Countries Visited

Svalbard Spain United States of America Antarctica South Georgia Falkland Islands Bolivia Peru Ecuador Colombia Venezuela Guyana Suriname French Guiana Brazil Paraguay Uruguay Argentina Chile Greenland Canada United States of America United States of America Israel Jordan Cyprus Qatar United Arab Emirates Oman Yemen Saudia Arabia Iraq Afghanistan Turkmenistan Iran Syria Singapore China Mongolia Papua New Guinea Brunei Indonesia Malaysia Malaysia Tiawan Philippines Vietnam Cambodia Laos Thailand Myanmar Bangladesh Sri Lanka India Bhutan Nepal Pakistan Afghanistan Turkmenistan Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan Uzbekistan Japan North Korea South Korea Russia Kazakhstan Russia Montenegro Portugal Azerbaijan Armenia Georgia Ukraine Moldova Belarus Romania Bulgaria Macedonia Serbia Bosonia & Herzegovina Turkey Greece Albania Croatia Hungary Slovakia Slovenia Malta Spain Portugal Spain France Italy Italy Austria Switzerland Belgium France Ireland United Kingdom Norway Sweden Finland Estonia Latvia Lithuania Russia Poland Czech Republic Germany Denmark The Netherlands Iceland El Salvador Guatemala Panama Costa Rica Nicaragua Honduras Belize Mexico Trinidad & Tobago Puerto Rico Dominican Republic Haiti Jamaica The Bahamas Cuba Vanuatu Australia Solomon Islands Fiji New Caledonia New Zealand Eritrea Ethiopia Djibouti Somalia Kenya Uganda Tanzania Rwanda Burundi Madagascar Namibia Botswana South Africa Lesotho Swaziland Zimbabwe Mozambique Malawi Zambia Angola Democratic Repbulic of Congo Republic of Congo Gabon Equatorial Guinea Central African Republic Cameroon Nigeria Togo Ghana Burkina Fasso Cote d'Ivoire Liberia Sierra Leone Guinea Guinea Bissau The Gambia Senegal Mali Mauritania Niger Western Sahara Sudan Chad Egypt Libya Tunisia Morocco Algeria
Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Oh, my, we went to Myanmar

Welcome to Myanmar! Land of the free press!

Myanmar, formerly (and often still locally) known as Burma, was a really interesting place to visit. It's a military dictatorship with a pretty poor human rights reputation, and we definitely had certain preconceptions before setting foot in the country. Some stuff, like the contents of the state-run English-language newspaper you see above, were as expected, but many things were not. Myanmar turned out to be full of surprises.

The US and many other Western countries have embargoes in place against Myanmar, so some items you're used to seeing everywhere, like Coke, are pretty hard to find. Some organizations encourage tourists to boycott Myanmar, too, so as not to give the government additional money and legitimacy. But if you travel independently, instead of on package tours that use fancy government hotels and transportation, you can funnel most of your money to the local people. We tried as much as possible to do this, and though there were sometimes admission fees to touristic areas or sites that we couldn't avoid paying, I think we did pretty well.

Originally, we had hoped to cross into Myanmar from either India or Bangladesh in the west and make our way overland to Thailand in the east. That was before we learned that all of the western borders are closed, and while land borders with Thailand are open to visitors, the internal roads once you get to the Burmese side are not. Oops! So, flights from Thailand it was.

The next hurdle was getting a tourist visa, which we did in Bangkok. And here is where the surprises began--the embassy was swamped with other tourists seeking the same! They must be processing more than 200 people a day--it took us two hours just to get our application submitted. Our Air Asia flight to Yangon was about 90% tourists. Myanmar = hot tourist destination...who knew?

We arrived in Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) early in the day and shared a taxi to the city center. There appear to be no ATMs in Myanmar, and even if there were, you wouldn't want to use one, since the "official" exchange rate is something like 6 kyat to the dollar, while the black-market rate is 900! Bit of a discrepancy there. So, we had to change some money.

We had plenty of US dollars, but since we'd been carrying them around for a year, they were all folded and creased and dirty. Surprise #2: No one will take these bills in Myanmar--they only want crisp, clean, new dollars. Even if your bill has a slight crease down the middle from folding it in your wallet, you will get a worse exchange rate. Gah! We ended up having to "change" a dirty $100 bill for $96 in crisp bills for use in the country. Painful. (When we asked people why there's such an obsession with new bills there, no one had a good answer, though one person theorized that people want new US bills now because it may be decades before anyone's able to get overseas to use them...)

Anyway, once we were moneyed up, it was time to take a walk around Yangon. Lots of colorful, crumbling old buildings, and lots of old vehicles, too--trade embargoes and just generally being poor mean less shiny new stuff in Myanmar.
But, big surprise #3, we quickly learned that a lot of people speak English in Myanmar. In fact, at least in the cities, I'd say as many people seemed to speak English as they do in Thailand! All over Yangon and Mandalay, we saw ads encouraging people to send their kids to English-language summer programs.
Yangon's most iconic structure is the Shwedagon Pagoda, a huge, gold-plated complex containing many religious buildings and even more Buddhas.
In the heat of the afternoon, it was filled with Burmese people, but not many tourists. (They all came later, closer to sunset.) Yup, that's all real gold. They really like gold in Myanmar.
Some kind of religious procession was passing through the grounds while we were there. We especially enjoyed the fancy umbrellas and young boys in makeup and hats.
Most Buddhist temples, we have learned, have bells that visitors can ring, I think to announce their presence to the deities. The British tried to make off with this huge one during colonial days, but dropped it in the river and couldn't get it out, so they magnanimously gave it back to the Burmese people. Anyway, Andy grabbed a...bell-ringer? (a monk later asked us what we call this device in America, and we had to explain that the concept doesn't really exist there)...and rang away.
Surprise #4: A Jewish temple in Yangon! It's found in the Indian part of town--you know, where all the Jews live--and looks similar to synagogues we visited in India. The Jewish population in Yangon has dwindled (to approximately one), but the structure is still in beautiful shape.
You can see some lovely old British colonial buildings around Yangon as well. Most have been converted to government offices, though since the capital recently moved to a remote town in the mountains (inaccessible to foreigners), I'm not sure how much administrating is still being done from them.
The Botataung Pagoda, also in Yangon, specializes in what I can only call carnival games. In this game, you buy a plate of folded up bills and then throw your money at this moving Buddha on a "ship." Every few minutes, a sea monster (left of the ship) rears up out of the metal "waves." Great way to rake in the dough--why don't more houses of worship in America do this?
The main attraction at this pagoda is that you can walk inside its hollow tunnel, which is all coated in, you guessed it, gold.
On to Mandalay, an "overnight" bus trip north of Yangon, if you can call a trip that gets in at 4AM overnight. Along with our new Chinese friend, Lucy, we hired a "luxury vehicle" to take us around to the sights for the day.
You can almost see that I'm barefoot in that picture. We spent most of our time in Myanmar barefoot--so many holy Buddhist sites to visit, and no shoes allowed at any of them, so after a while, you start just leaving your shoes in the truck! I mean, in the luxury vehicle.

Our first stop was an 19th-century monastery made all out of teak, the very hard wood found copiously in Myanmar. It had beautiful architecture from afar, and great carved bas-reliefs up close.
Next up was Mahamuni Paya, home to Myanmar's most famous Buddha image. Yup, this one beat out approximately one bajillion others for that title. And in case you don't think it's shiny enough... can buy a peel-and-press sheet of gold leaf to stick on it! I tell you, they just can't make anything golden enough in Burma.
If someone manufactured cigarettes made of gold, the Burmese would smoke them.
Ganayon Kyaung is one of the biggest monasteries in the country, and, in what must be one of the weirder tourist activities we've ever engaged in, visitors can come at 11AM and take pictures of the 1,000 resident monks as they line up for their breakfast.
It turned out that there were a few monks at this monastery who spoke great English, and even two who'd spent time in America, and we had long and interesting chats with them about everything from the patronage system that covers monks' food and living expenses (and cell phones! So many monks have cell phones!), to slang from the American movies they watch on their (patron-provided) computers, to the government's treatment of monks after the 2007 monk-led protests. Interesting stuff.

We also learned that being a monk doesn't have to be a life commitment--most Buddhist men, even kings, have at some point shaved their heads and joined a monastery for a few weeks before then heading back to normal life. Boys under the age of 20 can become "novice" monks for short or long periods; for many poor kids, it's their only way to get some education and regular feeding.

Speaking of food, a lot of people fish in the rivers in Myanmar. It gets pretty hot, so why not go for total immersion fishing? Pretty smart, I say.
One of the other temples we visited near Mandalay had this lovely frog statue. It may be the only thing in the temple that was not plated in gold!
A hill near Mandalay, dotted with stupas (Buddhist religious structures). If you need to ask whether that is real gold they're all covered with, then you haven't been paying very good attention.
Our last stop for the day was...the world's longest teak bridge! That's right, it beat out...well, at least one other teak bridge somewhere in the world to earn that distinction.

At the beginning of the bridge was an owl vendor, straight out of Diagon Alley! For $1.50, she would set one of these owls free, which is probably supposed to bring you good luck. (She had better not open a branch in Benin, where people think owls are bad luck would probably club all her birds, and her, to death on sight. Fair warning!)
Who needs a bridge when you can just drive your cattle straight across the river bottom? Yeah, it wasn't so deep.
Finally, the vaunted bridge itself. It was pretty long, more than a kilometer.
Our next destination on the Burmese tourist trail (yes, there really is one--and we kept meeting the same travelers again and again along the way!) was Bagan, home to hundreds of Buddhist pagodas, stupas, and temples from the early 1000s. Yeah, we learned the differences between those three types of structures, but I won't bore you with them--let's just jump ahead to the best pictures we got!

Many of the buildings were exquisite, but the sky kept on trying to steal the show.

When we went down to the river docks for sunset pictures, we met about 30 local kids and teenagers, and a happy hour of playing games, them trying to teach us Burmese words, and everyone taking a turn or seven with Andy's digital camera ensued. Everyone's parents then tried to invite us into their houses to share their dinners. We felt very loved.
Back to the beautiful temples of Bagan:

The outsides were fantastic, but many temples had great murals and sculptures inside as well, always depicting the Buddha at some point during his Enlightenment process, or even during one of his hundreds of former lives.
Hey, what's shiny stuff on the Buddha? It couldn't be...!?!
Nature interlude: We now take a short break from your golden Buddha images to bring you this lovely butterfly, which posed for Andy on a temple floor!

And now, back to your regularly scheduled gold! My lord (I mean, Buddha), this one was enormous...
This temple was slightly older and more inspired by the Hindu temples of India than most of the others, but when we got inside, we still found a big Buddha.
Speaking of big Buddhas, you know you're in the presence of a huge reclining Buddha when your husband is only half the size of one of its feet!
Burmese people wear a makeup/sunscreen paste made from the bark of a local tree. This lady outside of one of the temples offered to sunscreen me up for free, and I couldn't refuse. She was really funny, and I actually ended up buying a couple of sticks from her and using it for the rest of the trip! Andy used it, too, as we saw Burmese men wearing it as well...though we later heard that wearing the paste identifies those men as "ladyboys." Oops!
How does that rhyme go again? Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall...outside a Buddhist temple in Bagan...
Our conveyance around the dirt roads of Bagan was this horse and carriage, which we shared with Lucy and our intrepid driver-guide, who gave us enlightening commentary about both the ancient temples and present-day life in his country.
This post is getting long. Here are a few more random pictures.

Andy loves moss, and really went nuts over these moss-covered water-cooling containers. I have no idea how people got moss to grow on them, but that's just part of the mystery of Myanmar, I guess.
A bilingual rest stop on the road to Inle Lake.
Andy screamed like a little girl when he almost stepped on this snake. Then he realized it was dead and took some pictures.
The last big stop on the tourist circuit is mountain-ringed Inle Lake, which would be even more beautiful if it wasn't for all the smog. Not sure if the smog comes from Myanmar's dirty old cars and machines, or if it's just drifting down from China. Probably both.

Anyway, locals on the lake often row boats with their feet to keep their hands free for fishing. Pretty nifty to see in action.
And many people live in stilt villages on the lake, with their homes connected by elevated walkways like this one.
Stilt houses. Slightly more picturesque than the ones we saw in Benin. (Hm, what's up with all the Burma-Benin parallels today? Weird.)
Inle Lake has a weird tourist attraction of its own: A monastery where monks have taught the cats to jump through hoops. What this has to do with Buddhism, or how it's good for the cats, I don't know. But it sure brings in the tourists, and their donations.

Jump, kitty, jump!
This is the super-cool monk in charge of the whole operation. Or maybe he is blind?
We attended a traditional Burmese puppet show in the town near the lake, and it was quite impressive how the puppetmaster made his many puppets dance such intricate routines. This ogre character is usually everyone's favorite. Apparently, Burmese puppetry is so well-respected that traditional dancers have tried to modify their moves over the years so that they move more like the puppets when they perform!

Our final destination in Myanmar was an ill-advised expedition to the Golden Rock of Kyaikto. The rock is a boulder that is precariously balanced on the edge of a cliff but never tumbles off; it's been covered completely in gold (this is, of course, Myanmar) and has had a pagoda built on top. Burmese pilgrims flock there in great numbers, but tourists are few.

Sounds cool, right? Unfortunately, it was about 20 times smaller than we'd imagined (the pagoda is like a doll's house), cost way too much money to visit, and required a five-hour trip out of our way on a variety of increasingly less comfortable forms of transport, followed by a steep hike in the blazing sun. Oh, and the outdoor floors leading that they make you walk around on barefoot leading up to the rock are like stepping on a frying pan! So, we really can't recommend going to anyone who's thinking about it. I promise, the pictures look much, much better than the real thing in person.
Andy did get visited by a freaky giant moth at the rock, so I guess we can't say it was all for naught.
Finally, I am at the last picture in this post. Yes, those are men, and yes, they are wearing skirts. They are called longyi, and are probably worn by about 80% of the men in Myanmar. Many people tried to sell Andy one (probably trying to make a real man out of him when they saw him wearing that ladyboy makeup!), but he's sticking with pants for now.
Ten days in Myanmar--pretty fascinating. It's a poor country, especially compared to nearby, mall-saturated nations like Thailand and Malaysia, but it's certainly not the poorest place we've ever been. Some of the buses aren't great, and the roads are sometimes bumpy, but we've been on much worse. (Then again, the smoother new roads that do exist were probably built with forced labor by political prisoners and other such enemies of the regime.) The many local people we met seemed thrilled to have us there and talk to us, even if we weren't buying anything from them. In fact, it's the kind of country where a poor person on the street will try to give you bus fare if he sees that you've run out of local currency. These people deserve a better government, and I hope that they will get it.


  1. Fascinating post!! I'm in Hanoi Vietnam at the moment and they have a thing about crisp currency too ... dollar bills AND local currency! They scrutinize each bill and won't accept anything with even the smallest tear. It's weird. No one here can explain why either, it just is!

  2. Sensational review of a wonderful country.
    I found this blog by searching for puppets as Im buying those rare Burmese Marionettes! I have 2 Ogres. 1 4 armed Hindu God of wealth and luck Ganesh.
    Colin Mathura-Jeffree