Tuesday, April 11, 2017

My Myanmar is a Beautiful Burma

We spent only a few hours in Yangon and the people have been helpful and pleasant to speak with. The airport is stunningly clean and well maintained; it's also the coldest I've ever set foot in with the least number of people (the domestic side, that is). It's too bad we will not spend any real time in this city as we've opted for the roads less traveled in Myanmar.

Our transfer to Sittwe was smooth. The Sittwe airport was even less developed than the one on Easter Island. The single building here was literally still being constructed or refurbished. Strangely, after a domestic flight, we had to pass thru a quasi immigration control table to document our visit. The officer was courteous and, in his limited English, was able to give us an idea of how much our tuk tuk ride would be to the city.

The "city" is not much of a city at all. From what we've seen, there is only a single paved road. All the offshoots are dirt roads. The main establishments are on the main road, as was our hotel, a tiny place but with all the modern necessities (or what we consider necessary - a/c, toilet, electricity). The staff was again friendly. The receptionist's English was excellent, and he provided so much guidance for our onward journey to a destination much less traveled, Mrauk-U (/mra-oo/). He even packed us breakfast for our early morning departure.

Again we woke up at 5am for a 7am ferry to the village of Mrauk-U. The jetty at the river wasn't much more than a short pier of rickety wood. To get on the ferry you literally had to walk down a plank with no rails. We had to watch our step with our packs on our back and clinging on to our hand luggage tightly. The boat was old but seemed reliable. Many locals were taking the ride as well, and we sat on the top deck alongside. No one cared that we were tourists. No one stared or asked or begged. It was as if we were just like them. Is it because we're Asian? No, I didn't think so. We sat next to 2 Germans and a Frenchman, and the locals couldn't even bat an eye towards them. I wondered why. It's not like this place gets that many tourists.

The sunrises over the foggy, misty river in Sittwe. Aboard a local passenger ship, we are headed for the village of Mrauk-U.

Birds circle the ship as it sails towards the morning sun.

The 4 hour ride was mysterious as we flowed through the fog and mist slowly upriver. The land around us was pure. No establishments, no trash. Just small riverside fishing villages, raw land, and local animals doing their daily thing. And every once in a while a golden pagoda would shine in the distance.

Mrauk-U is what Angkor Wat was like 20-30 years ago or more by my estimation. Most of the roads here at semi-paved. It's very dusty. The buildings are low or shack-like. It's very undeveloped here. There are few hotels, or more like guesthouses. There aren't many cars. Motorbikes, bicycles, and tuk tuks are the modes of transportation.

Local children from one of the villages of Mrauk-U. They were so eager to be in front of a camera and to see the result. 

Buddha images at the temple sites of Mrauk-U are often reconstructed or restored. In their minds, this is preservation; I believe this idea is contrary to the requirements to become a UNESCO heritage site. 

Novice monks well on their way towards possible Enlightenment.

There are little villages in different sections of the town. Each village has a specialty. We visited villages that made bronze statues and another that weaved clothing / tapestry / and bamboo products. The people living in these villages literally have straw over their heads and live in bamboo shacks on stilts but somehow have managed to earn a living doing these various jobs. They have regular customers and regular work hours although done at the comfort of their own home. Some people even have a television or karaoke. They live a simple life without many wants, so it seems.  To power their few electronics, they use solar panels connected to a car battery to store energy. Then they somehow draw from that energy with a converter of some sort.

The stupas, pagodas, and temples all over Mrauk-U are all built to worship Buddha. Some of them have one and others have 1000s. One that we visited has 80,000+. Another had 90,000+.

Pagoda in Mrauk-U. 

Stupas in Mrauk-U.

Family-run businesses, especially guesthouses, have so much charm. They provide the comforts of a family setting, attitude, and atmosphere while giving you the professional, courteous, and prompt service required by a business. I support them whole-heartedly and financially with my patronage. We had the benefit of staying at one such accommodation in Mrauk-U called the Prince Hotel. The family was so close knit and kind. Every night we spoke with them outside at the dinner table. We played with the kids, and found out that they speak English, surprisingly well. They are enrolled in an international school in Yangon. They are so loveable. Even the family dog gave off good vibes towards the guests. Yellow (the dog's name) reminded us so much of our own dog, Kirby.

Myanmar is definitely a 3rd world country. Electricity still goes out at least once a day.

Driving in Myanmar is completely different from anywhere in the world that we've been. They have the steering wheel on the right side of the car, BUT they also drive on the right side of the road! How can they navigate the median in the street? It's strange but it works here. They must be more worried to not fall off the edge of the road and damage their tires.

The Chin villages in the Chin state of Myanmar are some of the most remote places we've ever been to in all of our travels. It is a 2 hour long boat ride up river from Mrauk-U and it's unlike anything we've ever seen. The land is in its natural state. It is unharmed by the big businesses. The villages and its people survive on what they grow, what they fish, and what they can buy from Mrauk-U and transport by boat. They are self sufficient. The only bit of technology they have are solar panels which they use to power the few televisions in the village. Villagers still use wood stoves to cook. Their livelihood is based on manual labor such as weaving clothing or baskets or small goods for sale to the larger towns. They also cut down bamboo to be sold downriver. Lives are sustained in simplicity. And there is little trash strewn around the land. It's the least touristic place I've ever seen. This is what other places must have looked like before the advent of tourism.

In some ways I would hope tourism was limited to preserve the natural culture. Is Bhutan this way with the daily fee?

A conversation with our guide tried to persuade him to believe that tourism would hurt their economy. We advised that the more people who visit, the more problems with waste and with maintenance of the natural environment. There is an optimism for more money. The reality is that once big business arrives, the small operators will have trouble keeping their jobs. Money will not necessarily stay with the locals. And if the Chinese arrive, there is a certainty that chaos will ensue and tourism could possibly destroy what is left of their beautifully kept state. Just our opinion and what we've experienced in other more touristic places. The guide on the other hand was much more optimistic. And it's understandable. He thinks they will get more out of it. That money will improve everyone's life. And yes, while it's true there will be improvements, in some selfish way I hope that the original ways are preserved somehow. But sadly, I know it will not. And the wheels are already turning. An airport's construction has already begun. Only time will determine when the changes will follow.

Met a Frenchman on our way to Mrauk-U and befriended him. It started out with us just asking if he wanted to share a tuk tuk to the village to save money. He agreed (along with the 2 other German women), and the friendship sprouted from there. Laurent joined us on the tour to the Chin villages to photograph the tattoo face women. He is a photographer living in Siem Reap doing photo tours. Laurent is a pleasant man with good humor and a love for photography that is evident. He seeks out view points and shoots great photos. He is adventurous as a solo traveler in a foreign place but is easy going and adaptable to his environment. Safe to say, we've friended him on Facebook and followed him on Instagram.

Tattoo faced woman tending her cows made time for us to interview her. She rents her cows to farmers to help plow their fields.

Tattoo faced woman who also has the enlarged earring hole as some others commonly have. 

The few tourists we've encountered here we've spoken to and befriended. Some are very avid travelers and others are just starting out and learning the ropes. In either case we've had fun conversations and in the end decided to keep in touch. Facebook FTW.

We went for sunrise with Laurent up to Discovery Hill. At 5am we took to the unpaved streets on our old, rusted, fixed gear bikes into the darkness. As the view point didn't open until 6am, and we wanted to setup before the 6:15 sunrise, we committed a petty crime by hopping the fence and climbing the hill. We've seen photos online of a mystical view of the land shrouded in fog and mist, so we wanted to duplicate the experience. Unfortunately, the conditions were probably not right. We didn't have as much mist but we were still able to capture great photos. We realized that in addition to fog and mist, the cloudiness must also have consisted of the burning of wood or rubbish, adding to the veil of smoke. It was still magical in it's own way. On our way down the hill, the attendant said nothing. He must have known that we were up there and this must happen often. He had nicely placed our bikes within the compound, so we just picked up and biked away.

Sunrise over Mrauk-U from Discovery Hill. It wasn't the most spectacular view we've ever had, but it was still mysterious with the shrouding of the fog, mist, and smoke over the village. 

I didn't know that the British colonized Myanmar. Their occupation ended in 1958. I don't believe much influence is evident here besides English being spoken by few. I also didn't know Portugal had trade here. Their influence can be found in the Christian Burmese.

Make sure you have clean, crisp new dollar bills for use in Myanmar. They will give you difficulty in exchanging them if they are not pristine and older than 2013. They should not have any creases either, so don't put them in your wallet and always carry a billfold. Annoying! No billfold wallet for me, so we just sandwiched our money in a book to flatten it out. That worked well enough.

Young Burmese boys learning to navigate the river. 

We traveled from Mrauk-U back to Sittwe by 4hr boat then took a 1.5hr flight to Yangon to stay overnight and then another 1hr flight to Heho followed by a 6hr mini bus ride to the town of Loikaw. Yea, that's a lot of travel. That last leg was most interesting because it was all locals. We were one of them. Different people got on and off the minibus at different points along the way. And this minibus literally went door to door. All our bags were strapped to the roof and the inside sat 15-16 people. It was more of a van than a bus. In terms of comfort, it wasn't the most comfortable ride, and we didn't have A/C! Thankfully it wasn't humid or sweltering hot. The open windows gave a good breeze as we zig zagged our way south. The road was single lane so oncoming traffic was like a game of chicken each time. It was mostly tarred and paved though the edges were rough and bumpy. There were also so many twists, turns, and curves all the way through. In terms of scenery, it was constantly changing. There were really dry areas. There were lush areas near the lakes. There were hills that were barren and there were towns that were full of life. Most of the towns centered around the main road running through it a bit like those roads in New Zealand.

Monks in training for an Abbey Road album cover. Just kidding.

This lock neck woman was one of the first we met. Her family is large and unbelievably poor. She was left in the village to serve as caretaker of their land while her children ventured off to Thailand for greener pastures. 

We visited Pan Pet village where the Kayan long neck women live. They are most famous in northern Thailand where they have been popularized but they are really from here. Their village is really far from any other civilization. But they've come down from the mountains over the years. We had to travel about 1.5hrs out of Loikaw to reach the village. Currently there is no completed road so we had to drive off-road on gravel and dirt to reach them. However, the government has created a project to pave the way. In one sense the road is for bolstering tourism and the secondary effect is it will connect two previously disconnected villages.

We learned that with better education less and less women want to use the brass rings to elongate their necks. And some even do it just for show, for tourism. So it is increasingly becoming fake just to make money. I feel like with the improvement of infrastructure the government is kind of encouraging women to choose the long neck lifestyle; it's unnatural. This makes it less authentic and more touristic. If the government didn't think they could make money from the tourism of people wanting to see long neck women, they probably wouldn't have initiated the road project.

The funny thing is that the younger generation is becoming better educated by the government. Where there was only an elementary school historically, secondary education is now available in the villages. It's almost like the government didn't think about the cause and effect of the roads and school.

It's sad to know that the girls who have chosen the long neck lifestyle are embarrassed by their looks. That prevents them from leaving their village and experiencing life outside of their comfort zone. This is a secondary reason the higher education system was brought into the village.

The people of Pan Pet do not seem money hungry. They do not ask for money for their pictures to be taken. They are welcoming and enjoy the conversations they had with us. The women seemed so much more happy than the tattoo faced women in the Chin villages. The long neck women have their normal lives that they lead, such as farming and the gathering of fire wood, or even working on the road construction. Some cook for their families and raise children, some weave or knit clothing and accessories, while others have small convenience stores for the villagers. It's a normal life they lead not withstanding their long neck appearance.

On the particular day we were in Pan Pet we witnessed the first of the long neck women's homes be provided electricity. The village has only run on fire and solar power until today. The government has put in place the infrastructure (electrical towers/lines through the village), but today was literally was the first day of artificial light.

Despite how little money people have and how difficult life may be in the villages, homes can still be built by brick rather than the traditional bamboo and thatched roofs. That's impressive. Comparatively, in Mrauk-U this was not possible with the level on income earned there.

The people of Myanmar tend not to allow ancient buildings or statues or even natural formations to deteriorate. With that said, they always restore or rebuild things that need maintenance. It is because of this desire to keep things in good shape that the possibility of becoming a UNESCO site is in jeopardy. This was most evident in Mrauk-U but also in the cave outside of Loikaw. In some ways, it's noble to try to maintain your places of worship and ancient artifacts. But in other ways it's saddening to see reconstructions done in poor taste and with a lack of real knowledge in restoration. But who are we to say? It's a really complicated situation and neither way is wrong.

I compare it with the situation regarding tourism. Do you forbid tourism to grow and preserve the beauty of the villages' natural state? Or do you allow tourism to boom and drastically alter the way life is pre-tourism? Do you allow the restoration of ancient figures and images by local artisans so that you can preserve your prayer locations at temples / pagoda / stupas? Or do you let nature take its course to wear away the hard work of your ancestors' manual labor to secure financing as a UNESCO site? These are hard decisions to make.

This cave was claimed by both Buddhist and Catholic people. On the outside is a cross and inside are Buddha images. Monks said that it was not the Gods who have any conflict, it is the people who worship the Gods who have conflict. So if the Gods have no conflict, then why should the people? From that time forward, monks have come to practice Buddhism while others have come to celebrate Catholicism.

60% of the people in Kayah state are Christian (Baptist and Catholic) while only 30% is Buddhist. Strangely, in Loikaw there are a lot of Buddhist sites despite the 30% Buddhist population. In the city, the concentration is a bit higher. In the villages is where the ratio is more true.

Our 10hr drive from Loikaw to Bagan was scenic. We passed through the villages and sleepy towns of Myanmar that seem as if they've been disconnected from the rest of the world forever, as if communication never reached them. We traversed roads without streetlights. Highways consisted of a single lane, meaning a single lane shared by both directions. It gives an alternative meaning to the phrase "share the road." Again, every oncoming vehicle was a game of chicken until one gives way and utilizes their signal to allow the other to pass while inching closer to the edge of the street without falling off the edge. Our old Nissan driven by a relatively young Burmese guy (probably younger than me) hugged the curves that carved the mountain ridges. And once we descended into the valley a stop was required to cool the engine and brakes with a quick 10 minute water bath. Every car was doing it after the descent and ascent. The first 4-5hrs seemed to go quickly but after lunch, the day seemed to crawl. From 1-4pm the sun's blaze was scorching. It's the hottest part of the day and the hardest to bear as there was no A/C in this car. The dry heat of 100+ degrees was only slightly tempered by the wind as we rolled down our windows for the entire ride. Our approach into Bagan was just after sunset. We literally chased the sun and watched it come down over Bagan in it's daily glory. Another day has come to an end but the beginning of a new town for us brings excitement.

Today, 7 April, we slept in. It was hard to catch a nap in the car yesterday. We rented an e-bike and started our temple and pagoda tour. As per usual, we opt for the DIY version. As we hopped around, we were able to see the well known sites and find the off the beaten path places. The latter allowed us really peaceful settings and in some cases temples to ourselves, which is how we much rather prefer it.

In Bagan, temples, stupas, and pagodas are much more closely clustered than anywhere else we've been. Visiting each of them can take days or weeks, and in the scorching heat, finding shade within one of them is the key to making it through the day.

Bagan is charming and can be eerily quiet if you find the right place to just sit and listen. 

Bagan, or more accurately for us, Nyuang-U is full of foreign tourists. It's like Angkor Wat. And when that happens you have a Westernization of the town. It loses its original character and what it used to be has transformed into what tourism demands. And unfortunately, where economics was previously unimportant, the supply must now meet that demand.

Tourism is polarized in a sense. Right now, and for the most recent few years, the attraction is here in Bagan. In a few years, the poles may shift to Loikaw or Mrauk-U. But for now, those remain in their true character. Those villages retain their unique qualities void of the economics of big business. Their true beauty shines.

No Fs given. This elderly woman allowed us to photograph her without hesitation. With thanaka cream on her face and cigarette in hand, nothing could bother her. 

We still have to go barefoot around the temples here but at least they are clean and maintained. And most people wear sandals everywhere. The worst case is that peoples' feet are dirty from dust and not dung from wild cows like in India. Just saying.

Our last day in Bagan started with a great sunrise at just before 6am. There aren't as many tourists as Angkor Wat but certainly more than Mrauk-U and Loikaw. Atop the Shwesandaw temple we watched the sky brighten and change through the different hues of red and blue. We were fortunate enough to see hot air balloons rise up from afar and drift just over our heads. Before 8am we headed for the local market to catch breakfast at a stall serving mohinga, a traditional Burmese noodle dish. And then it was back to the hotel to rest before our early lunch and afternoon massage. We rounded out our day with a couple more temples to complete our list and opted for an early dinner so we could pack up for our next adventure destination: Bhutan.

As the sun sets on our time in Bagan, we look forward to cooler weather in Bhutan. 

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