the situation, but later the boatman slowed up next to people fishing with nets and didn't linger. These people were playing the nets with their hands while steering the boat with an oar caught in their ankles.  Once they had positioned the net they would encircle it in their boats and slap the water with their oars to drive the fish into the nets.

The goal of our trip in the morning, before the shopping, was to visit the market. This was actually the second market I had visited that morning. The one at Nyaungshwe was also on the day's rotation and I went there on foot at 6:30 a.m to see what was on offer. Venders were just setting up but it was clear it would be massive. Some of the fish were still slapping about, so all that fishing on the lake was being fed into the markets in the form of very fresh products. Timing was crucial though. I needed to get breakfast at  7:00 in order to get to the wharf at 7:30 to negotiate a boat and get across the lake to Nampan when that market would be in full swing.

The sun was low in the east on the trip out. Skies in Burma in December were flawless with wispy white cloud. It was cold on the lake. I was wearing my white long-sleeved PADI instructor shirt with a flannel shirt for more warmth, but I got seriously cold crossing the lake. When we reached Nampan and slowed down it was to meander through the stilted village. We passed first a pagoda on the water with a gold fanciful dragon and navigated the byways to get a glimpse of people's lives around their houses on the water.

The boat traffic was heading for the end of a channel where hundreds of boats were moored. We slipped in between them and my boatman indicated I should go ashore and return when done. The market was quite interesting. The first thing we came to was a line of trinket sellers asking politely if we wanted anything (we being me and the other tourists). There was little hard sell, and no annoying persistence whatsoever. The fish were on display nearest the water and in from that people were eating meals. Further into the market were vegetables and tea and cheroot cigars. People didn't mind photos and smiled approvingly when shown the result. The market was very crowded and colorful with women and men in tribal dress, women and old men wearing turbans, and younger men with shoulder bags that looked like sashes across their clean white shirts.

During the trip we stopped at factories on stilts on the lakeside. There was always a tour lined up, but they were pleasant, hadn't got the hang of hard sell yet, and made good photo ops. We stopped at a fabric weaving place, where looms were clacking, and a silver jewelry shop where I was shown the process of melting and pouring molten silver liquor. The workman there was about 12 or 14; I hope he was just posing. Another shop had some long-necked ladies on display. LPG had warned us these people were being exploited. Bobbi and I visited an encampment of them on the Thai side of the border and found the ladies to be articulate and kindly, and not objecting to photos. Here on the lake they seemed out of place, on display. I walked out of that shop and other tourists on the veranda had done the same. 

At another shop I was shown how they make paper from lake reeds and convert that to umbrellas and wrapping paper. It was nice but when I was asked to look in the shop, well I don't like shopping in any event and have enough junk around my house, so I would go sit with the boatman and watch him prepare his betel and he would pour me tea. It's his job to take the tourists to the shops, so we were going through the rituals. I was cooperative and got out and checked out what was on offer. He got his breaks, and the people there were all so nice, it was quite pleasant. They haven't learned how to pressure tourists yet.

One stop was for lunch, at a restaurant on the river bank opposite a pagoda where people were applying gold leaf to a trio of small Buddha statues. As LPG pointed out, the gold leaf had pretty much obscured the shape of the Buddhas. To reach the pagoda you crossed the river on a wooden footbridge that took you by the wharf where the golden barges were kept. Inside the pagoda, as in Mandalay I was asked to put my shoes outside, but once I complied, I was free to go up to where the men (only men, no women allowed on the platform with the Buddhas) were applying the leaf and take photos. No one seemed to mind, and no one posed or even raised an eyebrow. Indeed worshipers were photographing one another. While I was gone my boatman was deeply engaged in a game of something like backgammon, enjoying himself with his mates. I had already had my lunch of Thai soup which turned out to be boiled vegetables in curry with a pair of mean peppers lurking within. Lunch was at a table on an upstairs balcony with a great view of the pagoda across the river, and of the passing boat traffic, nice lunch stop.

Now it was time to head down the channel to Intien, about half an hour's journey by boat upstream against a slight current that passed under a number of picturesque bridges. There were towns and farms and boat houses to protect the longboats along the riverbanks. Eventually we pulled up to a wharf just short of Intien proper, where there was again a very picturesque boat harbor with restaurants around where you could get a beer, but I declined because I was already tending to fall asleep on the boat just from lack of rest. Past this you walk over a bridge and come on a field that looks like it might make a good soccer pitch but on closer inspection those marks on the ground are where the stalls go up on market days. To the left of the open space there was Intien's permanent outdoor market, not very active in the mid-afternoon languor. As you enter the space you notice on the left ahead a cluster of crumbling stupas, and further up the mountain, more stupas, with a higher hill topped with a gilded white pagoda.

So the first part of the visit is spent walking up the hill to the golden pagoda and its stupas. They are in some disrepair but a monk lives there with some gentle cats and he offers tea from his flask and puts bananas in front of you and sits impassively while the visitors refresh themselves. Some give him money as they go.

There are more stupas on hills lower down, worth a scramble uphill to check them out, but you ain't seen nuttin' yet. As you walk back past the market you notice that there is activity further on near the bridge over the river. This draws you to where women are bathing beneath the bridge and on the far bank longboats are being offloaded with lumber. Then you notice more ruins across the bridge and go there. These are reminiscent of Ankor Wat in appearance and state of ruin, but on a much smaller scale. Still they can consume your attention and invite photographs. There are more on the opposite side of a long corrugated roof. Passing through there to reach the ruins beyond you notice that this roof is supported by white pillars that stretch, because of the slight bend, as far as the eye can see, with stalls with things mainly of interest to tourists lining the way. This goes on and on for maybe a km and it dawns on you that this is the covered walkway leading to an apparently important pagoda, to have so many white pillars, and though salespeople linger here and make half-hearted attempts to interest you in their wares, on some days, or at certain times of day, this must be a busy place indeed.

And this brings you to the stupas. As you reach the top of the looong covered stairway you arrive at the stupas. Many have plaques saying who donated them (people from western and other Asian countries). They are like graves in the Buenos Aires cemetary. They are all around. They have bells on them high above the ground. The bells tinkle in the wind. They are stupa-fying!

After that my boatman took me to the monastery with the jumping cats. The cats were still there, but apparently the head monk has prohibited the spectacle of jumping cats as unbecoming to the order, so not much to see there but cats, and the monastery's collection of ancient Buddhas, itself incredible. That's Burma!

The monastery was in the area of the floating gardens, fields of greenery held in place by bamboo poles struck through the thick verdure (to keep the gardens from floating off) that undulated gently from the wake of boats passing. There was a huge tomato growing industry here, hydroponic agriculture on a large scale, interesting to see.

Back in town I returned to my Teakwood Hotel refuge which I'd booked that night and next with intent to take a day off for rest and organization of travel next day, Dec 27. I had a bus ticket to go to Bagan the following day the 28th, which I'd bought in my first attempt at travel arrangements as a plan of action my first day in Nyaungshwe. But I'd soon discovered that it was impossible to book a room in advance in Bagan, and as that fact sank in, arrival in the evening was looking increasingly unwise. The bus companies that ran by day were different from the ones at night, so I was going to have to simply eat my ticket, about $13, if I wanted to change to a night bus and get there in the morning, no huge loss, but taking the time off to think it through turned out to be best in the long run.

Nyaoungshwe was a pleasant place to sit and think things through, and hanging out there could be energetic. The roads ran east and west from there and then turned south along the west and east banks of Lake Inle. My first morning there I had got a bike and opted for the east shore. There was a winery there with a sign on the road leading to it saying it was open to 4:00, so my first time passing that way I decided keep that in mind rather than drink wine in the middle of a long bike ride. I continued another 10 km to a town called Maing Tauk which was bult half out over the water at the edge of the lake. There was a long pier along a channel leading to the part on stilts so I walked there and got as far as I could without a boat.

There were boatmen about looking for work and one of them convinced me that it would be a good idea to put my bike on his boat and have myself ferried to the opposite side of the lake. It would cost 6000 kyat, about 7 or 8 dollars, and would save me having to bike all the way back up the lake, an hour retracing my ride out to get back into town, and another hour to the hot springs on the opposite shore, leaving me only the hour long back-track to Nyaungshwe, rather than twice the round trip. I hadn't been out on the lake yet so it was quite pleasant crossing it, and the wharf on the opposite shore was at a monastery where I stopped to snack on fruit and nuts I'd brought from Abu Dhabi and listen to the inmates chanting their lunchtime prayers in unison.

After I'd been to Intein the next day I understood how the road to Kalaw went from there. Kalaw is where many start their visit to Inle. It's a 3 day trek from there down the mountain to Inle, and another few hours walk up a rough road to the hot springs where I'd been let out. The hot springs must be nice if you're just getting in off a long trek, but I didn't feel like visiting when I was there. Instead I was thinking if I headed north and back to Nyaungshwe I should get there around 3:00 and be able to make the winery in time for a sample before it closed at 4:00 as a bit of a Christmas treat for myself. I executed this plan in a bit of break-neck cycling to keep to schedule only to find that the winery had flexible hours, so when I left after a few glasses, customers were still steaming in, mostly tourists on their bikes like me.

So after my Inle trip (my special treat to myself on my birthday), and coming to the realization that I could not get a booking in Bagan online or by phone, I decided to spend my next day “off” in such a way that I would end up at the winery, not at 4:00 pm, but later, in time to enjoy sunset there over a nice meal and bottle of wine. So I got there at 5 pm, and my meal turned out to be steamed fish in banana leaf, and the wine was their late harvest semi-sweet white, similar to a German Mosel. That was really nice.

On my day off I settled on a plan. Because I was still working on getting a room in Bagan, I would not use my day bus ticket to Bagan that day but would instead go on an overnight trek into the Shan mountains. This would solve the accommodation problem night of the 28th. Then on the 29th I would take the night bus to Bagan and arrive in the morning. By serendipity I managed to get a room booking in Bagan for the 30th and New Year's eve, and as I write this I am in possession of a bus ticket for Yangon the night of the 1st, which should be me there by 5 or 6 in the morning, plenty of time to taxi from the Aung Mingular bus station to the nearby airport in plenty of time to catch my plane at 10:45 the morning of the 2nd.

The narrative resumes after the bus ride to bagan …

I'm sitting around a guest house lobby breathing smoke from chainsmoking Japanese tourists (tourists from other countries are stepping outside to smoke). I just arrived in Bagan having met my last accommodation challenge.  There were no rooms in Bagan bookable by normal means so I threw away a bus ticket I'd bought to arrive here Friday night and went on a trek instead so I could sleep that night in the Shan mountains.  Then I took the overnight bus to Bagan Saturday night (two nights down, and the trek was enjoyable, bus rides bearable, bordering on comfortable, by no means the worst I've ever had).

Meanwhile I'd met an Irish diver outside the bus station when I was buying my overnight bus ticket, the day before my trek.  He was heading for Bagan and I asked him if he'd booked accommodation already.  He told me he'd been given the phone number for a hotel in Bagan that no one would know about, and had arranged the room through a guy named Jojo, who spoke good English.  I'm sitting in the lobby of the guest house now using the wifi, waiting for a room to be ready. Actually I've just met the occupant of that room who came downstairs to catch the day bus to Inle. Funny thing is I'd met him in a restaurant in Yangoon my first day there.  He's in for a problem when he gets to Nyaungshwey, no reservations, arriving at night. I didn't tell him that, didn't want him to change his mind and decide to stay.

Anyway, I got the phone number for this hotel from the Irish guy and called it from my hotel in Nyaungshwey near Inle.  They were incredibly helpful, assigned me a person to look up numbers for me and make unlimited calls, to no avail until I met the diver.  But with the magic phone number known only to leprechauns I managed to reach the hotel, but couldn't really communicate with them, and they were non-committal on whether they would have any rooms.  So I asked to speak to Jojo.  Jojo was out, so they gave me his mobile number, which i called right away.

When Jojo answered, he said, where you get my number? I explained and he said ok, call him back same time next day.  Now next day I was going on the trek, so I asked the guide if he had a mobile, and of course everyone carries mobiles everywhere these days.  Only problem was in the mountain signal was iffy, but once I'd expressed my need the guide went on a mission to complete it and found a corner of a hut where we stopped for lunch where i could connect to Jojo. The signal was poor and I couldn't understand exactly the name of the hotel, so I agreed to call Jojo back next day.

Next day at that time we were in Maing Tauk, where I'd been ferried to the hot springs my first day at Inle at the end of our trek awaiting boat transport back to Nyaungshwey.  The guide remembered I needed to contact Jojo and handed me his phone and this time we had good contact, and Jojo agreed to provide me a room for two nights.

Jojo was chatty and there was another American there he put me on the phone with.  Meanwhile my boat was leaving and I had to ring off quickly.  I had got out my bus ticket to check the date and in my hurry to leave and ring off the phone must have left it on the bench where we were sitting over the lake.  I got back to my hotel in Nyaungshwey, they handed me a towel straight away and told me to shower in an upstairs bath, I had two really cold refreshing beers using wifi while waiting to get the bus, and when I got to the station (after 2 big beers :-) I couldn't find my bus ticket.  The guy there asked me if I remembered my seat number.  I did and he said no problem.  They put me on the bus without a ticket.  Really, I could have been anybody.  I lost a ticket in Egypt once and they made me buy another. Can you imagine getting on a bus without a ticket, just on your say-so that you had bought one, in any other part of the world. This bus wasn't full, so I was able to stretch out on a whole row of seats..

Incidentally, when I bought the ticket they laughed at me.  They always give me a seat near the front but I insisted on one in the back.  They said all foreigners like to sit in front.  Problem with that is the bus driver will keep himself awake with music all night. My strategy worked, I couldn't hear the music in the back.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Mandalay: Mahamuni Paya and U Bein's Bridge

When I had lost my way on the road back to Mandalay the evening before I had been planning to backtrack past the bridges to go visit yet another, much smaller bridge, U Bein's bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world, whatever that means. As it turned out, I wouldn't have had time for it; it was more distant than I thought, and the visit required a walk of over a km over the bridge and the same distance back.  But I had had so much fun on the motorbike, and was by now so comfortable with it, that I couldn't wait to take it out another day. 
My destination was U Bein's bridge. If I'd wanted to miss breakfast and see something interesting I could have arrived there at dawn to witness the parade of monks crossing the bridge to fan out on the other side with their begging pots. I recall the monks in Luang Prabang going out in that way along the streets where I was staying, and all the ladies that positioned themselves on the roadsides with their bags of chips sitting there waiting for them, then from a kneeling position, putting a bag in each pot as the monks filed by, all at the crack of dawn. This monk thing is an amazing social system. You can see how it works here in Burma. And also you can see how normal people get swept into this system and how, since they are normal people, they would be a formidable force to demonstrate against the regime.

But today I slept till disturbed by street noises and went down to have my breakfast and try and connect with wifi (no way for me) and then, oh yeah, I needed to check out, so back upstairs, pack, bring my stuff downstairs, leave it behind the desk. It was about 10:30 a.m before I finally hopped on the motorbike and hit the busy streets of Mandalay.

The LPG advised to avoid U Bein's bridge at 11 a.m because that was when the tourist buses appeared, so to delay my arrival there I decided to visit the Mahamuni Paya (temple) beforehand. I could see it on my map but on this road I had passed several times before and not realized it was there. I knew it should be a prominent pagoda, so I stopped at one on the way, a picturesque one, but not many people around, so I stopped my bike near where some monks were going over a chart planning whatnot and asked them where I was. They took time out to focus on my maps and eventually pinpoint for me where I was. I had to backtrack to where I wanted to go.

When I found the place I discovered it was at an obvious dogleg in the road, and all those workers off to the side I had passed twice before, so focused on my driving, were making Buddha statues, getting themselves covered in fine white dust in the process. Other tourists were taking photos of the workers, covered in white dust from using mechanized hand tools on the stone they were articulating. When I take photos of people I make sure they know what I am doing, like maybe even ask first, and then pause to show them what I have done. When I showed these workers what they looked like at their trade, they gave me the thumbs up. They really liked having their pictures taken and seeing the result.

I did the same thing in the passages leading to the Buddha statue in Mahamuni paya. This statue is continually being covered with gold leaf from devotees who pass behind it and apply the leaf. Men only can do this and the anti-women stricture is getting some washback now from women in Myanmar. I didn't know exactly where I was when I approached this place. First, I noticed that there were signs saying that foreigners were charged camera fees. I had just taken a photo when I saw the booth and the fee collector there so I holstered my camera and made 'no photo' gestures, and he acknowledged my passing by smiling broadly and saying “yaaa!”. Yaaa indeed! That's Burma, a wink and a nudge nudge.  

So I rounded to where the devotees, mostly women who could not apply the leaf, were sitting before the Buddha, and here the guards caught me and told me to set my shoes aside (I had strapped them to my day bag). 

Finally I was taken in tow by an old monk who took my hand and led me to a side alcove and then directed me to take photos. He was a pretty good director, but demanding. 

He wanted me to take a picture of the ceiling, 24k gold. I included some of the Buddha in the shot, and he said NO, the ceiling, so I took that and showed him. Satisfied he took me to the next station. He was good at telling me NOW (no people obstructing the Buddha, quick). He was so sweet, none of this was coercive. He just wanted me to get the best shots. As we parted he asked me how old I was. Nevermind that but he was 82. He said he was my elder brother. What a memorable old man, again, a product of the social monk system.

By now it was coming onto 11 a.m and I figured I'd missed the tourist buses, so I motorcycled down the road toward Sagaing and found the turning signposted U-Bein's Bridge. This took me down some back roads where people didn't speak English, and I'm sure I was misdirected, because when I came to the lakeside I was directed back north up the beach. 
It was a pleasant drive in sand tracks alongside simple beachside shanty dwellings, with cloth dyers hanging their wares out colorfully to dry near the marshes, and now and then someone would point the way without my asking, because they knew where I must be going. Soon I was back on tarmac, and a few minutes later someone motioned me to park where there was a concentration of roadside vendors and food stalls, and from here I went on foot across the bridge, a walk of perhaps a couple of kilometers on the famous longest teak bridge in the world, and you can imagine the foot traffic there, before I arrived at the other side.

The other side connects with south Mandalay so there are motorbikes there (their noise is a ubiquitous sound in Myanmar) but apart from a gaggle of restaurants and trinket stalls catering to tourists, there isn't much that's western once you've taken a few steps into town. 

A short walk takes you to Kyauktawgi Paya, and when I arrived, there was a Brahma bull tied up in front by the nostrils that just hated to have his picture taken. There were people in the leafy grounds surrounding the pagoda playing board games and selling snacks. The temple was airy and its window niches were filled with Buddha statues. 

There was an old monk there with ears that stuck out like Alfred E. Neuman who kindly told me to leave my shoes outside the room where the main Buddha was (I often carried them when I entered holy places, usually that was ok). He exuded warmth, and offered me to partake in what he was eating (which I respectfully declined :-).

I walked back across the bridge, photographing nuns and young ladies carrying trays of something on their heads, with that gold cosmetic smeared purposefully on her cheeks, and at the other end I went on a walk to a monastery that LPG told me was there, Maha Ganayon Kyaung. No one challenged me when I went inside. The young monks were chanting prayers and those walking about ignored me. A lady about to unlock a shrine told me to follow her but when she started her prayers I took my leave. There were some crumbling stupas around, one that had a badminton net tied to it (secular and non-secular worlds collide).

After this pleasant visit I got back on my bike and motored off around the lake. Here I passed the stupas and pagodas that could be seen ethereally from the bridge across the lake which U Bein's bridge crossed, but I didn't stop at any. Instead I continued to Kandawgyi Pat road which was a causeway across another lake, Kandawgyi, that had restaurants on it catering to people out for lavish or romantic meals in bungalows on stilts over the lake. I was thinking to eat there but no place appealed to a lone biker except for one that advertised free wifi, so I called in there, but then realized I'd left my laptop with my things at the front desk of the hotel I'd already checked out of. So nevermind that, the place didn't appeal to me anyway, too much rap catering to youth with plebian tastes, and I motored back into town.

I was keeping my eye on the time now. I had a bus to catch to Lake Inle. I had been starved of Internet though so I went to an area of town where LPG said Internet was good and found a place with reasonable connection. I then went back to my hotel thinking to park the bike and walk to a nearby beer station, but in the end I decided, it's near, what the heck, just ride the bike there. That was a good move because I couldn't find the place I was looking for so I had to think where had I passed any of Mandalay's many beer stations lately? For some reason I remember seeing one on 31st St. I couldn't remember the cross street but driving around blocks I found it (please try and visualize the streets here clogged with trucks and beeping vans and other cyclists, plus things darting into the road like space invaders, only my task was NOT to him them). Finally I found the place, on 82nd Street, just one block off my hotel on 83rd (though a not inconsequential ride back through night-time traffic from 31st to 25th where my hotel was, and this after a couple of beers). I had a fried rice pork (turned out to be pork sausage, still tasty) and soup the establishment brought for free, and again with eye on time, declined to have a third beer, but got the check and motored off across town.

Back at the hotel I collected my things and asked about taxis. One of guys there said he would ask his friend. The friend agreed and I was bundled into his car, an old rattletrap that went about 5 blocks and died in the middle of traffic. The driver explained that his gas gauge was broken and he'd been on a long trip already that day. He tried to call in another car and driver but in the end ran back into town to try and buy gas in the market. He soon returned with a few liters, put it in the car, and resumed the journey. Well and good till we arrived at the bus station and traffic was not moving due to poor infrastructure there and trucks trying to move around the narrow, clogged, and darkened roads, and other drivers trying to put themselves in any breach of traffic they could find, blocking everyone else from both directions. Eventually my driver parked and suggested we walk. He at least conducted me through the mayhem to where my bus was, and soon I was aboard for the ride to Lake Inle.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Mandalay: Sagaing and Innwa

After the overnight bus ride from Yangon, I got a good rest at my hotel. It turned out to be quiet at night, with disturbances starting only when it was time to get up for breakfast anyway. I wanted to visit some places outside of Mandalay, Sagaing and Innwa, and the way to do that was by motorcycle, so in the morning I rented one. As I have done in the past, I got the guy who rented them to give me a quick lesson in how the bike worked and then I took it for a cruise up and down the least traffic clogged street I could find while I worked out how to operate it without task loading, and then I took it on the busy moat road around the palace to the other side, where I pulled in the foreigners' entrance and visited the royal palace, a sterile collection of restored buildings pretty much devoid of furnishings or artwork. There was a tower to climb to get an overview, of Mandalay Hill mainly, heading much further up to the north.

To reach Sagaing I was told it was quite simple; I had to head south on 84 St and keep going. This took me through the center of town where I was surrounded by moving transport comprised of hundreds of other vehicle operators who knew what they were doing. By the time I reached the outskirts I knew at least knew better how to drive the bike. 

Reassuringly I found a signpost for Sagaing and followed it. This took me out a leafy highway maybe 20 km, not sure, but eventually I came to a pair of bridges. I stopped to ask directions and took the first one, which was for all kinds of traffic including cars approaching from the highway.  As I entered the bridge I couldn't see over the hump to where it was going, but once I got onto it, I could see my destination, the stupa covered hills to the east of Sagaing, with hundreds of pagodas glimmering in gold-tipped white above the treetops there.

Coming off the busy bridge there were no signposts in English and no obvious way into the hills with the pagodas, so I exited first chance I got on the far side of the bridge and motored into the townships there. The tarmac ran out and I was on dirt pathways, passing simple folk, the ladies with faces painted in the cosmetic they normally wear. I couldn't really see now where I was going but I eventually I came to small pagodas and then one with a covered stairway climbing up the hillside to a larger pagoda on top. I figured that from the top I would have a better view of the area, so I pulled my bike up to the gate and parked it there.

A couple of people were just then coming down the steps to the pagoda carrying their shoes, so I deduced I was meant to climb barefoot, but the steps went way up the hill and were quite dirty and there was no one else in sight, so I decided to start out with shoes. Such steps have several landings, and there are normally people at them, but this pagoda had no one around at any of the landings. I climbed all the way to the top of the stairs and took my shoes off there to enter the pagoda proper. 

There was no one at the top but an old monk who seemed glad to see me. He showed me to his office, a room with a few chairs, and told me to keep my shoes there, and then he said follow me, and took me around the top, pointing out the views, encouraging me to take photos, pointing out the most interesting pagodas I should visit when I got down. I spent a pleasant 20 min with him and when we returned to his office he offered me a bunch of bananas. I declined, he insisted, I said, ok, I'll take one, he said take two, and then he reached behind him and handed me a warm Pepsi. I declined the Pepsi, but reached into my pocket and offered him a small bill I found there. He took that but insisted I take the Pepsi. He said he was well provisioned. He showed me to the top of the steps, and when I started down barefoot, he said I could put my shoes on and walk down. What a kindly man.

I can't describe really what it was like getting back on my motorbike and starting out on the roads around the pagoda area. The road followed the river, and I passed monks walking in columns, and nuns in their precisely pressed pink gowns. With heads shaved, the color of the robe was all that distinguished them from the young men. The road along the river was a roar of motorcycle engines coming, going, passing me, coming at me, cars honking to get by, overloaded passenger vans. The road went though a town reminiscent of an Omani one, then disgorged along the river, which I followed north until I suspected it was the wrong way. I stopped and asked and was told the road went to Mingun. Interesting, you could make a two day circle trip here overnighting in Sagaing, from Mandalay to Innwa and perhaps farther one day, then north to Mingun along the river, where you might as well be in India, you could return to Mandalay over the bridge from the north, taking in the sites along the way. Next time :-)

Once I'd backtracked and checked the time I figured I'd better move on to Innwa if I was going there. Navigation was complicated because, though I had stopped in Mandalay to buy a map, I was at that moment was not on it (and I was never able to get Google maps to load in Burma, though now that I'm home, this map shows the way, and I'm finally able to visualize the route properly.

The first problem was to find my way back over the bridge to the Mandalay side of the river. The two bridges were obvious, my road passed under them, but how to get onto them? That took some more backtracking but soon I was across, and right on the other side I saw the road marked Innwa. This took me a few kms down a leafy road with not much traffic, though anything on the road is serious traffic to a motorcycle.

At the end of the road I found a river and a ferry crossing.  The ferry was a small boat the size of a large canoe with a platform on the bow for motorcycles. There were other tourists and locals crossing, all sitting on benches built in between the bulwarks, but I rolled my bike onto the platform, and on the other side, gunned the motor up the steep dirt track and puttered past the line of horse-carts waiting to collect the tourists. 

On a motorcycle I had the run of a huge area of ancient pagodas and monasteries which I could zip to much faster than most tourists could trot a horse to and then walk.

Innwa was an interesting place, spread out over several acres (whatever an acre is). There was a teak monastery where on the causeway to it, a procession of some sort was forming with decorated horses and bullock carts carrying a retinue of celebrants in costume, many of them children decked out in their most colorful finest, very photogenic, reminding me of something I might see in Bali. 

On a motorcycle I was able to cut out long walks, like down that causeway for example, and motor over to pagodas where I might have otherwise had to walk to the far side of a walled compound to find an entrance, and I could stop to admire clusters of pagodas and stupas, or not if I so chose, unlike the occupants of horse-carts, that might gallop by or pull up before uninteresting ones.

At some point I became concerned about the time and headed down the back roads the direction of what I hoped was the ferry landing, and somehow came on it. I was concerned because I was on the wrong side of the river and I had no idea when the ferry service might stop for the day. 

But I got across, and back on the other side I followed the road signs pointing to Mandalay. This again took me down a leafy road, but this road went longer than I thought it should, and I noticed that the sun was setting on my right, so I was heading south, away from Mandalay. When I came to an unfamiliar market town, I realized I should have been backtracking down the river and have passed the bridges, but I hadn't.

To make a long story short I was heading for the intersection with the main Yangon / Mandalay highway which was a busy one. If you've ever traveled in some conveyance down a highway in Asia, and the driver is honking all the way, that was me on the motorcycle you just passed.  Yikes! I was in the big leagues now. 

At some point to my right I noticed a very impressive pagoda and pulled off to check it out. I had no idea what it was, but later I found out it was where a pair of pythons were kept and fed at 11 am everyday. It was closed when I got there, the pythons apparently resting for feeding next day. In the LPG, it also tells you to check out the forest of Buddhas in a field near the pagoda. I pulled over and took some pictures, but at the time, didn't know where I was.

Even coming into Mandalay proper I had no idea where I was. I asked directions occasionally, and eventually I spotted the familiar walls of the palace and its moat. This got me back to my hotel, but after a rest I decided to head out again and have a Myanmar meal followed by a beer stop and then check out the puppet show. At this beer stop, at a busy intersection in Mandalay, they brought me soup, which I didn't want after my meal, but they also brought me watermelon, which made a great desert. After a couple of beers I continued to the puppet theater, where a world famous troupe are reviving the art. Occasionally they would lift the top curtain to let the audience see the puppeteers manipulating the marionettes which were the diminutive stars of the show compared to the larger than life (by comparison) manipulators.

That night the a/c in my room cut out at 5:30 a.m. I was trying to switch on the lights to get dressed and go downstairs and complain when I discovered that one of the switches was to a fan overhead I hadn't noticed before. It came on, made a reassuring hum, and I went back to sleep.

The following installments of this traveler's tale are posted with photos:

Inle Lake and Bagan be edited and posted shortly (but not today :-(so, stay tuned :-)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mandalay and Mingun

My impressions from reading LPG were, why bother to come to Mandalay? It was the second largest city in Myanmar, and LPG and Internet forums gave the impression that transport within Mayanmar was uncomfortable and a hassle, but then again LPG always warns of all possible hassles and when it came time to board the actual bus I realized I had chosen well. I had paid a few dollars extra for a ticket on a bus that had one column of two seats together and another down the right that had only one seat per aisle. It turned out to be a luxury bus, reclining seats, pillow, a waitress who handed out toothbrushes in shrink wrap as we boarded and came and asked if I was ok, and when I asked when the music would stop, I understood she had no idea of English beyond, “Are you ok?” In any event the music did stop after a couple of hours and the bus would have been quiet except the driver played music all night to keep himself awake, but not that loudly, and I managed to sleep intermittently. The bus stopped twice in the night, but I snatched sleep in the intervals and arrived in Mandalay in a cold chill that frosted the bus windows from the inside, while a mist coated the land without so first glance of Mandalay was through a haze.

I was accosted by taxi drivers when I got off the bus and while waiting for bags. They didn't dog me, but the bus station was chaotic, in a dirt lot, typically Asian before concrete became commonplace and bus stations in many Asian countries got spruced up. One young guy who followed me assessed that with my pack I could probably take a motorcycle into town. Taxi drivers wanted 7000 kyat for the trip into town (8500 would be $10). The boy wanted 3000 to take me on his motorcycle, so I said ok, go on then, and he ran to fetch it.

He returned with an extra helmet and I got on and rode with him half an hour into town. The bus station was on the outskirts of town and heading in we passed people on bikes and bullock carts and as we entered the city with traffic and its menagerie of shops with signs in Burmese, I had the feeling I was back in China. On the ride in from the bus station I could see there was something about this place, a casual relaxed way of going about day to day life, without excessive regulation, that was different from any other. I could also see that as in China and in Georgia, and apart from some signs with English, I would be not only illiterate for much of my stay in Myanmar, but innumerate too, since the Burmese use their own symbols for numbers, which meant nothing to me. The banknotes were a Rosetta Stone of sorts, giving numbers in both Burmese and English, but I hadn't spent any time on that yet.

I had asked the driver to take me to Nylon Hotel because according to LPG it was in the center of the cheap hotel district. December-January is high season in Myanmar, the weather is perfect, 30 degrees max during the day, cool at night, clear skies throughout my stay. During the ideal season for travel, accommodation should be difficult, and indeed the Nylon was full. The motorcycle guy said he'd take me around, no charge, and help me find a hotel, and no commission, he added. He seemed friendly, but I told him I would walk. Right around the corner there was the ramshackle Garden Hotel, rooms $25 with bath and a/c, and all the street noise you could tolerate. They had two rooms I could have right then, so I went up and down the steep stairs between them comparing air conditioners for white noise. I took the one that produced the smoothest version of the whitest noise.

Down in the lobby (my room had yet to be cleaned but I'd left my bags up there) I got out my Kindle and tried to work out where I was. The streets in Mandalay are numbered and most streets have street signs on at least one corner telling you where you are so it's easy to find your way around the center. I was not far from the massive walled and moated palace area in the center of town. It was just turning 8 a.m and I noticed that if I could get to the west end of 26th street by 9 a.m I could take the special boat for foreigners to Mingun where a past king had started building the largest stupa in the world. The hotel had bicycles for rent, and with the sun still leaving long morning shadows it was easy to find 26th St and head in the direction of the shadows cast. This took me through markets that were a throwback to a past Asia and to a river where commerce was flowing through a system of barges and ancient trucks driving up the beach and onto the road. It was easy to find where the tourists were standing around, park and lock my bike, and get a ticket for a half day trip.

The river trip had a chill wind getting from Mandalay to Mingun, but I still had my flannel shirt around my waist from the bus ride and I settled back into a wicker desk chair and snoozed part of the hour it took us to get where we were going. We could see approaching Mingun that there was an impressive pedestal dominating the land, a square platform rising 50 meters. Once we got there and saw it up close, I could see it had carved stone entryways into each edifice. One edifice was whitewashed and had a temple in its niche, but the others led simply to alcoves. The building had cracks running top to bottom from earthquakes, but the pile of bricks was formidable and had survived nature.

There were other stupas and pagodas in the area, the green hills were dotted with them, and one pagoda with steep stairs provided nice views of the countryside. There were some interesting huge boulders with inscriptions on the riverfront with stairs lined with Buddhas leading to them from right off the beach. There was a bell there reputed to be the largest hanging bell in the world that people were scrambling under to have it rung in their ears. But the most interesting thing about Mingun was the people and the small town itself. 

There were perhaps too many sellers of t-shirts and postcards, and also some who had written the word taxi on their bullock carts. Rather like a camel ride in an Arab country, there was hardly any place to take a bullock cart to, Mingun being very compact. But the simple rhythm of life was relaxing. I had watermellon fresh cut, only 100 kyat per generous slice, and fresh green coconut. I found a school festival with (very loud) recorded gamelin music where children were dressed in traditional costume. Monks walked among them as they went home through the marketplace. 

Although the boat left at 1:00 by noon I had had so much relaxation that I returned to the boat and positioned one of the wicker recliners so that I could nap in the shade with cool breeze blowing over me and my feet on the rails. I turned the chair slightly when the boat pulled away for the trip home and completed my night's sleep that way till we returned to the river bank where I'd left my bike and disembarked by hopping one boat to another.

At the boat office, someone who said he was 'director' told me I could ask him anything so I asked where I could get tickets for the dance advertised on a poster. He said I could just go there, at the address given (street coordinates pinpoint all locations in Mandalay). I said I wanted to visit the monuments and asked how I could get the composite pass, and he told me to go to the pagoda on the east side of Mandalay hill. The composite pass is $10 and lets you in to all the monuments in the Mandalay zone.

I was still tired when I got back on my bike but I almost instinctively thought a beer would be good and a place called the View Point would be the best place to have it, according to LPG. When I arrived by bicycle I found other followers of LPG had had the same idea. The view was still there but the bar by that name was undergoing reconstruction, and there was no beer to be had. 

The view was over the river to Mingun, where we'd just come from. River people below were doing something industrious on rafts or platforms they'd assembled on the river or on the river bank, hard to tell what though, they were too far below us. In any event, stalwart followers of LPG know that the book is not infallible, and after checking out the scene simply remount their bikes and move on.

I cycled back to the hotel, not easy to find because I'd forgot the exact street intersection, but someone in the street gave me the coordinates for the Nylon Hotel, 83rd and 25th and I honed in on it to find the Garden Hotel and retreat to the lobby. There I consulted my LPG, Kindle version, which I'm finding pretty unusable compared to the book with maps you can consult while checking the legend at the same time. But I found I could get an espresso at a place called the V-Cafe, just a few blocks away. It was on the way to Mandalay Hill with the pagoda on top dominating views from the city, so I bicycled over. It was a European food restaurant, and though the hamburgers and spaghetti didn't interest me, I ordered a double espresso for the price of a bottle of beer (1500). It smelled good but only filled half a cup so I asked for hot water which I added to make a cup of something like a Starbuck's. When I wanted to pay I was charged for only a single espresso, because the waiter said, it was in a small cup, just 800 kyat, less than a dollar. It came with a biscuit too.

I rode the bike north parallel to the moat and then turned east to ride along the north wall of the moat. The traffic was thinned out here and on my right just back from the moat the wall encircled a forest of several acres that was once the royal palace. From here I could spot the line of pagodas going up the hill, my destination. Eventually I got there after 45 min. cycling. I parked the bike with an attendant and my shoes with another and started barefoot up the covered walkway. 

I soon fell in step with a monk who struck up a conversation. I had read in LPG that it was commonplace for young Burmese to go there to chat up foreigners, not to hassle them, more like the people you might meet in Tunisia, just want to get to know you. In conversation I found that this monk became a monk when he was 11 and his parents couldn't afford to send him to high school. Now he was 26 and he was in a university for monks in Mandalay. He had just returned from his first ever trip to Yangon, and he'd never been to Lake Inle, my next destination. He was keen to learn English so I told him about Webheads and asked him to get in touch (so far he never has).

The foreigners hike to the top of Mandalay Hill for the sunset, which is glorious from there. Lots of Burmese were chatting to other foreigners, and native and visitor seemed happy to meet one another. On my way down, a couple of girls on the same route asked me to pronounce words they spelled out for me. One was Karaoke. Another was s-h-a-t-t-y. When I asked for more information, it turned out the word was from a Justin Bieber song. When the girl sang the lyrics I realized the word was 'surely' and she had been led astray by someone who had been inventive when transcribing the lyrics.

By now it was dark, and time to eat. There were some beer stations mentioned in LPG a little far from where I lived but I cycled gamely in the dark trying to find them. Driving a bike at night in Mandalay is daunting. Each intersection is dangerous. Many streets had no lights (same as my bicycle, no lights :-) and some had uneven surfaces. Lights coming the other way created a glare. Since I had no light or illumination, I just had to be careful, but I found Uncle Chan's beer station where LPG said it would be, in a compound with barbeque and food stalls. As LPG promised, the beer was ice cold and only 600 a draft, not even a dollar. I ordered food from pictures on a menu with no prices. A green vegetable soup appeared on the table, and then the pork dish came with raw garlic and coriander garnish, and the pork was cold. I had trouble communicating that they should cook it, and had to hand it back to the waiter. Meanwhile my mashed potatoes arrived, to die for! They were cooked in garlic and chili and were delicious. Then another plate of pork appeared, most of it gristle, which I didn't eat, so at the end I had a place full of gristle left after culling out the only edible titbits.

When I left there I had eaten vegetables and some pieces of pork meat, but was still peckish. Fortunately I discovered as I passed another beer station and pulled in that they have a quaint habit in them. When you stop in to order a beer for less than $1 they bring you that and a bowl of soup. I was still hungry so I ate the soup, garlic and ginger, with some whole dangerous chili peppers, which I set to one side. Then a plate of watermelon appeared, and some nuts. All this was free. At the end of my sojourn there I paid 1200 for two beers, just a buck and a half. And next night, same thing. When I stopped for beer I got soup and watermelon, and also popcorn. When I'd finish one helping they would bring another (if you finished your soup they even brought more of that, and you just paid next to nothing for the beer).

That next night I ate at Noo Noo, a Burmese restaurant singled out as typically Burmese in LPG. But this one was worth it. The food looked unappetizing in the pans behind the glass, but once it was in front of you and they started bringing more rice and refilled any bowl of greens or whatever the side dishes were, it turned out to be delicious (only one helping of fish though, chunky, melted in the mouth). Well, that meal was 2500 for the food, filling and good, plus 1000 for the Coke. In any event, eating is one more surprise after another in Myanmar.

The following installments of this traveler's tale are posted with photos:

Inle Lake and Bagan be edited and posted shortly (but not today :-(so, stay tuned :-)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Myanmar in December 2012: Yangon

I had the whole month off in December but I didn't get a contract for the following semester until about the middle of the month, so I busied myself with many projects the first weeks in December.  Bobbi was still working in Abu Dhabi so I didn't feel the need to leave town and stay gone the whole month. But Bobbi was making plans to visit her mom in Houston for Christmas. I felt I needed a holiday though (a real one, rather than face issues in Texas) and it turns out that one place up and coming for tourism and that has clear skies in December is Myanmar.

It's a little hard to find information about visas to Myanmar. Official advice if your country of residence has no Myanmar consulate (none in UAE) is to go to Bangkok and pay to get your visa issued overnight. However I would leave on a weekend which would mean I could not get one until Monday if I got to the embassy in Bangkok on Friday, or Tuesday at the latest, and then I would have to book a flight to Yangon.  If you go on Travel Advisor you find you can get your visa online at but info there suggests an unstable playing field with regulations having changed at one point requiring joining a tour group before they would issue a visa (but after you had paid up front for it). So I was unsure of what to do until I found from a friend that she had got a visa as recently as October from  To make a long story short, I applied on their website on the 9th, paid an extra $30 for 7 day rush service, and the visa was waiting for me on arrival when I reached Yangon airport. The company handling the visa was refreshingly communicative in email, reassuring me at times when I absolutely had to book my flight, as prices were going up daily, yet I needed to get there before the sharp Christmas fare increases.

I tried to get the agency to book accommodation for me but they told me all the budget places were full, and in the end I had to book online just a couple of days in advance of travel and pay $90 a night for the room (which listed for $70, but the rest was plus plus).  Frankly it was worth it.  I sent this on arrival Dec 19, 2012 ...

"I just got to Yangon. Pretty painless, no ordeals for me. Thai food on the planes and wine with meals, though on the last flight I had only the one glass (entering traveling mode). Visas were issued perfunctorily on arrival as all the paperwork was in order. My bag was sitting by the carousel on my way into the cool night air. All the cab drivers were wearing longies, so it was clear I was in Myanmar.

"I'm in a good hotel for tonight and tomorrow, called the Thamada. Wifi seems fine here. The cab driver who brought me from the airport didn't like the $10 I handed him, but he was nice, so I sorted him out. I will likely try to get to Mandalay from here, get the long bus ride out of the way first, then work back toward Yangon."

As you prepare for Myanmar you are warned of many pitfalls. One is supposed to be the bus rides, were reputed to be rough.  I guess I was expecting Laos where, when I was there, bus rides were to be endured, not enjoyed. I didn't find the buses in Myanmar that bad. I took buses to Mandalay, from there to Lake Inle, then to Bagan, and from there back to Yangon, so I wasn't traveling on remote routes. There were day buses in Myanmar but it was more practical to travel at night.  Buses usually left in the evening after dark and arrived between 3 and 6 a.m. where they were going. They all had DVD but it was usually off by midnight.  But the bus drivers always played themselves music which you could hear in the front of he bus so I started reserving seats in the back where I didn't have to listen to that all night.  It wasn't always comfortable enough to sleep well, but it was comfortable enough.

Most travelers to Myanmar know you must bring 'pristine' US dollar banknotes. The driver's polite request for a better $10 bill was the first of many rejections of the money I was carrying, but I found this to be more particular to the capital than to the countryside. Outside the capital, no one rejected any of my money, whereas in the capital it was inconvenient to change money.  On the other hand, travel in Myanmar was so cheap that I didn't have to change money outside the capital (I changed $500 there and at the end of two weeks changed $50 back at the airport, but this accounts only for my kyat (the local currency, pronounced 'chat;). I often (but not always) payed US dollars for my hotel accommodation, which from then on ranged $20 to $50 a night.  But I guess I spent about $700 on the ground there in two weeks, or about $50 a day.

Lonely Planet Guide (LPG henceforth) warns travelers not to change money at the airport since the government rate of exchange is a tenth that of money changes.  However, I found that not to be the case. I did seek out money changers when I first got there.  I changed my first money in Bogyoke Market in Yangon, from a seemingly nice man in a longie, who gave me essentially the same rate as I found I could get later at the bank exchange offices, about 850 kyat per dollar.  However I was offered as much as 900 on the streets, but these were whispered offers on street corners that I felt might end up costing me in the end. When I left the country via Yangon airport, I found that the same bank exchange counters were operating there, giving very fair rates of exchange. Downtown Sule Paya (paya means pagoda) is the place to go if you want to try and get 900 kyat for your dollar :-).

Another warning for travelers to Myanmar is that you will be away from Internet for long periods of time. Outside the capital Internet could be offline for hours at a time, but it was usually available at some point during the day, at some point in all the cities I was in.

Burma seems to be the new land of smiles. Taxi drivers are universally friendly here and if they overcharge it's only a dollar, and they often come down when haggled with.  People on the bus were very friendly.  With very few exceptions (dubious money changers in the streets, the odd kid wanting 'money-bon bon-bahpoin pen') no one hassles me here so far.  Meals and transport are very cheap (bus transport costs a tenth of the cab ride for example).  People in streets and on buses are shy and sometimes will try to strike up a conversation, but they don't persist, and the crowd has a friendly feel about it. If you need help in the streets people try to assist. This used to be a British colony, so English crops up surprisingly often.

I wrote this from Yangon on December 21, after I'd been there for two days ...

So far Burma has been not unlike Vientiane or maybe Bangkok back in the day (minus the girls) and travel in the countryside is reputed to be rough like Laos, long journeys.  I'm going on my first one tonight, overnight bus to Mandalay.

Yesterday I walked around Yangon and visited some gilded stupas, like Shwedagon Paya. On the way there I went to the zoo because the road I was walking along, I might as well detour through the zoo. The animals there were displayed in such a way that visitors could get up close to them.  It's funny that the elephants for example, don't step down off their pedestal, no need for a fence apparently.

I spent sunset at the big Pagoda in Yangon and then went to the hotel and had a beer while I checked email and Facebook, and then had a second night's luxury sleep.

My second morning there I milked the hotel for all its comforts, and its excellent breakfast (Japanese and Chinese set breakfasts with no eggs) till checkout and then went on a day-trip in the countryside. I could have hired a cab for the day, about $30, but instead decided to brave (according to LPG) the 'slow and uncomfortable' Burma bus system to the rural side of the river. However I found the local bus neither slow nor uncomfortable.  It was a pleasant ride to a town named Thanlyn about an hour from Yangon (would have taken half an hour in a cab) where there was a big pagoda, but small compared to the one in Yangon.  And from there I had to get to Kyauktan where there was another pagoda in the middle of the river.

There is a sign there that tourist must use a special boat (for their safety).  All the locals are getting ferried across in basic but sturdy motor canoes but the sign said tourists would use a 'large' boat that cost 5000 Kyat (each thousand is a buck and a quarter).  Plus on arrival at the pagoda there is a ticket office only for tourists, $2.  No big deal, but some people don't like the money going to the government, but if the government is changing and tending toward reform shouldn't we support it? Why drive down the government to give all the money to capitalists?  Up to a point, maybe, but there needs to be a counter-force to unbridled capitalism, which leads to inequity fast.  Unbridled dictatorship is probably worse, but the solution is a middle road.  I don't mind giving small change to the new government, which in any event is doing nothing like the US government is doing with our tax dollars. Anyway there was a poster of Aung San Siew Kyi in the bus on the ride back to Yangon, and in other very public places. I saw no pictures of strutting generals while I was in Myanmar.

I did manage to resolve one riddle though ... if tourists in Mayanmar take pictures of nuns and monks, then what do monks take pictures of?

Would you believe, tourists?

The following installments of this traveler's tale are posted with photos:

Inle Lake and Bagan be edited and posted shortly (but not today :-(so, stay tuned :-)