A month in Myanmar

I spent 26 days in Myanmar, 3.1.2008—29.1.2008. My route was pretty much the common tourist route:

3.1. AirAsia to Yangon
5.1. overnight bus to Nyaungschwe (Inle lake)
8.1. overnight bus Mandalay
11.1. bus to Hsipaw
13.1. bus Kyaukme
14-16.1. Trekking near Kyaukme
17.1. Bus to Mandalay
19.1. Boat to Bagan
22.1. overnight bus to Yangon
24.1. bus to Chaungtha beach
27.1. bus to Yangon
29.1. AirAsia to Bangkok

All in all a very pleasant trip. I felt very welcome.

The trip in short

I started in Yangon, the dusty and messy former capital. It’s quite a mix of people; lot of Indians and Chinese plus Burmans and other Burmese of course. Betel vendors everywhere and pavements red with spit. Many streets and buildings crumbling and people seem to have a thing for painting them in pastel colors, a bit like in Tirana, Albania (not quite that extravagantly though, see some old photos)

It is easy to spend a day walking around and talking to people as many stop to chat, mostly not about politics but some people are open (more on this below). Shwedagon pagoda is big and the the “other side” of Yangon river is interesting, swampy delta. I happened to be in town for Myanmar’s 60th independence day. It was curiously celebrated with small sports (relay running, football) events for kids all over the streets and alleys around town. Someone said there we’re some parades at the stadium, but this was a very closed event.

Long distance buses in Myanmar are OK, but the bus rides can be long. Sometimes the seats are too small for me, the backrest not reaching my neck. The longest ride was Yangon Nyanugshwe (Inle lake), and took about 20 hours. Others were shorter. At some routes some companies have half the bus for cargo and half for passengers, and these are slow as cargo is loaded and offloaded. So ask around for the best bus company. I didn’t try the trains, but i heard they are full and slow, but can be fun. They are government run though, so your money gos to the wrong place if you use them.

Inle lake is beautiful, see photos. I let a boatman take me on a “standard” full day cruise around the lake, which involves visiting a bit too many small workshops-with-a-souvenir-shop-attached (blacksmith, cheroot factory, lacquer ware factory, silversmith, parasol factory, etc.) But the lake is very nice so i wasn’t much annoyed. Quite a few tourists are around, but not nearly the numbers there is infrastructure for, as tourists have not come this year as they did before. At least 10 “wood fire pizza” joints in Nyaungshwe town, which is not very interesting. It’s very popular to go trekking between Inle and Kalaw, but i didn’t.

Mandalay is dusty, and again a mix of people. There’s not much interesting to see, apart from dusty streets and some temples. But people are friendly as usual, and like to talk, teahouses are everywhere and markets bustling. Mr. Slim at the main market, second floor, sells interesting Naga handicrafts. Not that i bought any but the stuff is worth seeing.

Hsipaw in northern Shan state gets a lot of tourists, but I didn’t like the place. Luckily on my way to Shipaw my bus stopped to offload goods in Kyaukme and a Palaung trekking guide came to chat. After spending a day in Hsipaw returned to Kyaukme, looked up the guide and the next day went trekking.

Kyaukme is a small but lively trading town, almost all the goods being from China. As we are in Shan state, Shan, who call themselves Dai (and are more or less the same people that are called Dai around Jinghong in China) are the biggest ethnic group. In addition to that there are Chinese, Burmans, Indians, Palaung and Nepalis (remnants of British army Gurkha soldiers’ and their families). The Indians are mostly muslims, and some of the Chinese too. Different flavors of christianity are also supported – there are many churches, as elsewhere in Myanmar.

Language wise the situation is interesting: Shan is the language of choice for inter ethnic communication, unless there’s a burman involved, who might not speak Shan. Even the “silver” and “gold” Palaung subgroups speak Shan to each other as they cannot understand each other’s Palaung dialects. If someone doesn’t speak Shan then he surely must speak at least Chinese or Burmese. My guide spoke English, Palaung, Wa and Jingpaw (Kachin) in addition to those. Burmese is spoken with government officials of course.

There’s a market in the center of town, and even a big (old and crumbling) movie theater, with and Indian man tending his Italian Zedi projectors in the back, with a hat pulled deep to cover his ears in the chilly night. When i visited, only Burmese karaoke videos were shown on DVD, though.

For a day i went around on (the back of) a motorbike. The biggest industry in town is making “gold paper” which is mostly exported to China, and burned there in ancestral ceremonies. The paper is made of bamboo and covered in with a thin film of led, which is then painted with transparent yellow to look like gold. Burning that and inhaling the smoke isn’t probably too healthy.

Not many tourists come here. A group of teen girls (1 Nepali, 1 Chinese, 1 Shan and 2 Burmans.) chased me on motorbikes and was very eager to try their English with me. They gave me oranges and asked if i like Britney Spears. All spoke Chinese too but mine isn’t very good.

Trekking in the hills was good, except for the hazy weather, and the slow walking pace of Germans who came along. People are welcoming and scenery is nice. Mostly Palaung live in the mountains, growing tea and rice mostly.

Spent two and a half days cycling around the ruins and temples of Bagan, which are nice. Pictures below tell more. Too many souvenir sellers of course. Full moon was on so there was a temple festival one morning with a lot of monks getting offerings.

At Chaungtha beach burmese middle class goes on holiday; swimming and snorkeling fully clothed and so on. I had a bit of flu there on my 2 days there, so didn’t do much, except for eating some red snappers, barracudas, prawns, fish air sac salad and other delicacies.

Politics, etc.

No protests since the end of September 2007. Now, things seem to be calm, at least on the surface, so I really don’t know. Occasionally politics comes up in conversations. The opinions range from highly critical if not very analytic “fuck Than Shwe” to defensive “European liberal democracy is a foreign idea to us, we have our own thing.” Someone said that the things are OK, but there’s just too few people making decisions, so things are not efficient. (I heard the same point made in China, where someone said that the 9 members of the CCP politburo standing committee are not enough to run a country of 1.5 billion.)

Some of the eager talkers are probably some sort of informants for the regime, as they really try to ask opinions about burmese politics, without saying much themselves. Or maybe i was paranoid. Trishaw driver thought that the biggest problem facing the country and the biggest reason for the September protests is the price of fuel. Some in Shan state are very critical, still wanting independence or autonomy for the state. I got the impression that people there don’t trust the Burmans much.

Very often while talking to people i felt that the Burmese talker would like to say more, but seemed afraid, trying to wear a “you know, things are not good here” face with some murmurs. I of course wouldn’t ask, but just try to wear my “yeah, i know, try to hang in there” -face.

Most people are poor everywhere, that’s clear, but some are of course rich. There are department stores and supermarkets with everything in Yangon. At least the military is rich; see than Shwe’s daughters wedding on youtube.

There are tourists, but of course infrastructure for a lot more. Some working in the industry are quite desperate, souvenir sellers in Bagan and markets near Inle lake for example.

Should you go? I have voted with my feet of course. It seems most of the money will go to the people, not the government, unless you use trains, and expensive hotels & restaurants that have a 10% extra tax. And the people are definitely happy to see visitors.

Food

Shan food is good. Burman is often quite bland, except for the “national dish” Lahpet thouk tea leaf salad which is very tasty. Just about every guest house has an egg-toast-coffee breakfast included in the room price. Tea is good, if you like it very strong, with a lot of sugar and condensed milk. Teahouses are everywhere, and nice places to sit.

Now i’m back in Bangkok.

photos from Monday, January 28th 2008
hindu temple Yangon teashop Yangon street food 2 Yangon people 3 chemistry Yangon people green and purple Yangon people 2 Yangon people Yangon street book sellers Yangon buildings Yangon street food blue building The Bombay Burma press
photos from Friday, January 25th 2008
restaurant by Chaungtha beach
photos from Wednesday, January 23rd 2008
Yangon street and teashops
photos from Tuesday, January 22nd 2008
it it got peanuts and some kyat, hmmm... a rather arrogant tourist a snack novices monks and some audience novices under flowers monks taking photos of monks waiting for donations boys and girls
photos from Monday, January 21st 2008
a tourist taking a leak Bagan
photos from Sunday, January 20th 2008
moon over Bagan 3 watching the sunset moon over Bagan 2 Bagan moon over Bagan Bagan pagoda buddha pagoda old paintings a red buddha cleaning a buddha image pagodas at Bagan Shwezigon pagoda
photos from Saturday, January 19th 2008
Moon over irrawaddy 2 the sun has set near Bagan towards the sunset a boatman Moon over irrawaddy 1 shadow A burmese guide napping loading a ship tourists on their way to Bagan british bridge Sagaing measuring depth sunrise at Irrawaddy river the sun is about to rise behind the Irrawaddy bank
photos from Friday, January 18th 2008
the longest teak bridge fishermen a pair of monks on a bridge
photos from Wednesday, January 16th 2008
a little monastery on a hilltop
photos from Tuesday, January 15th 2008
monks switzerland or myanmar?
photos from Monday, January 14th 2008
sunset in the hills 3 sunset in the hills 2 my foot in sunset sunset in the hills hydroelectric power for a village hill rice paddies harvested green tea
photos from Saturday, January 12th 2008
a river at Hsipaw a mosque in Hsipaw Hsipaw
photos from Thursday, January 10th 2008
Mandalay streets statues scriptures engraved on marble monks demolishing a fence
photos from Wednesday, January 9th 2008
a statue under construcion heavy load
photos from Monday, January 7th 2008
inle lake fishermen 7 inle lake fishermen 6 villagers a man and a child green eyes on the boat i feel like indiana jones stupas pagoda inle lake three blacksmiths, feels like home villagers parking lot 2 market on the southwestern shore of Inle lake parking lot gilded barge inle lake scenery inle lake fishermen 6 inle lake fishermen 5 inle lake fishermen 4 inle lake fishermen 3 inle lake fishermen 2 inle lake fishermen 1 my foot
photos from Friday, January 4th 2008
shwedagon pagoda 5 shwedagon pagoda 4 shwedagon pagoda 3 shwedagon pagoda 2 shwedagon pagoda 1 getting off the ferry 2 getting off the ferry waiting for the ferry a gilded monk( renovation swampy living near Yangon off the the Irrawaddy ferry 2 off the the Irrawaddy ferry buddhas feet offerings reclining buddha with nice eyes kids in Yangon on independence day shamanistic healing

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