Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Pyin U Lwin, or Maymyo

"Please use your liberty to promote ours"
Aung San Suu Kyi, now in detention for 11 years and 280 days


Station Fun
So today we are taking the train to Pyin U Lwin, a British hill-station (1050m) in the Shan Hills, about 2 hours drive or 4 hours by train, that is to say 69km (!) from Mandalay. The train is supposed to set off at the rather uncivilised hour of 4:45am, but luckily our hotel checks by telephone for us, and finds out it has been moved to 6:40am, which means only waking up at 6am presumably. No, we’re told that unless we’re there at 5am, we won’t get a ticket. Unbelievable, but as we realise when we get there in the morning, most likely true!

Sunrise soon

I’m feeling hot already as we walk to station as our (booked) taxi hasn’t appeared. No problem, it’s only about 10 minutes walk through the quiet streets and humid still air. Inside the station, it’s mayhem. There are scores of ticket windows, split into two areas, nothing to indicate if there’s any difference. Now, remember that in Myanmar no electronic ticketing, but there is fixed seating, all recorded for the government to analyse. What does this mean? It means one bloke has a sheet with all the seats as boxes, so for any one train only one person can sell tickets. You can imagine how much fun this is.

So we’re in the right queue, which doesn’t seem to be moving, although we do have someone selling tickets – all the other booths have queues but the window slid shut. People still wait though. Eventually we creep to the front of the queue. The chap groans when he sees he has to do a foreigner ticket, as its extra paperwork. And so it should be, as the local price is 300 kyat, but for me, 4US$, i.e. 5 or 6000 kyat. Twenty times the price! Pretty outrageous.

Bottom is local ticket, top is foreigner ticket, priced 20x more.

Thuzar doesn’t have her ID card, it’s back at the hotel. She needs this to book the ticket, so we go back to the hotel to collect it. As we don’t have lots of time, we take a saigar, the bicycle with side-car affair that carries people small distances around Mandalay.

Monks pottering as we are cycled back to the hotel

Then we have enough time for breakfast, which still hasn’t started at the hotel, so to the tea house next door, an open-plan place, with a chap out front frying up Chinese donuts, whilst Thuzar goes for some dry noodles.


I take tea, and receive a very Indian-style brew, tasting roughly like tea where the bag has been left in overnight, the tea reheated, then evaporated milk used instead of semi-skinned! It’s good!

Very strong, very sweet tea

We saigar back to the station, head across to platform 4 via the escalator which isn’t running (I suspect it never did). The carriages of our train are old but solid. The engines themselves are Hitachi. We head along and find our carriage by Thuzar asking people, there don’t appear to be any markings anywhere.

On board, and we’re off
We have first class tickets for this train. The difference appears to be a thin plastic cushion on the base of our seats, which given the heat is not something necessarily to be pleased about. The carriages enjoy natural air-conditioning, i.e. the windows have no panes at all. What happens when it pours with rain, as it is wont to do in low season now?


Leaning out of the window, we see the train given a green light, whereupon it immediately pulled out in the opposite direction. It chugs slowly through the suburbs, passing children who wave.

Pretty greens in the countryside

Some chaps sitting across from us tell us about Pyin U Lwin, what to expect, how it’s cold. They’re all wearing jackets in anticipation. The train isn’t too full, so we’ve got a window (frame!) to ourselves.

Natural AC. Thank goodness it’s not raining much

The trains stops fairly frequently. Stations tend to be a small building set back from the rails, with a big open area in front where people wait with fruit, snacks, and pots of water for trains to come in. I watch someone pay a couple of kyat to take a scoop of water from the pot a girl carried on her head. The woman used the water to wash her face. Others drink from the cup.

Local fruit on offer at stations

Thirsty? Just scoop some water out of the tub!

After passing through fertile green plains, we arrive at the hills, which the train creeps up by employing switchbacks, i.e. the train heads along, then stops, and points we have just crossed are flipped so that when we reverse over them we head up the next stretch of track. Also at some points we stop for no obvious reason. Some stops several chaps dressed in uniform peer under the train engine. Don’t break down now!

Spot the switchbacks running up the hill

Back we go..

Hassle from locals every time we stopped

It gets appreciably cooler as we rise up. I think I’m going to like Pyin U Lwin!

Arriving in Pyin U Lwin

Finally we are here. The train is carrying on further, so we hop off promptly, along with plenty of others. I say hello to some other Westerners – they are getting on the train, heading to Hsipaw. We battle past the taxis, which are horses and carriages, then walk into town along the main street. One has the impression from the stares we get that not too many foreigners make it up here. Given the climate though, if I were stationed in Mandalay I’d be up here every weekend.

Into town. Motorbikes about.

HMV was closed today

Taxi rank (not joking)

Freezing cold temperatures of 20C, so cardies must be purchased

Thuzar is cold so buys a cardigan. She does the usual girl trick of asking me which one I prefer, then buying the other one. Thanks! Whilst she shops, I check the last shared taxis back to Mandalay, apparently they usually run about 3pm, which agrees with LP. Good, we’ll be back before then – I’d rather taxi back now I’ve done the train. I try to use the internet in the café next door but there’s only one pc and it’s being used!

Golden Triangle Café
It’s starts to rain, so we hurry past the mosque and famous clock tower, and arrive at a wonderful American-run coffee shop, the Golden Triangle. It’s all beige walls, wicker chairs and ceiling fans. I think there should be proper coffee here.

A decent café!

Unusual comfort

Decent pastries

I’m feeling greedy, so in addition to coffee, go for an egg and cheese baguette and a Danish! Deeelicious! Afterwards we hail a horse and carriage and taxi to the gardens – the National Kandawgyi Gardens, 176 hectares filled with hundreds of varieties of trees and flowers, which was largely put together by the British in 1915.

Thuzar yearns to drive

Some big houses on the way to the gardens

On the way, we pass lots of large houses – I wonder who owns places like this? The generals who run the country? Expats? The scenery is very pretty all round, with gently rolling hills, and English countryside greens.

The National Kandawgyi Gardens
We wander in after paying the dual-priced entry fees. The site is 139 hectares, and was originally modelled after Kew Gardens, and named Maymyo Botanical Gardens. In 2000, Than Shwe, the hardline general heading up Burma’s military regime, renamed it to its current name (Kandawgyi means “great royal”).

Foreigner and local tickets and information leaflets

Beautiful flowers

The gates to the Kandawgyi Gardens

The place is very quiet – indeed for some time we wonder whether we are the only people here. Passing a hill-station building which has been converted into a small hotel, we reach the lake.

I spot a tower in the distance (the Nan Myint) to be climbed!

Ugly ducklings

It’s a peaceful place to wander. The weather is a bit variable, but that just adds to the Englishness of the place. Raining one minute, sun the next.

Singing in the rain, just singing in the…

Potting shed. Roof is in next year’s budget

We reach the tower we had spotted from the other side of the lake.

The tower. There is a lift. There are stairs.

I pay the entry fee for the two of us, foreigner price for me of course. Turns out this fee is for taking the lift up, which I had no intention of doing. Never mind, the gardens are beautiful so I don’t mind paying. From the top we had a nice but windy view of the surrounding area, including (inevitably) a few pagodas, and various agricultural scenes.

Farmers work the fields, usually with oxen

There also appeared to be, what I can only describe as four plastic “Swiss-alpine” mountains. Could not for the life of me work out what it was supposed to be!

What on earth? Looks like an Evian advert!

A happy Thuzar despite the climb

Time was up, we had to head back to catch our share taxi, plus we had a chap with a horse and cart waiting for us!

Posing with the flower

Back to town, and how to get to Mandalay?

In town, we arrive at the share taxi area only to be told that no more taxis, that 2pm is the last. I point out to the chap that not three hours ago he told me that 3pm was the time the last taxis usually go, but he seemed to be denying having ever spoken to me! Bizarre. As with all countries like this, it’s worth having a second, third and often fourth opinion, but all to no avail, so we potter up and down town, trying to work out what to do.

Stubborn unhelpful shop assistant

Grape wine! Whatever next?!

Pyin U Lwin’s mosque

The centre of Pyin U Lwin is a junction, over which sits the Purcell Tower, which (according to one explanation) was a gift from Queen Victoria. Apparently she offered one to Cape Town too. The clock’s chime copies Big Ben in London, playing 16 notes before the hour.

The Purcell Tower, a gift from Queen Victoria

Eventually we end up in what Thuzar called a “maunley”? This was effectively a small pickup truck, with driver plus the two of us in the front, and about 20 people in the back somehow. The vehicle had seen better days, and was very uncomfortable even in the front, with nowhere to put my legs, but it got us back to Mandalay, and much fast that the train too.

The door of our ride back

Dinner, Icecream and the Moustache Brothers
Back in town we’re hungry, so go for a late lunch of Burmese BBQ, where one picks from a large pile of things on sticks what one would like, then they take it off to their fires, bbq it for you and bring it back nicely presented on plates.

Choose what you want barbequed


Next another abortive attempt to use the internet, again too slow to be useable, then I decide it’s ice-cream time! There’s a parlour called Nylon in town which apparently is one of the main places to hang out in the evening. We arrive, and browse the menu. Thuzar goes for strawberry, I chocolate. I order for both of us, then Thuzar confirms in Burmese.

The parlour

“You know what will happen, don’t you?” I say to her. “We’ll get a scoop of each.. each.. “. I’m always right, of course.

I said we’d get two scoops each!

One issue repeatedly coming up in Myanmar was that Thuzar would hardly eat anything then do her best to get me to finish whatever she wouldn’t eat. In this case, I devoured my two scoops, and she just about managed one then complained when I didn’t eat her second scoop. Would definitely get fat here (if I weren’t perspiring gallons on a daily basis).

Moustache Brothers
Now, I have to admit to being rather irresponsible in the next episode. One of the highlights of going to Mandalay is a visit to the Moustache Brothers show. These are are a comedic trio who until their clash with the government did puppet shows demonstrating classic Burmese dance with comedy and some mild criticism of the government thrown in for good measure. For this they were jailed for 7 years, two of the three serving almost 6 years. Amnesty International led a campaign for their release, and negotiations by Aung San Suu Kyi are suspected of having contributed to their release. And here’s the bit I did not know (nb this is on wiki – read on as I have seen another interpretation): As part of the conditions for their release, they are now allowed to perform only for foreigners.

It’s something I wanted to see myself, as part of it is support for freedom of speech, but with Thuzar, I wasn’t sure whether it was sensible to go or not. Everything I had seen in the country thus far implied that things were getting more liberal. I tried to discuss the issue with her, but I don’t think she really realised what I was talking about – after all the state controls all media here, and so most locals don’t know what’s really going on – they certainly don’t know the profile of Burma around the world.

So we went. It’s worth noting that Thuzar doesn’t look typically Burmese, hence most locals we encountered assumed she was foreign. Only when she dressed in local clothes would they be very confused – she’d attract stares, and local women when Thuzar was a few steps away would whisper to me, point, “Myanmar? Myanmar?” with a scandalous glint in their happy eyes. Anyway, I figured this would help in that no one would think she was Burmese and attending the show. We arrived just as it started and took our seats.

Only when the show started, and one of the brothers, Lu Maw, using his painfully distorted microphone (which made understanding what he was saying fairly difficult) explained the surveillance and police raids that they still suffered, did I realise how stupid of me it was to bring Thuzar here. They weren’t raided often – three times since being released, but they had scouts posted at the front of their house, and I noticed throughout the performance that all of the family would throw occasional nervous glances outside, particularly if a loud motorbike or car would approach.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s under house arrest

You see, if the police came this evening, the Westerners would not be in trouble. The worst that would happen to any foreigner in Myanmar is that you’d be on the next plane out. But for locals, it could be very serious, especially now I know that locals are not supposed to be there at all – although having said that, I have seen the ruling interpreted as they are not allowed to perform in the Burmese language, effectively preventing the majority of locals from understanding. If this is the case, perhaps it wasn’t so serious that Thuzar was there.

Impressive displays of traditional dance moves

The crazy thing was how harmless the show was. The majority of the show (they’ve been banned from doing a puppet show so now they do human demonstrations) is cultural, and the government references are far milder than anything one would come across in Private Eye regarding the corruption of the UK’s Labour Government – the Saudi Arms Deal, Cash for Peerages etc. They talked about how traffic police are some of the richest men around in Burma these days, as the slightest infringement (or not) means paying a bribe or being in big trouble. It wasn’t especially funny, more interesting – but how easy is it to be funny when you’re under siege?

Mostly though, it was the family, especially Lu Maw’s wife who was the cover girl of LP Burma many years ago, bouncing around in front of us (the show is performed in their “living room” with a dozen chairs around the edge of the floor) showing us a variety of dances from around Myanmar and neighbouring countries.

The Moustache Brothers

I presume their links with Aung San Suu Kyi have not helped their case. They posed for photos holding signs saying “Moustache Brothers are under survelliance”, something that they laugh off, but as the audience, I certainly felt slightly nervous even being there – they are certainly very brave to continue to perform after all they have been through – risking another gaol term for “spreading false news”.

The marionettes that used to be used

At the end of the show, we were the first out, back to the saigar that carried us home – and as the Muslim chap cycled us back to our hotel, we were careful to only speak English in front of her. The driver asked me where Thuzar was from. England, I replied. Oh, he said, looking convinced, she looks a bit like Myanmar. Yeah, I laughed, she does…

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Farce of Recent Airport "Security"

My goodness! What have I been going on about in relation to airline security for as long as people have been prepared to listen?! I give you this quote:

"But governments must focus much more on further harmonisation to ensure that effective security is also convenient for passengers."

A particular focus will be the UK, where unique screening policies inconvenience passengers with no improvement in security.

"The only beneficiary is the airport operator BAA that continues to deliver embarrassingly low service levels by failing to invest in appropriate equipment and staff to meet demand. This must stop."

-Quote from International Air Transport Association's head, Giovanni Bisignani. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6922992.stm for the full article on the BBC.

The spineless BAA could only counter by suggesting that the policies had been introduced by the government. Did you consider trying to influence that, BAA? No, having too much fun making passengers lives a misery.

The fact is that the latest security measures involving only having one bag and severely restricting liquids going through are a pathetic waste of time and a massive inconvenience. Around the world now tens of thousands of security officers spend their time not looking for suspicious articles, instead combing every bag for plastic bottle shaped containers. Want to take a bomb on board, here's what you do Osama - put it in a Camelbak pouch (plastic sack of water with thin tube coming out, for trekking), or take a zip up suitcase with the entire thing filled with liquid. They'll never spot that! I know this as I've been through security at Heathrow a few times with liquid in my Camelbak, and they've never noticed. I actually feel less safe now that the only danger they are capable of spotting are 500mm bottles of mineral water.

Furthermore, it is not viable to get liquid explosives on board in sufficient quantities. Read more analysis here: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/08/17/flying_toilet_terror_labs/.

And as for tweezers etc, note that there's no issue with taking glass bottles on board, which smashed on a surface are a potent weapon. Why has nothing been done about duty free dangers - simple - commercial considerations, imagine the loss of profit if passengers weren't able to splash out on perfume and booze before boarding the plane - currently the security measures profit the airport shops as passengers must buy toothpaste, water etc airside.

I'm tired of people accepting this incompetence because they're glad that the bombers didn't succeed, and that it's a difficult job because someone has to do it, etc etc. It's not true, as the IATA, the International Air Travel Association head has now confirmed. Now BAA, where do I send the bill for the nice corkscrew I had confiscated, or will it take a class action for you to own up to your, and I quote, "embarrassingly low levels of service" with "no increase in security"?

Yangon to Mandalay

Aside: whatever happened to 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioners? I’ve been looking for them for months, they don’t seem to exist any more? Did they go the way of Shake n’ Vac? What is a man supposed to do, damned if I’m carrying two bottles into the shower (and on AirAsia’s luggage weight limits)!

Back to Burma! According to LP, the V&A museum in London apparently has a better Burmese collection than the National Museum here in Myanmar! I must investigate when I’m back in the UK. Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948.

So tired, so very tired!

Bright and early, we take a 6,000 kyat taxi to airport, and manage to buy Thuzar a ticket. She pays about half what I paid, of course. Not being a pro, she lets people take her wheely bag off her, roll it about 5 metres forward, then demand tips, and ends up having to tip about three people getting through the bloody check-in procedure, then we wait, in a sleep-deprived daze. Finally we walk out and are on to the plane, it’s a fairly small ATR turboprop. We do have allocated seats – for each plane they have a sheet of stickers which the check-in people peel off and put on your boarding pass. There’s water dripping from ceiling on to me, but luckily the flight’s not full so we move after take-off. And then sleep!

Arrive, and then it’s an hour taxi, yes an hour, for 15,000 kyat (extortion) into Mandalay, as it’s 45km away! Why oh why did they build this (newish) domestic airport so far away? There’s nothing in the area, and vast amounts of countryside between the city, where 99% of passengers must originate, and here. Myanmar madness!

Driver left his TomTom at home

Mandalay is Myanmar’s last royal capital, the country’s second city, but is only 150 years old. It sits on the banks of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, 695km north of Yangon. The city is home to 60% of the country’s monks, and is quite pleasant, although Orwell’s Burmese Days says this: “Mandalay is rather a disagreeable town – it is dusty and intolerably hot, and it is said to have five main products all beginning with P, namely, pagodas, pariahs, pigs, priests and prostitutes”. It is also one of the places that my Grandfather, Tom, captured from the Japanese in WW2.

The taxi drops us at the Royal City Hotel, where the rooms are 20$US per night, or an extra 5 for a bigger nicer room, which of course I go for. They seem to be incredibly over-staffed by young girls, there must be about 10 of them flapping around reception, grabbing bags off you etc, but they’re all very friendly, and a family atmosphere pervades.

We never did manage breakfast here!

Thuzar’s Samsonite wheely bag locking mechanism (one of those little 3 digit combination locks that the two zippers clip into) has died. She’s convinced she knows the code, but it doesn’t work. I raise my eyebrows and do everything I can to imply that she’s just being dappy and has forgotten the code. What would one do in England? Take it to a registered Samsonite dealer, have it sent off, back a month later with a fantastic bill for labour and parts?

Not here, where within 15 minutes we have a chap round to the hotel, who opens the bag (does require brute force for one of the zippers), takes it away, and an hour or so later, brings it back repaired for 2 pounds. Thuzar’s not happy as the repair is a bit heavy-handed – there’s now a bolt sticking out of the lock, but it works!

We head out to the Green Elephant restaurant not far away, which is nice but totally empty apart from us, sitting outside in the bamboo-covered areas.

A Green Elephant indeed!

As is apparently the custom here, we have at any one time two or three members of staff staring at us, watching us eat. Very un-nerving.

Fish curry, veg, and a bamboo shoots dish

Next we headed over to Mandalay Hill, skirting the large Mandalay Palace, with its enormous moat.

See the hill on the right in the distance

The hill dominates the town, and is covered with shrines, both Buddhist and nat. The usual way up is to taxi almost to the top and walk the last few steps. Not us! At the base, we have to remove our shoes. Already? We’re not even entering a temple! Doesn’t matter, it’s a holy place. I can imagine as British troops marched up, liberating as they repelled the Japanese, the locals would leap out demanding that troops took their boots off, and offering to store them at the bottom (for a small fee of course).

The long climb starts

The story behind the hill is that Buddha climbed Mandalay Hill on one of his visits to Myanmar, accompanied by his disciple Ananda. At the top, he prophesised that a great city would be built below the hill in the 2,400 year of his faith, which equates to 1857, the year King Mindon Min decreed the move from Amarapura to Mandalay.

Looking down over Mandalay and the Ayeyarwady River

The steps are pretty dirty going up, but at least dry. It’s hard going, but the climb is broken by many temples, some with sizeable Buddha statues towering high. Higher up, there are beautiful views over the plains and Ayeyarwady river. Mandalay is incredibly green – looking down on it, one wouldn’t believe there was a city in amongst the trees.

Incribed arches

Flowery mirrors

There is supposedly a monument to the British regiment that retook the hill from the Japanese in 1945, but disappointingly I can’t find it.

The main stupa

Miniature green people

Looking back across the hill, with palace boat in distance



Worse than the dirt on the steps up, up here at the top there is broken glass everywhere on the floor! How can they expect people to take off shoes then have shards of glass all over the place, without even any effort to clean up! The glass is coming from these mosaics of glass on the roof, with the strong wind pulling bits off and showering the tiled floor. I complain but don’t think anything is done. Instead I am charged for a camera permit. Interestingly, in addition to the still camera charge, there are different charges for “movie” and “video” cameras. What is the difference, I query? No one knows.

The top temple

We visit the Two Snake Temple, which takes its name from..

Thuzar and her friends

Supposedly stroking them brings fortune, and also putting ones’ hands into their mouths has significance. Thuzar gets bitten by the surprisingly sharp tongues that they seem to have.

From this vantage point, we can see in the distance the hills that we will head up into tomorrow – Maymyo, or Pyin U Lwin is up there, and so presumably Tom and the British Army came from that direction pushing the Japanese south.

The easy way up, and the Shan hills behind

Down the steep dirty steps, and then shoes back on. Frankly, if they’re going to let all of these temples be so filthy and insist on shoes off, they should also have some means of washing your feet when you come out before putting shoes back on. Since when was the Lord Buddha so bothered about whether people have shoes on anyway? I’m sure he’d care more about them keeping the place clean and not allowing tat sellers to hassle you all the way into supposedly holy places.

No taxis about, unlike Yangon where as soon as you walk up to the road one is waiting. Eventually we are taken in a tuk tuk thing round to the 78 Shopping Mall, a small (but possibly the biggest) mall near the train station. We have dual objectives here – trying to use the internet, and buying some fruit. Internet first. There’s a café upstairs. We go in, but the girl says the internet only seems to be working between 9am-11am and 7pm-9pm at the moment. She doesn’t know why. We’re welcome to use the computers anyway. Err, no thanks. Much as I’d like to spend all day playing Minesweeper..

Instead we enjoy iced cappuccinos and some cake in the attached café. Thuzar orders noodles which are incredibly damn spicy, I pick out about 5 chopped chillis from one portion! My gyoza are safer, although Thuzar doesn’t like them. No problem, more for me! Downstairs in the supermarket, we buy fruit with dollars as I’ve almost run out of kyat – we pick up apples, plums, some juice, and some essential (apparently) female beauty products.

Tuk tuk back to the hotel, and given no sleep for two days, we sleep early!