Saturday, July 28, 2007

Mingalabar!

So, leaving Thailand. To the airport, and it’s the usual battle with taxi. I shut him up by telling him I only tip taxi drivers who don’t hassle me all the way to the airport. Silence. I get my tickets printed out at the Bangkok Air desk. They tell me that apparently I will need a visa for Shenzhen, as even if I were eligible for a visa on arrival, the Chinese VoA desk closes at 5 or 6pm and the Bangkok Air flight arrives at 9pm! Marvellous!

Inside, the new Bangkok airport is all expensive shops and eateries. They have installed big drapes overhead, I believe as a measure to keep things cool after the ac capacity issues they experienced, though as a consequence it’s very dark. I walk along to the OneWorld lounge, but the Cathay reception woman tells me to bugger off, why do I bother with BA silver card when it’s never any use.

So from there I walk miiiiles from there to the Bangkok Air lounge – one benefit of flying with them is that they have a lounge for all customers with internet consoles (no RJ45 sockets tho’), nibbles, you get a 20kg luggage limit, alcoholic beverages and meals served on board for free, and all this for the same price as AirAsia! Bravo! Boarding and the flight are all fairly standard, except for my pained yelps as I come across a snippet in the flight magazine covering the opening of Moss Burger stores in Bangkok! Lewis, Pippi and Will and Sandy will understand my displeasure. Why do I discover only now?!

Arriving in Myanmar

Mingalaba! Or “Hello” in Burmese!

Stepping off the plane on to the tarmac it seems the weather isn’t all it was made out to be – it’s almost pleasant. We are bussed the short distance to the terminal – why would anyone want to use those new air-conditioned gangways which have been installed anyway?


Old terminal

Surprisingly, the airport terminal is modern, clean and efficient. I’d read reports as to how chaotic the place was, and they seemed not to be true. Later I learnt that these reports referred to the old terminal next door, now used for domestic flights, a pleasure to which I would later be exposed. This building had opened a mere couple of months previously.

I put on my best friendly face for what I expected to be a somewhat intimidating experience of immigration in Myanmar. Not at all! Friendly customs staff, four per booth, take your passport, hand out bits of paper to process between them, check the arrival card details one has provided matches the details in your passport very thoroughly, then stamp to say you’re admitted!


The form, the stamp

Next customs. Now this was the bit I was expecting to be a nuisance – LP says they confiscate mobiles for the duration of your stay, and if you enter on a tourist visa with a laptop they suspect you may be a journalist and ask questions. Instead I had a chap take my customs form from me, on which I had declared mobile, laptop and two cameras, all with slightly underestimated dollar values it has to be admitted, read out the list, nod and say “that’s fine, thank you”. All over!

This was to be the first of many experiences in the country which show it has changed, or perhaps relaxed, greatly in the past couple of years. I’m not saying I support the current regime in any way, and there is immense poverty to be seen everywhere, but perhaps things are moving the right way. More about this later!

Why Burma?
I have a particular interest in Burma since one of my grandfathers, Tom, fought there with the Army in the war (my other grandfather, Cliff, was with the Navy in Europe).

This from Tom:
Regarding Burma our second campaign started in Myitkyina in the north & lasted 18 months. Travelling south we captured the following places:- Moggaung, Hopin, Katha, Mongmit, Mogok, Maymyo (Pyin U Lwin), Mandalay, Kyaukse, Mektila from which our campaign ended when we flew back to Poona.

I think Maymyo is as far as you should go as further north will be a problem as there is much fighting there.

I remember the Irrawaddy especially the steamboats which were very old. It was also crossing the Irrawaddy on rafts that tuning in to our radio we heard that the war in Europe had ended.



Tom in London

Into Town
I’m staying at the Ocean Pearl Inn, a modest guesthouse which also happens to be one of the few affordable places one can book on the internet. It’s downtown, and has an airport pickup, all for $10 US per night.


Ocean Pearl. Nowhere near water and not jewel-encrusted

Myself and a Belgian called Stejn (pronounced Stan) share the pickup, and we chat to the friendly hotel representative as we drive the 20 minutes or so to the hotel. Our taxi is fairly battered, although in the back I have an electric window! I’m impressed, and take advantage of this unusual luxury by winding it down, when of course heavy rain starts. It doesn’t go back up, not with the control nor with brute force. I get wet, and shuffle along the back seat towards Stejn.

The hotel is fit for purpose, and I’m in room 101! What horrors await me, I wonder?! Stejn and I both change money with the every-friendly and trustworthy hotel staff on the front desk. The exchange rate is about 1,250 kyat (pronounced chat) to the US dollar, so double for UK. I change 100$ US, and receive back an enormous stack (perhaps 2” thick) of notes – the largest being a 1,000 note! No closing the wallet!

We head out and wander the downtown area.


Pavement


Buses invariably packed here

First we go to the station. Initial impressions are that the city has an Indian feel – it reminds me of Kathmandu but more spacious. It’s a very green city, with trees lining the roads, and lots of parks and gardens. The architecture is very colonial, but incredibly run-down. There are hundreds of beautiful buildings that just need some maintenance, a lick of paint etc, to be restored to their previous glory.


South Ken?

Train?
The station, I had read, was much like a farmyard. This description is fairly accurate. Walking in, being careful not to slip as like many of the pavements, the floor is covered with damp moss, one is greeted by a curious and not entirely pleasant smell, lots of mud, rust and decay, and in one corner, the ticket area. Not a word of English anywhere of course.


Burmese version


Same sign after being plugged through Babelfish

The Myanmar script is a very curious one. It seems at a glance relatively simple, with lots of characters composed of swirls and curves. Almost like a Korean version of Thai, if that makes any sense? Anyway, damned if I can work it out, so I head to the first ticket booth.


LCD display boards

“Mingalaba!” (hello!). I want to go to Mandalay by train. There’s only one, he says, at 12:45pm. The train takes 14 hours or so, so this is not a good time to depart. I was hoping for a night train, and LP implies there should be some. No no, this is the only train. Are you sure? Yes. Well what about that one? (I point at a plastic laminated sheet he has). Oh yes, there is that one. Truly “Dead Parrot” in style, I eventually coax out that there are four trains. If one were to schedule four trains in a day, how would one do it sensibly? How about 5:30am, 6am, 6:30am and 12:45pm. That’s it. All no use to me unless I wish to waste another day. Bus or flight it is then.

I’m disappointed about the train, as the journey is supposed to be nice, but I’m short of time now, and have to spend another day here getting a Chinese visa, thanks to Shenzhen visa on arrival desk being business hours only, so when I get back to the hotel, I book to fly early in the morning to Mandalay the day after next. Domestic flights here seem to be a flat rate of about 70-75 US$ regardless of where you’re going. Locals pay about half this.


More colonial architecture


Bars here are “Beer Stations”

Stejn and I wander past the Sakura Tower, and pop in – there’s supposed to be a restaurant/café at the top with an excellent view. For 5,000 kyat (2 pounds) each we have coffee and cake (pretty extortionate, but you’re paying for the view), and are served by pretty girls who all seem to have excellent English. In fact it seems to be a theme. Even at emigration at the end of my trip, one of the girls in the booth is pouring over an English dictionary and writing out words. I really have been surprised by the standard of English in general.


Looking down on Sule Paya and downtown from the Sakura Tower

It’s Burma, time for some temples – Sule and Shwe Dagon

Sule Paya

Next down to the Sule Paya, a 2,000 year old zedi, or pagoda in the middle of a busy roundabout, a few blocks south of here. The only hassle one encounters on the street are from people who offer to change money for you. Shoes off at the pagoda, despite it raining on and off. We circle the stupa, which supposedly has a hair from Mr Buddha himself, clockwise, like good Buddhists. Apparently it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the years, so putting a true date on the place isn’t easy. All distances to Yangon across the country are measured from this point.


Looking back on Sule Paya

Now it’s time to head to the icon of Yangon (which, incidentally, means “End of Strife” – something Myanmar definitely hasn’t yet seen), the magnificent Shwe Dagon Paya. The general advice is to be here for sunset or sunrise, as it’s too hot in the day. We taxi over, shoes off, and walk up the dirty and slippery steps. It’s very very humid. The temperature here seems to fluctuate wildly hour to hour, from hot-but-bearable up to prickly-heat-here-we-come! Foreigner entry price, of course, then we’re in, and circling. It’s raining on and off but at least exposed, and therefore clean.


Covered steps leading up


With beautiful Buddhist art underneath


Reaching the top, and the main courtyard

Shwe Dagon – Shwe meaning gold, referring to the large amount of gold used for the central stupa especially – various kings down the ages have donated their weight in gold, sometimes several times over, to the temple. Come to think of it, in my week I see a few monks using laptops. Hmm! Anyway, Kipling called this temple “a golden mystery.. a beautiful winking wonder”. For local Buddhists it is the most sacred site in the country, one which all Burmese hope to visit at least once in their life.


Monks potter


Other monks have races

As darkness descends, the central stupa, standing 98m above the base, is lit up, and is truly beautiful. A monk befriends us, and offers to swap his lovely hand-made local umbrella for my plastic 300 yen thing. I’d love to normally, but weight over beauty on a RTW trip! He points out various things to us, including the fact that if one stands at particular points around the central stupa one can see different colours reflecting off the large gem-clad top – reds, blues, greens and white. Apparently the stupa is 2,500 years old, but actual dating suggests it was built between the 6th and 10th centuries, and has been rebuilt many times, the latest incarnation largely dating from 1769. Interesting that the Buddhist temples in Myanmar seem to follow reincarnation themselves!


Lots other than the central stupa to see

There is a Buddhist horoscope type system in place, revolving around 8 days, and aligning which day of the week one is born to various signs. In order to match up the 7 days we know to the 8 days of the stupa, Wednesday is split at noon. Apparently I’m a Sunday person, which is a good thing, as Buddha was also born on this day. My sign is a garuda (legendary bird and dodgy Indonesian airline), and so by praying and donating some cash at the relevant shrine at the base of the stupa, I will gain merit. Over and above the foreigner fee for coming here in the first place? Pah!


Night starts to fall

There isn’t just the central stupa though, there are in fact scores of temples, shrines and all sorts of other religious paraphernalia scattered around the base. The bell pavilion, for example, houses the 23 tonne Maha Ganda Bell. Apparently the British carried it off after the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1825. Unfortunately they dropped it into the Yangon River trying to load it on to a ship bound for England, tried several times to retrieve it from the river bottom, and eventually gave up, telling the Burmese that if they could retrieve it they could have it. The Burmese used logs and Bamboos to eventually bring it to the surface.


As the stupa is lit up


And people continue circling in the rain

Dinner time
We’ve had enough by now, and it’s dark, so down and in a taxi to go to the place we’ve chosen for dinner. The taxi driver gets lost – as LP lists the wrong address, bloomin’ LP and their maps and directions! I was confused as the direction that we drove in after giving him the address seemed to bear no relation to the map I was trying to follow. The good driver didn’t try to charge us any extra though.


Can you put the meter on plee.. oh never mind

So, dinner at Sandy’s Myanmar Cuisine Restaurant, the LP author’s pick of restaurants. It’s a large and quiet restaurant sitting on Lake Kandawgyi, serving bamar food. We go for duck’s eggs stuffed with minced shrimp, or BeÓu-Pazun-Ashar-Thoor-Gyar (there’s a real incentive to stick to numbers when ordering from the menu!) a duck curry and a fish head wrapped in leaves dish, with steamed rice and crackers, dipped in a strange fishy salty sauce. Good food!


Eggs


Curry

For beers we start with Myanmar, the regular brew, but branch out and try a Mandalay beer, which the book describes as watery. It certainly is less strong than Myanmar, but has a certain floral hoppiness about it.


Refreshments

A Norwegian chap, Stig, who is living here for six months, teaching sailing at the Yangon Sailing Club, joins us, and several beers later invites us to the Sailing Club, apparently a rather smart affair on Lake Inya, the following evening.


Stig, Stejn and Sam taking the photo

We taxi home in the pouring rain.

Back in the hotel, Stejn brings out his Trappest ale from the fridge. We crack this open, and chat with Tim, an Australian chap who seems to be more of a dosser than me in regard to travel / work balance! My tiredness catches up with me, much assisted by the strong dark ale.. must sleep, temples to see tomorrow!


Evil brew

2 comments:

Hteink Min said...

Lol.. it is fun to read what is happening inside Burma. There are not much changes happen in Ygn after reading your blog. Although I am Burmese, I have no privilege to visit Burma. If I do so, you know what might happen.. I will have a free ride to jail ;p

Charlotte said...

I agree with Hteink Min, lovely to hear what is going on in Burma and Rangoon these days. I too am unable to travel freely in Burma so am grateful for the images you have posted here. :-)