Burma in Photos

“What does Burma have to give the United States? We can give you the opportunity to engage with people who are ready and willing to change a society.”  – Aung San Suu Kyi

Many of the people who stumble on this blog may never have thought about traveling to Burma, or even know exactly where it is without glancing at a map of Asia. That’s OK, it’s a big world. Here’s a gallery of some of my favorite Burma photos that just might make you want to visit.

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Ruled by the moon and the spirit of the tiger

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Beautiful, isn’t it? But don’t say I didn’t warn you- if you visit, you’ll fall in love.

 

 

24 Things I Loved About Burma

Sometimes I feel guilty about writing the negative aspects of my posts. Even though honesty demands that the negative be included along with the positive, I tend to feel like an ugly, entitled American when another country doesn’t live up to my expectations. To help combat that feeling, here is a list of 24 things I absolutely loved about Burma.

  1. The people are so nice, and genuinely try to be helpful to lost foreigners.
  2. Tiny monks everywhere.
  3. Gorgeous temples everywhere.
  4. The food is pretty good.
  5. I felt completely safe nearly everywhere as a solo female traveler. Being a Buddhist country, there is very little crime, especially against tourists.
  6. Many people have learned a little bit of English, either in school or free classes taught in the monasteries, and are very eager to try out what they know. Especially cute are the shy little kids who will run up to you and yell, “Hello-goodbye!” before running back to their parents.
  7. Women and children wearing thick yellow thanaka paste on their faces as sunscreen.
  8. People here have a charming affinity for western cartoon characters. Even grown men will travel with a Mickey Mouse or Snoopy duffel bag.
  9. The hot air balloon ride in Bagan. Pure magic.
  10. Children are remarkably well behaved here.
  11. The Islamic community in Mandalay. My hotel was right next to a large mosque and I loved to sit in the window and list to their calls to worship.
  12. Chapatis and Nepali food in Mandalay.
  13. Horse carts in Bagan.
  14. Going barefoot in all the Buddhist temples and monasteries. Somehow the act of removing your shoes makes the experience so much more reverent.
  15. My first day in Yangon, a toothless old woman approached me on the street and handed me  a beautiful white flower. Thinking she was selling them, I shook my head ‘no’ but she pressed it into my hands anyway and said, “Gift!”
  16. The way people worship their Buddhas, lovingly covering them with gold and flowers, washing them and making offerings of rice and incense. Misdirection of time and resources that it might be, I think almost all forms of worship are beautiful to witness.
  17. Little nat (earth spirit) shrines hidden in tress and other surprising places.
  18. Even though so many people here are going hungry or lacking basic necessities, there is virtually no theft. I watched a homeless man sitting on the dirty street pick up money and go chasing after the German tourist who had dropped it.
  19. The pervasive smell of jasmine.
  20. Making a wish at Shwedagon Paya in the ‘wish fulfilling place’.
  21. Nylon Ice Cream Bar, Mandalay.
  22. The beautiful, if chilly, boat ride across Inle Lake.
  23. The smell of incense.
  24. People who speak some English eagerly try to communicate with foreigners. Those who don’t just smile and laugh a lot.

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36 Hours on the Burmese Death Train

March 29, 2009- Welcome to the worst travel experience of my entire life. I have spent the last 36 hours in bed in a room without electricity due to rolling blackouts, consuming nothing but cans of tepid orange Sunkist from the mini fridge. Pretty sure I have malaria, even though I have been on Doxycycline since before leaving the US. I’m lethargic, having cold sweats, and feel like I have a fever. It’ll surely be hours before my driver picks me up to take me to the train station and I remembered passing a wooden shack with a “pharmacy” sign on the way into town, so I gather up all of my strength and make the two mile walk to see if I can buy a thermometer. It costs $1.00 and I tuck it into my green quilted tote bag for safe keeping during the long trudge back to my hotel.

The thermometer doesn’t work. I don’t have the time or energy to walk another four miles to take it back. I try to get online to check WebMD for early symptoms of malaria, but the Internet is down again. I try to eat breakfast but can’t keep anything down. I’m definitely dying.

I schlep to the hotel office to see if any of the employees know when my driver is picking me up. The older of the two women behind the counter tell me they expect him at 9:00 a.m. since the train leaves at 10:00. I show her my itinerary from the travel agent which shows the train leaves at 8:00. She shrugs. I panic. “Can you possibly call someone to check? I can’t miss this train.” She shrugs again.

“No phone today. It’ll be OK.”

“No, seriously, I can’t miss this train. If I miss this train I’ll miss my flight home.”

She smiles and nods. She has no idea what I’m saying.

The driver finally comes and delivers me to the train station office. After the ticket agent yells at someone for nearly 20 minutes, he hands me my ticket and says the train now leaves at 11:30. No one seems to know what to do with the strange white girl, so they finally deposit me in the empty stationmaster’s office with my suitcase for the two hour wait. I watch the platform from the grimy window and hope I know what train is mine as they don’t seem to have any numbers on them.

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On the train. Because it has worked so well in the past, I employ the “look small and helpless” technique to encourage someone to help me find my seat. Looking helpless is easy; small, not so much. At 5’4″ tall, I tower over most people in this country. A tiny monk helps me put my suitcase on the overhead shelf. I’ll be on this train for at least 20 hours- my first ever long-distance train ride. And, um, I’m pretty sure I just saw a rat run across the aisle. Suddenly I’m questioning the wisdom of everyone in this country wearing sandals all the time.

At least the windows open so I can take pictures during the day.

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Correction- it was a mouse, not a rat. I know this because he is currently rummaging around in a bag of crackers belonging to the Indian man seated facing me. I point it out to him, but he seems completely unconcerned. I don’t know if that’s because he doesn’t care or he just doesn’t understand what I’m saying. Maybe it’s his mouse.

Now there are two mice. Apparently word is out that the nice Indian man is giving away free crackers. I’m not eating anything on this train.

We haven’t pulled out of the station yet, and Indian Guy’s rodent count is up to three. Now they’re crawling up on his seat with him and he doesn’t seem to mind that, either. I wonder how many more mice can fit in his bag before they start coming over here to stretch their legs.

(Final rodent count = 6)

It’s about 8 hours into the trip that I discover the “bathroom” on this train is a plastic bucket in the corner in full view of everyone else on the train. And that’s in the first class car. I wonder what the people in the cheap seats have to do. Actually I don’t wonder too hard. I’m definitely going to hold it for 20 hours. I’m probably dying anyway.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, the train pulls into a station (let’s be clear, they’re not real train stations- just sections of track where people gather to sell things like reused water bottles and fried crickets from baskets on top of their heads) and stops. I’m dozing, not really sleeping, but I notice the stop and wait for the train to start up again as it has at a dozen other stops.

It doesn’t.

After an hour or so of anxious glancing about by the passengers, a short man in wrinkled white shirt speedwalks through the train car, shouting something in Burmese. Everyone gets up and starts grabbing their things. I stay put. The train car begins to empty out. Two young monks seated across the aisle point at me and one asks, “Where you go?”

“Yangon,” I answer.

They laugh. “Yangoooon,” they mimic in unison, mocking my accent. One grabs my suitcase from the overhead shelf while the other beckons me to follow. “Change train!” he calls over his shoulder as they hop out the open door, not waiting for me to follow. They have my stuff, so I do.

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I’m absolutely terrified that I’ve made the wrong move, but I’m also starving, battling either the flu or malaria, and covered in flea (??) bites. Maybe they’re rodent bites, I don’t know. My legs are absolutely covered in little purple marks that weren’t there when I boarded the train. I don’t know what else to do, so I curl up and go to sleep.

Monday, March 30th at 4:30 p.m.- 29 hours into what was supposed to be a 20 hour train ride. My flight from Yangon to Singapore is leaving right now and obviously, I’m not on it. I know the next flight is in two days. I’m not going to cry on the train. I’m not.

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We finally pull into the station in Yangon 16 hours late. I’ve spent 36 hours on this rodent-infested train. I’m dying of thirst because the only water options were dirty, discarded bottles I watched little kids refill from garden hoses at the “stations” along the way. With the only bathroom option being an open bucket in the corner… no. Just no. I’m covered in heat rash and flea bites and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to drink enough water to not be thirsty again.

A driver from my travel agency is waiting for me on the platform. “Hello! You miss your flight!” He’s utterly gleeful. I may kill him.

“Train from up north always very late,” he chirps as he loads my suitcase into the back of his car. “Everybody miss flight all the time.” He’s practically skipping. “No more flights to Singapore for two days- you may be stuck in the airport all that time.” He never stops smiling.

Dear God Please Don’t Make Me Deliver a Baby in This Hatchback

March 27, 2009- There’s really no public transportation option from Mandalay to Inle Lake in Nyaungshwe, so I’ve hired a private driver to deliver me to my next hotel. He arrives at 8:00 a.m. on the dot, but doesn’t speak a word of English. I can’t complain- I’ve been super lucky so far with all of my drivers and guides speaking English, and as long as he knows how to get me to my destination I don’t care if he’s not chatty. One of the hotel porters takes my itinerary and goes over it with the driver to ensure he knows where to take me. I have no idea if he understands or not, but he nods and we take off into the crazy Mandalay traffic. Along the way we stop in an alley to pick up a local man and his two teenage daughters. Maybe “private driver” doesn’t mean what I think it means. None of the three new passengers speak any English, either, so it’s a quiet ride. That’s fine with me- I’m absorbed in the scenery.

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Soon we pass out of urban Mandalay into the countryside and into the foothills of an impressive mountain range.

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The road quickly becomes rutted lanes of rocky soil where the driver maneuvers around horse carts, children pulling cattle, and flat bed conveyances powered by what look like lawnmower engines.

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Two hours into our trip, on an extremely secluded stretch of mountain road, we get a flat tire. The driver pulls out his spare from the back, but it’s also flat. Without a word he takes off down the road, awkwardly rolling the flat spare in front of him. Gas stations in this part of the world are nothing more than random wooden pallets stacked with plastic petrol jugs, so I have no idea where he’s going or how long we’re going to be sitting here on the side of the road.

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Our driver, he went that way...
Our driver, he went that way…

11:00 a.m.- we’ve been sitting here on the ground for over an hour. Still no sign of the driver. The father of the two teenage girls has flagged down a couple of passing motorists in what I can only assume is an attempt to find the guy a ride back if he ever gets the tire refilled. Only a few cars have passed us in the last hour, so mostly they sit on our collective pile of luggage and read their Bible. I think they may be missionaries but have no way to ask.

11:15 a.m.- a young guy on a motorcycle stops to deliver our driver and his newly repaired tire, and the men get to work fashioning some sort of jack out of a pile of rusty metal pipes.

At 1:00 we stop for lunch in a little mountain town and a barefoot boy with a crowbar fixes our flat tire for a spare. Against my better judgment I pick at some fried noodles, but if the next two hours are anything like the last two, they’re not going to stay down. The road the winds around the mountain is just a pile of rocks, and I’ve taken to calling our car the Vomit Comet. I don’t think a 70’s era Toyota Corolla Hatchback (with no air conditioning!) was meant for these conditions.

2:00 p.m.- Less than five miles down the road from our lunch stop, we get another flat tire.

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Good thing the boy at the restaurant fixed the last one. Not sure what we’ll do for the next (oh, you know it’s coming…)

While he’s fixing the tire, a very, very pregnant girl approaches the driver and, apparently, asks for a ride. She’s clutching her lower back with both hands and breathing through her teeth, obviously in great distress. The fact that we don’t have any seats left doesn’t seem to phase either of them. He wedges her in between himself and the gearshift, and away we go. I feel horrible for her. She’s perched on top of the emergency brake and crashes into my shoulder every time we hit a bump. So, about every four seconds. Every time she apologizes desperately. “Sorry, sorry!!” seems to be the only English she knows. Every time I tell her it’s fine and try to make more room for her. There isn’t any more room to make, however, and I can’t help but notice she’s breaking out in a cold sweat and clutching her stomach more frequently. Oh, shit.

Twenty minutes into the ride she starts to vomit. (I’m surprised it took that long.) The driver has scrounged a plastic bag into which she can be sick. (Burmese people are endlessly resourceful.) He asks her a tense question I don’t understand. Her eyes fill with tears and she clutches her stomach even harder. He turns and says something I don’t understand to the man in the back. They look nervous. The possible-missionary man leans forward and asks me tentatively, “You know…deliver…?” He crosses his arms and rocks them in a universal sign for cradling a baby.

“No!” I shake my head forcefully. I did not sign up for this. I’ve never even held a baby. He seems to understand and pats the pregnant girl on the shoulder, saying something that sounds encouraging. I hope he’s encouraging her to please not have a baby on my lap. It must have worked, because she’s still miserably pregnant an hour later when we deposit her at the end of a dirt road. I watch her retching miserably onto the ground as we drive away.

Rudyard Kipling is a Terrible Travel Agent

 

“This is Burma, and it is quite unlike any land you know about.”

                                                                                                 – Rudyard Kipling

March 25, 2009- Today’s the day. The entire reason I’m on the other side of the world. My driver, Zaw, will be picking me up early (surprise) for the 7 a.m. train to Mandalay. Yes, I know it’s “Travel the road to Mandalay,” but the poem was talking about a boat, anyway. Traveling the railroad tracks to Mandalay will be just as good, I’m sure. On the ride to the station, Zaw expresses amazement that I would rather take an 8 hour train ride than a 30 minute flight to the former capital. “Your airlines are run by the corrupt government and I won’t give them any more money than absolutely necessary. Also they have horrible safety records.” He’s astounded that an outsider knows so many things about his country.

We arrive at the train station only to find out that the overnight train from Mandalay has not appeared. Zaw goes to find out how much of a delay to expect while I wedge myself into a tiny plastic chair and swat mosquitoes. Finally he returns. “Now they do not expect the train to arrive until 2:00 p.m. and leave again for Mandalay at 4:00. Will that be OK for you?” Um, no.

Apparently my only other option is a 7 hour bus ride, so we race to the bus station in Nyang U, thinking this also departs at 7:00. The bus actually doesn’t leave until 8:00 a.m., so I’m there in plenty of time. Seated next to me on the bus is a very old Burmese woman with obvious motion sickness. She keeps a handful of jasmine pressed over her face the entire time. At ten a.m. we stop at one of the ubiquitous roadside curry stands for lunch. I have a remarkably good beef curry and a Coke for $1.80.

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We finally pull into the Mandalay bus station (actually just a large dusty parking lot) at 2:30 p.m., where another driver is waiting to take me to the Silver Star Hotel. The road to Mandalay? Not that impressive, actually.

The view from the bus
The view from the bus

The first thing I notice about Mandalay is the pervasive dust everywhere. Everything is so dry and covered in dust- cars, buildings, people. Everything. I don’t know where Kipling’s flyin’-fishes are, or the misty rice paddies. I’m coughing like crazy from the dust and feeling absolutely disgusting from the long sweltering bus ride. As soon as I check into the hotel I take a desperately needed shower- with ice cold water. The hot water heater isn’t working, the front desk clerk tells me with an apologetic smile. Oh, and the Internet is out- has been all week. Probably won’t be up any time soon. Welcome to Mandalay!

Turns out, that jerk Kipling never even visited Mandalay. That’s absolutely the last time I take travel advice from a long-dead English poet.

My first impressions of Mandalay don’t get any better after I leave the hotel and wander down to the local market. The streets are so full of garbage and human waste, I actually gag a few times. I’m shocked to see stalls full of adult videos and magazines; being a Buddhist country, this is very unexpected. It’s getting dark and the male stall keepers are openly leering at me, so I hightail it out of there.

I’m hungry, though, and not ready to call it a night until I find two places recommended by my Lonely Planet guide. One is a no-name chapati stand on the side of the road and I spot it from a block away. There is a throng of people crowding around to watch the chapati-maker flipping the hot bread on his griddle. Smoke rises up to mix with the clouds of dust from the street. There are no signs and I have no idea what the ordering process is, so I stand on the edge of the crowd looking hungry and hopeful until a boy of about 8 or 9, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, comes over and points to an overturned plastic bucket in front of a tiny table. I feel like I’m sitting on dollhouse furniture. Food magically appears in front of me: a big bowl of chicken curry, steaming plate of chapatis, and some sort of unidentifiable (but amazingly good) vegetable curry.  I could sit and eat this all night. There is traffic whizzing by right next to the cluster of rickety little tables, but no one seems to notice. We’re all just eagerly shoveling chapatis and curry into our faces with wild abandon. I’m heartbroken when I get so full I can’t eat any more. This was the best meal of my life, eaten on an overturned plastic bucket on the side of a dirty road in a filthy town, and it cost $1.36. This is what you should be writing poetry about, people.

I still dream about this meal.
I still dream about this meal.

Walking three blocks from the chapati stand gives me enough room for ice cream, though, and this is the second redeeming quality of Mandalay: Nylon Ice Cream Bar. Probably the closest thing to a western ice cream shop I’m going to find in this country, it is a welcome oasis from the brain-melting heat. Apart from the fifty cent dish of strawberry ice cream, I also take my life into my hands with a glass of water from the jug on the table. Not on purpose- it’s just so hot and dusty my brain isn’t working properly and the jug of ice water looked like a mirage in the desert. I have a stomach ache for about ten minutes, but that’s it. Apparently I’m invincible.

Thursday morning I meet my driver for a tour of Mandalay’s most famous sights. Our first stop is Mahamuni Paya, one of the most famous Buddhist sites in the country. It’s a major pilgrimage site and the center of a huge annual festival. Or so the guidebook says- what I saw were homeless people sleeping on festering piles of garbage and crying, hungry children begging for food while oblivious men rubbed more gold leaf on a statue.

We also go to Kuthodaw Pagoda, or “The World’s Largest Book” and Shwenandaw Monastery. The pagoda is interesting, but hard to appreciate when you have to push your way through crowds of beggars and step over piles of maggotty garbage to get in. The monastery itself is an incredible series of intricate wood carvings, but it’s still an active monastic site and I have no interest in shoving my camera in some poor monk’s face while he tries to eat, as I saw another tourist do.

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Driving from the monastery to our next site, a small child in rags approaches my side of the car. His face is a mass of horrific burn scars and one eye socket is glaringly empty. He grabs at the side of the car with one disfigured hand while holding out a cup with the other. “Try not to look,” my driver says quietly. “You can’t give him money- if you do, hundreds of others will swarm the car.”

I’m sure he’s right, but I can’t look away from the poor boy with the ruined face. “His parents did that, you know,” the driver says as we pull away. He shrugs at my horrified look. “With boiling water. The more badly disfigured they make their children, the more pity foreigners will have and will give them more money.” Imagine the utter desperation that would make you resort to pouring boiling water on your own child in hopes it will result in enough handouts to feed him.

 

Bucket List #22- Ride in a Hot Air Balloon

March 24, 2009- I’m excited to be able to check off multiple bucket list items on one trip. While I was researching this adventure, I spent a lot of time reading hotel reviews and travel forums, trying to make my tight budget stretch as far as possible. Luckily, traveling in Southeast Asia is notoriously cheap and there were plenty of options that wouldn’t break the bank. One thing I knew I was going to have to make room in the budget for as soon as I saw it was a hot air balloon ride over the temples of Bagan. Balloons Over Bagan is a UK company with an impeccable safety record, and even though flights were pricey, it immediately went on the itinerary.

I have to wake up at 4:00 a.m. for the sunrise flight. This trip is a lot of things, but relaxing isn’t really one of them. Note to self: try to build in more leisure time in future. I’m picked up in a rickety old red bus at 5:30 and we drive to an open field next to a golf course. Two other buses have already arrived with other passengers and the crew is unfolding our balloon. Three European couples and two monks, my fellow passengers, are having tea and coffee while the balloon pilot, a funny little British man, runs around the crew, giving orders.

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The balloon flight itself is absolutely magical. Floating through the air over these temples that look straight out of a movie set is an otherworldly experience. The valley is hazy with fog, which is a shame for photos, but feels like a dream. The occasional burst of noise from the burner is the only sound- everyone in the balloon is mesmerized into silence and the world below is still asleep. I know this is going to be the absolute highlight of my trip, and probably one of the travel highlights of my life.

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The flight only lasts about 45 minutes, which is far too short. I’d like to stay up there all day. Our landing is relatively gentle, for a basket full of people dropping out of the sky. The crew serves us champagne and pastries before the buses take us back to our hotels. As we’ve landed in a field right next to mine, I could have walked (along with all the local women carrying baskets on their heads).

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More than seven years after this experience, I can confirm- this hot air balloon right was easily one of the highlights of my life. If you find yourself in Burma, don’t miss this!

A 15 Hour Bus Ride to Bagan

There is really no such thing has high-speed travel in Burma. Infrastructure is spotty and unreliable, no one puts much stock in punctuality, and it’s just assumed that every journey is going to take a lot longer than you planned. The ancient kingdom of Bagan, home to thousands of picturesque temples, is less than 400 miles from the capital city of Yangon. The bus ride, however, takes 15 hours. Yes, you read that correctly. By hour five I am composing a love sonnet to the travel agency that booked me two seats next to each other so I could sort-of stretch out and sleep. The only other American on board (the only other American I would meet on my entire trip) is not so lucky. He sits wedged between an extremely large and sweaty Burmese man and a young boy squatting in the aisle. (Just because all the seats are taken doesn’t mean the bus is full- if you can find a spot to wedge yourself, you can come aboard.) A saintly woman across the aisle with a face heavily caked in thanaka paste does her best to fan the wilting foreigners until the driver finally allows us to crack the windows in the sweltering bus.

It seems to take days to reach Bagan, as we make countless “dinner breaks” at roadside food stands, and pass through several military checkpoints. The other American, two Indian tourists, and I are taken off the bus to have our passports and visas examined at each one- the military junta insists on knowing the whereabouts of all foreigners every night.

Riding in style.
Riding in style.

We finally pull into Bagan at 5:30 a.m. and a driver is waiting to take me to my hotel, which is a pleasant surprise. Not a hotel at all, it is a private bungalow on beautifully landscaped grounds overflowing with tropical flowers and plants. Fighting the urge to shower and go to bed, I tell Zaw, my eager to please driver/tour guide that I’ll be ready to begin sightseeing in about two hours. I can’t even remember how many temples we rush through as I’m struggling to stay awake. By lunchtime I tell him that I need to go back to my room and sleep for a few hours.

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When the alarm wakes me up at 4:00 p.m. I wish I had just called it a day, but we press on through a few more temples. I wish I had weeks to spend in fascinating Bagan instead of just two days.

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Government Spies and a Monk With Crazy Ear Hair

Next on the itinerary is a trip to 2000 year old golden temple Sule Paya, said to contain one of the hairs of the Buddha. My driver parks in a lot about a block away and tells me to “just cross street!” Easier said than done- this is the busiest intersection in Yangon and crossing the street looks about as easy as running with the bulls. I duck into the road behind a group of nuns and hope people will at least swerve to avoid them. 

At 9:00 a.m. it’s already boiling hot and the marble pavilion burns the soles of my bare feet. I’ve made my customary counter-clockwise loop around the jumble of golden Buddhas, neon lights, and praying, chanting Buddhists and am about to leave when a shriveled old monk calls out to me from a tiny alcove. “Hello! Where do you come from?”

“The United States,” I answer, somewhat hesitantly.

“Ah!” He throws his hands up with obvious glee. “Barack Obama!” He motions me closer and I notice he has more ear hair than anyone I’ve ever seen. He scoots into the shade and offers me a seat. He holds up a small transistor radio in a pink plastic bag. “I love Americans. An American gave me this radio.”

My new friend immediately wants to know anything I can tell him about the outside world, American politics, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, JFK, and, oddly, whether Pirates of the Caribbean was based on a true story. Within minutes I realize that this elderly monk from a third world country knows as much about American political history as anyone I know. I ask him where he learned so much and he points to his radio. It’s contraband, and there are no real radio stations in Burma anyway, but he says sometimes at night he can pick up BBC broadcasts out of Singapore. He also talks to every white tourist he sees and asks them for their old newspapers and magazines. The conversation turns to why I have come to Myanmar. “Are you a journalist?” he asks hopefully. He seems disappointed when I say no.

He tells me that many people come to Sule Paya to worship because it contains a hair of the Buddha, but the hair is sealed up inside the golden zedi. “Botataung is better. You can see the Buddha’s hair.” I nod. Maybe I will go there later, I tell him. He stands up and motions for me to follow him back out into the heat. A woman is chanting as she pours small cups of water over the head of a Buddha with a tiger in front of him. I ask my new friend what she’s doing and he tells me she was probably born on Monday. “People born on Monday are ruled by the moon and the spirit of the tiger.” I tell him I was also born on a Monday, and he says I must always pray at the Monday area when I am at a temple. The woman finishes, and he motions for me to approach the statue. A small girl with a bucket darts in front of us and the monk explains, “Many people in the city have no running water, so they send their children here to take some, for drinking and bathing.” The tiny girl finishes filling her bucket, flashes us a big smile, and ambles off with her water.

The monk tells me, “You take the cup, fill with water, and pour over the Buddha’s head once for every year of your life, to acknowledge all of the blessings you have received, plus one more time for a long life. While you do this, you pray silently for peace and prosperity.” As I pour my 30 cups over tiger-Buddha’s head, the monk chants quietly beside me. Peace and prosperity sound great, but I think the cold water splashing down on my feet is the best part. When I finish, the monk nods his approval and says, “I would have guessed you were born on Monday. You look like a tiger!”

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He starts out of the Paya onto the sidewalk where little girls are selling caged sparrows and he motions over his shoulder for me to follow him. I do, and it never occurs to me to ask him where we’re going. He immediately turns down an alley filled with huge piles of garbage and that open-sewer smell I’ve come to associate with Yangon. I see motion behind one of the trash piles and realize people live here. As my eyes adjust to the semi-darkness, I realize a lot of people live here. A man with vacant eyes rubs the legs of his sick, moaning child as she lies on a towel in the street. Nearby a dirty, naked baby picks up bits of trash from the gutter and puts them in his mouth.

I look at the monk and he says, “Every alley in Yangon you will see this same thing. Many of these people were forced into slavery by our government, and when they became injured from building roads and such, they were sent back here to starve, unable to work.”

We leave the alley and continue to walk as he tells me his thoughts on Barack Obama (“I liked him very much at first, now I still like him but I’m not sure about Joe Biden.”) and the United Nations (not doing enough for the people of Myanmar) to NASA (“Very impressive that they can send things into space like that. It hardly seems possible that one nation can be so advanced when others cannot even feed their children.”) He is very vocal about the way the Burmese government abuses and mistreats the people, and, like July, asks me if I am aware of The Lady and her struggle for democracy. I tell him I am, and he says many of his friends and brothers were among the 4000 monks slaughtered in the streets in 1988 during a peaceful protest. He only survived by covering himself with the bodies of his dead brethren and lying motionless for hours until it was safe to flee. Thousands more were arrested and taken to Insein Prison, but have never been seen or heard from again. “This is why we need the United States and United Nations to speak for us. We speak for ourselves and we are killed.”

I ask why he is so comfortable speaking about these matters in the street with so many people around, and he shrugs. “Let them arrest me or kill me. At least I won’t die sitting around like a sheep, as so many of these people who have no hope left. I am a very old man and will die one day soon anyway.”

I finally think to ask where we are walking, and he says, “Botataung Paya. So you can see the Buddha hair.” And then we arrive at the small temple, surrounded by the usual throng of vendors and taxi drivers and small kids hoping for candy to materialize from foreign pockets.

Inside the star-shaped pagoda is a maze of mirrors with the faithful hunched down and praying in corners, chanting and counting their mala beads. The monk, whose name I never learned, points me toward an excited mob of people gathered around a tiny window. “Buddha hair. Go look. I’ll wait.” It takes me ten minutes to work my way to the front of the crowd, and when I finally stand on tiptoes to peer into the window, all I see are dusty flowers, gold and ivory carvings. It’s so hot I’m getting dizzy, and someone is grinding their elbow into my ribs. I’m happy to take their word that there’s a sacred hair in there somewhere if it means getting out of this mob.

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My self appointed tour guide then leads the way into the mirrored maze and finds a cool place for us to sit. I tell him my driver is still waiting back at Sule Paya, and he asks why we walked if I had a driver.

 

As he continues to talk politics, I ask him if I can take his picture. This attracts the attention of two young monks who immediately charge over and ask my name. I tell them, and they want to know where I am from. One walks away immediately, but the other stares at me suspiciously before stepping away and continuing to watch us out of the corner of his eye.

The old monk leans over and says quietly, “Don’t tell them anything else. Those are not monks.” He gets up and motions for me to follow him outside, where he continues, “Did you notice how forcefully they spoke, and with such loud voices in a temple? Also that they did not greet me even though I am their elder? Because they are not monks, but spies for the government.” I look at him in surprise and he laughs. “Oh yes, they are in every temple and tea shop. Who would watch what they say around a monk? But they are watching and listening all the time.”

At this point I am more than ready to go back to my driver before the pseudomonks come chasing after us with one of the armed soldiers who stand on every corner. I tell the monk that it will be faster if we take a taxi back to Sule, and that I will pay for it. “No, no,” he protests. “This is far too expensive. It will cost a thousand kyat!” (Approximately one US dollar.) I tell him that is OK, but he persists. “The bus will only cost 100 kyat!” Again I tell him that I can pay the 1000 kyat and he marvels at my apparent wealth. “And I can ride with you? I have never been in a taxi before.” I marvel right back at him. I assure him that he can come along for the ride and ask him if he will get us a taxi from the row of cars and drivers waiting in front of us.

I watch, puzzled, as he moves from taxi to taxi, speaking in rapid Burmese to the drivers, who simply look away and shake their heads ‘no’.

“Don’t try to negotiate with them- I’ll pay the 1000 kyat!” I call.

He shakes his head. “You don’t understand. No one will take a monk and a western woman together in the same car.”

Just as I am about to apologize for leaving him behind and getting my own cab, a man runs up and says he’s found a driver to take us. He turns to the monk and tells him in Burmese that there will be an additional 500 kyat fee for the unseemliness of the situation. I’m already in the back seat before my monk can  protest.

On the way back to Sule Paya, I ask why monks were the ones who protested against the military rulers, rather than ordinary citizens. The old man smiles. “Many people just think of us as scholars, and very religious, but they forget. When I was a young man, we were trained as warriors.”

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A Reclining Buddha and a Monk Named July

Not being keen on trying to navigate my way around Yangon on my own, I had arranged in advance to have a driver pick me up at my hotel and ferry me around to the places I most wanted to see. This turned out to be a fantastic idea, because Burmese traffic is absolutely terrifying. Our first stop is Chauktatgyi Paya, home of one of the largest reclining Buddhas in the country. Leaving my sandals (and driver) in the car, I enter a building that is little more than a metal roofed shack over the enormous golden statue. This is not a tourist destination, so all of the signs are in Burmese and all heads turn to stare at me when I enter. (Soon I will get used to this.) Hundreds of Burmese are kneeling on mats in front of the Buddha, and when a bell chimes 8:00, they all begin to bow and chant in unison.

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“Hello!” comes a cheerful voice from my left. “Hello, you speak English?” This is July, a young Burmese former monk, looking very western in Levi jeans and a shaggy haircut. Anxious to practice his English, July spends a lot of time at the Paya and other religious sites, looking for the rare American visitor to interact with. He tells me he was a monk in the monastery behind Chauktatgyi for seven years, but left because he wanted to be part of the modern world, dress in western clothes, and, maybe, one day visit the United States. He knows all about California, Brooklyn, and Miami, and is very impressed that I live in Florida, near Mickey Mouse.

When he left the monastery, July could not find a job (there aren’t many jobs to be had) or afford to live on his own. Returning to his parents was out of the question- they were so ashamed of his having left the monastic life that they would not allow him to return home. I asked him how old he had been when he joined the monastery. “Fourteen,” he tells me. I am shocked that his parents sent their fourteen year old son off to live with strangers and wouldn’t take him back when he wanted to come home, and tell him so. He shrugs, clearly unbothered. “I knew they would probably not take me back, but I had to try. It is such an honor for a family to have a son become a monk, I shamed them by leaving. But I had to try to be myself.”

July had returned to the monastery and asked if he might continue to live there until he could find a way to support himself. The monks agreed, but said he must keep to their schedule: rise at 4:00 a.m., pray for one hour, eat at 5:00, no food after 12:00 noon, in bed at sunset. He had been keeping to this arrangement for two years. He takes me on an impromptu tour of the monastic complex behind the paya. There are many different  monasteries jumbled together- the different races of Burmese people all have their own buildings within the complex and they do not mix. He shows me two monasteries that sit empty. “The monks who lived here were part of the group who supported The Lady.” (Aung San Suu Kyi, democratically elected political leader who had been under house arrest for 20 years.)

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“200 of them disappeared and now their monastery is closed.” He asks me if I know about The Lady, and I tell him yes- I have read her books and am familiar with Burma’s political upheaval. He is happy that I refer to the country as Burma, not Myanmar, and that I am better informed than most English-speaking tourists he has met. July tells me that apart from practicing his English, he also likes to talk to American tourists to spread the word about what is happening in his country. “I wish more Americans would come here. You are the only people who can help us. We cannot help ourselves.” This is a theme I will encounter throughout my trip.

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Back inside the Paya, a line has formed of women and girls passing buckets of water from a well. These are dumped on the floor in front of the giant Buddha and more women push the water around the dirty floor with long-handled mops. July says they do this all day, every day, as a way to obtain merit for their next life.

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Good Morning, Yangon!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

33 hours of travel have completely discombobulated my internal clock, so I’m awake hours before dawn. My hotel doesn’t start serving breakfast until 7:00 a.m. and I’m eager to start exploring, so at 6:00 I go for a walk with my camera to see what Yangon looks like at this hour.

Street vendors are already cooking on small fires along the side streets. This stuff smells better and better all the time, whatever it is.

Packs of wild dogs roam the streets along with the ubiquitous monks in their long red robes.

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Women walk around with baskets of produce on their heads and trucks are already full of people, stacked three deep and hanging off the backs, on their way to somewhere. This city wakes up early.

Back in the hotel, my favorite discovery of the morning is that the giant windows in my 9th story room don’t lock. I slide one open and pull up a chair to watch the city come alive.

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A young monk is running from a playful pack of dogs. Trucks full of the local faithful trundle up the hill to Shwedagon. Longyi-clad men perform basic grooming tasks outside. One brushes his teeth on his front steps, another is bathing shirtless with the aid of a garden hose. I can hear chanting from the monastery next door, and frequent wake up calls from the rooster population. Hundreds of pigeons and sparrows add to the soundtrack. I could sit here all day, but I have adventuring to do.