Archive: Pagodas of Yangon (and the odd plastic stool)

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The next day, after sitting at a dusty junction for several hours entertaining a small gaggle of ladies by standing up every five minutes trying to get on buses that turn out not to be mine, I finally board and wave them goodbye. Although the road is surprisingly good, it’s a long way, and by the time I rock up on the outskirts of Yangon I’ve pretty much lost the ability to think. After ten minutes of tense negotiation without a common language I’m put in a minibus with all the other people I was just in a bus with, and driven into the city centre.

Further discussions ensue once we near the centre, and a small crowd gathers around the Lonely Planet to figure out where I need to be. My destination, fortunately, turns out to be explicable with reference to pagodas, and thus a suitably respectable middle-aged lady is found to get off the bus with me and point me in the right direction. The city is laid out on a grid pattern, so I soon locate my hotel. Which is closed, it being 5am, so I find a plastic stool with my name on it and have some tea. Until 6am. When I check in. And am shouted at by the owner for booking the wrong date. Bemused, I head to my room to discover that my friend has arrived a day early.

Streets of Yangon (By Dudva)

The streets of Yangon, by Dudva (own work). My camera had died…

I like leaving capitals until last, but having adapted to the pace of a town like Kalaw, Yangon is a bit of a shock. Cars! Crowded streets! More than one street! Fortunately I am not the only one acclimatising, and the first day passes at a leisurely pace. Equally leisurely is the evening of my birthday, despite our best efforts to find anywhere that’s open past ten. Still, it does put Hanoi nightlife in a positive light.

The city has a bustle and a purpose to it that’s quite different to the northern cities I’ve been in so far, and a lively tea shop culture that reminds me in many ways of Hanoi, only where Hanoi has herby meaty phở noodles and crusty French baguettes, Yangon has crunchy fishy mohinga noodles and slightly squashed-looking packaged cream cakes. It’s much hotter down south, so I’m grateful for the chance to duck into a tea shop at any given hour.

Distracting as the bustle, the cars, the colonial buildings of the Strand Road may be, you have only to look up to remind yourself that you’re in Burma. As elsewhere, Yangon life clearly revolves around its pagodas, foremost among them being the downtown Sule Paya and the towering Shwedagon Paya high on Singuttara hill, whose 100 metre high golden stupa dominates the Western skyline. Legend has it that both are over 2,500 years old, and while that’s probably optimistic, legends don’t have to be true to inspire belief.

Shwedagon Pagoda by night

Shwedagon Pagoda by night (by Sky89)

Like so many other tourists, we head to Shwedagon to see the sunset, but having no minders to whisk us away we linger for hours. Entering through a quiet, shaded staircase only magnifies the impact on emerging into the light. The central stupa and its myriad smaller temples, shrines and statues burn bright gold in the heat of the day, the tiled floor baking tired feet circling, awestruck. As the sun falls they fade to rusty crimson, before turning greenish gold under the lights. All the while the temple throngs with people: young couples, extended families, pilgrims, visiting monks, photographers, a particularly annoying elderly American tour group in twinset and pearls. We sit and soak up the gentle hum of reverence as darkness falls, confident that my two dollar torch will get us home safe.

From here on September 20th 2011.

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Archive: Further adventures of foreign ghosts

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Another morning feast, and we’re off. San Mya is a great guide, acting as our tireless interpreter and also boasting an encyclopaedic knowledge of the various trees and herbs and what they can be used for. My absolute favourite is the spiny cactus – break off the spine, dry the fibrous strands attached to it, and hey presto! Instant sewing kit. At one point she confides in us that as a child, she thought foreigners carried backpacks to steal away children in. She’s come a long way.

We stop again in a monastery, this one quite a different proposition with three “young” monks and three “old”, and fifty-five young novices. Again the tea and snacks come out for the visiting dignitaries.

As in the previous day’s school stop, the children are leaning over texts and reading them aloud, though – also like yesterday – a good deal of the attention is wandering over to the tourists and their tableful of treats. Sat at the back all alone is a small crimson-clad boy. He’s new and can’t read yet, we’re told. The teacher in me wonders why they don’t pair him up with another boy who can read – he’d probably be reading before you know it, and he certainly wouldn’t feel so left out.

Farmers near Inle Lake

Hard at work tilling the orange dust around Lake Inle

Saved by the lunch bell, the novices dash off for what will be their last meal of the day, and we head for the village where we will stop for lunch. Our short monastery stop having turned into a long one, we’re out in the noonday sun, and the heat makes it quite a slog. Just as I’m about to give up and plop to my knees in the dust, we arrive at the Danu village of Kone La. The owners are treated to the sight of a bunch of zonked foreigners crashed out on their floor waiting for a feed.

Dinner is at a monastery in Park Tupork, a Taungtu village. Here we catch our first glimpse of other tourists, a whole two of them. Dinner is set up to be another romantic candlelight affair when CLUNK, a generator whirs into action and we’re surrounded by neon-lit Buddhas and fairy lights. We make room around our little table and chat with our guides until the cold sets in and we scamper off to bed.

The next morning we’re up early and drawing a small crowd of open-mouthed children as we slap on sunblock. It’s strange that this should be so surprising, as the vast majority of Burmese women and children on any given street will be wearing thick beige thanaka paste to ward off the evil effects of the sun. Could be the secret of our ghostly whiteness?

It’s a dawdly kind of morning with lots of food stops, including one where our magic chef gets embroiled in a lively game of under the noonday sun – so lively, in fact, that on arrival at our boat he promptly collapses in a heap in the prow and snoozes all the way to Inle. We’re also joined by a large and unhappy-looking group who appear to be trekking with the Golden Lily crew. Lucky escape.

Lake Inle

On Lake Inle

Heading down to the lake shore, the scenery changes dramatically. The rust-coloured chilli fields are replaced with carefully-maintained irrigation channels bridged with sometimes treacherous bamboo planks. Before we know it, we arrive at our boat. The trek’s almost over.

Inle Lake is enormous. Breathtakingly huge. It’s hard to tell where lake ends and land begins – floating greenery or solid ground? In the distance are hazy silhouettes of fishermen, steering with their feet, a method that looks more likely to pitch them into the water than take any fish out of it.

Through a combination of laziness and miscalculation, this was all I saw of Inle Lake. I spent the next day lazing around with my trek buddies, and only realised on booking a bus on to Yangon that I’d lost a day. In any case, a lovely place to do nothing in.

From here on July 31st 2011.

Archive: Adventures with San Mya and the magic chef

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View from around Kalaw

The temples hot on my heels, I fled to the hills.

The first day we walk south along high mountains to Lupin. The views down into the valleys are breathtaking, and the tapestry of colours woven by the different crops – green garlic, red chillis – is quite beautiful. We poke our heads into a school with the express intention of distracting the students from all further study. The whole school is in one room, a corner for each grade. One teacher is overseeing it all as the children read and repeat from their books. To think, I get narky when the internet goes down mid-class.

We then “take a look” in the local monastery, which involves being offered giant heaps of fried sticky rice snacks and a neverending supply of tea. The monk lives here on his own, so his brother has joined him to help out and keep him company. Although he’s older, the monk is the better preserved – no kids and a life indoors will do that (er, and his faith, of course). Judging from the breadth of their grins and their reluctance to let us leave, they don’t get too many visitors.

Time to make our apologies as we head to the Danu village of Lupin for lunch. Our mysterious magic chef has somehow appeared before us and whips up a banquet – no worries that we’ll waste away here. Suitably fed and watered, we wait for the sun to fade a little before heading on to the Paoh village of Kyuksu, passing bands of Paoh people in traditional dress walking back from a festival in Inle.

Dinner in Kyuksu is by candlelight, for the chef as well as the diners. The darkness doesn’t faze our chef one bit, and we’re glad for the roaring fire – it’s cold this far up. After dinner we’re invited into a home to chat through our interpreter and drink even more tea. We’re told how beautiful we are, and how tall and how white, and introduced to each new arrival until the small room is crammed with about fifteen people all asking us questions from the candle gloom.

Once we’ve answered the same set of questions a sufficient number of times, attention switches to dressing us girls up in the traditional garb we saw earlier today, a loose black shirt and jacket over an embroidered longyi, topped with an elaborately folded dragon headscarf. I feel a bit daft, especially as I’ve jeans on underneath, but at least I don’t get the feeling we’re the twentieth tour group through that month. The local people do seem genuinely excited to host us, and judging by the volume and frequency of the giggles we’re pretty entertaining guests.

The conversation and candles eventually run out, and we fumble our way back to our quarters and sleep until first light.

From here on July 17th 2011.

Archive: Making friends in high places

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There’s no dressing up 3:30 as a sensible time to catch a bus. I stumble blearily to my seat and collapse straight into a snoring mouth-open dribbly kind of sleep until the bus stops for coffee. I utter my first bleary words to my neighbour, who turns out to be lovely. He doesn’t even laugh too uproariously when the first thing I do upon re-embarking is drop the cap of a full 1 litre bottle of water out of reach among the stools and bags and feet. Still, could be worse. I could be the impossibly tall guy with his spiderlegs up around his ears who eventually succeeds in persuading the driver to let him ride on the roof.

On arrival in Kalaw, we don’t have far to look to find the Singhs of the Golden Lily Guesthouse, who have somehow wangled themselves a good three pages of the Lonely Planet, as they’re waiting by the bus stop. Their guesthouse is fine – nothing to write home about, but not outstandingly uncomfortable for $5 a night. The problem is more the trekking sales onslaught from the moment we set foot through the door, and the speed with which the smiles disappear when we refuse to sign our names in blood. It’s pretty daggers drawn – when we start to back out, they switch to badmouthing the competition, bringing out an array of laminated complaints and official notices. Clearly used to being the only game in town, these tactics, combined with the sheer unfriendliness of the staff, only succeed in driving people away.

View around Kalaw

Up where the air is clear

That evening a small insurgent group conduct a little research involving whiskey and some locals. Falling into a neat group, we sign up with Sam’s Trekking Guide, who distinguish themselves by offering a choice of routes to Inle Lake, capping the maximum number at four, and showing at least some concern over my masochistic desire to climb hill and dale for three days in a pair of beaten-up Birkenstock sandals. Reassured that my hobbit feet will withstand the abuse, they agree to let us meet our guide later that evening.

After some more concerted sleeping, we troop back at 6 to find a fifth wannabe member of the group, who’s been told to “ask our permission” to join, which is nice. At least they don’t just spring people on you. We also meet our guide, San Mya, from the Paoh tribe. Warm, giggly, and 19 years old, she divides her time between trekking, university, and cooking for a school. She’s just back from a 3-day trek to discover that she’s leaving on another in the morning.

We reconvene at 8:30 the next morning after another risible breakfast at the Golden Lily (another coffee? Another 100 kyat! And all the while the family eat from a table groaning with chappatis). We’re 8 in all – the five of us, San Mya, a second (quite painfully shy) guide, and our chef, who will flit mysteriously in and out of sight but somehow always be in the kitchen when needed.

And so began what was to be the absolute high point of my trip.

From here on June 23rd 2011.

Archive: When a man is tired of temples

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The next day I just don’t have the energy for being beaten down by the sun all day, so I hire a man with a horse and cart and sit in bumpy padded luxury. We head to farther-flung sights, but I’m already getting temple fatigue. Some of the temples have beautiful 13th-century drawings on the inside, but you’d need to be familiar with Buddhist lore to get much out of them.

Once again, I’m finding that the places I get most out of are those where I’m allowed to sit and rest, and to chat to people who don’t suddenly change tack and start laying out lacquerware or paintings, leaving me with the guilty dilemma – did they really take me around for free? Or do I have to buy something in return? Because it does happen, I don’t want to be too quick to shoo away anyone who starts up a conversation, but just as I think I’ve got the hang of it, I get talked into buying some lacquerware at what must be a damn good price for the seller, given that I quickly get swarmed by every single seller within a one mile radius.

The Bagan Viewing Tower and temples

The Bagan Viewing Tower – helping you see temples you might otherwise have missed

The sunset of the neverending sand paintings shows silhouetted temples as far as the eye can see, though these are only a handful of over 2,000 temples, many still used by worshippers today. Out here, though, the skyline is dominated, stamped all over really, by an ugly red-brick structure some 60 metres tall. This is the Bagan Viewing Tower, built by “independent entrepreneur” (and close friend of General Than Shwe) Tay Za. 

According to this website, the tower “has now emerged to accord a unique panoramic view of the ancient kingdoms and their environs. It’s a vision of rare exotic beauty, a vision of a legendary past, a vision of a great king. It’s unlike anything you have ever seen.” Which is not true, because I’ve seen egregious eyesores before. Still, as the old joke goes, “Why’s the Bagan Viewing Tower the best place to see Bagan?” “Because if you’re there, you can’t see the Bagan Viewing Tower”.

The horse, and driver, are about to expire, so I let them take me home for curry. After being invited for tea at an earnest young man’s house “any time you are in Mrauk U”, which may well be never, I head home.

The next day, having tried and failed to drum up interest in a shared taxi to Mount Popa (and got up 2 hours after the sole pick-up leaves), is pretty free. I hire a bike and wander in the general direction of Old Bagan, cycling around in circles until I can feasibly go for lunch.

I end up somewhere lovely, opposite the Lonely Planet-stamped place. They’re warm and friendly, and I could have filled up just fine on the “presents” that keep coming. It’s a family enterprise, and with 7 daughters and 1 son it’s quite a family. The youngest daughter potters around firing a toy gun and putting her skirt over her head, while the walls are heavy with the elder daughters’ graduation photos.

The food is beautiful – charcoal slow-roasted aubergine mashed with garlic, peanuts and salt. I also try a little of their “guacamole” – locally grown avocado that’s rich and silky and absolutely divine. Food in Myanmar is strongly influenced by each of its neighbours, and draws also from the diverse ethnic background of the country. Access to beautifully fresh ingredients doesn’t harm either.

Farmers in Bagan

These ladies are planting pagodas

From here on June 10th 2011.

Archive: Backyard temples, and an especially auspicious field

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The bus journey to Bagan ranks among the worst I’ve ever taken, although at 8 hours it is mercifully short. Yes, this is what they mean by “poor infrastructure”, and the locals cope with this by hawking, spitting and vomiting. Usually into plastic bags, but sometimes nature creeps up on them. We stop every ten yards or so to ingest or disgorge rice, people, boxes, etc. I distract myself by eating random things – spicy noodles, doughballs stuffed with coconut, wobbly things in broth – until we arrive at Nyaung U, the low-budget traveller’s gateway to the temples of Bagan.

Shwezigon Pagoda front door

The front door of Shwezigon Pagoda

Having checked in to my budget accommodation of choice, I wave myself under a trickle of cold water in an attempt to freshen up, then meander down the main road and round the back of Schwezigon Pagoda. I feel a bit like I’m prying, as I wander among the laundry and skirt an energetic game of chinlon (rattan ball keepy-uppy) right in the back yard of the gold-domed stupa. The stupa appeals for its quietness, and its freedom from tourists – and touts, which I will soon discover is not true in much of Bagan. I’m left to wander, contentedly, and tempted as I am to snap the kids’ game from an artistic angle it feels far too intrusive. The camera stays away.

This real-life going on among the temples is all the nicer to see, as residents of what is now “Old Bagan” were all relocated – a cynic would say forcibly – in 1990. Better to preserve temples for tourists than have citizens live among them and worship in them, clearly. 

The government is fond of moving people. In 2005 the junta announced that the capital was moving from Yangon (Rangoon), home to some 5 million people, to an as yet unnamed site that had previously been nothing but fields. The process of moving ministries to the new site began on 6 November at the “auspicious” time of 6:37am; family members were initially prohibited from joining officials until some infrastructure could be built. In March 2006, on Burmese Armed Forces Day, the name of the new capital was officially announced: Naypyidaw, the abode of kings.

Reports suggest that the infrastructure is still being built, and visitors say that this is happening more by muscle than machinery. Once again, allegations of forced and underage labour have, as if by magic, attached themselves to the regime. Rare photographs such as those here show an uncanny clash of candy-coloured modern prefabs – supposedly colour-coded by ministry – with the ragged low roofs of slums. The generals themselves are zoned 11km away from other employees in a heavily restricted zone which, according to this Time report, appears on the map as a blank space. 

It’s this kind of distance from ordinary people which is necessary to maintain the kind of visionary thinking that boldly forges ahead in moving nearly a million people to a half-imagined city in the scrub, forcing them to leave their families behind, at immense cost to an impoverished and starving nation, but still has the courage to prioritise the completion of a selection of golf courses, a game the generals are allegedly rather partial to. Seriously, even China criticised the generals on this one. Given their complicity in supporting the junta, drawing their censure is quite an achievement.

Shwezigon Pagoda

Shwezigon Pagoda: the sweet pre-sunset no-tourist spot

From here on June 8th 2011.

Archive: Dirt roads around Mandalay

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The real reason to stay in Mandalay is not the city itself, but the surrounding area. Here I was faced with a dilemma – what to do? A whistlestop tour of everything by taxi? A share taxi up to Pyin U Lwin, the former British hill station? A stay in Sagaing and a leisurely stroll around its faded but not forgotten glory? Or – and here I had a flash of trademark Caroline brand genius – hire a rickety bicycle with two shopping baskets and no suspension, and do a 20-mile round-trip to Amarapura, a former royal capital comprising temples and an evocative teak bridge. Consider that boneshaker hired.

Elephants near Mandalay

Ah. Hence the traffic jam.

So clatter-clatter off I go southwards on 84th street, after a few false starts and an impromptu visit to a family’s backyard (very friendly chickens). The traffic is easy to deal with, although complicated slightly by the need to reply to everyone shouting “Hello!”, and sometimes also “Good morning!” I pootle happily along for some distance, stopping only to buy more water from a very polite man in a turban, when suddenly I hit mayhem – we’re mired in hazy beeping pick-ups as far as the eye can see. Using my narrow bicycularity to my advantage, I edge forward, and diagnose the cause of the problem: elephants. Donkeys too, and a large procession of people in sparkly clothes and tinsly head-pieces, but there’s no doubt: we’re caught in an elephant jam.

As I’ve very little idea where I am, I decide to follow the elephants as they turn off down a loopy-signposted side road (guy who romanised Vietnamese, thank you, I never realised how much easier you make my life). I double-check directions with a man standing by the side of the road, who confirms that I’m going in the right direction, and tells me that he’s an Arsenal fan for good measure. 


A paya pwe, or pagoda festival

Turns out I’d arrived in the middle of a paya pwe, or pagoda festival. Everyone was very excited.

Shortly, the elephants and I arrive at the temple complex of Somewhere, and I sit in the shade eating banana chips and watching the human participants fussing and faffing, posing for pictures and reapplying makeup in readiness for whatever important thing it is that they’ll be doing. Rested (and trying not to stare too hard), I head inside. It’s a massive complex, and clearly of some importance as there are bus-loads of foreign monks visiting (and me). The devotion is palpable – no snoozing in the pew here – but I do wish I had more idea what everything meant. 

After a suitable wander, I explore the other wonders of the region. I clatter my way down narrow alleys and stumble upon the world’s most languid train station, its sign all askew and showing no signs of life apart from three lads playing with a plastic bag. Then I set off for U-Bein’s bridge, and proceed to get hopelessly lost, ending up halfway towards Sagaing and meeting a fair number of chickens en route. There seems to be absolute consensus that the bridge can be reached by going in all of seventeen different directions. I do catch a glimpse of it, but only from behind a big scary no entry sign. It’s getting dark, and my bottom hurts. Dejected, but pleased to have found what I did find, and to have experienced such warm and friendly misdirection, I creak off home.

A railway station near Mandalay

Turns out I could have gone by train.

From here on June 8th 2011.