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Sun 7 Dec 2014

Sule Paya, Yangon.

Sule Paya, Yangon.

In the morning I walked east from my hotel, in the direction of the Sule Paya located in the center of downtown Yangon. Like the Shwedagon Paya, the Sule Paya has also been an important focal point of pro-democracy protests of recent years, notably the Saffron Revolution of 2007.

East of the Sule Paya are the old colonial buildings of Yangon. Many of these buildings of course housed the offices of the British Raj government. I suspect there are no longer any major national government offices located in Yangon since the government moved the country’s capital to the newly built city of Naypyidaw in 2006.

Yangon City Hall

Yangon City Hall

Tower of the former High Court building.

Tower of the former High Court building.

Random colonial building, Yangon.

Random colonial building, Yangon.

Random colonial building, Yangon.

Random colonial building, Yangon.

On the way to the pagoda I stopped in at the Kheng Hock Keong Buddhist temple, and later I took a few moments to see the outside of the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, which serves the tiny Yangon Jewish community. I decided not to enter the Sule pagoda but I circumnavigated it in order to take several photos from different angles.

Incense at Kheng Hock Keong Buddhist temple.

Incense at Kheng Hock Keong Buddhist temple.

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue

I also took note of some of the modern buildings in downtown Yangon and took some photos of them to contrast the old and the new architecture.

Newer buildings in Yangon.

Newer buildings in Yangon.

Yangon shopping mall near my hotel.

Yangon shopping mall near my hotel.

I was sure that very few people in Yangon (or all of Burma for that matter) could afford to live in the downtown area, and I knew that other than the Sule Paya, these buildings did not represent the lives of ordinary citizens. My guidebook recommended taking the local train that circles Yangon, as it would be a good way to see how the average person lives.

Since the main train station was a short walk from downtown, I ambled over and bought a ticket for the 2:25 p.m. departure. The three-hour ride gave me a glimpse of people going about their daily routines and activities. 

YangonTrainStation

Yangon Train Station

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Market

Market at local train station.

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Sat 6 Dec 2014

Yangon's Shwedagon Paya

Yangon’s Shwedagon Paya

Today I went to the Shwedagon Paya in Yangon, likely the most well-known symbol of the city today. Other than being an impressive piece of devotional architecture, it also has been the site of public protests since the British ruled Burma to the present day. It is probably the most sacred place in the country yet it is also the site of the recent military regime’s most brutal repression, a place where they have violently quashed peaceful protests.

Shwedagon Paya

Shwedagon Paya

Shwedagon Paya

Shwedagon Paya

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Tharrawaddy Min Bell, aka Maha Tissada Gandha Bell. (There are children playing under the far side of the bell).

President Obama striking the Tharrawaddy Min Bell in 2012 during his visit to Burma. (Public domain photo by Pete Souza, White House Photographer.)

There were many monks present on the grounds. I also noticed many lay people meditating or praying. In fact, I was surprised at the number of lay people visiting, and I noted that most of them were not actively praying or meditating. Being a Saturday, it seemed many came with their families and/or friends and had decided to make a daylong outing of their visit. Groups had laid down blankets and had brought picnic lunches. Adults were lounging and chatting in the shaded areas of the Shwedagon complex, while small children scampered around nearby. It seemed to be a simple but significant communal ritual.

On the way to and from the pagoda I became aware of a peculiar thing about Yangon traffic. Not unusual for a large city, there were a substantial number of cars on the road, though nowhere near as many as I saw in other large Asian cities. Consistent with my impression of a country that had a small, wealthy elite and masses of poor people, I was not surprised that almost all the cars were either the ubiquitous old, white, beat-up Toyota taxi cabs, or newer upscale luxury models.

But I was surprised at the complete lack of motorcycles, scooters and even bicycles on the roads. Could people here not afford them? Or did everyone prefer to take the bus? (The latter seemed highly unlikely given that most of the buses were aging hulks belching black diesel exhaust, overloaded with passengers who held on for dear life as they hung out of the open doorways).

While doing some reading about recent Burmese history, I found my answer. In the book Burma’s Spring, British journalist Rosalind Russell reports that all two-wheelers “were banned purportedly for reasons of safety but in fact as a means of control.” With the people only able to rely on buses, Russell states, “the junta reasoned, mass movement in the city was fully controlled — a flash demonstration would be impossible to organise.”

Yes, there is WiFi at the Shwedagon Paya!

Yes, there is WiFi at the Shwedagon Paya!

Old colonial building, Yangon.

Old colonial building, Yangon.

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Fri 5 Dec 2014

Young monks crowding around their smartphones.

Young monks crowding around their smartphones.

My smart phone had been run over by a car and for some reason was no longer working. I spent two days in Yangon working on getting a new smart phone and getting it to work to my satisfaction.

I was willing to pay full price for a new phone from Verizon but they would not ship it out of the USA and also were requesting that I ship back to them my damaged unit. So I shopped around and bought a new phone here in Yangon. Using the slow WiFi at my hotel, I downloaded all of the applications I needed.

I was pleasantly surprised at the number of mobile phone stores near me in Yangon. There were big showrooms as well as small family owned storefronts selling handsets and SIM cards. I even noticed a few street vendors selling new SIM cards and used handsets, both displayed on rickety card tables. All of this was certainly to my advantage, and I ended up buying a new Samsung phone, paying no more than I would have in a store in India or online through Amazon, based on my research.

SIM cards displayed by a street vendor.

SIM cards displayed by a street vendor.

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The SIM card was five dollars, down from around $2000 five years ago (Businessweek, September 29, 2014). The major carriers have plans to quickly sell millions of SIM cards in Myanmar (CNET, October 2, 2014), and from the traffic in the mobile phone stores, the people are buying.

Let’s hope that this technology boom will not only give the disenfranchised Myanmar people Angry Birds, but also provide them with tremendous opportunities for learning, a stronger connection to the outside world, and voices that cannot be silenced by selfish and corrupt dictators, as we witness Myanmar Moving Toward Democracy, Smart Phones in Hand (One World, October 19th, 2014).

Here it is! An Asian market Samsung Galaxy.

Here it is! An Asian market Samsung Galaxy.

If it's a selfie, I might be in the background!

If it’s a selfie, I might be in the background!

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Wed 3 Dec 2014

These little tissue dispensers are in all the local restaurants. Inside is a roll of toilet tissue, “re-purposed” by taking out the carboard thing in the middle and threading the tissue out from the inside of the roll. Ingenious!

This morning I caught a bus from Hpa-an to Yangon, Myanmar. A handful of other foreigners boarded the bus with me, but got off a few hours later. After that, it seemed I was the only foreigner for the rest of the seven-hour journey.

We stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch. Outside near the entrance to the restaurant there was a large stone sink with a bar of soap and I took the opportunity to wash my hands.

Suddenly behind me I heard a voice say, “Hey you!” Thinking I had done something wrong, I turned around and a smiling young man in a longyi said, “What do you want?” I looked at him in confusion, then he said, “To eat, you want rice?” Gratefully, I told him yes, I wanted rice with vegetables, no meat, and some tofu if they had any.

I noticed that most Burmese men typically wear a longyi. How could something so right be sarong?

I noticed that most Burmese men typically wear a longyi. How could something so right be sarong?

I wasn’t sure if he understood me, but within minutes a woman brought out a plate of vegetables and tofu in a tasty sauce, and a minute later another waitress set on my table some steaming rice in a big bowl, from which she served me. A few minutes later they brought a clear spinach broth, and then came some lentil soup, like a thick and very mildly spiced Indian daal. The meal was great, but to top it all off they sent a pretty young woman to wave a fan while standing beside my table.

Meanwhile, the restaurant staff and the other bus passengers looked on curiously at this strange alien being (me) speaking a weird language. It was all too much!

My meal cost 2000 kyat (about $2 US). As I would in the USA after receiving excellent service, I left a tip, and a very modest one too. (So far I had gathered that tipping wasn’t customary here, but I felt giving a little extra was no real sacrifice for me but might be helpful to those who had much less than I did).

One of the servers tried to give the money back to me as I was leaving, and I explained that it was for the staff. She looked confused as she held the 200 kyat note (about 20 cents US) as if it were a delicate and precious jewel that did not belong to her, and walked away in the direction of her colleagues, presumably to ask them whatever in the world she should do about the crazy foreigner who wouldn’t take his own money with him. 

I found this map in an old book on a table at the Strand Hotel.

I found this map in an old book on a table at the Strand Hotel. (From: A History of Rangoon, by B.R. Pearn, 1939)

Random old building in Yangon near my hotel.

Random old building in Yangon near my hotel.

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Tue 2 Dec 2014

I had breakfast at the Tea Garden at the Borderline Cafe, Mae Sot, Thailand.

I had breakfast in the Tea Garden at the Borderline Cafe, Mae Sot, Thailand.

A fair-trade organization supporting Burmese migrants and refugees.

A fair-trade organization supporting Burmese migrants and refugees.

After breakfast at the Borderline Cafe in Mae Sot, Thailand, I had a tuk-tuk drop me off at the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge. I passed through Thai immigration to get an exit stamp in my passport, then walked across the bridge over the Moei River to Myawaddy, Myanmar. I got some Myanmar Kyat, the local currency, in Myawaddy, then found a shared car to take me to Hpa-an, where I arrived around six o’clock p.m.

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I crossed the bridge over the Moei River on foot.

I crossed the bridge over the Moei River on foot.

My experience with Myanmar immigration was unusual compared to my experiences entering other countries. First I walked up to the window indicated for foreign passport holders, and was told to enter a door several meters away. I opened the door and saw a man in uniform sitting at a desk looking busy. He did not acknowledge me. I then asked if I should enter, and after a long pause he said, “yes, come in.” Then he proceeded to ignore me for a few minutes while he moved things around on his desk and shredded some papers by hand. I was the only one with him in the room.

He finally turned his attention to me and gave me a form to fill out. I completed the form and handed it back to him, along with my passport. He reviewed the form and put red checkmarks next to items, then told me to go to a window to his left. At the window another uniformed official took a few minutes making copies of my passport, after rubbing down the bottom of the first page several times with a ruler and an eraser.

Meanwhile a very unofficial-looking youth in a longyi, a traditional sarong worn by Burmese men, entered the room and asked me where I was from. I told him I was from the USA, and he said what sounded like “mixed salad.” A few minutes later, after the official had stamped my passport, the youth said, “your parents, you: mixed.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I imagined it had something to do with my being from the USA yet looking like a Subcontinental Asian. I explained that my parents were from India, and that seemed to satisfy him.

The youth leaned back in his chair, cutting a sharp contrast with the rigid, uniformed immigration official at the desk next to him. Then he asked if I needed to change money. I told him I did, hoping he would suggest a bank nearby. Instead, he said, “you can do it right here,” while the immigration official nodded slightly. I declined, thinking the whole scenario was too strange for me to stay a minute longer, and went down the street where I found an ATM.

Negotiating the ride in the shared car was challenging as the driver and his colleague spoke little English. They also kept asking for copies of my passport, which sounded strange to me, but I complied when the driver took me to a copy shop a few blocks away from where we met. There was a lot of talk back and forth between the driver and his colleague, and they scrutinized my visa and immigration stamp very carefully.

I understood later why they needed the copies, as we passed through police checkpoint after police checkpoint, and the driver periodically gave a copy of my passport, visa and entry stamp to some official-looking person. There are many areas in Myanmar where foreigners are not allowed, so the driver was just being prepared to be sure we complied with the rules.

From Myawaddy to Hpa-an, Myanmar.

From Myawaddy to Hpa-an, Myanmar.

A caravan winding through the mountains.

A caravan winding through the mountains.

During the six-hour journey covering about 150 km, mostly through scenic, mountainous terrain, I learned that my driver and carmates were very kind and generous people. During the ride they laughed and joked often, including me in their banter even though we couldn’t understand each other.

We stopped for lunch at a small roadside shop where we all ate together at a table, and one of the ladies in our group paid for all of us and even bought me a bottle of water. She refused when I tried to reimburse her for my meal and the water. Whenever we stopped my driver made sure to direct me to the bathroom.

For most of the six-hour journey the landscape had no cell towers, no high-tension power lines, no utility poles..just nature.

For most of the six-hour journey the landscape had no cell towers, no high-tension power lines, no utility poles..just nature.

A tiny utility pole on the right. Power to the People!

A tiny utility pole on the right. Power to the People!

At one point I somehow lost my phone, and they stopped the car and we all joined in the search. When it didn’t turn up, my driver said we should “rotate” and we went back to where we had stopped a few minutes earlier. There was my phone on the dusty shoulder where I had somehow dropped it. (Later I found out that our car had run over it. I did not tell the driver as I thought this would upset him).

At the end of the trip the driver made sure I got to the front door of my guest house in Hpa-an, carried my luggage up a flight of stairs, and to my disappointment refused to accept my tip.

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Clock tower in Hpa-an.

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Mon 1 Dec 2014

View from my balcony at Ban Thai Guest House, Mae Sot.

View from my balcony at Ban Thai Guest House, Mae Sot.

I decided to stay in Mae Sot for a few days to change money, take my clothes to the laundry, pick up some items from the drugstore, confirm details about crossing the border into Myanmar, and book a few hotels in Myanmar. And as always, I wandered about the town to see if I could discover anything interesting.

A sign outside a school for little ones.

A sign outside a school for little ones.

There were a few Buddhist wats in Mae Sot. Also, Mr. Thant at my hotel’s office, who was from Myanmar, recommended I visit the museum of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) based in Mae Sot, but unfortunately I was unable to locate it.

The proprietress of Khrua 14 Vegetarian Restaurant in Mae Sot, Thailand. Great Food!

The proprietress of Khrua 14 Vegetarian Restaurant in Mae Sot, Thailand. Great Food!

Shredded veggies wrapped in rice paper; roti and green beans with soy protein.

Shredded veggies wrapped in rice paper; roti and green beans with soy protein, at Khrua 14, Mae Sot.

There were a number of restaurants here offering vegetarian food. My favorite place was called “Khrua 14” (Khrua means “kitchen” in Thai), where everything was vegetarian. There were also some tea shops run by Burmese immigrants, as well as a few very lively street markets.

Stall at the local veggie market.

Stall at the local veggie market.

A rare Mini, on the street in Mae Sot, Thailand.

A rare Mini, on the street in Mae Sot, Thailand.

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Sun 30 Nov 2014

On the road. View from cycle rickshaw.

On the road. View from cycle rickshaw.


There were few tourists in Phitsanoluk, where I stayed for one night en route to Mae Sot. I had my meals at the restaurant in my hotel, where they had an English menu, which the other restaurants nearby did not have. Like in Phrae, people in Phitsanoluk spoke minimal English.

Yesterday I arrived in Mae Sot, Thailand, near the border with Myanmar. As I got off the bus I was met by a man with a friendly, weathered face with skin as brown as mine and a big smile speckled with silver teeth. He asked where I was going, and I told him the name of my hotel, which he said he knew, and he offered to take me there in his cycle rickshaw.

I hesitated for a moment as I was not used to the idea of someone physically exerting himself to transport me, especially for the low price he was asking; but I quickly reminded myself that this was his livelihood and that I would be helping him make his living. He cheerfully and efficiently conveyed me to my hotel. I thanked him with the few words in Thai that I knew, saying “kup kun krub,” and gave him a generous tip. I asked if he was from Myanmar (as I had suspected when I first saw him) and he confirmed he was.

From my research about Mae Sot I learned that there were many people from Myanmar here, some working with legalized status, others working without documentation, and others having arrived as political refugees. Sadly, Mae Sot is also a destination and transit point for human trafficking. Many international NGOs have a strong presence here because of these social and human rights issues.

So despite having few merits as a tourist destination per se, there were a large number of foreigners here, mainly long-term NGO workers, or tourists like me who were planning to cross the border into Myanmar.

Mosque in Mae Sot.

Mosque in Mae Sot. Many of the Muslims in Mae Sot are ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

My teak paneled room at the Ban Thai Guest House.

My teak-paneled room at the Ban Thai Guest House in Mae Sot, Thailand.

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Thu 27 Nov 2014

Khum Jao Luang House, Phrae.

Khum Jao Luang House, Phrae.

Khum Jao Luang House, Phrae.

Khum Jao Luang House, Phrae.

Phrae is the capital city of the Thai province of the same name, and is the former center of Thailand’s teak industry. The province still contains one of the country’s largest reserves of teak forests, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).

Not surprisingly, the “old city” of Phrae, the part that was originally protected by a fortified wall and moat, is full of teak houses. The TAT notes that in addition to many traditional Thai style homes, Phrae has a number of “colonial style” teak homes, many built by European teak traders in the 19th century. (By the way, Thais are very proud of the fact that Thailand was never colonized).

In addition to the notable teak architecture, Phrae has several Buddhist wats. However, after seeing many wats in various parts of the country, I was feeling a bit “watted out.” So I decided to have a look at some of the teak houses here.

Vongburi House, Phrae.

Vongburi House, Phrae.

Vongburi House, Phrae. Take note: that is not a keyboard on the desk, it is an abacus!

Vongburi House, Phrae. Take note: that is not a keyboard on the desk, it is an abacus!

Selfie in antique mirror, Vongburi House.

Selfie in antique mirror, Vongburi House.

This must have held something important! Vongburi House, Phrae.

This must have held something important! Vongburi House, Phrae.

Wichairacha House, Phrae.

Wichairacha House, Phrae.

Wichairacha House, Phrae.

Wichairacha House, Phrae.

Wichairacha House, Phrae.

Wichairacha House, Phrae.

Hub & Axle. Old cartwheel found under Wichairacha House, Phrae.

Hub & Axle. Old cartwheel found under Wichairacha House, Phrae.

From document at Vongburi House, Phrae. (Source unknown).

From document at Vongburi House, Phrae. (Source unknown).

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Wed 26 Nov 2014

On the way to Phrae (taken through the window of a zooming bus!)

On the way to Phrae (taken through the window of a zooming bus!)

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I arrived in Phrae today after a four-hour bus ride from Chiang Mai. In the morning I had called to arrange a home stay in the old city with a woman named Priwan, who herself picked me up at the bus station.

Ms. Priwan

Ms. Priwan

Her home consisted of a few large teak buildings surrounded by a garden. The house had six guest rooms, and (conveniently for me) she prepared only vegetarian food in her kitchen. A short time after arriving I was seated in the garden having some stir fried noodles and vegetables along with a cold herbal tea.

There were a number of other guests staying there, including couples from Germany and France, a Spanish woman who arrived on a motorbike, and a trio of young Italian women.

In addition to running the guest house Priwan also worked as an English tutor, and in the afternoon there were a few school age children sitting at her study table.

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In the early evening I walked around the small town, finding the remains of an old moat in the middle of which there was a dancing fountain. Later on in my wanderings I encountered a local street fair, where I bought some sweets from a vendor and watched a music and dance performance.

Near entrance gate to the old city of Phrae.

Near entrance gate to the old city of Phrae.

Near entrance gate to the old city of Phrae.

Near entrance gate to the old city of Phrae.

Magical Fountain!

Magical Fountain!

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Dancers at street fair.

Dancers at street fair.

Sweet vendor at street market, Phrae.

Sweet vendor at street market, Phrae.

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Tue 25 Nov 2014

On the grounds of a wat in Chiang Mai

On the grounds of a wat in Chiang Mai

Ironically, the best way for a tourist to have an “authentic” experience is to avoid other tourists and spend more time with the locals. Regretfully I was not interacting much with true natives since Chiang Mai is a very touristy city. In fact, Thailand is one of the top ten tourist destinations in the world and the second most visited country in Asia (after China), according to the UNWTO.

Breakfast. Fresh papaya and pineapple, a strong Thai-style tea, and banana chocolate-chip muffins.

Breakfast. Fresh papaya and pineapple, a strong Thai-style tea, and banana chocolate-chip muffins.

Both in spite of and because of its touristy nature, Chiang Mai is a very comfortable place to hang your hat for a few days or weeks, if not longer. The weather is pleasant, the cuisine diverse and tasty, and the wats are peaceful. It is relaxing and fun to stroll aimlessly or cycle around the old city. There are used book stores with loads of titles in English. Wifi is everywhere, even in the wats. With all these amenities, it is still easy on the wallet.

Free WiFi at a Buddhist Monastery!

Free WiFi at a Buddhist Monastery!

I explored the option of visiting a few other destinations in Thailand, such as Pai and Chiang Rai, recommended by other travelers. Based on my research I suspected that these places would also be full of tourists, so I opted not to go. One possible exception was Phrae, which I was thinking of visiting after Chiang Mai before I made my way to the Thai-Myanmar border.

I anticipated having more interesting and novel experiences in Myanmar which only recently opened its doors to international tourism. I downloaded some books that I thought would help me prepare for my travels in Myanmar. A Bike Tour in Myanmar recounts the recent 12 day journey of two middle-aged women riding a tandem bicycle through Burma. While I was not planning to do a bike tour, much of the practical and cultural information provided by the authors would be useful to both the bicycling as well as biped independent traveler.

Selfie with terra cotta background.

Selfie with terra cotta background.

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