Asia trip notes
Note—Myanmar is the new name for the country that was, until 10 years ago, known as Burma. I use both, depending on context.
August 28, 2000
I flew first to San Francisco. Parting with Eric for the next 3+ weeks was tough—last time I traveled to Asia I wasn't really leaving anyone behind. Fortunately I sat next to a really chatty couple from Kenmore. They had a three acre "homestead" out there, practically in the middle of Seattle, and actually raised chickens! I learned that phrases such as "pecking order" and "tough old bird" have a strong basis in fact. Old birds really are tough and almost inedible, according to them (they tried once) and there was a distinct pecking order among their birds, with the ones low on the totem pole getting lots of pecking. He was a trumpeter for the orchestra and she played the bassoon for some other musical group, as well as being the music librarian for them. When they first got out of school, they were offered positions in an orchestra in Israel, and ended up staying there for 5 years. They never really learned much Hebrew because they were always thinking that they would be leaving in a couple months. Very friendly couple. Originally he was supposed to be the only one going to San Francisco, for a concert, but when they went to the ticket counter to pick up the tickets, it turned out that they could get a price of $140 Seattle to San Francisco, so the whole family went. They had offered more than that for the tickets on Priceline, but were rejected.
This time I flew Korean Air, instead of Asiana, which I flew last time. I enjoyed the Asiana flight more, the stewardesses were spiffier and wore these jaunty little hats, plus they offered hot towels, and more food. Then again, maybe I missed out on some meals and snacks because I was dozing. I think that I dozed off for many 5 minute intervals before I needed to change positions. For dinner (can it be called dinner at 3 AM?) I had a traditional Korean dish called Bimbami (or something like that). I was given a big bowl only about one quarter full of little shredded pieces of beef, various pickled vegetables, mushrooms, etc. The stewardess asked me whether I knew how to eat it, and when said no, she told me how. I thought she said to put everything in the bowl and mix (there was also a bowl of seaweed soup, a package of steamed rice, a tube of hot pepper sauce, and a small container of sesame oil). So, I mixed everything together. I must have misunderstood, though, because when I put the soup in my bowl, my seatmate laughed at me, and said "Soup, soup", indicating that I should eat it separately. But it was too late for that. It tasted good anyway.
Just like I'd read in the English language Korea Herald that they gave out, it looks like there's been some serious flooding recently. I didn't see much of the country at all as we landed, because it was very cloudy, but just before landing I saw many flooded fields and roads.
August 29, 2000
I'm feeling pretty good here at the D & D Inn, on Khao San Road in Bangkok. Things are going smoothly, my visa to Burma shouldn't be a problem, I just bought my airline ticket for 5150 baht (about $129—not bad for a 1 hour round trip international flight) for tomorrow, and I arranged transportation to the airport as well. Everything has been without problems, and I'm also looking forward to doing a little photo essay on Khao San Road, which is really an extraordinary place. I don't think there's any place like it on earth. The first thing you notice here is that the concentration of young travelers with a backpack on is about 1 per square meter. Okay, small exaggeration, but they truly swarm here. It's no wonder, really because there's tons of cheap guesthouses, places to send email, cheap restaurants (although I've had much better in Chiang Mai). They're a motley crew. I think almost none of the Japanese have their natural black hair—they all have it bleached a strange washed-out red. And it seems every other traveler has a piercing in either tongue, lip, or nose. It's very entertaining to just walk around and gawk (discreetly). If I weren't going to Burma, I'd be trying to get to some other areas of the city, but I figure I'll get plenty of authentic local culture there. I may try to take the river ferry, though, that was very interesting last time. The problem is that I have no guidebook to Bangkok with me, so I'm kind of going blind. I may just walk around. Having air conditioning in the room makes a big difference, it's so much more comfortable. It's not all that hot outside, either, it's almost comfortable.
I was able to send some email to Eric this morning, and get a reply from him. It was great to get the mail. I maybe have to try and make a phone call as well. It would probably be better to try and call from Burma, though, since that way at least he'll know I arrived safely, and apparently email is non-existent there. I have read that the per minute rate for international phone calls is extraordinarily high there, something like $16 a minute. I wonder if that's still true.
I just got a real (fake) International Student Identity Card for $1 on the street outside. I had to get 3 photos made for my Burma visa, and as they come in sets of 4, I decided to use my last photo to become a student again. It's a fancy card, holograms and everything. According to what I've read online, at some attractions in Burma it can be used to reduce admission fees. I don't have any qualms about using it—these fees go straight to the repressive government, and there's a 2-tiered pricing system anyway, with foreigners paying around 10 times what natives pay.
The bathroom is typical for inexpensive Thai guesthouses—there's no shower curtain, and the water from the shower drains out from a drain right behind the toilet, which makes things wet in there after a shower. Oh well. For $11.50, I'm not complaining. And the room is quite nice, it's very clean, quiet, not too small. No charm, but that's quite all right.
August 30, 2000
Up at 2:30 in the morning today, and I just couldn't get to sleep again. By far the best way to do this is to just force yourself to stay awake until a reasonable hour, like at least 10 PM. Going to sleep because you're tired is a bad idea—it just delays recovery from jet lag.
I bought some sweet sesame seed crackers yesterday, and ate a couple in my room in the afternoon. I must have dropped a crumb on the floor, because there was a teeming black spot on the floor, consisting of these tiny ants that are everywhere here, with black lines of ants leading to it.
Yesterday morning I had cornflakes at a nearby restaurant, for 70 baht (almost 2 dollars) which I realize now was a total rip-off. I guess the reason they're able to charge that much is that people like to have familiar foods. Time to be a little more adventurous. In Burma, that is. I might try to buy a Burmese phrasebook, hopefully trading in one of the novels I brought with.
Yesterday afternoon I took a river ferry. I wasn't planning on getting off, I just wanted to get some good pictures. Unfortunately a torrential downpour started just as I got on the ferry, so I had to tuck the camera and the palm pilot safely away in a plastic bag I'd brought with. I went to the end of the line, and then got on another ferry and went upstream again. Along the way, I chatted with 2 Canadian women from Edmonton. They were doing the grand tour of Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. So far the place they've liked best as been Thailand, they said—very exotic, cheap, and very friendly people. They were trying to decide whether or not they would go to Cambodia, which is on the unofficial "young backpackers tour of Asia". Apparently there was some serious flooding there which made some of the roads impassable. The decision was further complicated by the fact that they were traveling in a group of 5! Yep, that's right, five people traveling together, and they had been for the whole trip of about 7 months, including time spent working in Australia. I don't understand how that works out logistically, having to consider the wishes of 5 people, but they told me they were having a great time together, and they seemed very upbeat and happy. Of course, there were only 2 of them together at the time.
Yesterday morning I took a taxi to the Myanmar Embassy. Getting the visa seems straightforward, you pay your 800 baht, fill out 3 pages of forms, glue a passport photo on each page, and there you are. I pick up the visa again today. I might share a taxi over there with Steph, the woman I met on the bus from the airport last night. She's spending a couple more days in Bangkok than me, and is interested in potentially traveling together in Burma. I've been thinking about it, and I don't think I'm inclined to do so. I don't feel that I need a travel companion, and it does tend to insulate you from the natives.
So, today I fly to Yangon, Burma! I'm excited about it. I do feel that perhaps 3 weeks is a little long for me to be traveling. I guess I miss Eric.
I've been going to some of the little mini-mart type places on Khao San Road for snacks and things quite a lot. There's three of them; a 7-11, a place called Mini Mart, and a place called Family Mart, which is my favorite, because it looks so incredibly clean—must be because of the bluish tinge from their peculiar fluorescent lights. Plus, the woman at the counter always bows politely to me with her hands together before and after my purchase. I usually nod with an awkward smile. I've bought lots of weird yogurt varieties—one with corn, beans, and lotus seeds (yet sweetened) and all kinds of tropical fruit combos. I also bought this very strange snack...it was coconut pulp (kind of like a very hard flavorless Jell-O) in what I believe was called a jellygrass syrup. The jellygrass was completely black. I probably wouldn't try it again. I'm very much more inclined to buy something strange if I can see the price clearly—having to ask in a strange language is a big disincentive to trying something. I should try to overcome that in Burma, and try a couple new dishes every day. Of course, if I get diarrhea, that policy would be off.
I called Eric today. It was kind of a non-event, because I talked to him on this internet phone connection, and there was a 2 second delay. It wasn't very satisfying, not even as good as email. I wonder if all the places I saw that advertise overseas calls use internet phone. They must have been making a huge profit if that's the case.
After the phone call I met Stephanie, and we shared a taxi to the Burmese embassy. I had to wait around 45 minutes, then I was interviewed by one of the embassy officials. I was somewhat prepared, because another woman went up before me, and came back all shocked at the questions they'd asked. He first confirmed what I'd written on my application, where I was from, what I do, etc. Then he pointed to the page where I had signed something to the effect that I was in Burma only for purposes or tourism, and would not interfere with any domestic affairs. He went on about that for a while, asking me if I understood, and me replying in my best slow simple English that I did. It was a strange experience; he seemed almost embarrassed. Then about 15 minutes after my interview, I got my passport, stamped with the visa. While I was there I chatted a bit with one older guy. He was Italian, said he'd been in the US (Detroit and New Jersey) for about 7 years, teaching in a seminary there. He's also lived in Thailand for 23 years, although it wasn't clear whether he lived in Thailand currently. When I started talking to him I asked him if he was waiting for a business visa, since he was dressed semi-businesslike. He told me he was a missionary. I exclaimed in what must have been a rather loud voice, "Missionary?" and he shushed me immediately. I ended up thinking he was a bit creepy, though, because he interrupted Stephanie and me while we were talking, and told us to be very careful, and that there had been 2 murders of women in the past 3 or 4 months, one in the south, and one in Chiang Mai. I understand giving a friendly warning, but he went on and on about how Thai men seem nice, and smile a lot, but things aren't what they seem, etc. He ended up giving me the creeps. I took a taxi back to Khao San Road, and got nervous when the driver drove on a road that was completely unfamiliar to me. I figured I would recognize the route, because I'd been on it 3 times already, but he did a new one. I blame my nervousness on the Italian guy at the embassy. I could have saved myself the worry, because that particular taxi got me back the fastest of all.
After I checked out of my room at noon, I killed time until I took the bus to the airport at 3. I hung out for a while sending email and surfing the web at one of the numerous internet places (1 baht/minute, or about $1.50/hour). Then I wandered around, hung out in a restaurant where I had a pineapple milkshake, and read my Lonely Planet Myanmar book.
I also went around to various used book sellers, trying to sell my throw-away Tom Clancey novel. None of them wanted it, though! They said they already had too many of his books. Oh well.
I could definitely go a long time without ever seeing this part of the world again. It's interesting, but small doses are more than enough. I wonder what Thais think of the enormous variety of young travelers that frequent this road. Nationalities have included tons of Israelis (usually traveling in fairly large groups), all kinds of Europeans, lots of Australians, British, Canadian, and some American. The dress code for some of the women is VERY skimpy, a lot of very tight tops, either short shorts or skirts, and also lots of loose bellbottom type pants, tied at the waist. And piercings! Everywhere. I even saw one woman where the piercing appeared to be right in the bellybutton—not a ring through the side or anything, but right in the middle of the bellybutton. Maybe it was glued in or something.
August 31, 2000
Well, here I am in fascinating Burma. It's frankly great to get away from Khao San Road, its noise and the crush of people there.
The van I booked yesterday to the airport was packed—I thought I'd be smart and sit in the front, next to the driver. However, we squeezed another person in the front seat, so that I was scrunched up next to the gear shift, and had to shift positions every time he went into first gear. I chatted with the guy next to me, a Brit. He said he'd had to endure the same thing, having to shift positions every time the driver shifted gears, for 7 hours yesterday, when he'd taken the bus up from down south. He also told me all about an accident he'd seen in Laos, when riding a bus. A family of 3 or 4 riding a moped had been hit. The father was dead, brains spread all across the road, the rest were injured. The foreigners on the bus insisted on stopping, and taking the living to a hospital. They ended up completely covered in blood. Not an experience one would soon forget, I imagine. The Brit said he was a producer of commercials in London. We talked a little bit about getting jobs when we came back, and I told him that a friend of mine had gotten a masters in film years ago, yet found it quite difficult to get a job in that field. He said, "All right, now you've got me worried!". I reassured him that his case was certainly different, since he had experience already. Then he started talking about the credit card bill he was running up, traveling.
At the airport, my flight to Yangon didn't even have a gate number until about an hour before it was supposed to leave. I imagine that's typical of Myanmar Airlines. There were about 9 foreign travelers, only 2 of them women (a pair of women from Israel). The flight was delayed for about an hour, but I was pleasantly surprised when I got on—the flight crew were some of the friendliest I'd ever seen. It was a Boeing 737, and looked like it was in decent shape. The plane had been bought from another airline, because all signs were in English and what looked like Indonesian, with little stickers in Burmese to translate.
Getting into the airport in Yangon was an experience. Everybody was smiling and grinning at me! I loved it. I did have to use $200 to buy the foreign exchange coupons (FEC) that can substitute for dollars here. Some people try to avoid it, especially if they're only here for about a week or so, but for me it's okay, because you use them for hotels and things. The pair of Israeli women, who went after me, were trying to bargain with them, and tell them they only wanted to change $100 instead. Supposedly this works. I would have put some more effort into avoiding buying FEC, but supposedly they're not too hard to convert, and I know I'll be spending more than $200 here.
I had one moment of panic when I went through customs. I did the "nothing to declare" line, and they actually opened my bag up, which my Burmese friend Soe from Seattle had told me did not happen. I was worried about all the things that Soe had given me to give to his family, But it was a very cursory check, the guy looked at my GoType keyboard for the Palm Pilot, I opened it up and showed him what it was, and that was that. Whew!
As soon as I got to the exit area, all kinds of people accosted me. I ended up getting a taxi from these 2 girls who spoke English quite well. I paid $3 instead of the $2 that my guidebook said is standard, but when first coming into the country, tired and jet-lagged, I'm not in the mood to bargain. And they know that. I did bargain a little bit, though—they originally wanted $5. They were very friendly and sweet. They must have been semi-official, because they were at a desk ahead of the main group of taxi drivers. One of the other taxi drivers, whenever I looked in his direction, waved a sign around wildly that read "Reasonable Rates". It was funny.
On the ride to the hotel (Queen's Park Hotel, picked from the guidebook), I drove with 2 guys; one was driving, and one was the translator, and was also trying to sell his services as a tour guide. He whipped out these photos of people he's driven around, and a book full of reference letters. His English wasn't that great, really—one of his reference letters said something about that. I definitely wouldn't use him for a guide. The first thing I noticed on the ride was that the road from the airport was very wide and good, no potholes at all. That contrasted strongly with my arrival into Laos last year, where the road was hugely rutted in spots. Plus, all the men here wore longyi, a long wrap-around cloth sewn into a tube, which they tuck around their waist. The women supposedly wear it as well, but I couldn't spot any women on the road.
The Queen's Park Hotel looked good from the outside, extremely friendly staff wearing western style clothing with ties. I chose it because my guidebook said it was a great value, and a middle range place. I was very disappointed, though, when I was shown the room. It had an extremely musty smell to it, the room was tiny, and there's also no way that it's new, like the guidebook says. But, at 10 PM, in a new country, I'm not at all inclined to go and search for another hotel. I should have made a list of hotels to check out, in order of preference, but I trusted too much in the guidebook recommendation. Plus, the air conditioner doesn't work—I asked the guy why it wasn't on when I first looked at the room, and he said it would come on in a minute. It didn't come on all night—so much for that!
I switched on the TV for a while. They have about 6 Chinese channels, 1 Indian channel, 1 Australian, and CNN. I couldn't find the Burmese channel—they probably stopped broadcasting that time of night. It was the first time I'd ever seen an Indian TV channel, and it was fascinating. They had what looked like Indian soap operas. One thing I noticed watching them is that they had lots of Hindu religious ceremonies in the shows! People chanting to elephant statues, throwing flower petals, etc. There were lots of English words sprinkled around in the dialogue, I remembered hearing "dependable" and "practical". Maybe there's no direct Hindi translation. The commercials were very interesting, too—mainly things like shampoos, candy, and some drink that was supposed to be really healthy for kids. One thing that I noticed of all the actors was that they were very light skinned, compared to most of the Indians I've worked with. With many of them I wouldn't even have known that they were Indian. I've read before that being light skinned is a point of great pride in India. One of the ads was for a skin lightening product called "Fair and Lovely".
This morning I woke up at a reasonable time—5:30. I did some reading and writing until 8, when I had breakfast. Breakfast this morning was a quiet affair—just me. And of course the staff—2 in the dining room, and about a dozen milling around the ground floor, without another guest in site. They're extremely friendly, everyone sang out "Good Morning" to me when they saw me. For breakfast I got a little adventurous, and instead of doing the standard toast and eggs, I decided to try something from the Myanmar menu. There were two options, and I asked them to recommend one. It ended up being a chicken flavored noodle stew type dish, very hot (I'm glad I didn't choose the other one, he said it was even hotter). It had bits of crunchy fried dough in it, with chicken flavoring. Not too bad, all in all. I think it was called mohinga. The "orange juice" was imitation Tang.
Ah! I'm much happier now that I've switched hotels. I'm now at the Yoma Hotel, which has (get this) email! $3 for half an hour. I'm going to enjoy sending Eric mail. The room is much, much nicer as well—about twice as large, nicer furnishings, recently painted, bathroom much nicer. Doesn't have tons of character, maybe, but it's just what I want now. And, it's the same price of $12, even though in the guidebook it says $24. It's the low season now, but still, half price is quite a discount.
I just finished doing my laundry in the sink here. It's time to go outside and brave the thousands of staring eyes—friendly and smiling, but thousands of staring eyes nonetheless. I need to go to the marketplace and change some money. I met 2 young travelers from Columbia (a first for me) who were very friendly, invited me to come with them to the market to change money, gave me a card for their hotel, which they said was great, and invited me to go with them to Mandalay tomorrow. I was almost a little tempted, but it would be silly at this point to hook up with other travelers with other plans. It's good to talk to people, though, and find out about exchange rates, etc. Apparently you shouldn't take less than 380 kyat (pronounced like check?) for a dollar. The FEC can only be exchanged for 360 kyat—so much for it being the equivalent of one dollar. I'm going to go out there and get some pictures, because there's so much to take pictures of! Hope the rain holds off.
Back from a jaunt to the market. Wow! Culture shock. I have a serious case of it right now. I actually took a taxi back to my place for 200 kyat, even though it was just a 3 minute drive—I just really had to go to the bathroom, and decompress inside someplace with air conditioning. It feels great to be back here in my hotel room. I rinsed off the sweat in the shower, and just laid on my bed for a while, processing it all.
The market I went to was the biggest one around, the Bogyoke Aung San market, down the road about a kilometer or so. It felt much, much longer, which is why I took a taxi back, but it was only a kilometer according to my map. There was so much to see, that's why I thought it was so long. I went into one market, thinking it was the one I wanted, but it was only a food market. I almost felt like I was taking my heart into my hands walking into that market—not that I felt endangered or anything, just that it was so strange, so different, absolutely no other foreigners around, and I was attracting so much attention. I think I got some good photos. Having the camera was a real hit, especially being able to show people what their picture looked like on the LCD immediately after taking it. I had crowds of people looking at the photographs. I found out what it means when men only have the lower beard, and no mustache—it means they're Muslim. I talked to a rice merchant at this market, which was only for food, and that's what he told me. He was very friendly and apologetic, but wouldn't allow me to take his picture. I'm really looking forward to seeing the photos full size. It'll be very interesting to show them to Soe, as well—he could probably explain a lot of things I don't understand.
As I was walking down the road further, I attracted 3 guys, teenage boys, who spoke some English. They were trying to be my guide, exchange money for me, etc. They said "What can I do for you today?" They did explain some things, but their English wasn't that great. I have a photo of them that I hope turned out well. But I was getting a little tired of them, and was considering saying "I'd like to walk alone". There was a woman selling betel nut, which people chew for a slight buzz here and spit out in big gobs of brick red spit on the sidewalk (it stains their teeth red as well). She had a bucket of white paste next to the betel nut, and I asked the boys what it was. I was sure that it was lime, which somehow reacts with the betel nut when you chew it to produce the high, but they couldn't tell me—of course, it's not a very common word to know in English. That's how I met "Teacher Angela". Angela is a Burma woman in her late 50's, probably, with four daughters, one in Malaysia, two in Australia, and one here. She told me, "It's lime, like they use in cement". I was very impressed with her English, it's the best I've heard since I got here, with a very light accent. She told me that she learned at an English convent school when she was growing up, which explains the light accent. She had just finished her shopping, and asked me about myself, what I was up to, etc. I told her I was going to walk around in the market. She asked if I have anyone to walk around with me, and I told her no. She was a little shocked, and offered to go with me. She seemed very trustworthy, and not at all like she was trying to scam me or anything, so I eagerly accepted her offer. We ended up walking around the market for 2 or 3 hours, and had lunch together. It was really great to have someone to translate for me, to explain what everything was, to ask questions for me. So, what all did we look at? Lots of paintings. I really liked some of them, too, all of typical Burmese subjects. Perhaps I'll buy some when I stop in Yangon on my way back. I looked at some antique shops at the market, saw old ornate betel nut cutters, all kinds of opium weights, lacquerware, old silver, tons of silver shops. It was kind of neat because it was also almost as thought I were following an aunt around the market, because she was looking some things for herself as well—some party decoration stuff, etc. She went with me to change money, and it seemed like she was bargaining for me, but I didn't get a better rate. I got 383 kyat per dollar, using one $50 note. The price is worse for $20 notes (even if you change more money), and better for $100 notes. Apparently they really like to have the higher denomination notes. The stall that changed money for me was a jewelry stall—makes sense, I guess, that they would be in the money changing business as well. It was a black market transaction, no doubt, and Angela said it was dangerous for Burmese people to have dollars, but we weren't hiding anything at all, I counted everything out right on the counter (prompted by Angela—she was really looking out for me during each money transaction, told me to watch for pickpockets, looked at all the change that was given to me. I think money tends to be a lot more on your mind when you don't have a lot of it—a lot of Angela's comments involved poor people. What all did she say? That poor people chewed betel nut because it helped them forget their hunger pangs, that the nuns and the monks have an easy life (one nun actually came up to us when we were eating and begged), that now during the rainy season few people have work.
I asked her if she'd like to have lunch with me, and so for a while we were figuring out what we wanted to eat. She thought at first that Burmese food would be hard on my stomach, but I said that I was interested in it, so she asked around to see where the typical restaurants were. We ended up at the food stall area of the market. There were about a dozen food stalls, all competing vociferously whenever a customer came in to have them stop in their stall instead of a competitors. I wish I'd gotten a picture of that, all of them gesturing towards their stalls, and trying to convince prospective customers to come in. I wonder what they were saying. You could tell without even looking up that somebody had come in, because the noise level went up a magnitude (there weren't many customers there). I had coconut rice, with some curries accompanying it (some vegetable, stuff, some chili sauce, a small dish of chicken curry with 2 pieces of bony chicken, so tough that I only took one bite, a dish of vegetables such as tiny eggplants, beans, etc, that were supposed to be dipped into sauce, and one noodle type dish that was made with chicken broth, but had no chicken in it. It was all very interesting, and going to a place like that is definitely not something I'd try on my own (or maybe I will...?) Nobody spoke any English, I would have no idea what to ask for, etc. I had a desert, too—it was a mixture of tapioca, coconut jelly, and these little green things that Angela couldn't identify in English. It was quite tasty, although I only ate about half of it (Angela asked me if I was on a diet). Angela also bought me a pomelo (like a large grapefruit) after I told her I liked them, bargaining with the guy for a good minute or so for it. Soon after we ate lunch (I paid 660 kyat for it, for both of us—about $1.50) we parted ways. I told her I would go back to my hotel and rest. She gave me her phone number, and asked if I would like to come home with her. She wasn't pushy at all—I really think I'd like to see her home, and meet her daughter (she said, when looking at some very wide blouses, "these would fit my daughter, she's very fat"). I have her phone number, so I'll probably try calling her tomorrow or something, have the lady at the desk write down directions for me so that I can give them to a taxi, and go visit. Should be very interesting. It does feel kind of daring, but she seemed totally sincere, not at all trying to take advantage of me. When the 3 teenage boys who'd been trying to guide me left, one of them mumbled something that I understood as "she's a bad person". I'm sure he was just trying to get business for himself.
In general the business at the marketplace was very, very minimal—lots of stalls and sellers, but very few buyers. Angela said that people just don't have the money. She mentioned when we were eating that some poor people only have two meals a day, consisting of rice, some vegetable curry, and some chili.
While I was at the Bogyoke market, there was one guy selling cheroots (the big fat Burmese cigars) who kept popping up. It was sad, he would bow in front of me, with his tray, show me a little collection of old Burmese coins and the cheroots, and say "sorry" all the time, probably the only English word he knows. Poverty is hard thing. I don't know if I still believe what Alex Oh and I talked about one day—that the average person in a poor country is a lot happier than their counterpart in a rich country.
I bought a couple more things after Angela and I split up—a used Lonely Planet Burmese phrasebook for 400 kyat (a little more than $1—much less than they were charging in Bangkok) and some lotus flower seeds. I have a picture of the sellers, hope it turned out. I know I got tremendously overcharged compared to a Burmese, but I don't mind that much if it's going to a little sidewalk vendor. Going to the government, though, would be another story. I paid 50 kyat (about 12 cents) for a little bag of the seeds. I also saw another vendor with what looked like flat orange sheets of something. When I stopped to look, another guy told the vendor to give me a piece. He did, and I put it in my mouth. It was nasty! He said it was made of mangos, but I really didn't taste any mango in it, it tasted like bad meat jerky. I kept it in my mouth for a while until I walked down the street a little bit, when I spit it off. I as thinking to myself—great, I've sucked all the germs and bacteria off of it, and NOW I spit it out. Angela has some English students, and she mentioned that one of her students, the child of a mine owner, is sick with malaria. That worried me a little bit, because I haven't taken any precautions against it since it's only supposed to be a problem out in the countryside.
My room is like a cozy, secure, and cool refuge for me, where I can get away from what seems like the thousands of eyes that are on me. The closest analogy to Burma would be Laos, but in Laos it seemed like there were many more tourists. And I was thinking that it would be overrun, just because I heard quite a few travelers in Bangkok talking about going to Burma. I've seen a total of 3 other travelers today, and all of them were in the market. I haven't seen any at all just walking on the street. It seems that everybody I pass stares at me—if you meet their gaze, they'll smile and nod at you, and probably say hello as well, but still, it's going to take some getting used to. Right now I would say that I'm still in a state of culture shock. I think it's wearing off a bit, and perhaps soon it won't bother me at all.
I went to a tea shop that was recommended by the Lonely Planet guidebook for dinner. I almost had to psyche myself up to go out for dinner. I told myself, "Okay, just go out for dinner, and then you can go straight back to the hotel, and relax." Seriously! So I studied up in my guidebook how to get there, memorized it so I wouldn't need to look at the map, and headed off. It was probably about a 10 minute walk. The teashop itself wasn't what I expected. I guess I thought it would be a little more "westerner friendly". The personnel wasn't as friendly as I expected, and I was expecting the menu to have more pastry type items on it, since it was a tea shop. I did recognize one item that was listed in the guidebook, the opium cake, so I chose that and some tea. The opium cake, served with grated coconut on top, was okay. I didn't get a fork with it so I hesitated a bit before digging in with my fingers, thinking that's what you do here, but then I saw another customer eating it with a fork. Next time... After I finished that, I thought to myself, "Okay, that was dinner", but I realized I need a little bit more than that, and so I ordered the noodle soup—a big bowl of spicy noodles, with a raw egg cracked into it, and barely cooked—the yolk was still very runny. I thought about salmonella for a moment. It was good enough. One thing that really struck me there was that there were only groups of men there—usually teenagers. I had thought it would be more like Thailand here, where the men and women mix quite a bit, but that doesn't seem to be the case. There wasn't even one mixed-sex group, except for one couple. I have noticed a few couples holding hands, or linking arms, while walking down the street.
I have to be really quick sometime, or perhaps just wait at a stoplight, and take a picture of one of the super overcrowded buses here. They're truly amazing, people are hanging out from every opening.
I went downstairs to send email, as I was told I could, but I found out that the one woman who sets up the machine had left. The women at the front desk was apologetic, and said that the email lady was waiting for me to come down and use email all afternoon! Wow. I guess they don't have many guests, here, at least ones that use email. As a matter of fact, I only saw one couple, sounded like Germans, and they were leaving as I was checking in. In general, there are VERY few foreigners around. Of course, I haven't gone to the touristy places yet.
An observation of street life here—there's many fewer dogs here, but they look like they're in a lot better shape than in Thailand, where they were skinny, crippled, mangy, and just generally awful looking.
September 1, 2000
A new day. It started out on a down note—I woke up at 3 AM AGAIN! Will I never get over this jet lag? I stayed awake until 10 PM, too, practically propping my eyelids up with toothpicks (okay, not literally, but it did take lots of effort). I watched the Indian channel for a while—funny, it seems like they never use Hindi script. I wonder why that is. They were showing Disney stuff, the Chip and Dale Rescue Ranger movie, with the high-pitched chipmunk voice, in Hindi. It sounded really funny!
I finally took my last sleeping pill, and it appeared to work, but when I woke up I felt kind of dazed and weak, not fresh and lively. I'm pretty sure it was the sleeping pill. I had breakfast (included with the price of the night's stay in all hotels here) in the 6th floor restaurant after going down to the first floor, where I thought the restaurant was. The stairs seemed like they lasted forever on the way up. Breakfast was toast, butter, jam, an omelet type thing, some fake pineapple juice that was a sickly shade of greenish yellow, and tea. The German couple were upstairs as well—I guess I was wrong about them checking out as I was checking in. They weren't friendly at all, and both smoked.
I was feeling unenergetic and not very enthusiastic as I went to walk to Shwedagon Paya. Shwedagon Paya is a big attraction here in Yangon; a massive Buddhist temple complex. I walked about halfway there, and then it started to rain buckets. I stood under a tree for a while, then got a taxi to take me to the paya. Got there, was told to take my shoes off, gave a little donation for my plastic bag for the shoes. Then I took the elevator up, and hung out on an elevated walkway for a while, watching it pour, and feeling unlucky and isolated. Finally I started walking around in the rain, and then a woman came running up to me to tell me to pay the $5 fee. I did, and then stood around in the covered area close to the fee station, trying to figure out if I should walk around in the rain. A man came and talked to me, first small talk about not having an umbrella. That's how I met Tutu (that's actually his nickname, his real name was very difficult to pronounce). I ended up borrowing an umbrella from the ticket lady.
Tutu started walking with me, and basically being my guide, and showing me around. He said he wanted to practice his English, that he finished a degree but it wasn't any good, "just a piece of paper". He's a very soft spoken and gentle guy, as most Burmese are supposed to be. He carried my umbrella, and my shoes for me, and held my umbrella whenever I took pictures. What a bummer about the rain! I hope at least some of the pictures will turn out. He was very helpful, knowledgeable about the temple, and explained everything to me. I'm very glad we met. It would have been a real drag walking around alone, not knowing what anything was, and not being able to read anything. It lifted my somewhat down feeling from this morning. I have to say that if I weren't very skilled at understanding poor English, and making myself understood by speaking slowly, clearly, and using simple words, it wouldn't have worked out, because his English is not fluent at all.
We walked around the Shwedagon Paya for about 2 or 3 hours, with me taking lots of pictures until the camera battery was empty. We ate lunch at a little Burmese place, very similar to where I ate with Angela yesterday, where they give you some rice, and lots of little dishes of curried sauces. I chose minced fish, as it seemed the safest. He chose these big hunks of really fatty pork—yech! We also had the chopped up vegetables with fish sauce and chili to dip them in. I was quite worried about whether I would get diarrhea or not. Hope I stay healthy. I asked him while we were eating if he would like to be my guide for the rest of today and tomorrow, and he said something very quaint, like "it would be my greatest pleasure". We didn't set a payment, but I'm thinking I'll give him $20. I asked him how much, but he said it's for me to decide. After lunch, Tutu got a taxi for me back to the hotel. He's supposed to meet me here at 4:15 to do some more touring around.
A couple things that Tutu said really struck me. At some of the wishing places at the Shwedagon Paya (where people make wishes in front of either a nat, or spirit, or in front of a Buddha image), he said that many people wish for "a more convenient life". I guess that means more money. He also said that although Burmese people may smile a lot, it doesn't mean that they're happy, especially because they have so many money problems. He told me too that with the temple building that the government is sponsoring, they're trying to distract people, and draw attention away from their problems.
I'm back from the afternoon/evening tour. It's much nicer having somebody to walk around with who can explain everything to me than it is walking around alone, wondering what things are, not being able to ask people questions. Tutu isn't really a very experienced guide at all, and his English is barely acceptable, but he's very soft-spoken, answers all my questions, carries all my things (seriously, he won't let me carry anything), and in general takes my mind off the fact that I'm the only foreigner most people have seen in a long time. At the Shwedagon Paya, I saw maybe 5 foreigners, total. And accoring to my guidebook, that's the biggest tourist attraction in the whole country! Amazing. Tutu also said that there were very few, that people were disappointed. When I asked why there were so few, he said it was partly because of the rainy season, and partly because of the government.
When I met up with Tutu this afternoon, the first thing we did was go to the teashop on the corner, because I had really wanted to try one of the regular teashops here. As soon as we sat down, a little kid brought 3 plates, one with this coconut dough pastry thing, another with little triangular somozas (flakey pastry filled with vegatables), and another with these bigger pastries, which apparently were filled with chicken. They do that, and then you pay for however many you eat on the plate. Pretty unsanitary. I just hope I don't get diarrhea—or at least not too badly. About 5 somozas, a coconut pastry, and 2 teas cost 180 kyat, I think—about 50 cents. I asked Tutu what his favorite food is, and he said meat. Very third world.
Then we took a taxi to another market, the Theigyi Zei market. It seemed like a standard market, again very few customers. I bought an umbrella for 900 kyat—about $2. We walked around the market, down various streets, mainly looking at all there was for sale. There was a big selection of all kinds of food—fruits, vegatables, fish, meat. It's great to be able to ask people, through Tutu, what things are. I found that natural shampoo made of tree branches, the stuff they pound into a lather and shampoo their hair with. I took all kinds of photos, the instant replay was of course a huge hit.
Tutu asked me if I would like to visit a friend of his, who lived nearby. I agreed—I was actually pretty excited. We walked down one of the side streets, that I would feel relatively uncomfortable walking down alone. He found his friend, who's name I didn't catch, preparing food for monks on the way to her house. I didn't quite understand why she was preparing food for the monks. She took us up to her apartment, where she and her father live together. We went up a very steep flight of stairs, and into a high-ceilinged room, where there was a platform you were supposed to take your shoes off to walk on. We sat down for a while and tried to talk a little bit. It turned out that his friend had studied French for 3 years, so we spoke some basic French together. Not much, though. She made Tutu and me a hot drink, which was some kind of cereal mixture from Singapore—the ingredients were wheat, sugar, and "creamer", whatever that is. It tasted funny, like really watered down sweetened cream of wheat, but I was quite thirsty, so I drank it. She also put out some cookies, but neither Tutu nor I had any. She didn't serve herself the hot drink—I wonder if that's the custom here, or if she was just trying to save money. They had a neat art-deco style chest of drawers that I bet would have sold for a lot of money in the US. One thing that made me do a double take was the "fake TV" in the living room. It was like a prop, a big wooden box with a glass front, with knobs and buttons that made it look TV like. I asked Tutu what it was for, since there was a real TV in the "living room" (looked like an early 60's model). He said "for beauty", meaning decorations, I suppose. I guess it was meant to make the place look interesting and modern before they had a real TV. Her old father was there as well—skinny as a rail, sitting with his knees to his chest, listening to the Voice of America on an old radio next to him.
We chatted a bit, slowly and carefully, over our hot drinks in the dining area. Tutu's friend said she has a boyfriend in Germany, who's been to Burma 3 times, but the last time was in 1996! I would have stopped calling him a boyfriend a long time ago. Tutu said that most of his friends are single, like him. Perhaps it's because they don't have real jobs. I didn't ask what Tutu's friend did—I was almost afraid to, because I was thinking that perhaps she doesn't have a job. Later on I asked Tutu what she did, and he said he didn't know either, because he didn't want to ask for that same reason. He said he felt ashamed when people asked him what he does, because he doesn't have a regular full time job, so he is careful what he asks other people.
We left her place, and walked to a Chinese Buddhist temple not too far away, in Chinatown. Tutu said the Chinese people are good at business. In the Chinese temple, people were playing a game which Tutu called Chinese checkers. It's not what we in the US would call Chinese checkers, though.
The mix of cultures here is interesting. I've actually seen Indian women in saris here. There's many more Indian women that don't wear saris, but you can tell from looking at them that they're Indian. The Muslims here are easy to distinguish—they have a beard, but no mustache. Tutu said that some Muslim women wear a veil. That must get very, very hot.
After the temple, I asked if could take them both out to dinner. Tutu said, like he always does, "According to your wish". His friend chose a Chinese restaurant, not ritzy at all (and that's an understatement).
On the way there we passed lots of fruit sellers on the sidewalk. I bought 3 mangosteens, 2 guavas, and 2 custard apples. I ate most of them in my hotel room last night. The mangosteens were very tasty, just like I expected. I think it's my favorite tropical fruit—I like it even more than mangos, which are out of season now. The custard apple was a new fruit for me. To eat it, you break it apart (it seems like it's very loosely held together, and breaks apart very easily when ripe). Then you pick out one of the little seeds inside, which is covered with a fleshy fruit. Quite tasty, but but I still prefer mangosteen. The guava was decent—it was wonderful to smell the guava, because it has such a characteristic smell. But I don't think it was quite ripe enough. In any case, I got my vitamin C for the day—I think guava has a very high vitamin C content.
At the restaurant, we had an assortment of pork dishes. There's no way I would have been able to order it all by myself, there was so much back and forth going on between Tutu and the waiter. I was getting tired. The food wasn't bad, and I would imagine that if I get sick, it won't be from that, since it was all very hot. I had a pheasant egg in the soup—it tasted a lot like a normal egg, but it was about half the size, and the yolk is a grayish white, not yellow. I don't know if the color is normal for the pheasant egg, or just from the way it was cooked.
Then home and to bed, in A TRISHAW! It's one of those 3 wheeled bicycles with side cars. On the way to the hotel, my driver (a boy who looked as though he were about 14 or 15) asked 3 other trishaw drivers the way to Yoma Hotel. We got there safe and sound, although I was thinking as he was weaving his way around cars, that I was in a very exposed position if there were an accident. I also thought to myself—wow, this is a totally cool and exotic experience that I probably won't have again in my lifetime. I paid 150 kyat (maybe 40 cents) for the ride, about 15 minutes long. Later on I asked Tutu how much they might make. He didn't know exactly, but thought they earned fairly well, especially if they owned their own trishaws. However, it's a profession that doesn't get a lot of respect.
September 2, 2000
I send some more email to Eric yesterday, but unfortunately, I wasn't watching right after I called the employee over to send it for me. I'm almost sure that she didn't actually send it, she just shut the machine down, but I wasn't positive. I asked her twice if she was sure she sent it, and she said yes, but I'll bet she didn't. She's told me before that there was no email for me, when in fact there was an email from Eric, she just hadn't connected to the email server to get messages. Perhaps she doesn't realize that opening up Outlook (that's what she's using for mail, I just use the hotel email account) isn't the same as sending and receiving mail. I hope I'm wrong, and that Eric did receive my mail, but I don't think he did.
As I was walking down the street yesterday, I heard some kissing noises behind me. I thought that men were making these noises at me, but after a woman did that as well, I realized that it was just a way of telling people to move out of the way. I've since heard other people do it as well. Interesting.
September 3, 2000
At breakfast this morning there was another tourist in the hotel restaurant, who came and sat at my table. He was from Catalan, a region in Spain that includes Barcelona. It's funny how they say that instead of Spain—they're very regionalistic. He had been in Burma for 3 weeks with 3 friends, but said that next time he would go alone. And there would definitely be a next time. He thought that Burma was one of the most interesting places that he's seen, and he's been all over Asia—Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, etc. Most tourists I meet are the young backpacker types, who are gone for a minimum of 3 or 4 months at a time. He's doing something similar to what I'm doing—just taking 3 weeks or so to visit one country. We had a little discussion about whether people in poor countries are happier. I think I've changed my mind somewhat on that. I used to think that poorer people ARE generally happier. Now I'm not so sure—especially after talking to people here, and the comments of Angela and Tutu over people's money worries. He thought that poor people were generally happier.
I met Tutu at 9:30, and we went to a teashop, where I told him the types of things I'd be interested in doing—going to an astrologer, seeing the leftover payas that I haven't seen, etc. Tutu told me that he would be very interested in being my guide not only for Yangon, but also for my whole time in Burma! That threw me for a loop, and I told him that I wouldn't be interested. It did start me thinking about it, though. It certainly is much more interesting to have somebody to interpret for you, tell you what things mean, and generally help out.
We headed off to the astrologer first—Tutu said this was the astrologer that he goes to. We took a "bus" there—one of those pickups that have hard wooden seats in the back, and a railing on the outside to allow people to hang on and ride on the outside as well. He paid 5 kyat for each of us for a short ride—good thing it was short, too, those wooden seats are killer. Then we walked past a trishaw repair area to "astrologer row"—a stretch of shacks within 5 feet of some train tracks where there's nothing but astrologers and palm readers (I think the two groups overlap quite a bit). Tutu's astrologer was very popular, he was giving a reading to one woman, had another waiting, and then we were there also. He had a fairly decent setup as well—nicer chairs than most of the rest. Also he was wearing 4 really thick gold rings on one hand.
I asked Tutu to translate for me what he was telling the other woman. She was divorced, and wanted to know if she should marry again. The astrologer told her she shouldn't, but she went on asking about what type of man would be suitable anyway. The day of the week that you're born on is very important here, so she asked; a man born on what day of the week would be the best match? She also asked what day of the week would be best to search for a job as an accountant.
Then it was my turn. First we bargained a bit about the price—I think he wanted $10 to begin with, but I told him I didn't have any dollars (through Tutu) and I think we settled at around 1000 kyat. He started out asking for my date of birth, then put a velvet cushion down on the desk for me to put my hands on. He dabbed powder on each finger, and on a couple spots on my palm, and then examined a couple of my fingers with a magnifying glass. I think that was more for effect than anything else—he didn't appear to do anything with the powder. Then he did some calculations in a notebook he had in front of him. Tutu translated for him as he told me about myself. You know, it's funny—he got a lot wrong, but I find it much easier to remember the things that he got right instead of what he got wrong. Some of the things he got wrong—I'm a teacher (I did tell him that I had taught English to non-English speakers so he didn't feel quite so bad), that Eric's parents are not from America (I think he got that idea because I said my parents weren't American). There was actually a lot more, but like I said, it's much easier to remember the things he got right. Such as—I've traveled a lot (that's really not much of a stretch, seeing as I'm in Burma). His predictions were that I would have 2 children, that I have a good life now, but I would have an even better life after age 36 (in terms of wealth), that I would travel to India two times, and that something strange would happen to me there, that I would write a book about my travels, and that it would successful (that would be nice!), that I would live a long life, to 75 (at that point I laughed and said that I hope to live a lot longer than 75! Then he said through Tutu, "at least 75". He said that age 42 I will be a leader of some sort, and that in January of next year, my parents would need some help. I also learned from him that my boyfriend and I are a good match (hear that, Eric?).
After the astrologer, we walked to a temple—the Botataung Paya. It was mildly interesting, although I think I'm getting tired of temples already. I ran out of space on my compact flash card there, which really surprised me, since I had the 192 meg card in. I was thinking that I might have gotten the resolution wrong, but later when I checked, it was at the medium resolution, which was what I wanted. It's true that I really took a crazy amount of pictures of certain things, so there's definitely tons of pictures I could delete. But I don't think the pictures are being compressed as much as I thought they would. We saw some nats, or spirit houses, at the paya. I wasn't quite sure how nats and Buddhism work together. There's an explanation of it in the guidebook—I should read up on it.
I'm accustomed now to the face paint that most people wear. It's called thanaka, from the name of the tree. It's sometimes painted on in patterns, or just dabbed, one circle on each check. But sometimes it's spread over the whole face, neck, and even arms. Apparently it's meant to protect against the sun, and also to keep one cool. I really think the sun protection factor is close to null, because it rubs off in no time—you see many people later on in the day with bits of thanaka stuck around their ears or the top of their forehead, but nowhere else. Sometimes they run a comb across it on the face, to make a pattern, and once I saw a girl with a flower painted on her check.
We also went to see the Sule Paya. Like I said—I'm all templed out. I think especially if you start with the Shwedagon Paya, which really is spectacular, other payas are ho-hum. I took some pictures of the City Hall—a very strange looking building, kind of Chinese looking, and the High Court, which was a beautiful old brick Colonial style building. I had to pay 100 kyat to take pictures there, plus entry of about 50 kyat to a little garden. I got some good pictures, BUT later on when I was clearing out the card, I deleted all of them, instead of saving the best one, as I thought I was doing.
Then we went back to the hotel. This morning, I met Stephanie again at the Yoma Hotel, after meeting her originally in Bangkok. Quite a coincidence, since there are quite a few hotels in this city. We decided to meet up around 2 so that we could go together to "high tea" at the Strand. We walked over to the Strand, which is an old colonial hotel, built in 1901, renovated recently at enormous expense, and supposedly very true to the original. From the outside, it wasn't that impressive. There were no gardens or anything around it, it was just basically a large colonial style building. The inside was very nicely done, though. Full of staff wearing traditional Burmese dress (for men there's a little Chinese-looking jacket that goes along with the longyi). We checked out their gift shop; outrageous prices of course, but interesting to see. Then we had "tea". And what a tea it was! This was the first time I've actually had a traditional English tea. First were the sandwiches—little crustless things, one tomato/basil, one smoked salmon, one chicken. Next were 3 little cakes, one lemon custard, one cheesecake, and one chocolate pie. Then little mini scones, with clotted cream and lemon jam (or something like that). And finally was the sherbet—some kind of lemon chocolate chip combination, that was better than it sounds. All in all a very enjoyable, very civilized interlude. All for $8, too! That's a fortune here, but in the guidebook it's listed as $12. There's so few tourists around I guess they had to drop prices. Stephanie and I spoke about traveling together, and decided that we'd like to do it. There's an added complication, which was that I was at the same time trying to decided if I wanted to hire Tutu to be my guide.
After tea, we asked to look at a room. It was very nice, very high ceilings, very cool looking. But for $400! That's the list price, I'll bet if you could get a massive discount; I would expect at the very least 50% off. We asked the woman showing us the room what the price would be now, but she said we would need to speak to the manager. I asked how many rooms there were—32. And how many are occupied? Only 2! I'm not an astrologer, but I see a bankruptcy in their near future.
Stephanie and I walked back to the Yoma Hotel, where Tutu had been waiting for me for a good half hour (I did tell him I might be late). I rested for a bit, then sent my last email to Eric, since I'm headed to Thazi tomorrow, to see Soe's family. Then Tutu, Stephanie and I went for a walk. My idea was to walk down Bogyoke, check out a cinema, and see a Burmese movie. There's actually a movie industry here, with local actors and actresses.
We walked down the street, and checked out the food market that I was overwhelmed by on my first day. One of the rice merchants told me, "Business is very bad, take me with you" (translated through Tutu). I was also able to ask all kinds of questions through Tutu, it was great. Like for instance the 2 girls playing a game with a pile of custard apple seeds. Apparently one of them takes a handful, and the other guesses whether the number of seeds is odd or even. I deciding at that point that I would probably want to hire Tutu as my guide for the whole trip, because I think he would add a lot to my enjoyment and interaction with people. I had been thinking that it would be a wimpy thing to do, hiring a guide for the whole trip, and that it would isolate me from the locals. But I don't think that's the case at all. I interact much more with the locals through him. Yes, it is easier with him, and that's a good thing. A lot of the stresses of traveling are taken away. All the questions that I have, all the things I'm curious about, everything answered. I like it.
We ended up walking in on a movie that had already been showing for an hour or so, for free (a Burmese movie). The movie theatre was not that bad, recently renovated, and the movie itself was fascinating to watch. I wouldn't have thought that movies would be made here, with the general level of development as low as it is. But there we were, watching a Burmese comedy/drama, complete with love interests, a chase scene (on foot, on the overpass that's really close to the cinema—I recognized it), an actor doing his own stunts, hanging over the edge of the overpass from his fingertips, very likely without any safety equipment. Yikes! There was a bus accident in the movie as well. The action sequences were very far from American standards, of course. They basically just shook the camera and showed people diving from one side of the bus to another. It confirmed my thoughts that bus accidents are probably quite common here. And then they showed the main actress going to the hospital—yikes! Stephanie and I made a pact (kind of kidding, but also somewhat serious) that if one of us got sick or injured, the other would take her to the best hospital in Bangkok, which is supposed to be very good.
Later we went to a teashop, and made plans to meet in Inle Lake. I had actually wanted to take Stephanie aside and ask her what she thought of Tutu, but didn't get a chance before we stopped at the teashop. So, we ended up just setting up a couple potential meeting places in Inle Lake—Inle Inn being the first. We walked home, and I took Tutu aside and paid him $20 for going around with me the past 2 days, and gave him 3000 kyat for the bus trip up to Inle Lake. I think it was a little awkward for him, as it was for me as well—-I've never hired anybody like that. He said, "it is not little", and then said that if I hired him for a longer time, I didn't need to pay him that much per day, that $5 would be enough. That was a relief, because at least it showed me I wasn't underpaying him.
The next day I woke up a little before 5 (I've been waking up very early here.), and got ready to take the 6 AM train to Thazi. I had the hotel personnel take care of the details the previous day—they also called Soe's family in Thazi, and arranged for them to meet me at the train station there.
The train ride itself...where to begin. The first 4 or so hours were very interesting, I was fascinated with what I saw, and the physical discomfort didn't really get to me that much. It started getting to me after about hour 6, and things went steadily downhill after that. The ride itself was extremely unsteady—the train swayed tremendously from side to side, and also bounced up and down and all over the place. I was in upper class, as opposed to ordinary class, which has hard wooden seats. The seats in upper class weren't that great, though, you could feel the springs through them.
Going to the bathroom was an experience to remember. Thank God I didn't need to take a crap, but just peeing was bad enough. I thought that it probably would be, so I held it in for a long time. Then, finally, after pointing to the phrase "where is the bathroom" in the guidebook to one of the train personnel, and having him point it out at the end of the train (I pretty much knew that's where it was, I guess I was just stalling) I went in. It was a western style toilet, with a seat, which was of course a total mess. The main problem was the motion of the train—all the bouncing and swaying caused my bladder to tighten up practically into a knot as I stood over it. My knees got a real workout. Plus, there was water dripping from above onto my butt! At least, I hope it was water. I don't think it could have been anything else. And the door kept popping open. And the tracks are zipping along below, you can see it quite well through the hole of the toilet. All in all, I don't think I've ever had a worse urination experience. The second time I went, I had bit more of a strategy, which included holding on to the rail with both hands, and holding the toilet paper in my mouth. It was still damned difficult, and a very stressful experience. If it had been a standard Asian squat toilet it wouldn't have been that bad, since my center of gravity would have been much lower. Actually, come to think of it, I should have just stood on the toilet seat. That's what other people did—I'm pretty sure I saw footprints.
I've been noticing recently that people, when taking money from you, will take it with their right hand, and touch their left hand to the inside of their right elbow. I wasn't quite sure when I first noticed this, whether it was on purpose or just accidental, because the person did it very quickly and perfunctorily. But on the train, one of the guys who came to check my ticket did it very noticeably. And whenever they give something to you, or serve something, most often they do it with both hands. Interesting.
The first two hours of so on the train, there were no vendors. Then they started hopping on when we slowed down at various stations. They went back and forth through all the compartments, selling drinks (beer, soda, tea), curried chicken pieces, etc. One thing that I saw being sold that really made me do a doubletake was these whole birds, small ones, with 4 inch beaks. They looked like they were roasted. Obviously not chickens, but I don't know what they were. I saw two types of fish, one type was small and chunky, another was spread out and dried. It was interesting to see how the vendors would look at people, scanning their eyes for any flicker of interest in their wares. If there as one, they would hold whatever they were selling directly under their noses, telling them (I assume) how good it was. If there was interest, a lengthy exchange would follow, which it would been cool to understand.
I bought a bottle of water for 100 kyat (it should have been 50). I was actually a little suspicious of the water, because it seemed like the threads of the cap were dirty. Plus I bought 2 bananas for 20 each. I had also bought a small package of cookies at the train station. And that's all I had for 13 hours! No wonder I felt faint towards the end of the trip. Next time—if I ever do this again—I will definitely plan ahead a little more, bring more food and water. The vendors, between rounds, tended to hang around between compartments, where the bathroom is. It made me even less inclined to want to go to the bathroom, thinking about having the door pop open when all the vendors are hanging out right outside.
It pisses me off when I think of all the crap you hear in the US about slave labor in the third world; and "fair trade, not free trade". Those people know absolutely nothing about economic conditions in the third world. One money-hungry capitalist who built a factory here to take advantage of the cheap labor would give the place a much bigger boost than a thousand do-gooders whining about sweatshop labor. Just look at the Thailand and Taiwan. All the vendors on the train that I see—I'll bet they would give anything to work in a factory.
There was an older couple sitting across from me that were very friendly, smiling and nodding at me. At one point they bought me a snack—a little bag of rice with coconut and some seeds in it. I thought it would be sweet, but it was actually salty. It was hot enough, so I assumed that any bacteria were dead. Also, I was quite hungry. I'll bet they were wondering what my problem was, and why I wasn't eating anything. They had brought a few of those round metal cylinders with many compartments, and had their rice and curry for lunch and dinner.
Two younger people came to see them off in Yangon (their children?) and when they arrived at their station, many stops before Thazi, a whole group of what I assume were their children were there, running alongside the train while the man passed out his baggage to them, outside the window. I guess the train is stopped for so little time that it's hard to get it out the door in time when it's fully stopped. It made me feel a little lonely to see them being greeted by their family.
I didn't see any other foreigners on the whole trip. Maybe everyone else is wise to the discomforts of train transportation. Twice people outside the train actually pointed to me with their whole arm. "Look, a foreigner!" I assume they were saying.
The scenes outside the train were always fascinating. I saw many, many water buffalo, which looked very healthy and well filled-out compared to the oxen. Little shacks, with woven bamboo sides, were everywhere, alongside the rice paddies which were also ubiquitous. I have yet to get a good picture of the rice paddies, though. People were alongside the train tracks for the whole way, practically, walking alongside the train, working the fields, in shacks, kids in school uniforms walking to school in the morning, fishing in streams and rivers with nets, kids flying little homemade kites of plastic. I found out later that they're actually fighting kites, with the strings dipped in glue and then ground glass, and they try to manouver them so that their opponent's string is cut .
There were also flooded fields filled with a type of green leafy vegetable, which I think they make into a curry. I saw no farm machinery whatsoever. It's hard to imagine how people live, and what a very thin margin that they live on. The vendors that walk the trains, selling things—how much of a profit margin to they have? Probably almost nothing. And they live off that.
There was a monk that came through, begging, on the train. I wonder if he was begging just for food, or for donations to a temple or something. That happens a lot here, monks and nuns coming up to you and asking for money. It didn't happen at all in Thailand.
Also a boy came through, not holding anything to sell, and yet talking loudly, so I assume he was begging. He spoke with me, almost whispering, in what I think HE must have thought was English. But even though I'm very good at understanding poor English, I didn't understand a word.
This was not a no smoking train, but smoke wasn't too much of a problem, because all of the windows were wide open. Plus, I don't think people have the money to smoke very much here. The train was, overall, very slow. I should take a look at a good map and figure out the distance between Thazi and Yangon, to see what kind of mileage we made. I'm guessing about 20 miles an hour, maybe.
Going north from Yangon, it was very flat for hours and hours. Then I started seeing some low hills far off to the east, and the west as well. I saw a small chunk of blue sky as well, the first since I've been here. Almost like Seattle in the winter.
In Taungoo, one of the bigger towns along the way, as soon as they saw there was a foreigner on the bus, a boy was running alongside the train, asking me, "What do you want?". He passed me off to another when he got tired, who ran alongside as well, asking me what I wanted.
Once the train had stopped, an old man came and leaned against the window. He spoke English quite well, probably learned it in a colonial school. He said he was a retired railway worker, and got 750 kyat as a pension, which wasn't even enough to buy rice (a month? That's about 2 dollars!). He asked if I was Catholic, told me he was, showed me a little Virgin Mary picture he kept in his shirt pocket, told me that there was some Roman Catholic feast day coming up on the 8th. He said people in Burma were very greedy, asked how much I paid for the bottled water, and then told me I overpaid for it. Well, I knew that. He said I shouldn't buy anything from the boys that offered to get me things, because they were very greedy. And then he asked for 15 kyat, to buy tea. He went on and on when I refused him—do you feel no pity for the poor people, etc. I felt bad, of course, but I didn't like his saying that other people were bad and greedy, and then him asking for a handout.
I saw a few military in the train, just walking through. There was also what looked like an officer with his wife, behind me on the other side of the aisle. Some of the soldiers were carrying slingshots! I had to look a few times to be sure, but they were definitely slingshots. I later asked Tutu about this—he seemed to think it's kind of a riot control thing, that before they use bullets, they try to control crowds with slingshots.
I'm starting to realize that I don't need to worry about getting off the beaten track here. Burma itself is completely off the beaten track, and I'm here during the off-season. I'm actually thinking that I'll stay on what little bit of a beaten track there is here in Burma—basically Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake, and perhaps Bagan.
At around 3 in the afternoon, we got to a sugarcane growing area. Everyone that I saw from the window was chewing sugarcane all of a sudden. Around that time as well, custard apples start showing up for sale from the vendors walking the train. The woman across from me bought a huge bag, bargaining, and picking and choosing from the vendor for about 5 minutes. I had some in Yangon—not too bad, but doesn't come close to mangosteen, which is my absolute favorite.
The train ride, towards the end, was really extremely exhausting. I felt terrible, what with being hungry, tired, needing to go to the bathroom but dreading it, probably dehydrated, queasy from all the unsanitary food being offered to me to smell. Plus, I had a massive headache, probably from the noise of the train and also having my head turned to the right, towards the window, the entire time. I told myself—never again, ever, would I subject myself to this torture. I can't even conceive of what it would be like on the ordinary class, with hard wooden seats.
I took a couple shots of the countryside from the train. It's a good thing I've been quite anal about putting the wrist strap on whenever I use the camera—it slipped out of my hands once, and would have been a goner if it hadn't have been for the strap.
Thank God Soe's family met me at the train station in Thazi. With the state I was in, finding a guesthouse on my own would have been very difficult. As it was, a friend of Soe's brother spotted me as I was about to get off (assisted by one of the train personnel with a flashlight), and then I met Soe's brother and father. They took me to their car and we drove the few steps to their guesthouse. They were very friendly, showed me my room, gave me some vegetable soup, which I couldn't eat very much of, even though I was quite hungry. They gave me tea as well, and the making of it was quite a ritual. Soe's mother actually put everything together, but there were at least 2 or 3 of the little kids working there involved—one holding the creamer container, others holding the tea box. Then his mother stirred it for me—really quickly, like she was beating egg whites. It was fun to watch. I gave them Soe's letter and the gifts he gave me for them (CD player, watches, pen set). Soe's father read the letter out loud to the family. I asked about Soe's sister—apparently she's was in Meiktila, a nearby town, going to classes. I went to bed soon after I arrived. The room was basic but fine. The air conditioning worked only at night—other times there wasn't enough electricity for it, and it would start up, then stop after a few seconds, then again, until I got tired of it and just shut it off.
September 4, 2000
Today I hung out with Soe's family. It was great to feel taken care of—they were always offering me tea, making sure I had some bottled water with me, etc. The language situation wasn't bad at all, I was able to speak with Soe's father, and his brother, as long as I always spoke very slowly and simply, and maybe said things a couple different ways. Really understanding and speaking simplified English is almost like understanding another language. For example, Soe's father always used the word "late" to mean underdeveloped, as in "Burma is very late".
I still felt the effects of yesterday's totally exhausting train ride—all morning I felt wiped out, and weak. First Soe's brother and I drove his father to his work, in Meiktila, picking up another man along the way. A lot of honking goes on when driving—even when to my eyes, there's no chance of a collision, they honk anyway, just to let other people know they're there, I guess. I saw a whole platoon march by along the road—didn't get a picture, though. Before we went to drop off Soe's father, we went to look for his sister, Nini. We stopped at a teashop, and Soe's father and I had some tea and Chinese buns, while Soe's brother looked for his sister inside the college, where foreigners aren't allowed. He came back a while later saying that they're in the middle of some celebration, and she couldn't come. So, we dropped Soe's father off at his work—he's a director of a district bank, has his own office. Then Soe's brother and I went to the market to pick up some things for his mother. It was very interesting, as all the markets are. We walked around for a while, trying to find the best price for these cologne towelettes that his mother wanted—apparently the price has gone up recently, because of the general economic difficulties in Burma. I bought a pineapple, some custard apples, a weird fruit that I hadn't seen before, and some sugarcane at the market. As we were going back to the car, Soe's father and sister showed up—somehow they'd found her. Two of his sister's female friends and the boyfriend of one of the friends were there as well. All 5 of them—sister, brother, 2 female friends and one male friend—showed me around Meitkila and Thazi for the day. I felt a little bad, because 4 of them were crammed in the back seat, and they would only allow me to sit in front. They were a very cheerful bunch, especially his sister, who was always laughing and joking. His brother was a little quieter.
We went to a local temple, not all that interesting, and then to the Meiktila hotel, which was completely deserted, and overgrown with weeds. There was a swimming pool, but it was very dirty. There we had some sodas—they brought me a coke by default, but I asked to try the Burmese orange soda everyone else was drinking. It tasted like a standard orange soda. The boyfriend and girlfriend didn't sit together, and they giggled when I asked why—apparently it's just not done in Burma. All of them were wearing a good amount of gold jewelry. One of the girls had these really heavy bracelets on. I felt them to see how heavy they were (they were quite heavy), and then said "You must be very strong". They got a huge laugh over that, without Soe's sister or brother needed to translate—apparently her friends understand some English, but are just too shy to speak it.
Nini is attending some kind of institute, and is studying mathematics. Apparently she was affected by the government shutdown of universities, and had her studies delayed by 4 years. She should be finishing in December. One of her friends works as an engineer, building a bridge somewhere. At one point this woman was buying tea for everybody, and took a wad of bills out of her wallet. Nina said that she was rich, and that she became rich by taking bribes during the bridge building. She said her friend would write down 11 stones, but only use 10 to build with, and take the money from the extra stone (translated from simplified English—I assume when she said stones, she was talking about truckloads of bricks or something). Nini said if the bridge falls down, it's because of the 10 stones. All of this was said quite openly, and they all giggled about it. I made another little joke as she was taking the bills out of her wallet—I said "stone money, but is very light". They got another huge laugh out of that—at least, Nini did, and I believe she translated for the rest of them. We talked a bit about their schooling as well—apparently they have to go to private school, as a kind of bribe to the teacher! They also bring the teacher gifts, like longyis, etc., so that they'll pass the exams. Apparently, if you do this it's very easy to pass exams, and if you don't, it's not possible. I was a little surprised that they would tell me this so openly.
There were 2 little boys who served at this teashop. I asked Nini how much they made—she said 800 kyat (about 2 dollars) a month, plus they get food and lodging. She said that some of them don't learn how to read and write, but she's taught the little kids at their house to read and write.
For lunch we drove over to Soe's family's hotel, and had a massive spread, with all kinds of curry dishes. One of them was a chicken skin curry, with nothing but chicken skins. That one, I didn't try. Soe's sister was dishing out to everybody, making sure they got enough. It was all quite good.
We looked at pictures of Soe that he or his sponsor family sent back here—there's about 3 or 4 albums of them. Soe's mother and father told me that I should tell him to write more frequently, at least once a month. They said sometimes they didn't get a letter from him for 4 or even 6 months, and they worry a lot. I told them I'd deliver the message.
The restaurant/guesthouse run by Soe's family doesn't seem to have much business at the moment. There was one guy from Singapore who left this morning. And there was me, and that was it. There were no other hotel guests, and I only saw one or two restaurant guests in the evening, and they only ordered tea. Soe's brother works here, and filled out the paperwork required by the government for foreign guests (name, address, occupation, passport number, visa number, etc.). There's also about 3 kids hanging around, who do the actual serving, and about 3 or 4 adults, who look like they do the cooking and other things.
After lunch I took a little rest. I meant to type up some notes about my trip, but ended up just dozing on the bed. When I went down again at around 3, they were all still sitting around the table, chatting. I showed them my palm pilot, and the digital camera, and they got a big kick out of it, asked how much it cost, etc. Then they were going to leave, so they could go to school tomorrow, plus Soe's brother needed to pick up his father. I asked if I could come with, and they said sure. I really enjoy just driving around in a relatively comfortable car, seeing the countryside. Across from the bank where Soe's father works is a prison-I saw the manacled prisoners being walked about. Soe's father had mentioned that they had 2 computers at his bank, so I asked to see them. They were locked in a little room, covered with cloths. I'm not sure if I understood correctly, but it may be that they're only used once a month, for end of month type closeouts.
As we were driving back to Thazi with Soe's father, he was stopped at the Thazi bank on business. It took a while, and Soe's brother offered to drive me back to the hotel, but I said I'd wait. Later I realized it was only a few short steps to the hotel from where we were, anyway. We walked over to a Baptist church that was next to the bank. Chatted for a while through Soe's brother with the pastor. Apparently they had offered English lessons there, from a Chinese American woman, but she wasn't there any more.
Back at the hotel, we hung out sitting at the table for a while. I had some toast, because I was still quite full from lunch. Plus, I had diarrhea, so I wanted to stick with foods that were relatively safe. The toast was weird shaped—very high and narrow. Soe's father sat down to write a letter for Soe, for me to carry back, and his mother gave me presents—a longyi (she showed me how to tie it) and a Thanaka wood stick. Earlier in the day she had given me a set of 5 rubies. I didn't know what to say, so I looked up the Burmese for "thank you" in my phrasebook, and said that. I was really glad that I'd brought a few things specifically to give away—nothing fancy, a little Leatherman tool and a flashlight, but they appreciated it. I also brought down my origami paper and made an origami crane, and an iris for them. I'm really glad that I thought to do that—their eyes were glued to my fingers the whole time I was making it. I asked his mother through his father if she would like to learn how to make the origami crane, and she said yes. So, we cut up some newspaper into squares, and I walked her through it. The little child servants were fascinated, too, and tried to do it on their own.
September 5, 2000
Today I took the morning bus to Nyaungshwe (actually part of the way by bus, partway by taxi), which is the base from which to see Inle Lake. Leaving Soe's family was rough, since it was such a friendly environment. They wouldn't let me pay them for staying there, I knew, but I made a halfhearted gesture anyway. Right before the bus came to take me away (they paid for the bus as well) they gave me some jewels to bring back for Soe, plus some more for me. I didn't know what to say, so I just said thank you again—the bus driver was motioning for me to come, so that made it a little easier. They also gave me a videotape for Soe, from a monk they said was very fond of him when he was a boy. His father said something like, "It's okay if they take it at customs when you leave the country, no problem." I was a little nonplussed at that...would a video really be confiscated? I'm quite sure I have nothing to fear, though—at the most, they would only confiscate things..
The bus for the Inle Lake region was a little mini bus with hard seats—not completely hard, but very little upholstery. There was the one driver, and then 3 attendants who did things like give money at the toll booths (there's lots of little road blockades where you have to pay, the attendents just gave them the money as we drove by without stopping) and help passengers with their luggage. I had been hoping for an air conditioned bus with reclining seats, but no such luck. Apparently only the buses from Yangon are like that. We got into the hills quite quickly. I saw one sign that said the elevation was greater than 3000 feet. There were even pine trees. The road was extremely windy and scary looking—I was wondering how often they have accidents, and thinking that it's probably quite often. I saw one truck that had gone off the side of the road, into a ditch. The accident had probably happened quite a few days ago, because there were bamboo poles propping it up again, like maybe they were going to try to get it on the road again very soon. Too bad I didn't get a picture—it would have been great.
There were lots of labor gangs along the road, working under extremely primitive conditions—breaking big rocks into little rocks with little hammers, and carrying baskets of rocks on their heads. I wonder if this is the forced labor that I've read about. Quite a few of them were little kids, too, no older than 9 or 10. Another interesting roadside sight—black market gas stations everywhere. It's usually just a couple barrels piled together, with some tubing and funnels, and an attendant. Black market gas is about 4 times as expensive as government gas, but the ration for government gas is very low, so people have to buy black market gas. There's no secrecy about it at all.
The bus ride got quite uncomfortable after a while—there was an exhaust leak somewhere, so I was constantly smelling exhaust. Then when were right behind another truck or bus, billowing black smoke, it was of course much worse. Plus, my butt got sore. Yep, long distance ground transport here is something to avoid if possible.
When I arrived in Nyaungshwe, I saw Stephanie and Tutu, and two other women I didn't know. I chatted with them for a while. They were going to their guesthouse, the Remember Inn, so I went with to look at it. Stephanie had met 2 women on the bus, Ricki (Germany) and Myra (Holland) and kind of hooked up with them. Traveling groups are very fluid, it seems. I checked out both the Remember Inn ($3 a night) and the Paradise Inn ($15). It was actually quite lucky that we saw each other, because the place we were originally going to meet at, the Inle Inn, they decided wasn't very nice. Paradise Inn was very quiet—I don't think they had any guests at all. The rooms were similar to Remember Inn, but nicer. However, they were very dark, and I decided that it wasn't worth the difference in price. Plus, it would be more convenient to do things with Stephanie and her two friends. My room at Remember Inn is very interesting and tropical looking, with woven bamboo walls and very high ceilings. The bathroom is a little primitive. Electricity is haphazard as well—lights tend to flicker a lot.
Stephanie, Myra, and Ricki had decided to rent bicycles and go for a ride around town, but I was beat after the long bus ride, and just wanted to rest for a bit. So, they went off and I arranged to go for a walk around town with Tutu in a few hours. I do feel a little wimpy using a tour guide, but I absolutely don't regret it—it makes everything so much easier, and I can actually communicate with people. After a long typing session on my palm pilot with GoType keyboard (which barely got me up to my last day in Yangon—I've been lax on my notekeeping for a few days now) I walked around town with Tutu. Some of the highlights were the ruins of a Buddhist temple, with a huge Buddha statue, getting a boat (kind of a flat canoe type boat) ride back into the main part of town from the temple ruins (for 200 kyat or about 50 cents—I never would have been able to arrange that, just through lack of ability to communicate). I asked, through Tutu, how much a small boat like that coasts—$50.
We also stopped at a karaoke place where a guy was singing in Burmese (quite poorly) and looking in on an evening chemistry class—it consisted entirely of reciting in a singsong voice. Not the best way to learn chemistry, I think.
Back at the guesthouse in the evening I sat with Stephanie, Myra, and Ricki for a while. Myra had just completed a one week meditation class in Yangon that she was very enthusiastic about. I wonder if it showed that I was a little skeptical. Physically, she said, it was quite hard—the sitting still for hours on end was very painful, etc. She went on about the difficulties for a long while. I finally asked what she got out of it, and why it was such a good thing. She said that she gained many insights about herself. Maybe later sometime I'll ask what kind of insights, because I'm really very curious. I mean, I imagine they wouldn't be insights such as "It would be a good idea to start taking some computer classes".
There's a ton of foreigners here in town, it feels really strange. I guess it's just because it's actually quite a small town. Plus, this guesthouse is hopping—I see new white faces all the time. It's almost a little bit disappointing.
September 6, 2000
Today I got up early, as usual (around 5) and typed up my notes on the trip. It's taking me forever to catch up. Stephanie, Myra, and Ricki decided to go on a day long trek, for $3, to various Pa-o villages. I decided to opt out—it sounded too strenuous, and I figured that I could get more out of using the services of Tutu as a translator/guide and renting a bike. Tutu is a relatively inexperienced guide—he's guided a few groups of Germans, one independent Swiss female traveler, and a few groups of Burmese tourists. But still, he can translate things for me, explain things to me, and just generally be helpful.
The bikes that we rented, from the Remember Inn, were very basic. One gear, very heavy. Going uphill, even a very minor uphill that would be nothing with my bike in Seattle, was very difficult. My seat was actually comfortable and wide, though.
So, we took off across the north end of the lake. There's no road shown on the little Lonely Planet sketch of the area, but there actually is one, a very good dirt road. Along the way we stopped at a rice mill. It was very interesting to see, plus I got some good pictures, I think. They run the rice through the mill a few times, because running it through just once doesn't get rid of all the hulls. It was a dusty place, full of spider webs covered in rice dust. The guy who answered my questions told Tutu that it was good to have somebody with to translate, because he's had other foreigners stop in, but wasn't able to talk with them. I asked if the rice hulls left over from the milling are used to feed animals, but apparently they're use for fuel, instead of firewood.
Saw some water buffalo, went up to a temple (40 VERY steep and high steps) where I had a decent view of the lake. There were mosquitos up there, and I was thinking about the risk of malaria—Stephanie was concerned about that, because she wasn't taking any anti-malarial pills. Neither am I.
There was a hot springs/hotel at the base of the temple. I didn't go into the hot springs, because they charged one dollar, and who's interested in hot springs in this kind of weather anyway? I think everyone else thought the same—there was no customers there at all.
Later on we got to the town of Kauntig (sp?) just about 10 minutes bike ride from the hot springs. The first thing that struck me was there were all these 3 inch by 6 inch sheets of something drying in front of all the houses. Tutu asked for me what they were, and they called it tofu. Apparently it isn't made from soybeans, though, it's made from another type of bean. Tutu looked it up in his dictionary and apparently it's called gram, which isn't a bean that I've heard of. Beans, all different kinds of them, are a huge business here. We went in to where they make the sheets (which apparently are prepared by frying into curries) and I got some good photos of people stirring the pots of beans, and the cooking. It was really fascinating to see. There's also another type of wafer thing the size of a pancake that I saw them making—it seemed like a really tedious process, each wafer being made from a dipper full of batter poured onto a stretched out sheet of cloth, and steamed. Very interesting. I had a taste, too, and it was actually quite good. I also saw them cutting them up, after they were dried, into little pieces about a quarter inch by 2 inches long, just with a pair of scissors (a really bad pair of scissors, too, I tried out a very similar one out at Soe's family place when we were doing the origami). I was thinking to myself—just a tiny bit of technology, perhaps something like a paper cutter, would make them a heck of a lot more productive.
At another place we walked by, women were making these little flattened ball things, also out of bean dough. It was amazing being able to just walk into all these workshops. Tutu would just greet them, then I assume he asked if it was okay for us to come in, then we did.
The woman who was rolling the dough into balls was super fast—understandably so, she's probably done it her entire life—and was asking lots of questions about me. A woman who was probably her mother was there as well, she was doing the flattening stage of the procedure, after the balls had been formed. Her Burmese wasn't that great—Tutu had a very hard time understanding her. Apparently there's a thick dialect here, plus they speak tribal languages as well. I had mentioned to Tutu that it would be good to take a little boat ride here, and he must have mentioned that to her, because she hopped up and was all ready to go row us around in a moment. At first she asked for 300, but then went down to 200. I'm sure she would have gone down more, because the other people around the place were laughing and chatting—I asked Tutu what they were laughing about, and he said they were laughing that she was a very good businesswoman. We followed her down to the boat, but right on the water there was an oil mill that we went inside, where they ground peanuts and sesame seeds for oil. They had one machine to shell the peanuts, and another to press the oil out of both the peanuts and sesame seeds—apparently they run them through 5 times, to extract all the oil possible out of them. I got a picture of the owner and his wife in front of the machinery. In general people are a little shy about having pictures taken, sometimes I ask Tutu to tell them that I'll show them the picture after I take it, or sometimes I'll take a picture of somebody else, show them that, and then they'll want to have one taken of them as well.
The woman who was going to give us a boat ride had already wandered off, so a boy went to call for her. She rowed us around a bit, we saw the floating vegetable gardens. She did the leg rowing thing a bit for me so that I could take some photos, but as soon as I finished taking photos, she went back to rowing with her arms again, while standing—she said through Tutu that it was easier to row with her arms. As we rowed around, everybody on the stilt houses was asking her where she'd been, and what she was doing with me. Tutu told me that she said she'd been "east, west, north, and south".
After we finished our boat ride, which was about a half hour long, we had lunch at a local restaurant. I asked Tutu to make sure that things were very hot to kill bacteria, and I didn't eat any of the salad that they served. I had a noodle dish with vegetables and pork, plus the bowl of clear soup with some cabbage and onion that's always served here. My pork dish was filled with little glistening ribbons of pork fat, which I carefully removed. There wasn't much actual meat at all, and it was cut into little slivers. It cost 200 kyat (about 50 cents) for both of us.
It's hard to believe that I've hired a guide. In my previous travels, it would have been unthinkable because I was always on the "everything must be as cheap as possible" budget. I'm still not a huge spender, but I think Tutu is worth it. I'll take it day by day, and see what I'm getting out of it. But at this point I think I'm definitely getting enough out of it for it to be much more than worthwhile. It's strange to think that his meeting me, and my being receptive to the idea of hiring a guide, is a huge economic windfall to him. I definitely feel comfortable with his personality—he's very soft-spoken, unassuming, kind of like a shadow. And it is so rewarding to have all my questions about things answered immediately. Plus, he travels almost free—in the guesthouses, he stays for free, and apparently is able to eat for free sometimes, basically because guesthouses want to make sure he recommends their place. And his travel costs are about one quarter of mine, since they have the two tier pricing system here.
We headed straight back after lunch. Without any breaks, the biking got a little uncomfortable, especially on the paved road, which was full of repaired potholes that made it very bumpy. I have sore spots on my palms while typing this morning from all the bumping. I saw 3 men riding water buffalo on the way back (on a dirt road, which was actually much more comfortable to ride on—no badly repaired potholes). I tried taking some photos, but either the camera flaked out on me, or I flaked out on it—in any case, I didn't get any photos of these really cool water buffaloes being ridden. That's the only time I've seen them ridden, too. We got back to the guesthouse at around 3.30, and I rested for a while, then wrote up my notes. I told Tutu I wouldn't be needing his services for the rest of the day, but he still hung out right around the entrance of the guesthouse, just in case, I guess. It's strange, hiring someone who's basically a servant, meant to make your life more comfortable and convenient. I guess it means I've graduated forever from the ranks of ultra low-budget traveler, no longer going making every decision based on price. I don't mind that.
I'm looking forward to being able to send Eric a fax in Mandalay. Maybe there's even some place there I could send email. I think I'll try to avoid phone calls, based on how expensive they are, and that the connection is supposed to be terrible. I tried it the one time in Bangkok, and it was almost worse than not communicating at all, with the delay of 2 seconds. I think Eric would really enjoy having a tour guide here, he's always interested in things and wants to ask questions, like I do. I asked Stephanie in the evening what she thought of having a guide, now that she's seen what Tutu is like. She was neutral, tending towards not wanting him. I wonder if she's influenced at all by thinking that if she says she likes him, she'll feel obligated to split the costs with me. I imagine not, since I think I've made it clear that I would pay for his services.
Myra, Ricki, and Stephanie went on a guided trek today, basically to some Pa-O villages. I was getting a little worried about them in the evening, because it was supposed to be a 7 hour trek, which would have brought them back to the guesthouse at 4. 8 in the evening came, and they still weren't back! I was imagining that one of them had broken their leg or something, and wondering what one could do—drive to Heho where there's an airstrip, fly to Yangon, and from there to Bangkok.
I talked to an Irish guy for a while, who was very interested in my Palm Pilot and the keyboard attachment. He asked if I have email and everything on it—I wish! He was quite impressed, though. He thought that Burma wouldn't be opened up to package tours for quite some time, because you need to have a lot of independent travelers before the package tours come, and not that many independent travelers come here. His thoughts behind that were that you can't take a bus here, you have to fly into Yangon, and that $125 is too much for a lot of independent travelers. I hadn't thought of it like that, but it's may be true.
Finally Stephanie, Myra, and Ricki came back. They were muddy and exhausted, but they had enjoyed the trip thoroughly. At least Myra did, she was quite enthusiastic about it—but then again, she's enthusiastic about everything, everything is "nice" and "lovely". They had visited some villages, seen the Pa-O villagers in their black clothing, saw interesting flowers, had a jackfruit. Frankly, I think I got more out it, thought, having my very own translator. Granted, maybe I'm trying to justify it in my mind, but I saw a lot of very interesting sights, something I imagine would be hard to replicate on a guided trek.
I'm feeling comfortable with my decision to hire a guide. I'd feel very isolated, traveling on my own, but I don't really want to travel with a group of westerners. Stephanie and I had originally made a very open-ended agreement to try traveling together, but I think her traveling schedule and inclinations are more in tuned with Myra and Stephanie. Basically our differences are that I really don't want to take any long distance ground transport. It's too strenuous, leaves me wiped out, and in addition wastes a full day of my time—more, if you include a half day the next day of feeling wiped out.
This is as easy as long distance ground transport gets, too—I had people from the hotel bring me to the train station, tell me where to go, and somebody to meet me here, and still it was so hard.
September 8, 2000
A cockroach is scrambling on the woven bamboo flooring here, in it's death throes. This is the second one I've seen like this, dying, so I think there must be some insecticide scattered about. I think the next place I stay in will be a little bit nicer—more than $3 a night, that's for sure. It has been nice to hang out in the evenings with Stephanie, Ricki, and Myra, so I don't regret staying here. But I'm really interested in finding a bit of a nicer place in Mandalay, perhaps even one with email? I pored through the guidebook, looking for a mention of email in Mandalay, but I couldn't find one. I'll ask around there, though. At least there should be fax.
Tutu told me that last night he'd gone to chat with his friends at the Paradise Hotel, where he's stayed before. He has 2 very superstitious female friends there, who in particular are afraid of cats. They told him that they saw a cat one evening that they thought was the ghost of a friend of theirs, and it was wearing an earring! They asked it why it was wearing an earring, and it answered! It said, "I forgot to take it off". How funny!
Yesterday we did the standard all day tourist boat ride on the lake. It was a total of 2200 for
the 4 of us (Tutu goes free), so 550 kyat (around $1.50) each. In my mind, 500 kyat sounds like a lot now, because you can get all kinds of things for 20 kyat, but I do have to remind myself that it's only about $1.50. I heard some people this morning discussing guesthouses, which ones were $3, and which were $2. I wanted to smile, but I didn't. I mean, one dollar! But I guess if you're a student, and you're on a long distance trip, it can be significant. And certainly I pinch my pennies quite a bit at times.
At the dock, all four of us tourists, plus Tutu, got on one of the long wide boats. They had set up chairs for all of us, with cushions, and an umbrella next to each in case of rain or too much sunshine. We set off towards the southern end of the lake, where our first stop was to be the floating market. I put in my earplugs, because the motor was quite loud. It was a cloudy day—fortunately for sunburn and heat, but unfortunately for photography. The floating markets were disappointing—I thought that it would be a real floating market, but it was basically just a very small market on land. AND there were all these little dugout canoes selling souvenirs that latched on to our larger boat, and stayed there as long as we were in the water, trying to sell us things. At some points there were 3 little canoes on either side of us. I wasn't particularly interested in most of what they were selling, but I did buy a little frog-shaped "jewelry box". We should have made a little more effort and gone to a real floating market—apparently they do still exist. It would have been a first for me, because the one I saw in Thailand didn't really count—that was also only a tourist attraction, albeit much, much bigger.
At one point I showed some interest and bargained for a little silver articulated fish, and bargained for it, but they wouldn't go below 900 kyat. I was about to buy it, but Ricki thought that it wasn't a bargain at all, and I decided I agreed with her. But after that, as we were walking back to the boat, all of a sudden all the vendors were holding the silver fish in front of me. They must have heard or seen me displaying some interest in it, and decided to try their luck. It made me a lot less inclined to buy anything, really. Prices in general were very high, and we didn't buy very much. They wouldn't go down much, either. Even though there were very few tourists (we saw about 3 other tourist boats the whole day), I imagine that during times when there's more tourists, they can charge more money, so they didn't feel the need to go down in price that much. We saw another leg-rower, that Tutu asked to come over to our boat and pose for us, do the leg rowing, and the fishing with the cone shaped net. He gave him some money afterwards. It makes sense, I guess—why should he pose for us without some reward?
I saw lots of boats cutting vegetation in the shallower parts of the lake, and loading their boats with it. Apparently they put the vegetation on the floating gardens as fertilizer. After lunch, we went to a large temple next door with 3 Buddha statues that look like lumps of gold, because they've been covered with so much gold leaf. There was a little boy begging for candy there (bon bon). Ricki gave him a candy, but it was one of those super strong mint candies, and she heard him spit it out after she walked away.
What else did we see...a cotton weaving shop, a silk weaving workshop (very interesting the way they measure and dye the thread, and then weave it into a pattern). A blacksmith shop, where they were making cowbells out of 55 gallon drums, the jumping cat monastery (where the bored monks have trained cats to jump through hoops). I got a good picture of a cat jumping through a hoop, and I got one to jump through a hoop myself as well, but Ricki wasn't able to get a shot of it with my camera. I regret not trying again until she got a good shot.
One of the most interesting places that we went to was the lotus stem weaving shop. I thought when Tutu first mentioned it, that it would be place where they wove baskets with the split lotus stems. But no! They actually extract these very fine, delicate fibers from the inside of the lotus stem (I tried it—it wasn't difficult at all to extract the thread, but it looked very time consuming), spin them into thread, and then weave cloth with them. Myra was completely taken with the idea that they wove a cloth out of lotus stems. The woman who owned the shop (who spoke English very well, apparently she'd learned at a convent school, like Angela) had some cloths, like shawls, made from the lotus stem fiber, for $90! That's an incredible amount of money here. Myra bought one, telling herself that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and she'd regret it if she didn't buy it. She told me she had a particular affinity with textiles, because she had been a clothing designer/stylist before. To me, the cloth looked a lot like a very rough cotton. To be honest, there was a hint of suspicion in my mind that it was perhaps cotton. I think there's probably a 90% chance that it was really lotus stem fiber cloth, but I believe there's a 10% chance that it was just cotton.
After the boat arrived back at the jetty, we decided to go to a restaurant before going back to the hotel. This was where some of the disadvantages of traveling in a good sized group become apparent—there's a lot of standing around while decisions are made. I would have preferred to just grab a quick bite at a local restaurant instead, and then spend some time writing and going over my pictures, but I went along with the group. We went to a place called Shanland Restaurant. It was meant for tourists only. The Shan state is the region that we're in, which has a special cuisine. It wasn't bad. I'd like to have something different than rice or noodles with some kind of curry, though. Tutu ate for free, like he can at some tourist places when he comes with a group. He also stays at hotels for free. Myra and I walked home with Tutu, while Ricki and Stephanie went to a local karaoke place. At the guesthouse, there was a huge group of about 12 young Israelis. They have a distinctive look about them that makes them relatively easy to identify—not that they look Jewish, per se, but that the men often have long hair and beards, and both men and women wear rattier looking clothing than your average traveler. I don't think there's any other nationality that congregates quite so much as the Israelis. The 12 weren't traveling together, though, it was a couple groups of 2's and 3 traveling together.
I like all three of them (Stephanie, Myra, and Ricki) and think it would be interesting to get to know them better. Myra is very, very talkative—it's difficult to get a word in edgewise. Both her and Stephanie have the "upspeak" thing going—they end almost all of their sentences with an upward intonation, as though they were asking a question. It sounds very tentative. But I didn't really come here to travel with western tourists. I think that's a lot more isolating than hiring a guide
Today, Tutu and I fly to Mandalay. The bus ride would be 9 to 10 hours on a small bus, the same very uncomfortable type that I rode from Thazi. So, I decided to save time and spend money. It's $45 for me, $10 for Tutu, and then $10 for the taxi ride to the airport in Heho, which is a one hour drive. I insisted that we not fly Myanmar Airlines, which has a very poor reputation, according to the guidebook. We're flying Yangon Airways instead.
September 8, 2000
This morning I had a banana pancake instead of the standard toast with eggs, which you get absolutely everywhere here. On top of the pancake, since they don't have syrup, I put the highly sweetened condensed milk that they have out on the table for the tea—it tasted great. The entire bill there was $9 (3 nights) plus 1650 kyat (about $3.50, for laundry, lunches and dinners, and bottles of water). Not bad at all. Although I did find a little hole gnawed in my nice slide-lock ziplock bag—a mouse? Or a big cockroach?
I've been seeing the multi-colored flags, and asked Tutu what they were for. Apparently it's a general purpose Buddhist flag, put on pilgrim boats and buses. I also saw it along the road on the way to Heho. Tutu inquired about it for me—apparently there was a monk exam, so they put it out. I wonder what kind of questions they have on a monk exam, and whether the monks cram for them. I also saw the flag on an open pick-up that had a huge loudspeaker, with a monk up front. They were accepting donations for a particular temple.
While we were waiting for the taxi to come, the one that would take us to Heho, I asked Tutu to teach me some Burmese. I learned "Hello", "Good bye" (2 variations, one said when you're going home, another said when you're continuing on), "Thank you", "How much is it", and "It's too much". During the taxi ride to the airport we made a couple stops. Once at a temple, and once because I wanted to try carrying something on my head, like women do here all the time. We stopped on the side of the road when we saw an old woman carrying something on her head, and Tutu asked for me if I could try it. I got a picture of me balancing this plastic basket on my head—I didn't dare take my hands from it, because it was filled with bottles. After we had driven away, I remembered that we should have offered her a ride up the road, at least.
The taxi couldn't go up very close at all to the airport, we had to walk a good distance—security, Tutu said. There were tons of soldiers around. The ones who had boots on (lots had flip flops) had these really cheap looking canvas boots. There weren't many people with longyis around—I guess the more sophisticated people get, the less they wear longyis, and people that fly tend to be more sophisticated. The airport was relatively primative—didn't even have toilet paper in the bathroom—but I couldn't take photos, because there was a big sign saying it wasn't allowed.
We got there way too early—about 1 and a half hours sooner than departure time. I had Tutu teach me the numbers in Burmese. I got to the point that with a little thought, I could understand them when he said them. I'll need to use actually use the numbers in conversation to retain the knowledge, though.
All the checked luggage needed to go through a "customs" check. There were lots of those colorful striped plastic bags with zippers, and about 7 baskets that looked like they were full of vegetables. Hard to imagine that it could be worthwhile to transport them via plane. I also noticed lots of tattoos on men's forearms and calves. I thought at first that they have some kind of Buddhist symbolism, but Tutu told me that it was more of a good luck charm. He said that people believed that if they got these tattoos, they could jump higher, or stick to walls. Apparently there was a famous thief who could jump very high, who always rubbed his tattoo before going on thieving expeditions.
I thought at first I was the only foreigner on the plane, and I got a ton of stares, but later on 2 Caucasian woman, with a guide, came, and then a Chinese couple that I'd seen yesterday on Inle Lake. Right before the plane left, 2 women showed up that Tutu said were movie stars! Apparently they were stars not in regular Burmese movies, but in movies made for video, which are a little less prestigious. I joked that I should ask to get their autograph.
The plane arrived on time, from Yangon. It was an ATR 72-210—whatever that is. First to board was this one guy who looked very prosperous indeed, tailored oxford shirt, nice looking briefcase. Tutu said that he was probably a businessman from the Chinese border regions, which are quite prosperous from smuggling. Then they pointed to me, and motioned for me to board. I got a window seat on the left side of the plane. There was a piece of yellowed scotch tape on the inside of the outer window, which made me a little skeptical.
The flight went alright, though. The stewardesses gave out these little cheap plastic cups that said "Summertime fun" on them, filled with orange soda. They must have gotten them really cheap in Thailand or something. The flight was a total of about 30 minutes, compared to a 10 hour bus ride. Close to Mandalay, it got quite dry—the earth was all shades of brown. You could also see lots of little Buddhist temples dotting the area.
Getting off was a weird experience. They walked us from the plane over to a room where they had us put our bags through an x-ray machine! I can see where it makes sense BEFORE you put the bags on the plane, but afterwards, I see no reason to x-ray the bags. I'd almost forgotten that it was Tutu's first flight on an airplane. He told me later on he enjoyed it very much, and asked about the turbulence, and what causes it.
Tutu got us a taxi over to a couple of hotels that I picked out from the Lonely Planet guidebook. We went to them, but they were about like the Yoma Hotel in Yangon, yet $25 and $20 when the Yoma was $12. I passed. The third one was the Garden Hotel, and $10 (although considering how fast he came down to $10, I probably could have gotten it for $8. It's decent enough. Tutu got a separate room for free here, too, as my guide.
I went immediately over to the Sedona Hotel, the swanky place which I'm told is the one place you can send email from. The guy at the reception told me it was a 10 minute walk—yeah, right! It took me at least 40 minutes hot walking (it's very hot and sunny here) to get over there. Once a boy stopped, said hello, and patted the back of his bike where he had a nice padded seat, like they often do here. I should have taken him up on his wordless offer to take me on his bike, since it ended up being so darn far away. The sidewalks would be very dangerous to walk on at night without a flashlight—there's a ditch running through the middle of them which is covered up with concrete panels most of the time, but it's not something you can count on—a good 5% of the panels are gone, and another 5% are half crumbled. Speaking of dangerous walking conditions—at Shwedagon Paya in Yangon, the marble floors were incredibly slippery in the rain. I nearly slipped 3 times, and was extremely careful—placing my feet very gingerly in the most slippery spots. Apparently Ricki from Germany actually had a serious fall there, bruised the side of her foot quite badly, and sprained her ankle somewhat as well. After the trek she did in Inle Lake, her foot was swollen.
At one point walking by a bicycle I felt a tug on my waist, where I wear a fanny pack. I looked back, puzzled, then concluded that the handlebar of the bicycle had gotten caught in the belt of the fanny pack. A few steps later I patted my camera case, which is hung off the belt, and found it empty! I thought back in a panic, and was thinking that I must have left it back at the hotel. Then I happened to look back at the bicycle, and what do you know—my camera was actually hanging, by the strap, on the handlebar of the bike! That was a VERY close call. I would have been very upset to loose that camera.
The Sedona is a ritzy place, standard expensive hotel. I was a bit surprised that at a hotel of it's caliber, nobody opened the door to me when I came to the front—every hotel that I've been to here has at least one person who's job is precisely that. When I asked about email, they led me to a "Business Center", with 2 computers in it. The rates for sending email were a little complicated, but basically you pay by the kb, and not by the minute, like at the Yoma Hotel in Yangon. It actually makes more sense to charge like that, really, although it ends up being more expensive for me. I sent Eric an email—I'll check it out tomorrow to see if I got a reply. Too bad it's so far away. On the way back I was searching for a taxi, but didn't see one. I could have asked the hotel reception to get me one, of course, but I only saw these really expensive cars in front of the hotel, so I passed on that, assuming they'd be about 5 times the rate of a normal taxi. After I'd been walking a few minutes, a trishaw driver ran up to me from the other side of the street, and we settled on a price of 200 kyat to get me to the Garden Hotel. Actually, I didn't even have to bargain—I think he was very interested in being my trishaw driver for my stay in Yangon, he showed me a little book with all the sights he could show me, etc. I told him I already had a guide. Back at the hotel, Tutu had been waiting for me for about half an hour. We went to a Shan restaurant nearby, which Tutu said was very expensive—350 kyat (about 80 cents) for a meal. I don't think I'll go back there—they weren't very responsive when we asked for the bill, we had to ask a few times. We walked through one of the food markets after that. I think I've seen pretty much all there is to see in food markets. At one point there was a big crush of bicycles and trishaws, so I went to step over a flat basket of vegetables for sale, along the side of the road. Tutu put a hand on my elbow and attempted to steer me in the other direction. I thought he just hadn't seen the bicycle that I did, so I continued stepping over the vegetables. A few steps later he told me that some people don't like it when you step over things, that it's actually a rude thing to do. Oh well—live and learn. I made an early night of it, after stopping at an ice cream shop (good stuff, I'll definitely stop there a few times while I'm here) that's a few doors down from my hotel.
September 9, 2000
I was feeling a little at loose ends this morning, and wondering why I made this trip quite as long as I did. I guess I figured that I'd want a full 3 weeks in Burma, and I gave myself a few extra days because it would take a while to get a visa in Bangkok. But I'm feeling now that 2 weeks would have been just fine. After breakfast I went with Tutu to the Sedona hotel. He hired a 3 wheel taxi for me. I didn't realize how much slower than ordinary taxis they are—they're probably about half the speed. Also, it seemed like there was an exhaust leak straight into the back, where I was sitting on one of the wooden benches. Interesting, but once is probably enough. At the Sedona, I walked back to the "Business Center" (they had to open if for me, since the regular woman that did it wasn't there. She checked, and there was no email! I spent about half an hour back there behind the reception desk trying to figure out if they had 1. sent the email properly last night, and 2. retrieved email properly now. It seems like they had, but there was still no email from Eric. I was very, very disappointed. After that I walked down the road to the Swan hotel, which is where Stephanie, Myra, Ricki and I had arranged to leave a message for each other. I left a message there, and also sent email from there—apparently the Swan and the Sedona are the only places in Mandalay (and perhaps outside Yangon?) that you can send email. What a place. I sent Eric a quick email, without a lot of hope that I would actually get something in return. The woman at the front desk said that she would call the Garden hotel and leave a message for me if there was a reply to my message. Here's hoping. After that we took a bus (we sat in the front, next to the driver—apparently that's where foreigners sit) to the Zeigyo market. There wasn't a whole lot that I hadn't seen at other markets in Burma. We went inside the market, and also looked around outside (where there was mainly food for sale). Tutu was asking people the whole while where the best place was to change money. Apparently it's at the Air Mandalay office—we found our way there eventually, and I got 393 kyat for the dollar, for a $100 dollar bill! That's the best rate I've ever heard off. A $50 dollar bill would have gotten me 390 kyat per dollar.
Tutu and I stopped at the Nylon ice cream place that's right next to the Garden hotel. I had a durian ice cream (not bad, but I think I could definitely smell that unpleasant smell that's characteristic of the durian) and then I had a papaya milkshake. That was decent. I asked Tutu why there wasn't a mangosteen (my favorite fruit here) ice cream on the menu. He said that if the skin of the mangosteen is mixed with sugar, it becomes a poison. Sounds doubtful to me. I think it would make a great ice cream, or maybe a sherbet. After that we took the bus (again, sitting in the front) to Mahamuni Paya, which houses a very venerated Buddha image, covered with gold leaf that people have stuck on. It's another one of those payas where women are not permitted close to the image. The only foreigners I saw was what looked like an American couple in their 40's. They had a guide with them, a very official looking guide who had on the traditional Burmese jacket (must have been very hot—today was a scorcher). The woman went into a carpeted area in front of the main women's area, which apparently was for the wives of VIPs. She sat down with her legs crossed in the meditation position, palms facing upward, eyes closed. The husband went even further up front—maybe he was going to put some gold leaf on the Buddha image. We walked around the compound some more after that, saw some of those really incongruous looking spinning statues, where you try to throw money into bowls that are turning around the statue (they weren't turning right when we were there). It's almost like something you would see at a circus. Walking across the open areas was an experience—it was just about noon, and the darker marble stones were VERY hot indeed. There were many beggars there, who apparently lived there. Also lots of vendors of religious artifacts and souvenirs. We went outside to a monastery that Tutu had lived in for a while, when he was in Mandalay for 2 months trying to earn a living as a tour guide. We also went to a restaurant near there, and had a typical Burmese meal—a plate of rice, some curries on the side, a plate of salad, a plate of pickled bean curry which was quite good—my favorite curry so far, and a plate of pickled bamboo shoots, which I didn't like that much. The beef in my curry was really, really tough—some men sitting at a nearby table nearly exploded into laughter when I tried to bit it in half. Tutu said he never eats beef, because his family earned their living for many years as slipper makers using cow leather, so for him it's a form of respect and gratitude to not eat beef. When I finished the meal (I left a lot on my plate—I haven't been all that hungry) the woman who ran the restaurant came and gave me one of those really wide bananas that they have here. It was quite good. I've been trying out my skill with Burmese numbers here and there—I'm doing all right with them, though I definitely need to be concentrating.
I REALLY hope I don't get diarrhea. I feel like I've been daring in eating at all kinds of restaurants, not just the ones meant for tourists. Plus, Burmese curries aren't kept hot, they just have them sitting their bowls. The coating of oil on them is supposed to keep them good. I don't know if I believe in that theory
I'm taking a noonday rest back here at the hotel. I just had 2 custard apples that I bought yesterday—yum. I hope to find some mangosteen, too. That would make my day. I'm very much torn over whether or not I should keep Tutu as my guide for the rest of my time here. One the one hand, I go to a lot more native places, take buses, and do things that I wouldn't do on my own. On the other hand, I feel like a wimp. I don't think I'll make any decisions right now. Maybe I'll check email again—I really, really would like to get some email from Eric.
The truth be told, I'm not having as good a trip this time as I did last year, when I went to Thailand and Laos. I think the main reason is because I'm missing Eric a lot. Plus, last year was the first time I'd been in Asia at all, and everything was new and different and fascinating for me. Now, things are still interesting, but they aren't quite as new and different anymore.
I went out in the afternoon around 3.30 after spending time writing and resting in my room. The heat of the day is something to avoid here, for sure. First I went to the Zeigyo market, to pick up that one blanket that I like. It's not even a hand woven blanket, but I like the pattern, and for 700 kyat (less than $2) it's well worth it. In general I haven't found a whole lot that I'd like to buy here. The kalangas, those padded sequined wall hangings that are very typical, don't attract me at all, nor does the lacquerware, nor the carvings. There were some paintings that looked attractive at the Bogyoke market in Yangon, but I really don't think I'd want to hang one of them up. The opium weights, the betel nut cutters—all are very typical of this country, but I'm not really interested in buying them. I did buy 2 pear apples. They're only about one third the size of the ones I've had in the US, and it turns out they're not that great at all—I just tried a few bites of one, and threw them away. The skin is very thick, and a little bitter.
I was thinking after I went to the "floating market" at Inle Lake, that whenever anyone said "Hello!" to me, I would ignore them because I would think they're trying to sell something to me. That was definitely the case at that particular spot on Inle Lake, but in general, on the streets here in Mandalay, people say hello all the time. I guess it's the only English word most people know.
I just realized something from talking with Tutu—those girls I've seen with really short boyish hair are probably ex-nuns, whose hair hasn't grown out yet. Either that, or they shaved it because of lice. About 3 times now I've seen women and girls picking lice out of each other's hair.
I've been more careful to avoid having Tutu carry stuff for me. It's just a little too much like having a servant. Realistically, he is my servant/guide/translator for as long as I chose to hire him, but I should still carry my own things.
From the market, we took a taxi to the Mandalay Swan Hotel, where I'd send email to Eric earlier. When I walked in the door, they told me they'd checked just a few minutes earlier, and there had been no mail. But we went upstairs to check again anyway. And what do you know—there was a message! I think they'd been mistaken about having checked just a few minutes ago, because it was the middle of the night in Seattle, and I don't think he would have been writing anything then. I had a big smile on my face when I saw there was a message for me. It's been a really long time—ever since Yangon. I decided to not reply right then, but rather to just go to Mandalay Hill in time for the sunset, and come back after that to the Swan, and send email.
Tutu and I started off walking, to Mandalay Hill. I didn't know how far it was, otherwise I would have said we should take a taxi. I was under the mistaken impression that the hill was in the middle of Mandalay Fort, which we were across from. That was wrong, though, it was about 3 or 4 kilometers away. When I first suggested it, I think Tutu wanted to say something about how far away it was, but he's just so used to saying "As you wish" whenever I say anything, that he just went along with it. Nobody else was walking, though, and we worked up quite a sweat in the sun, even though it was around 5 o'clock. Once we got to the base of the hill, we bargained for quite a while with some taxi/pickup drivers to take us to the top of the hill—apparently all the buses stopped running a while back. They wanted an incredible 1400 kyat, which is about 7 times a normal taxi fare. There was a lot of back and forth with Tutu and them, and then I suggested we walk up. So we actually started walking away, and got quite far away, when they ran over to us again. After more bargaining, Tutu got them to 1000 to go to the top, wait for us there, go to the Swan hotel for me to send email, wait for me there, and then take us to the Garden Hotel. Whew. The guy that drove us had a swastika on his T-shirt—not the nazi style swastika, but one done in yellow and blue. I should ask Tutu what the significance is. I've seen swastikas on a lot of longyi, woven into the fabric, plus on tattoos as well.
As we were driving up to the top, I was REALLY glad I wasn't walking. That would have been a huge chore. There was a foreign couple who were walking up—I bet they'd asked about the fare as well, and been shocked at the price—but they didn't get up in time for the sunset! I barely made it in time to get some decent photos. It really was a lovely spot up there, very romantic. I wish Eric had been there. That couple that I saw at the Mahamuni Paya, that I thought for sure were American (overweight, he had on Levis and a Hawaii T-shirt) were there as well, and I learned from listening to them that they were actually German. Their tour guide spoke German quite well. After getting some photos we took the elevator down to the taxi area, where Tutu looked for our driver while I reread Eric's letter. Back at the Swan Hotel, sending email was a huge production, just like last time. I went to a separate room, a "Business center". The man waiting on me boots up the computer, goes into Outlook, opens up a new message, pulls out the chair for me, and says "Please, madam". Then he stands behind me the entire time I'm writing the message. I don't think it's because he's nosey or anything, I think he's just forbidden to sit down around guests. Then I tell him I'm done, and he connects, and sends the email. Then he checks the size of the email, and writes down my name and who I emailed down in a logbook, and writes out a bill for me. Then downstairs at the main desk (where there's about 7 staff members and no guests) I pay the bill, and get my receipt. I gave them a $10 bill, but they didn't want it, since it was dirty. The same thing has happened to me in Laos—people don't want dirty US dollars. I had a little bit of a hard time communicating that I didn't want my change back in kyat, but that I would be back tomorrow, and would send more email, so they could keep the rest of the money. After I finished the email the taxi driver dropped us off at our hotel, and we ate at a place very close by. Tutu thought they overcharged us by charging extra for the rice. It was only 50 kyat, but still—I don't think anybody is indifferent to being overcharged. It's just a natural human instinct to get the best price possible, and to resent it if you're feeling stiffed. The bill ended up being 410 kyat—a little over a dollar. For that we got a plate of fried mustard greens and mushrooms, 2 types of pickled beans (very good), rice, soup, a plate of cut up pickled and fresh vegetables, and a small dish of chicken curry, mostly bones. It was quite good, too. There were 2 other foreigners in the place—one young woman who was definitely Japanese, and one older man. Tutu was quite sure he was either from Burma, or perhaps from the border areas. I also thought that he spoke Japanese with an accent, guessed that since he appeared old enough to have been around during WWII, perhaps he lived in an area under Japanese occupation. When they left, I asked the woman where they were from, and she said they were both from Japan. So much for my ability to discern an accent in Japanese.
I was wondering out loud to Tutu what it would be like for me, as a foreigner, to live in Burma. I said I didn't think I could take the isolation. Then I wondered what it would be like for a Burmese person to be in America. Tutu said it would be "like paradise". That's true enough, I thought to myself. At least until the wonders of a very materially successful place wore off, it would be a lot like paradise.
Back at the Garden Hotel, there was no note for me from Stephanie, Myra, and Ricki. I wonder if they've made it into town yet. The hotel we chose to leave messages at is not very central at all—I hope they get my message there.
September 10, 2000
Got a late start this morning—I only woke up at 8:15. Tutu has breakfast very early, but when I come down he sits with me, and we sometimes chat a bit, or as much as we can with his limited English. If I'm patient, we can more or less communicate everything, but it does take some patience. The television was on, tuned to the Burmese station. Tutu was trying to explain what the show was about—apparently it was some kind of military propaganda, love the government, love the military, etc. I told him that the word for that was propaganda, and he wrote it down in his little notebook. It's funny trying to communicate with him. It's like playing that game Taboo, where you try to get somebody to guess a word without saying any words related to it (i.e. for hamburger you can't say bun, ketchup, McDonalds, etc.).
Then we went to the bicycle rental shop just down the road, and got 2 bikes for 500 kyat, which is a little cheaper than normal—Tutu is always bargaining them down for me. I tested mine out—it was about like the bike I rented in Inle Lake. Tutu told me later that the men were laughing at me, and he asked them why. At first they wouldn't say, but then they said that the bike that I chose was the owner's own bike and his favorite, which he didn't want to rent. Oh well. We biked down the road towards Amarapura, where there's a big monastery, lake, and famous old teak bridge. The first part of the road was a major city road. Biking around here is not without its hazards, although it's the main form of transport. There's buses and bus/pickups and other bikes weaving all over the place—all of my senses were on full alert. Honking is very common here. It seems like it's not done just as a warning, but as a greeting sometimes. Some buses have these really loud air horns that make me start. Then there's also that weird kissing noise that people use, to tell others to get out of the way. On the whole, this bike ride was less pleasant than the one in Inle Lake, because there was so much more traffic-it wasn't a quiet country lane. We stopped at a stonecutters shop, with nothing but Buddha statues in various states of completion. There was a whole set that were finished except for their faces—Tutu translated for me that the man who carves the faces has been ill. I got a picture of one guy who was carving the body. The tools were very simple—a chisel, and instead of a mallet, a foot long piece of wood, thicker on the striking end. Marble chips were flying everywhere. I showed them the photo that I took—they were very pleased. The instant playback feature on the camera has been a big hit. We also stopped and looked in on a machine weaving factory, where they were weaving longyis. It was next to a big house—a family operation. The factory had about 10 looms, with half of them running. It was incredibly noisy in there—I held my hands over my ears. Nobody was wearing ear protection. We went out to where they were folding them very neatly with the aid of a metal yardstick. Tutu started talking prices with them—he wanted to buy some. He asked me if it was okay, and after the transaction was over, he said, "Excuse me for make you wait". He said the prices were good here, and they were good quality nylon longyis, which last longer than cotton, and he was buying some as presents for his cousins and nephews. We got down to the Amarapura area, which used to be the capital city. There's not a whole lot left—the main attraction is an old rickety teak bridge, and the nearby monastery of Mahagandhayon, which houses thousands of monks. The teak bridge was really fascinating. It's only for foot traffic, you can't even ride your bike on it. Tutu said that was so it would last longer—it's a couple hundred years old now. There's all these little rest houses along the bridge. We stopped at the first one, and rested. It was very nice, very breezy from the lake, and nicely shaded. The lake itself is very shallow. There are trees growing in it at various spots, with their roots completely submerged in water. I don't understand why they don't die, flooded like that. Lots of locals along the bridge were fishing with simple bamboo fishing poles. I saw the fish they were catching—they weren't more than three inches long. I saw only 1 tourist, that Japanese guy that I'd seen biking along the Mandalay Fort walls yesterday. There's so few tourists that you really notice them, and see them over and over again at the various tourist spots. After the bridge, we biked to the monastery. I was hoping to see the monks eating—thousands of them eating silently, according to the guidebook—but it was too late. I did manage to see the area in which they ate, and there were actually still quite a few monks there, eating. Tutu and I sat right outside there, while he told me monk stories. Apparently they're a huge force in Mandalay, and wield a lot of power. He mentioned a couple of incidents of monks abusing lay people. Once, when he was living in Mandalay for a couple months, he was in a monastery (people traveling commonly stay in monasteries for free). It was right next to a bus station, and a bus that was parking there hit a monk—not hard at all, just a tap. The monk got into the bus, kicked and hit the bus driver, and dragged him out of the bus. Nobody dared to help the bus driver. He also said that sometimes monks would insult or tease local girls and women, and any friends or relatives of theirs who tried to help them would find themselves set upon by a gang of monks. What a strange idea—like a monk Mafia. That's the second time I've heard about bad behavior on the part of monks—there was also that Italian guy at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok who told me stories.
After we'd been sitting there for a while, a monk came and gave us each a banana, one of those big wide ones. That happened as well after lunch yesterday. I'm glad I learned the more polite version of "thank you"—I think people really like it. Either that, or they're smiling at my pronunciation.
We went to the kitchen for the monks, where they have these huge pots shaped like woks. Then as we were walking by an area where pilgrims cook for themselves, some people that were part of the pilgrimage asked us if we wanted to have lunch with them. Tutu asked me, and I hesitated a bit, but what the heck—it would be interesting to eat with a bunch of Buddhist pilgrims. As I walked up to the eating platform, I saw a huge bowl of rice with dozens of flies buzzing in it. It did make me hesitate a bit. But we went up and sat down, and were surrounded by the pilgrims. They reminded me of evangelical Christians in the US—very, very friendly, smiling even more so than people here normally do. One of them spoke a few words of English, otherwise things were translated through Tutu. This was a 10 day trip for them, one that they did every year, visiting lots of monasteries around the country. The guy that was doing most of the talking had some really strange dental work—it looked like a metal ring around his front teeth. I can't imagine why—that would be a very strange place to get cavities. I've seen some Mexicans with that as well, though.
We had typical Burmese food-a bowl of rice with pickled beans (always good), some dried fish stuff, a dish of what I thought was another type of pickled beans with tomato, but what ended up being a nasty fish curry, of which I could barely choke down the mouthful I tried. I also found a dead fly in the curry. After that I was checking each mouthful for any suspicious dark flecks. An older woman came up to me and started chatting as though I understood Burmese. She told me (translated through Tutu) that she was 73, and had no white hair (I certainly didn't see any), and that her longyi was from my country (she thought I was from England) and was of a very high quality. Tutu told me that when he was younger he and his friends would always check out to see where there were ceremonies like noviciations (where young boys become novices), etc., to get some free food. Glory, the Indian guy who worked with me at Point.com, told me the same thing, except that he would do it at weddings..
After that we took the bus back. We had to bike a bit to get to the bus station, and paid 100 kyat (about 25 cents) for us and the bikes (normal fare is 15 kyat a person). It got very crowded on the bus—it was one of those converted pickups with some seats inside. People squeezed in wherever the could—I had one woman practically sitting on my lap. She was talking to me, and said (through Tutu) that she'd like to come with me abroad, that business was bad and getting worse here. I told her (again, through Tutu) that she wouldn't fit in my luggage. That got a little bit of a laugh after he translated it. After we got off, and got the bikes off (there's two helpers on a bus of this sort, and I think one of them stays on the roof to help lift things up and down) I saw that we were right across from a SUPERMARKET! I went in and looked around, and saw some amazing things. Pringles potato chips! Peanut Butter! Johnston and Johnston shampoo. Plus, I found some dental floss, which I've been looking for but thinking I wouldn't find. When they rang it up, they actually used a bar code scanner! I felt like a country bumpkin seeing it for the first time. I bought a pack of banana gum as well—it wasn't great, but was only about 5 cents.
Biking to the Mandalay Swan Hotel to check email was a lot easier than walking there. I actually saw a few guests there this time—that was a first. The same guy who set up the email for me before, in a brilliant hot pink uniform, led me up to the business center, where at first he told me that there was no mail. I checked the inbox myself, though, and of course there was some mail from Eric. I was really happy to read it. Then I sent some mail back, and looked over his shoulder as he sent it to make sure it was really going through.
We gave the bikes back at the bike rental place (Tutu tried to bargain to get some kyat back, since we brought them back before 5, but no go), and went to the ice cream store nearby, where lots of beggars hang out. I've seen loads of young nuns going from store to store begging today—Tutu said that it's something they do 2 days before the full and new moon, which was today.
Since I got back to my room I've reread Eric's letters a couple times. I'm seriously thinking about just flying back to Yangon, and trying to get an earlier flight back to Seattle. The problem is, it almost certainly wouldn't work, because of the Olympics and being Yangon not having any travel agents with computer access, and then I'd be stuck in Yangon instead of out seeing the country. I could always just go back to Bangkok, but I really don't want to see that city again.
The electricity just went out here for about half an hour. Thank goodness I'm not dependant on it with my palm pilot. The air conditioner doesn't work now, though—I'll have to ask them to fix it on my way out.
Taking these trip notes is consuming a lot of time. I like it, though—it makes me feel like I'm doing something productive. Hopefully I'm writing something that I and other people will find interesting to read later on.
When Tutu and I were discussing my plans for the next few days in Burma, there was a set of Burmese TV commercials playing. Some of them I could recognize what they were advertising, but others I had to ask Tutu. There were ads for incense, thanaka powder, mosquito coils, coffee mix, stuffed buns, noodle snacks, and exam booklets that give tips on what kind of questions are likely to be on exams,
We walked to the market, and I got some more pictures, and bought more custard apples. Right as I was buying them (the woman gave me 2 extra as a present) a red cockroach ran up my leg. I thought it was a wasp at first. After that we had lunch at a nearby restaurant. Standard Burmese cuisine. The guy that served us was gay—flowered shirt, walked gay. It's amazing how it's so easy to recognize men who are openly gay even in very different cultures. Tutu said he was a "sissy boy". I wonder where he heard that term. There was also a girl that walked up, probably late teens, and chatted with Tutu for a while. Tutu told me later that she was a beer promoter and tried to get people to drink a particular brand of beer. She had long pigtails on the sides of her head, and looked rather sad.
I was thinking of going to the Mandalay Swan again and seeing if there was email, but I figured that it was the middle of the night there, so Eric wouldn't have responded yet.
Tutu suggested that I go to a marionette show tonight, and I thought I would. But later I decided I'd prefer to just hang out in my room and read, and get a good night's sleep. The electricity just went out for a good 5 minutes, just like it did during the middle of the day, but it's dark out now. Luckily it went on again soon. I think I should have probably kept the flashlight I brought with me, and not given it to Soe's family. His father actually asked me if I needed it, and I said no. Oh well. I'll survive.
Every few hours I hear the call to prayers here from the mosques. You see quite a few more Muslims on the street here than I did in Yangon. I see the men wearing the long shirts and the tight knit cap, and women wearing a shawl over their head. It doesn't cover their face, but still, they must be very hot inside that shawl.
I was asleep at around 10.30 when the phone rang in my room. I answered it, somewhat disoriented. It was Myra, downstairs. I went down and chatted with her. It was great to have a flowing conversation in English, complete with little jokes. Such a difference from the halted, very functionally oriented "conversations" that I have with Tutu. Myra, Ricki, and Stephanie had traveled via public transport to the cave (but with all the talk about transportation details, I forgot to ask what the caves were like—they're famous for prehistoric paintings). There had been some complications with transport, and I think they ended up staying a day in a town that they didn't mean to stay in—Pindaya, maybe? Then the next night in Kalaw.
It seemed like traveling with 2 other people got on her nerves a bit, because she went on about how people have different paces, and every decision needs to be checked out with three people (and if I had been with them, 4 people). She specifically didn't blame anyone, but just said it's a natural function of traveling in a larger group. She also said that arranging transport with the locals was proving to be quite a hassle. I felt reaffirmed in my decision to go my own way, because of the fact that I had very few transportation issues, since Tutu took care of everything, plus there are nobody's wishes to consider except my own. Unfortunately, me flying to Mandalay and then to Bagan means that I'm way ahead of them on the "circuit"—I've already seen most everything in Mandalay, and will probably fly to Bagan tomorrow, whereas they just arrived in Mandalay, and will probably be staying here another few days before taking the ferry or bus to Bagan—which is another day lost for them to uncomfortable bus or ferry travel. It probably means I won't meet up with them again, although we are planning to have dinner together tonight—I'm looking forward to it.
Tomorrow I'm taking the ferry to Mingun. It's supposed to be quite an interesting ferry ride, and then there's the ruins in Mingun. I'm hoping to get some great pictures.
September 11, 2000
I got up early this morning, thinking perhaps we could get an early ferry to Mingun, get better photos, and avoid the heat of the day. Breakfast was the same it's been here forever—two pieces of tall skinny toast, with a big chunk of semi-liquid butter on a dish, as well as some jam. And 2 eggs, either scrambled, fried, or in an omelet. That's pretty much what breakfast is everywhere. Tutu told me during breakfast that while he was out and about yesterday, he heard a conversation some locals were having in relation to a Japanese tourist. The tourist wanted to get a massage, and was arranging a price with a taxi driver to take her to a massage place. However, according to onlookers, all the massage places were closed by the police because they had been linked to prostitution. The onlookers were wondering what the taxi driver would do to get himself out of the fix he was in, agreeing to take her to a place that didn't exist.
Tutu arranged a taxi ride to the boat jetty. He pointed out something to me that I had noticed, but not really registered—the monks tie their robes very differently when they're collecting alms, it's wrapped around their neck so that you can't see any of their chest. Normally, when they're just walking around, their chest is partly open.
The taxi's here are mostly those blue Mazda mini-pickups, with hard seats in the back. It's always the same—the driver names a price, they bargain a bit, we walk on, and then the driver follows us, they bargain some more, and we get in the taxi. Part of the deal this time was that we would stop by a place where there's water buffalo working. Unfortunately we came a little late, and there was only one water buffalo left. It was a very, very poor area of town—really tiny bamboo shacks, some of them on the water like houseboats, floating on tied-together bundles of bamboo. Nothing like the beautiful houseboats of Seattle, but very interesting nonetheless. They do almost everything in this water—it's used as a toilet, and they wash themselves and their dishes in it. Tutu said there's a saying something like, "where ever there's more than 4 pounds of water (i.e. not a small puddle), it must be good water". I don't think I would go for that one.
One of the houseboats, whose occupants must have been richer than the rest, had a metal roof. There was a girl on the road making bamboo roofing material, like long shingles, from woven bamboo. I asked Tutu whether she shouldn't have been in school—she was certainly of school age—and he said her parents probably couldn't afford it, and that school was quite expensive what with the uniforms, books, mandatory "donations", etc. Apparently teachers here don't make much money, and increase their salaries by charging for extra tutoring, and only passing students if they took the extra tutoring, and even selling overpriced snacks to the students. He also told me about a principal in his native town, a woman, who had come there only a few years ago but already owned 2 houses—the implication was, by extorting money from students and parents.
We were a little early for the boat-unfortunately it only left at 9 in the morning. So much for avoiding the heat of the day, and getting some morning pictures. So we took a walk around the neighborhood. The neighborhood industry was making pitch, there were all kinds of pitch kettles around. I also saw one woman making wooden flip-flops that are used in the rainy season.
I saw what looked like a long line of schoolchildren, and walked up to get a good shot of them. They were really cute, boys and girls about 9 years old. Some of them said "hello" shyly, and turned away immediately, their classmates bopping them on the head for being so forward. Tutu told me it looked like an opening ceremony for a new building. I got one more picture, of the schoolchildren along with a line of what looked like soldiers, when a policeman in a tan uniform came along and said "No photos". He also talked with Tutu, and I think told him to keep me towards the back. So we looked around a bit more—there was a contingent of schoolteachers, with dark green longyis on and white tops. There was also another group of women in a uniform of darker orange longyi and yellow top, of unknown affiliation. Then, another man in uniform told Tutu that he should bring me up to the front, where the actual ceremony was taking place. So, we walked up alongside this red carpet—I was following Tutu's example and trying to avoid stepping on it. We walked up to a large square pit in the ground with steps leading into it, where there were 8 bricks—some silver colored, some red for rubies, and some green for emeralds. Some military officials that looked like they were high-ranking were there, passing around a brass bowl with what looked like some dirty water in it and some branches with leaves still attached. They dipped the leaves in the water, and sprinkled the water onto the bricks, then passed the bowl to the next person. It was all very strange for me—I didn't get much of an explanation from Tutu other than it was for good luck. Then the military officials walked away on the red carpet, throwing 5 kyat notes, folded nicely, mixed in with broken pieces of popcorn. A man standing next to me picked one up and gave it to me as a souvenir. We appeared to have caught the tail end of the ceremony, because everyone started walking away after that.
It got a little strange now—the policeman who had previously told Tutu that I shouldn't take photos and that I should stay away came up to him, and asked him what I was doing so close in. Tutu pointed out the man who had told him to take me closer in, and told the officer that he hadn't wanted to take me closer in, but the other guy told him he should. The policeman told him that he was the authority around there. That was the end of it, we walked away, and everyone else was driven away in buses or pickups. It was a little intimidating, though—it makes you realize you're in a military dictatorship.
We walked slowly back to the Mingun ferry. I saw one girl in a school uniform headed off on her bike, and asked Tutu if she wasn't late. He said that some students don't like to go to the opening ceremonies, because it's seen as support for the government, so they come in late.
The ferry was a relatively small, rickety wooden boat. I realized that this was the tourist ferry, and that there's other ferries that are actually faster—I saw one of them going by. That would have been more interesting to take. The same group of 4 Israeli women that I've seen in Inle Lake and all around Mandalay were on the ferry as well. It got quite hot as we were crossing over, and there was practically no breeze. After I'd gotten a couple photos of sailboats and people rowing, I put up my umbrella as sun protection—good thing I brought it. Tutu put his up as well.
There was a couple sitting next to me, perhaps Dutch—about halfway into the 1 hour ride they spread a thin shawl between them, trying to make somewhat of a sunblock. I was very, very glad to have my umbrella. There was one boat along the way pulling a load of logs, plus lots of places where people were digging up sand for use in concrete, loading it into boats, and transporting it to Mandalay, across the river. The work is done all by hand—they dig it up with a shovel, load it onto baskets they balance on their head, and then carry it to a boat that has both oars and a sail—usually a very patched up sail. Very poor.
We arrived in Mingun and were greeted by lots of people trying to sell postcards, trinkets, and oxcart rides. We walked on. I did better with Tutu along as a guide than most of the other groups of tourists—they immediately had little entourages of trinket sellers that followed them around. I'm fairly successful at ignoring the ones that do stick around.
The main attraction by far in Mingun is the Mingun paya. Mingun means "King's resting place". It was meant to be a huge paya, reaching three times as high as it is now (50 meters). There's massive cracks in it from the various earthquakes that have hit this area, and large chunks of bricks are tumbled down everywhere along the sides.
I debated whether I should walk up it or not—it was incredibly hot, and you need to walk up barefoot, as in all Buddhist structures, no shoes or socks. The dark red bricks become hot enough to fry your toes. I saw an older French couple debating whether or not to go up. When they decided to do it, I decided that I couldn't let them outdo me. I didn't leave my shoes at the bottom, like one normally does. I learned from watching them—they took little breaks where they would stand on their shoes to give their feet time to cool off. So, I took off my shoes and ran up—taking one break standing on my shoes, and then running up to a shady spot about halfway up. The French guy was really cute—he was encouraging me as I got close, said "vite, vite!" (quickly, quickly!), and practically pulled me up the last few steps to the shady area. It was more hindrance than help, really, but it was nice of him anyway. I rested there for a while, then went up the rest of the way. Tutu had come up as well—I had told him it was okay for him to stay down below, but I guess he felt that he should follow me up. The way up from the shady spot wasn't bad at all, because there was lots more light colored concrete, instead of the dark red brick which got so hot. Up top the Israelis were hanging out with shoes on, and a Japanese couple were trying to talk to them (in very poor English—it's amazing what poor English Japanese speak compared to the rest of the world's developed countries). The Japanese had a hard time of it because they'd left their shoes at the bottom. The view was decent enough from where I got to, , but there was a whole section to the south that it was more difficult to access (would have involved some climbing) that I didn't go up. Tutu grabbed some vegetation to stand on, and kept his sandals off, but said that I should put mine back on again, and take them off close to the bottom. So I did. Much more comfortable. We went then to what is supposedly the largest uncracked bell in the world, the Mingun Bell. There were 2 nuns there that were acting very much like beggars—hitting the bell for me, inviting me to step inside, and showing their alms bowl very prominently the whole time.
We visited some of the other payas—nothing really of tremendous interest. For the way back (a short walk) Tutu arranged for an oxcart. Actually, the guy (70 years old, missing most of his teeth) had been following us around for the past 15 minutes, because Tutu told him we'd hire him to take us back for 200 kyat, and I imagine he wanted to make sure nobody else got the business. I got a couple more photos of Mingun Paya from another angle—too bad I'll have to delete some of them (I'm running out of room on the compact flash cards). Then we went into an old age home. I feel much more comfortable walking in there with Tutu—I mean, you're really walking inside somebody's home. That seems to be the custom here, though. There were a couple very large rooms, that looked like they contained about 40 beds and little cabinets. There were also some small block houses—Tutu thought that the old people who had a little more money stayed there. I asked him if he thought they were happy—he said no. They really didn't look happy, I saw very few smiles. Usually if you encounter a group of Burmese, at least a couple of them will give you a big smile.
We had a warm orange soda at a little roadside stand near the ferry junction. The ride back took about half the time of the ride there; we were going down river. I sat inside, away from the sun and next to the older (early 60's?) French couple. They were a great pair—they seemed very happy, and chatty—both with other travelers and amongst themselves. Also, they were very affectionate towards one another. I spoke to them in French, interspersed with some English. They told me that they had been to Burma last year, but that she had slipped and fallen badly. I was sure it was at the Shwedagon Paya, since it was so incredibly slippery there. They said no, it was in Inle Lake in a TOILET! She showed me her scar—it was a big nasty one on her shoulder. It might sound funny, to slip and fall in a toilet, but it just reaffirms my observations on how unsafe things really are around here. I can just imagine, a slick, slimy, dark toilet, and whoosh—you slip and fall, and cut yourself on jagged bit of metal sticking out (and imagine how prone to infection that would be, getting a bad wound in a toilet!). They went to a local hospital, but walked straight out again, because it looked so bad. It took 2 days, but they flew back to France. They could have gone to Bangkok a lot easier, there's some great, very modern hospitals there. You know, it's amazing—considering the number of travelers I've talked with at any length here (6 or 7?) to have found someone who had a serious accident here indicates that there's probably a very high rate of accidents among travelers.
What else did they tell me...that they wanted to go to Mogok, but there was a mandatory military escort required, costing $1000, because of the troubles with rebel fighters. Yikes! I'm glad Eric doesn't know that—Mogok is actually not too far north of here. They said I should plan on, as an absolute minimum, 2 days in Bagan, and that I should really stretch it to at least 3. On their previous trip, the one cut short by her accident, they spent 13 days there. They asked if I was traveling alone, and I told them I was, but I had a guide, and they said it was a very good idea to have a guide, that they were very helpful, and that they'd done the same at various times. It made me feel better about hiring Tutu. He really has been very helpful in removing lots of the hassles of bargaining for transportation, etc.
After getting off the ferry, I wanted to go to the Mandalay Swan to check email, and then buy the airline ticket to Bagan. Tutu got us a taxi. It was the usual scene—they named a price, which was high, we walked away, and they followed us down the road, and we got in. It's kind of a hassle, to always need to bargain like that. I'm glad I'm not doing it. As soon as I walked into the Mandalay Swan, they handed me the envelope with my printed out email from Eric. I ripped it open immediately—it's such a thrill to get email from him. I went upstairs to use the computer again—I'm an old hand now, I think I've been there about 4 or 5 times. Then to the Air Mandalay office, where I bought a ticket for myself ($35) and Tutu ($10) to fly to Bagan tomorrow. The ferry to Mingun was enough of a ferry adventure for me—I'm fine with taking a nice, comfortable plane, and also not wasting a whole day on a hot ferry. I asked Tutu what kind of places are good to stay at in Bagan, and he whipped out this handwritten sheet of paper that his sister, who is also a tour guide, wrote up for him, with all kinds of pertinent facts and places to go. I expect I'll just go there, take a taxi to various hotels, and choose what seems like the best value.
I just walked outside alone to check the Royal Guesthouse and see if Ricki, Myra, and Stephanie have come back yet, and was interviewed (Hello! Where you come from?) by two trishaw drivers who wanted to show me around. Also there was that dark-skinned guy from yesterday who was trying to get me to go to his boss's souvenir shop. I guess I hadn't realized quite how much I'm insulated from that by having a guide. I try not to be rude, but it does get old. This area does have a lot of guesthouses, so I guess it's a good place for them to hang out.
Later on in the evening I was hanging out in my room looking at pictures on the digital camera, deleting lots of the bad or duplicate ones, and waiting for a call from Myra—we were going to try to do dinner tonight. She called around 7.30, and I went down to meet her in the lobby. We called Tutu as well. It was so much fun to hang out with them again, speak English, make jokes, talk about places we've been, etc. She said they were planning on going to an English language movie later as well—she didn't know what was playing, but whatever it was, they wanted to watch it. That was fine by me. We went over to their guesthouse, only a few steps away, and met Stephanie and Ricki. There was also an Israeli woman there, who did the ancient cities tour with them today. Her English was a little poor, so she wasn't as much a part of things. They were talking about how hot and dirty they got today, and said that everyone else had taken a shower, but she (the Israeli woman) hadn't had time. I said, joking—so THAT'S what I've been smelling. She laughed, but I wonder if she thought if was a little rude after knowing somebody only for a couple minutes.
We were going to a vegetarian restaurant listed in the guidebook, but arranging the taxi was seeming a little tough, so I told them about the place just across the street, which I liked (I had Shan noodles there for lunch—delicious, it was something like fried rice noodles with shredded chicken, with cilantro and chopped green onions on top . The shredded chicken did include some chicken skins and little bits of gristle, but picking those out wasn't much of a problem. They all ordered that, and I had that, plus fried cauliflower and chicken. Actually, I had just ordered the fried cauliflower, but she got the order wrong. It's difficult with so many people, and so much changing of orders. Stephanie and Ricki are going to Mingun tomorrow, and Myra will do her own thing. I got the impression that from this point on Stephanie and Ricki will be traveling together, and not Myra and Ricki. These travel partnerships are very shifting and fluid. I also learned that they didn't go to the caves with the prehistoric paintings, which I was mildly interested in, but instead just a cave with some Buddha statues inside, which I'm really glad I missed—I don't need to go out of my way at all to see more Buddha statues, they're everywhere. I told them about the ice cream place across the street, and that I had gone there at least 4 times with no ill effects, so we went there afterwards. There were 4 little beggar children standing around us, begging. Ricki asked Tutu if he thought it would be okay if she bought one of the girls an ice cream, and he said that it would be a bad idea. They had a baby amongst them which they were handling kind of roughly—the Israeli woman snapped at them for it.
Stephanie, Ricki, and Myra all had these massive dishes of three scoops of ice cream—chocolate, milk (like vanilla) and strawberry. Stephanie was in ecstasy over it—it's the first ice cream she's had in a long time, and she loved it. She said even if she does get a case of diarrhea from eating it, it will have been worth it. As we were leaving to go to the movie, Ricki wanted to get a picture of the beggar children without being obvious about it, so she asked Myra to be the decoy, and stand as though she were having her picture taken, in front of one of the beggar girls so the girl wouldn't think she was having her picture taken. Then we took a taxi to the movie—Tutu arranged it, which saves a lot of hassle. At the movie theater, the movie turned out to be Mission Impossible 2, which I've seen before—as a matter of fact, at Eric's company's movie night out. I wasn't too impressed with it, but hey, it's an American action flick in Burma—who can complain? I felt like a movie star in the theater, we got so much attention. They had a hand painted "movie poster" out front—I got a picture of everybody in front of it. One of the ushers, a guy of about 60 wearing a threadbare uniform that said "security" on it, turned up, and asked if anyone was from Germany. It turns out that 30 years ago, he had taken German classes in Yangon, and he was more than eager to try out his German on us. Ricki laughed when I spoke German with him—she said my Austrian accent sounded so cute. I've had that reaction before. We got the complete treatment—we were shown the lower level seats (125 kyat) and then the upper (200 kyat, or about 50 cents). The lower seemed much preferable, even though they were cheaper. It was a little weird as the usher was guiding me to the seats—he tried to hold on to my waist to lead me. I stepped back and disengaged myself, and Myra got a good laugh over it, and said that I had a new admirer. It was distasteful, though—that's the first time I've had that happen to me in Burma.
There was a constant noise in the theater, as though dozens of people were snapping chewing gum. It turned out that it was the cracking of sunflower seeds—when we left the theater, the place was carpeted with sunflower seeds. The movie was fun to watch, even though I'd seen it before. About a third of the way through, Tutu asked to switch seats with me—I was sitting on the end of our group, next to Myra. He said, "I think Stephanie wants to talk to you". It turns out that Stephanie hadn't said that at all. I think he was worried about pickpockets, and wanted to place himself at the end of the group as protection. It was an unreal experience when the movie was over—they chopped off all the credits, started up the Burmese commercials again, and people started filing out immediately. I felt as though I were suddenly transported back to Burma from America.
Back at the guesthouse, I gave Myra and Stephanie my web site address, and told them to check for pictures there. I hope I get some email from them. It's likely that I won't see them again, since they're going to stay in Mandalay a couple more days, then check out some of the smaller towns nearby, and only then head to Bagan. At my hotel, everything was dark. I was a little worried about getting in, but there was a guy waiting outside, who knocked on the door, and one of the people inside let us in. Three of the staff inside, bedded down for the night on chairs and on mats on the floor.
September 12, 2000
Bagan is my destination today, via plane. No more ground transport for me! I have to figure out what I want to do today—I think I've seen most of what there is to see in this city, and the flight is in the evening.
My hotel (the Garden hotel—no garden to be seen anywhere) is okay, but noisy, and the manager isn't all that friendly. Apparently the owner is Muslim. Tutu found that out by talking to people, plus there's some decorative Arabic script hanging in the lobby. Behind me at breakfast today there was a German guy, that I ended up seeing later in the day as well (you really do end up seeing the same tourists over and over, there's so few of them). He had a guide as well, and it seemed like he spoke English quite a bit better than Tutu.
I ended up having Tutu rent a taxi for the day, and doing errands/seeing workshops today. It took him about 20 minutes to get it, so while I waited in the lobby of the Garden Hotel, the manager (the one that doesn't smile that much) interrogated me. How old, am I, what is my salary (I downgraded my salary for him, I don't want to seem too rich to them), do I live in a house or an apartment, do I live with my parents. Whew! I should have asked him what his salary is.
The taxi Tutu got wasn't a real taxi (salon car is what they call real cars), it was just one of those mini Mazdas with an open seating area in the back, where you can fit about 6 if you really squeeze in. Uncushioned seats, of course. I will really, really appreciate the simple comfort of a cushioned seat when I get back to the states—almost all seats here, in all restaurants, most buses, etc, are hard wood. It's okay for a (short) while, but after 5 minutes it gets uncomfortable, and of course it gets worse the longer it goes on. Some restaurants have a few plastic stools in addition to the wooden ones—I learned yesterday to grab those, because they have a little more give to them.
We went first to the post office, where I paid 30 kyat (about 8 cents) apiece to send my postcards to the US. I hope they get there. The stamps weren't sticky, you had to glue them on with a little dish of glue they had there. Then to the Mandalay Swan again for email. They're very friendly there, but they certainly don't have the email system down. They've told me a couple times that there's no email for me, when there actually is. I think their problem is that they have no process for things—some people know to do certain things, like print out the email and give it to the front desk, and others don't.
Very close by to the Mandalay Swan are supposed to be some craft shops, so we went there—not thinking I would buy anything, just to take a look. Two of them were closed, though, because today is the full moon, and it's a holiday for some people. Walking back from one of the closed stores, I heard and saw 2 fighter jets flashing across the sky—quite a novelty here, from the way people were looking. Tutu said they were Chinese. There's really very few planes in the sky, here. Every time I hear one, which has been twice, I think, I look up to see it.
We went to a gold leaf making workshop—very interesting. Everything was completely manual, no machinery whatsoever. There was one guy pounding a book of deer hide, which contained many, pieces of gold leaf. Apparently out of 12 grams, they can make 1500 pieces of gold leaf. There were 3 stations for men to pound the gold leaf, but only one was occupied. Behind him was a little room with 5 women, all processing the gold leaf—either setting up the leather books filled with gold leaf for the guy to pound, taking the pounded gold leaf and cutting it into 4 pieces, to make it thinner, or taking the finished gold leaf and tying it up into bundles to be sold. There was glass all around this room and no air conditioner or fan going, even though it was very hot—too easy for the gold leaf to get blown around. One woman's blouse was completely discolored from sweat.
After the gold leaf workshop, we went to a place where the stuffed sequined tapestries were made (kalanga). I can imagine that for some people they would be attractive, but I'm not interested in it as a decoration. It was interesting to see them made, though. It's a ton of work—a tapestry that takes 8 woman a month to do costs $350. Mostly they go into banks, hotels, and restaurants. He exports a lot to Thailand—Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Phuket, he said. I thought for a moment about buying a really small one as a souvenir, but I took plenty of pictures, that will be souvenir enough.
Next on the agenda was the bronze Buddha casting place. They use the lost wax method, using clay and rice hull molds, and it was really interesting to see all the steps. There was a really huge Buddha in progress there, commissioned by the biggest movie star in Burma. It had it's hands in a position that's supposed to represent the warding off of troubles and problems (represented by snakes and ogres around the base of the statue). There were some other Buddha's in progress that had their hands in a position (one of them outstretched as though waiting to have something put into it) which is supposed to represent increased wealth. Very interesting, I didn't know all the hand positions mean different things. The guy from the foundry that was showing us around was great—he spoke very few words of English, but was really eager to show me things, climbed up on the huge Buddha for a photo, and even broke the clay off a bronze Buddha hand, so that I could see how they do it (they reattach the hands later on). I asked what was more expensive, the labor or the materials (mainly bronze). I had a little bit of a hard time getting Tutu to understand my question, but the eventually the answer came back—materials are 5 times as expensive as labor. The workshop was very messy, with materials, tools, and Buddha's in various stages of completion laying all over the place. I asked how many places like that there were in Mandalay—he said there were 4 others, and lots of much smaller workshops that also did some bronze casting.
I saw the German guy from breakfast there as well, with another German and a guide. He had a canon digital camera as well, and I compared them. His was a much larger 3.3 megapixel camera.
After that we went to have some lunch at the same place I've been a couple times now. I got the same as last night, Shan noodles, and fried cauliflower. The Shan noodles are only 90 kyat, or about 22 cents. Great stuff. Then I ate the mangosteens that I had bought along the way—they were great, but there were some bad ones in there, even though from the outside everything looked good. Mangosteens are definitely going on my list of absolute favorite fruits—too bad you can't get fresh ones in the US. After that I wanted to get some ice cream, but Tutu was worried that after eating mangosteen, eating anything with sugar in it could be poisonous, so I humored him (he said he felt responsible for me). We waited in the Garden Hotel lobby. He told me all about the phone system here. Apparently it would cost $2000 dollars for his family to get a phone, and it would take forever. People with connections to the government can get a phone easily and more cheaply, and then they resell them. He said sometimes they don't even know how to use the phone.
After the ice cream (I had chocolate, 40 kyat or 12 cents and an egg custard, which could have used some more sugar), we drove to the airport. It was still early, but I figured it was as good a place to wait as any. It turned out to be very hot, though. I spent the time deleting pictures on my 192 meg card—I think I should have about 100 pictures free now. I also read the German book I bought in Bangkok
The ticket and passport checking on the part of the officials when it was time to go was ludicrous. They checked them a total of 4 times, once at the airline desk (Mandalay Airline), then two steps over, at the "immigration" desk, then at the baggage control, then at another unidentified desk. That's one of the most inefficient displays of bureaucracy I've seen in a long time.
The plane looked relatively new, or at least recently refurbished. I had a great view on the 25 minute flight (we started about 20 minutes early—I assume all the passengers were there). We didn't get very high at all, and I always kept the Ayerawady river in sight. Some parts of the countryside got really dry, with no fields at all, but for the most part you could see lots of patchwork fields of rice paddies, houses clustered together in villages, and always the pagodas. Closer to Bagan I saw pagoda ruins—that'll be fun to see tomorrow. There was persistent lightening from one part of the sky that worried me a little. I got another shock when the landing gear opened up, and I saw these metal flaps right below me. Everything went smoothly, though.
I was thinking when I landed how completely impossible it would be to be inconspicuous, or anonymous, as a foreigner. EVERYBODY notices me and points me out. Tutu said that when he walked down the street without me, people greet him and say "You're the guide with the foreign lady, right?". Every guesthouse has known where I'm going next. It would be impossible to disappear in this country.
We landed in Bagan just around sunset. The dragonflies were out in full force, and there were bats swooping among them, catching them. There was Tutu and myself, and a couple that looked like they weren't from Burma, but they actually were. I heard them speaking in English in the airport in Mandalay, so I assumed they were a couple of mixed Asian heritage, but at the airport in Bagan they were showing local identity cards, plus they understood Myanmar.
There was one taxi that asked for 700 kyat to take us to some hotels, and one that asked for 500. The one that asked for 700 spoke some English, I assume that's why he asked for so much. Also, he spoke directly to me, while the other guy dealt with Tutu. We went to a 5 dollar place which would have been okay, but I wanted to try a couple more. Next was a 3 dollar place, which was a little ratty. I asked Tutu to have the driver take me somewhere a little nicer, and ended up staying at a nicer hotel right across from one of the major temples for $11—bargained down from $15. The lady from the hotel asked me not to tell other foreigners the price I paid—I think that's a standard line that people are fed in order to think they got a great deal.
The hotel is a decent place; my room has 3 windows, and some very solid wood paneling that would be extremely expensive in the US. The bathroom is nicer than normal in that the shower drains to a hole in the shower area, so the water doesn't flow across the bathroom to a drain where the toilet is, like some places do, so you get your feet wet every time you step into the bathroom. It's still very slippery on the tiles when the floor is a little wet—I'll bet there's been some accidents. The vanity is of solid wood, probably teak or something that would be very expensive in the US. The workmanship is only fair, though.
September 13, 2000
Today we rented a horse cart for a day of ruined temple touring. The horse cart was comfortable—at least compared to the oxcart I rode in Mingun, which had no shocks whatsoever. We toured the most famous pagodas and temples today. Tutu told me that according to legend the reason there's so many pagodas in this area is that there was an alchemist here who knew how to turn regular metal into gold, so people in this area were very rich. I'll have to read up in my guidebook on what the real reason is. I think the soles of my feet are going to get tough, because of all the walking barefoot that I'm doing in the temples.
I estimated that the tourists were outnumbered by the vendors by about 10 to 1. This is a month in which there aren't many tourists, apparently—last month and next month should be better for them. I did see one really huge tour bus that only had about 7 tourists in it—older English people. Their guide spoke English quite fluently.
At that temple there was a little boy selling strings of sweet smelling flower blossoms to the local pilgrims. The women clip them into the hair barrettes. One of the pilgrims was very interested in my palm pilot—I imagine it's the first time he'd seen something like that. Another girl hanging around at one of the temples had quite the scheme going on. I only realized later on that there was a little bit of a scam there. She would ask people for coins from wherever they were from—I'm American, so she asked me for a quarter. I didn't give her anything. Later, at another temple, another girl came up to me, and showed me a quarter. She asked what it was, and how much it was worth. I told her about 100 kyat. Then she asked me to give her 100 kyat in exchange for the quarter! It's a good idea, really, although I didn't fall for it—it's not like I need American change.
I also saw the charming older French couple again—no horse cart for them, they were walking! They were sweating up a storm, too. I was in one of the temples with Hindu paintings on them. They're very interested in the archeology and history of these temples, and seem like they know a lot about them. I imagine they must, since they spent 13 days here in Bagan last time they were here, last year when their trip was cut short by an accident. I felt a little wimpy, traveling with a guide and on a cushy horse cart and here they were, quite a bit older than I am, walking, without a guide.
We went to a lacquerware workshop just before lunch, where I saw all the steps gone through to build the lacquer bowls and trays that they sell everywhere here. It's made of bamboo (sometimes horsehair) covered with a type of black pitch, rubbed smooth, and covered again. Then they carve designs on it, and rub paint into the designs. I don't like the standard Burmese style lacquerware, with the very detailed and intricate designs. I prefer the Japanese style designs, which are more abstract and less busy looking. They had those as well. Last year in Laos I bought a set of bowls that I really liked for $10—I could have gotten it here for much less. At the time, I didn't even know that I was buying Japanese style lacquerware. Now I like the one I bought in Laos a little less, because I've seen so many of the same style here that they seem less unique.
Around New Bagan where the lacquerware shop was, there were lots of buildings that were constructed partly of stone walls built with petrified wood. I've found bits and pieces in the road, too.
The temples are blurring together for me now. My absolute favorite was the Dhammayangyi pagoda. It had many very high corridors inside, some of them with bats inside, and it was just the right time to take pictures, in the late afternoon sun. I got some great ones. The old ruined pagodas in general are much more interesting for me, compared to the ones that are actively being used for worship. There's so much more scope for imagination with the old ones, plus there's fewer trinket sellers around to harass you. I've learned how to ignore them fairly effectively, though. I found the same lacquerware that I bought at the lacquerware workshop in New Bagan, in Dhammayangyi pagoda, for about one third of the price. I hate feeling ripped off like that. Sure, it was only $5 total to begin with, but I still don't like it. There's such a distinct 2 tier pricing system here, I find it annoying at times.
We went to another pagoda, the Manuha Paya, which was interesting because there was a group of about 6 little girls, some of them wearing makeup, who apparently wait there for tourists and pilgrims, and then recite to them the story of the pagoda, which concerns a king who supposedly was held captive there. Unfortunately I didn't get a photo of them. A couple of them knew a few words of English (i.e. "Buddha's feet") when we got to that part of the temple, plus almost everyone could say "Where you from?". Some of there were just plain begging, saying, "one kyat—we share" over and over.
For lunch we went to an interesting place—it was a Burmese style buffet, with at least a dozen dishes of curries to mix with the plate of rice we were given. My favorite as usual is a type of pickled bean—I should really learn how to make that. Almost all of it was left over when we finished. I asked Tutu what would happen to it, and he said that they would just mix it in with the larger pots of curry that they got it from. Tutu was eating lots of the meat curries, especially the chicken. They actually had a plate of fried chicken as well, which he ate most of. There were 4 teenage girls doing the serving—they were very chatty and loud compared to most Burmese girls. Tutu found out later that they were actually dancers with a group as well as being waitresses—he figured that's why they were so forward.
The weather is much, much nicer here than in Mandalay. It's so much cooler. It did get quite hot at midday, but in general it was much more comfortable than in Mandalay. Apparently it was extremely hot here as well before I came. The thunderstorm I heard last night really cooled things off.
For sunset we went to Shwesandaw Pagoda. You can climb up (the steps are very high and narrow, though) and get a great view of all the pagodas, plus the river. I bought a drinking coconut there for 100 kyat—first they asked for 200. Tutu talks with the vendors quite a bit, and jokes with them. He must be funny—wish I understood the jokes! There were lots of foreigners there—French, lots of Japanese, the Israeli woman I saw in Inle Lake, Mandalay, and now here in Bagan a few times. There was a guy up there who had Tanaka with as a prop to make conversation with tourists—she put some on. I heard her talking with a French guy about costs—I heard her say that she had heard you could "do" Burma for $280 a month, but she thought that was for people traveling in a group of 2 or more, and able to share rooms and transportation. There were two other guides there besides Tutu—one with an Italian couple, and one with a Japanese couple. They were arguing, according to Tutu, about which form of expression, in Burmese, was the most polite. Being polite is very important in Burmese.
I've decided that I like Bagan a lot—much more than Mandalay. It's much more quiet, and I love the old ruins. Next time I come here, though, it'll be in winter. I can see it in my mind—it would be pleasantly brisk, I'd be walking around the old temples with Eric—that would be wonderful.
This evening is the second evening of the Pagoda festival, at the Manuha Paya. I asked Tutu to get a taxi for us to go there, wait while I take a look at the festival, and bring us back. Another option would have been to take a horse cart again, but that's a little too slow. It was a really nice night, moonlit, with beautiful clouds. It would have been fun to wander around some of the ruined temples with a flashlight!
The festival was not really what I expected. There were a lot of groups of young men—the more modern of them dressed in jeans. There were lots and lots of mohinga stands (the spicy noodle/fish stew dish that's eaten commonly for breakfast). We had some of that, plus some tea, for 50 kyat each—about 12 cents. Tutu wipes out the teacup with toilet paper for me each time we have tea, I think because Stephanie said that contaminated water left on plates is one way to get travelers diarrhea. Then there was main platform, on which the entertainment was to take place, and that was it. At least, that's all that I saw. The entertainment started around 9 or so, and Tutu said it would last all night. The open area in front of the stage was already jam packed with people—lots of shiny black heads in front of me. I stood more towards the back, but had no problem whatsoever seeing over people's heads. I practically don't notice it at all anymore, but of course I'm about a head taller than most adults. I saw about 5 acts—one of them involved about 6 women dancing in the traditional style, kicking around the long skirt of their dress. The rest were all singers—singing tragedies, Tutu said. There was no applause between acts. Of course, I didn't understand the words, but even if I had, I think compared to American style entertainment, it was on the boring side. The singers just stood there, for the most part not moving at all, occasionally swaying a little. I can see why American movies are big money makers around the world—they're basically very good entertainment. The singing was also amplified to the point that I'm sure people's hearing was being damaged—I had my earplugs with, thank goodness, and had them in the whole time.
The backlighting feature on my palm pilot was really useful—I took notes while I was standing in the dark in front of the stage. Very cool.
September 15, 2000
When I got up and walked to breakfast this morning I saw 4 people in a little grassy lawn area at this hotel (which is kind of bungalow style), squatting and cutting the grass by hand with the cast iron scissors that they use here, the ones that I've seen work very poorly. It must take them forever to do that little area, which could be done in about 2 minutes with a lawnmower. I suppose people's time isn't very valuable here.
At breakfast this morning I was served honeydew melon by a woman who wasn't a regular server. The regular servers are more familiar with foreigners, but I think this woman was so in awe of foreigners, or perhaps so afraid of doing something wrong, that she made a wide arc behind me, and approached me from the left, saying "excuse me", and placing the dish. In general, people are tremendously respectful, always opening doors, calling me "madam", etc. Sometimes they call me "sir" as well—so far I haven't corrected anyone.
I was going to rent bikes today, and ride around with Tutu. But I decided that it would be to hot, so I asked him to get a taxi to go to Mt. Popa, which is about an hour's drive away. It's a steep mountain with a temple on top, and along the path to the top, which is famous as a home for the nats, or spirits. It was great to drive in a regular taxi, very comfortable up in the front where I can see things. I tried putting on the seat belt, but it seemed like nobody had ever tried before—I could only pull it out a little bit, and wasn't able to put it on.
The area around Bagan, towards Mt. Popa is quite barren, just some occasional fields (being plowed, as usual, by oxen). Lots of herds of sheep and cows in the road that we had to stop for.
One area we passed through was known for the production of palm sugar, and we stopped to see how the sugar was processed. They have little ladders up the palm tree, and at the top, where the flowers are, the flower buds are cut into, and the sap drips into little pottery bowls. They make beer out of the fermented sap as well, I had a smell of it but didn't taste—there was a fly floating in it. Then the sap is boiled for a long time, to cook it down. Eventually they put spoonfulls of it on a flat surface, and when it dries it's a very raw type of candy, that tastes quite good—a little like brown sugar. I bought a little wicker basket full, for 50 kyat. I felt a little bad—the woman asked for 50 kyat to begin with, then I asked Tutu how much I should offer her in return. He said "Normally we don't make bargain with very poor people".
It's wonderful to be the only tourist in a spot. I remember the tour I did in Thailand, where we stopped at a palm sugar processing place—a much more modern operation, of course. But there were busloads and vanloads of tourists wandering around. As long as I'm not feeling totally isolated, it's great to have a place to myself. I practiced saying goodbye to people in Burmese. It takes a little while for it to sink in to bystanders that I've said something in Burmese, then they laugh delightedly. Or maybe they're laughing at me—who knows. Once when I was practicing asking how much something was ("Bey laut ley?") the woman laughed, embarassed. Tutu said that she was afraid of me, now that I could speak their language. I could have reassured her that she need not worry. I am starting to understand a lot of the numbers, though.
We stopped just before Mt. Popa at a nat temple complex. There were many people dressed in brown clothing around, praying and walking. Tutu said that brown clothing is seen as religious clothing in general, and is not specific to nats. However, I haven't noticed a lot of brown clothing at Buddhist temples, only at nat temples. It is hard to differentiate completely between the two, though, since often there are nat shrines inside Buddhist temples. There was a tall gay man (or maybe he was wearing high heels?) wearing a fancy gown with lots of makeup on, singing, all as part of the nat worship. Tutu told me that only gays or women can dance and have the nat spirits enter their body. He calls gays "sissy boys". At one point, there was a general shuffle and surge forward, and Tutu said that the people from the temple were going to distribute money as an act of benevolence. There was a clamour to get to the front of the group, where they were about to throw bills into the crowd, and I tried to get a picture but couldn't time it properly. I saw handfulls of bills fluttering over the heads of the crowd, and people grabbing for them. They also scattered hard boiled eggs, some of which were trampled into the ground, and started to scatter cigarettes, but there was such a crush that they made the men (there were only men) line up and gave them out, one by one.
There's 37 nat spirits, all of whom died violently. The one that's supposed to protect you on voyages died on a sea voyage, thrown out onto the waves to propitiate the angry gods during a storm. Tutu said his father told him that it doesn't do any good to pray to the nat spirits, because if they can't even protect themselves from violent death, then how are they going to protect the people that pray to them?
Tutu and I walked up to the top of Mt. Popa. Actually, I think it's not really Mt. Popa, but a mountain right next to Mt. Popa, the core of an old volcano, which is the focus of the worship. It took about thirty minutes to get to the top; with a cement staircase (sometimes very uneven) going the whole way up, covered, and usually lined with stalls selling religious souveniers. I saw the Israeli woman traveling alone at the top—she had apparently rented a pickup for 400 kyat, one way. I didn't quite get the details, but it must have been a ride on a regular multi-person pickup, because 400 kyat wouldn't even pay for the gas. I'm paying about $13 for the taxi. I also saw one of those religious monk/hermits that I read about in the guidebook, the ones that wear a really funny hat—tall, and heart shaped at the top, if I remember correctly.
On the way down from the temple at the top, I was accosted by a "buddhist monk" who wasn't really. It was a weird little encounter, this guy who was dressed as a buddhist monk, but had some weird animal skin rolled up on his shoulder, started talking to me. I guess I tend to think of monks as more trustworty than the general population, so I chatted with him a bit. He was a sailer previously, and had completed a 6 month course at some naval academy in California—I think it was San Diego, and busily laid out all the paperwork of his life—old sailor ids, some kind of id that showed he was a licensed monk, etc. Of course, I have no idea what was genuine or not. Plus, he had a whole book full of travelers that he's spoken to, who wrote little messages in there. He asked me to write something in there as well. It began to seem kind of like a scam. I read what other people had written—there was a lot of "this guy is really great, he's so friendly". I wrote a little something about Mt. Popa, and didn't mention him. I think it was definitely some kind of scam; nothing serious, just that he basically wants people to give him presents. He gave me a little piece of cardboard on which he wrote something quickly, "one peace, one life, live holy". That's only vaguely paraphrased, though. He also gave me two very dinky little religious medallions that he said another traveler had given him. I think the scam is that he gives you a couple things, so you start to feel obligated to give him something, which would of course be of much higher value.
Tutu mentioned it later on, during lunch. He said the man ignored him because he (Tutu) didn't treat him with the respect due a monk, because Tutu thought he wasn't a real monk. He also said that a real monk would never act like that, accosting strangers, giving presents, and asking people to write in his book.
We had lunch in a town about 10 minutes away from Mt. Popa, in a restaurant that was pretty nice looking. There was a family of prosperous looking Burmese sitting next to us, dressed up, with a huge spread of curries in front of them. After lunch, I went across the road to buy custard apples—the streets are full of vendors selling custart apples. I even saw a tree nearby. At first she said 6 for 40 kyat, but then she ended up giving me more than 6. I think it was because it was I asked for ripe ones, which sell for less, because people want ones that don't need to be eaten that same day. I also got a large guava for 25 kyat.
Back at the hotel room, I ate a couple. They were a little overripe, I think. Then Tutu and I went out on bikes to go see the sunset from another temple. I got some great pictures of the setting sun on the temples. There was some kind of very luxurious government guest house between that temple and the river, though, so I didn't get any good west-facing shots. Plus, the sunset wasn't that great. Two individual Japanese tourists were there, each with their guides. Japanese seem to hire guides much more frequently than other nationalities. We biked around right after sunset along some of the dirt roads that wind through old Bagan. It was beautiful, cool, and a great time to see the temples. It would be wonderful to be back in Bagan around December of January, when the temperatures are much lower. Of course, there's many more tourists then, as well.
We had dinner at one of the relatively large roadside stands. None of them seem to have any business. Tutu talked to me about his life as a guide. He said that only the most experienced and the least experienced (he counts himself as the later) guides are freelance. The least experienced just hang out like he does, at places like the Shwedagon Paya, and try to get an opportunity to guide tourists around. He said that at times he feels like it's begging. I can understand that. He and his sister tried to rent an apartment in town a while back, because she's also a guide, and it's inconvenient for her to come into town a lot, because the bus ride is about an hour, and as a guide she sometimes has to stay out late, when there are no buses. But it didn't work well, they really needed a telephone, which is hard to get, and it was hard to find reliable people to take messages for them. A while back he had the opportunity to go overseas, to work in Singapore, but his parents refused. He said "They love me too much". Now, he said, although he doesn't blame them at all, he would tell them to please not be opposed to any opportunity like that, because there's so little opportunity here.
Apparently his father had a stroke about 6 months ago, and needs quite a bit of care. His family used to make the leather thongs that you see everywhere here, but now have a very hard time finding inexpensive leather, so they don't do that anymore. He said that the they have a television and a VCR, which means that they can't be all that badly off.
September 16, 2000
This is my first full day back in Yangon again, after flying in from Bagan yesterday morning. I'm feeling much better compared to yesterday. That's actually not saying that much, because yesterday I felt very ill. I basically had traveler's diarrhea, but it was very bad, and weakened me tremendously. It started early Friday morning, around 3:00 AM. I was pretty much awake after that point, running to the bathroom every hour or so with some really watery diarrhea—like opening up a faucet. I heard it said that the feeling you get with traveler's diarrhea is "washing machine stomach", and I think it's an accurate description. My gut felt like it was churning, moving too fast and too violently. I'm not positive about what caused it, but I think it may have been the custard apples I bought in the town just outside of Mt. Popa. They were so ripe that they were partly open, and perhaps bacteria got inside. Otherwise, I believe I've been eating relatively safely.
Yesterday morning, before I flew out of Bagan, Tutu met me for breakfast. He offered to take me to visit his family and his native village, about a half hour taxi ride from Yangon, after I got back to Yangon on Sunday. It sounds like a great idea—I'd love to meet his family. Hope I'm feeling better.
At the Bagan airport there were almost nothing but tourists—not the backpacker-type tourists, but people who go on trips of 2 or 3 weeks, like me. There was the Italian group of about 7, there was one couple that could have been American, and then there were about 7 individual Japanese travelers, all with guides except for one Japanese couple. I had seen most of them before in Bagan, around the ruins. There was also that one guide who spoke Japanese really well and had lived in Japan for 6 years; he seems like a very cheerful and very friendly fellow and asked me about Tutu, who's taking the bus back. I wasn't really inclined to talk to anyone, though; I was too busy monitoring my stomach.
Unfortunately I wasn't able to fly directly to Yangon; I had to fly through Mandalay and Heho first. I'm glad I didn't take the bus, though, that would have been a hellish 13 hour plus ride, with me wondering the whole time when I would need to go to the toilet, and whether I would make it in time.
Mandalay was interesting to see from the air again, now that I recognized some spots. I saw the moat and the castle, the Sedona hotel, and the Mandalay Swan hotel. Plus I saw some ruins across from the east side of the moat that I hadn't read about in the guidebook; it would have been interesting to see them up close. In Heho I remembered what I had read in the guidebook about the runway—that it was the narrowest one in existence for a commercial airport. It certainly looked extremely narrow—I don't think it was even as wide as the plane.
The bathroom on the plane was very dirty. It looked like people squatted on the toilet seat instead of sitting on it, since they're accustomed to squatting here. The bathroom door got stuck on me, too, it got off the tracks and had to be opened from outside. Good thing there was a stewardess right there. The little plastic cups they gave us, filled with soda or water, must have been discounted remnants from Thailand or somewhere—they were cups like you would have at a boy's birthday party. Mine said "Dinosaurs" on it and had little pictures of brightly colored dinosaurs playing on it.
When I arrived in Yangon, there was the man I recognized from the Yoma Hotel there to meet me. Tutu had called him from Bagan previously, and asked them to meet me. He had a sheet of paper with my name printed on it in his hands. I was really glad to see him—I was in no shape to go out and bargain for a taxi. He was very friendly and talkative, and took me on a little tour of Yangon on the way into the hotel, pointing out sites of interest such as the university, parks, some military sites, etc. I tried to be polite and show interest, but I felt really tired and sick.
As soon as we got to the hotel, I sent Eric a short email, saying that I had arrived, ordered some toast and tea to be sent to my room, and went to bed. The boy that brought the toast and tea to my room was bowing down the entire time that he was in my room, setting up the tray. I believe it's a gesture of respect, like generally holding your head low in a temple, which people do as well.
I kept on telling myself that I should get up and see about changing my flight for an earlier one, but I didn't have the energy. I think I maybe have been running a fever. Finally around 3 in the afternoon I went downstairs, and asked the lady at the reception to call the number that the guidebook said was for Korean Air. She tried and tried, but after numerous busy signals, it turned out to be the wrong number. Then she tried a different number that she had for Korean Air, but that turned out to be wrong as well. Finally she said I should just take a taxi to the address in the guidebook, so I did. The taxi driver (who seemed to be an unofficial taxi, since he didn't have a red license plate) drove me to the general area, and then stopped and asked some other people where it was. He then gave me a stack of Time and Newsweek magazines to read, pretty recent ones, and said "Please wait". I did, for about 20 minutes, in the taxi. Then he came back and said that there was no Korean Air at the address indicated, that it was 8 miles out of town, but he did have some more phone numbers for me which were supposed to the be the right ones for Korean Air. I was pretty disappointed, because I didn't believe his phone numbers would work either. After getting back to the hotel, I gave one of them a try, though, and it turned out one of them was correct. They couldn't do anything for me here at the Korean Air office in Yangon, though, they said that I had to call the Bangkok office. So I did, and voila! after 6 minutes on the phone, I had a flight that was 2 days earlier, without even any extra charges. I was so happy to learn that I could get an earlier flight. This trip has been different from my previous trip to Asia in that I have Eric to miss and think about, and 3 weeks away from him is too long.
I spent the rest of the day in my room, feeling very sick. Around 5 in the afternoon, I went upstairs one floor, to the restaurant. About 6 of the hotel staff were sitting on the floor, gambling, when I came in. They broke up their game immediately, and I told the waiter what I wanted—rice soup, making it really clear that I wanted only rice and water. I actually got pretty much that, and was able to eat a lot of it. Until I'm over the diarrhea, I want to eat only the blandest foods—rice, toast, tea, etc.
Today I spent most of the day resting in my room. I did get an email from Eric, from which it was apparent that he didn't receive my email from yesterday. I sent him another email, this time staying and waiting while the lady from the hotel sent it, to make sure it went through properly. This time she did something I hadn't seen her do before—she read the whole email before sending it. I asked her why, and she said that she was supposed to do it every time, but that she had neglected to do it before. Now, because I told her that it seemed Eric hadn't received my previous email, she was reading it to make sure that there was nothing in it the government would find offensive, because that was potentially why my previous email didn't get through. Very strange. There certainly wasn't anything even vaguely political in my previous email. I wonder what happened to it.
Around noon today I went up to the restaurant again and asked for rice soup. I obviously wasn't clear enough about only putting rice and water in it, because I got something with herbs and spices. I had a couple bites of it, but the more I had the more it tasted like underarm deodorant to me. Strange, but true. So I sent it back, and made it clear that I wanted only rice and water, and got some watery boiled rice. I had to pick one of those tiny little ants out of it, the ones that are everywhere here, but otherwise it was fine.
CNN was on in the restaurant while I was eating lunch (I was the only guest there), and at one point the waiter jumped up, and turned the volume up. I only caught on the screen the name Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the winner of the recent democratic elections that were overturned, and who is currently under house arrest in Yangon. He looked at me and grinned sheepishly. I wonder what the news was.
I saw a broadcast on CNN in my hotel room here on online education. It made me really eager to be back and connected again, and feel like a part of the larger world. Being in a country with absolutely no world wide web access, and extremely limited, expensive, inconvenient, and censored email access will do that to you. The 2 Burmese TV stations that there are both come in without sound on my hotel TV, whereas the other TV stations come in great. I wonder if the lack of sound is on purpose, if it's a quiet anti-government protest? There was a long stretch of time on one of the Burmese stations where they showed nothing but one military official after another, giving donations to a monk.
On the Indian TV station, Zee TV, it was funny to hear a word of English here and there. One quiz-style game show for little kids was entirely in English, I enjoyed that. I'm getting all emotional and teary eyed at sad things on TV, like the AIDS program that was on CNN, and even cheesy commercials. Maybe it's because I'm feeling sick.
I took a short little walk this afternoon, just to get out a bit. A boy who was trying to figure out what I wanted ("change money?" "taxi?") attached himself to me within a block. It was pretty annoying, especially feeling as sick as I did.
I was also looking for some zwieback, which is supposed to be very easy on the stomach. I bought instead some crackers made in Malaysia at a "real" supermarket—quite a bit bigger than the one in Mandalay, and it actually had some fresh produce, meat and fish (very small selection, though). At the register, the woman checking me out (I love marked prices and not having to bargain for absolutely everything!) did everything on the cash register, and then also redid the calculations with a calculator, and wrote them on the a sheet of paper.
I just had my meager little dinner upstairs in the restaurant, which I think won't see any customers other than myself tonight. My waiter (who calls me "sir") knows what I want, I don't have to explain what I mean by "rice soup". He actually offered me seconds when he saw that I had finished the whole bowl, and I accepted.
I wonder what they do if they get a customer who orders something from the regular menu? They can't possibly keep on hand all the ingredients to the dishes they have on the menu; everything would spoil on them because they have so little business.
I just got a call from Tutu. He wanted me to visit his home town and stay for a couple hours. I really would have liked to, but I think it would be too exhausting to go there, have to meet a bunch of people, and be expected to eat something. We're going to meet here tomorrow. I was thinking I'd rent a taxi for a few hours and go shopping and just drive around town, taking photos and using up my last compact flash card.
September 17, 2000
Today's the day—I'm leaving for Seattle. I'm very excited to be getting back, but I'm a tad worried about the trip—I have really bad connections, with long layovers, and it ends up as a total travel time of almost 40 hours. I'm still feeling sick. Just now I went out with Tutu—I was planning on doing some shopping at the market, and then hiring a taxi to take us around so I could get some last minute photos, because it's actually sunny out. I was going to walk to Bogyoke Market, but after 2 blocks, I decided I wasn't feeling up to it, so we took a taxi. At the market I bought some slippers (very cheap—one pair about 60 cents and another $1.25), and some snack type things that I thought Soe might like. I was going to buy a lot, and use up all my Burmese money, but after about half an hour I felt pretty ill, and decided I needed to rest again, so we headed back to the hotel in a taxi. I gave Tutu my Lonely Planet Guidebook and my sunglasses as a souvenir. He gave me back my watch—I had left it in Bagan after it didn't work anymore, but he replaced the batteries and now it works fine again. It's a lot handier than always looking up the time on my palm pilot.
I'm a little bummed about not feeling up to going around a bit in the city, and seeing things, because it's actually a fascinating city, and I haven't seen very much of it at all. Plus, it would have been so great to get pictures on a sunny day!
The guy from the hotel took me to the airport, along with Tutu, who wanted to see me off. I saw a monk there, and did a double-take. He was super tall, and obviously caucasian. Wearing Tevas, too. That was a little strange. I wonder how long he's stayed in Burma. There were lots of familiar faces waiting for the plane to Bangkok. An Muslim Indian looking guy came and sat next to me, smiling and trying to make conversation, asking where I was from, etc. He was a total slimeball, and I was very unfriendly towards him. After a while he left, and later I saw him sitting next to the group of Israeli women, leaning towards one of them, with his arm extended towards her. Yech.
There was a crowd of miltary officials there, with their families. Most of them were there to bid farewell to a high official, I learned later. They even have a separate entrace to the runway, they don't use the regular one. A couple of the Israeli women walked right next to them and partly through them—and they were in a pretty isolated section of the lobby, as well. I feel pretty sure they were just trying to rile them somehow. There was also what looked like a western journalist there. I ended up sitting next to him on the plane, and chatted with him. His name was Roger Mitton, and he's a senior reporter for AsiaWeek, who was here for only one day, to see the opening of the new Mandalay airport, which I'd heard about. Somehow there had been a screwup in plans, and he got there only after the official ceremony had happened. He said that it's relatively easy to speak with government ministers, that he'll give the ministry a list of a few ministers that he'd like to talk to, and will usually get to talk to one, and they'll usually speak English, too. He's the "official" reporter for Asiaweeek, he said they also have people who go in, not declaring themselves as reporters, and poke around. He looked very much like a reporter, too, what with the khaki reporter-style jacket and all. I told him that I'd been taking very detailed notes, and hoped to write an article for a magazine about my experiences. He suggested the "viewpoint" section of Asiaweek might be interested in an article like mine. I'll have to take a look at it.
I had to wait in Bangkok for 5 hours (and that's not the longest wait, either—in Seoul, it'll be 10). My last trip to Asia, I also had a long layover in Seoul, but it was great, because I got out of the airport, took a subway into town, and saw a lot. This time I'm not feeling well enough to do that.
I had dinner at the Thai Airways restaurant, pretty decent chicken curry. It turned out there was a midnight flight to Seoul, as well as one around 1 AM. I changed to the midnight one, thinking that perhaps in Seoul, I could fly out sooner, perhaps to another city like LA, from which I could get a flight to Seattle. They told me that there were much more frequent flights to LA.
Waiting for the plane to Seoul, I sat next to a Korean who'd grown up in the US and was an American citizen, but was currently living and working in Seoul. We had one of those instant relatively intimate airport conversations. He said he hated Seoul, and I asked if he was working there because his girlfriend is there. He said no, he hardly knows anyone at all there, that he earns about half of what a manager at an American McDonalds earns, and is in what even Koreans consider a dead-end job. I told him he should come back to the US, that there's plenty of jobs here, that there's so many people who would give their right arm to have the right to work legally in the US. He seemed extremely unmotivated, I so I tried to pep him up, and said he'd find it easy to get a job here, etc. I thought I was getting through to him, but then he told me I'd given him an idea—he could sell his passport!
There was a group of Africans at the gate who were making a big hubub, presumably about not being able to get on the plane. They were eventually led away by security.
The flight to Seoul was wonderful. It was very empty, and from the moment I got on, I was scooping out the possibility of getting 3 or even 4 seats to myself, and sleeping on them. I asked a stewardess, and she said she'd tell me when boarding was finished, and then I could move around. But before she told me anything, some guys took the stretch of seats I'd had my eye on. I was very disappointed, but then she came by and said there was still a stretch of empty seats in the section ahead of us, so I went up there immediately and claimed them. What a great sleep! 5 seats, 5 pillows available, all the blankets I needed. I just covered head with the blanket, and slept really well.
I was woken up by the smell of breakfast. I ended up having a Korean breakfast, which was basically rice and fish. The fish was pretty bland without a tube of that hot pepper sauce that they use here a lot.
Getting to Seoul, I asked immediately about changing my ticket to go through LA, which left much earlier. The woman at the counter said I'd need a new ticket. I went back a couple times throughout the day, to see if talking to different people would yield a different answer, but no go. I ended spending almost 11 hours in that airport! I was hoping to get one of the seats that you can lay down on, but they were all taken. That was a pretty rotten layover. I finished my novel, tried to sleep, watched people.
On the flight from Seoul to San Francisco, I sat next to a chatty Filipino woman who said she was dying of diabetes. She was very motherly and gave me a lot of advice, told me I should have kids very soon because I'm not getting any younger.
And that's the end, folks! I flew as scheduled to Seattle from San Francisco, where Eric met me at the airport. Life is good!