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Tue 16 Dec 2014

Bagan at Sunrise

Bagan at Sunrise

Yesterday I took a bus from Pyin Oo Lwin to Bagan. Also on the bus were two fellow travelers from my Pyin Oo Lwin hotel: Nicole, from Italy, and Marc, from Australia. Marc took the initiative to get us to commit to meeting early this morning so we could bike to the temples to see the sunrise.

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Bagan is an immense site of archeological ruins consisting of over 2000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and stupas spread over a wide plain. Most of the temples date from the 11th to 13th centuries. In terms of size and historical importance, it is comparable to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.

Balloons in the Distance!

Balloons in the Distance!

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My companions and I decided to view the sunrise from the heights of the Shwesandaw Pagoda. We climbed up as high as we were allowed and waited for the sun’s first rays to begin creeping over the horizon. The sky soon filled with hot air balloons carrying tourists viewing the plain from an even higher vantage point.

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After a few hours of admiring the views and taking photos, we biked off to the nearby town of Old Bagan, where we had breakfast.

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Sun 14 Dec 2014

Myanmar Survey Training Center

Myanmar Survey Training Center

Today I again rented a bicycle and rode off in the direction of the botanical garden, but veered off onto Circular Road prior to reaching the grounds of the garden.

Along Circular Road and its side streets were the colonial structures built during the British Raj, including administrative office buildings, homes, schools and churches. Exploring the area by bike was easy. Pyin Oo Lwin was considered a hill station because of its altitude, but the city itself is relatively flat with only an occasional gently sloping hill to give it some character.

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All Saints Church

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Pyin Oo Lwin was full of ancient horse-drawn carriages that mainly congregated near the market but could be seen just about anywhere on the main thoroughfares and side streets, transporting their fares (mostly tourists) around town.

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Horse Carriage1

At one point I found my way blocked by a crowded and lively fruit and vegetable market. I dismounted the bike and explored the market on foot for a while. Back on the main road I found a couple of old barber shops, quaint in appearance but otherwise not very useful to me.

Market

Market

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Must be lunchtime.

Barbershop. Must be lunchtime.

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Sat 13 Dec 2014

Clock tower at Pyin Oo Lwin.

Clock tower at Pyin Oo Lwin.

Pyin Oo Lwin was a “hill station” under the British Raj government, a cool respite from the heat of Mandalay and about two hours northeast by bus. The small city still contains many interesting old colonial buildings nestled under the shade of its many trees.

Pyin Oo Lwin is also home to the National Kandawgyi Gardens, a large and well-maintained botanical garden, as well as big academies and training centers for the Myanmar military.

As I walked around the town I occasionally saw men in military uniform. I also noticed many people who looked Nepali or Indian, most likely the descendants of laborers brought to Burma by the British to help build the railway, according to my guidebook. I took note of the signs advertising nearby Indian restaurants and storefront shops selling Indian delicacies like laddus (I must admit I partook of some of these sweets!).

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Today I rode a bicycle from my hotel through leafy neighborhoods to the botanical garden. I paid the very affordable $5 entrance fee for foreigners. I noted a sign at the ticket office said the entrance fee for Myanmar citizens was $1, which after consideration I realized was very expensive for the average citizen, given that Myanmar’s annual per capita income was about 5% of that of the U.S. I reminded myself that with its expensive homes and fancy restaurants, Pyin Oo Lwin was in no way representative of the lifestyle of the vast majority of the country’s people.

National Kandagwi Gardens, Pyin Oo Lwin.

National Kandawgyi Gardens, Pyin Oo Lwin.

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National Kandawgyi Gardens, Pyin Oo Lwin.

Lost in bamboo grove.

Lost in bamboo grove.

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National Kandawgyi Gardens, Pyin Oo Lwin.

National Kandawgyi Gardens, Pyin Oo Lwin.

National Kandawgyi Gardens, Pyin Oo Lwin.

As I reviewed the map of the garden’s grounds, I saw an area labeled “teak plot.” I realized that in my travels in Southeast Asia I had seen many examples of teak homes and furniture, but I had no idea of what an actual teak tree looked like! So I made sure to traverse this part of the garden to inspect the specimens of Tectona grandis.

Baby teak tree.

Baby teak tree.

Grownup teak tree.

Grownup teak tree.

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Wed 10 Dec 2014

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Pounding gold leaf

Being the second largest city in Myanmar after Yangon, Mandalay is home to many monasteries. It also is full of artisans skilled in making gold leaf, cutting and polishing jade, carving wood, and other crafts.

The 19th century Shwe In Bin Kyaung monastery is a peaceful abode away from the bustle of Mandalay’s center. It is covered with elaborately carved teak ornamentation and is a working monastery where monks reside and practice.  

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Shwe In Bin Kyaung Monastery

Shwe In Bin Kyaung Monastery

Shwe In Bin Kyaung Monastery

Shwe In Bin Kyaung Monastery

Shwe In Bin Kyaung Monastery

Shwe In Bin Kyaung Monastery

Shwe In Bin Kyaung Monastery

I visited at mid-day and other than a few fellow tourists admiring the architecture, there was nobody else in the building other than a few craftsmen working on the inside of the meditation hall, and one black cat. I wondered if the cat was a practicing Buddhist or just hanging around the monastery for some free food.

Monastic Cat.

Monastic Cat.

Pulley at monastery well.

Pulley at monastery well.

From visiting many monasteries in Southeast Asia, I have learned that devout Buddhists show their devotion in many ways. One way is to buy gold leaf squares and apply them to Buddha statues and stupas as a way of gaining merit. Mandalay actually has a gold pounders district where gold leaf is made, so on the way to the monastery I stopped there to see how it was done. It was interesting to watch the process but since I was not convinced of the validity of obtaining merit this way, nor even the need to obtain merit, I did not buy any gold leaf.

Tools of the gold pounder's trade.

Tools of the gold pounder’s trade.

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Tue 9 Dec 2014

Bus to Mandalay!

Bus to Mandalay!

Mandalay was not on my initial itinerary but I decided to go there on a friend’s recommendation. Yesterday I took a morning northbound bus from Yangon. The weather was clear, the highway straight, flat and smooth, and there was little traffic. We made good time and reached Mandalay late afternoon.

Mandalay is a flat city with a gridiron street pattern, and I did not find the city itself very picturesque. However it is considered the cultural capital of Burma and for that reason worthy of a visit.

Today I rented a bicycle from my hotel and rode toward the Royal Palace, which is surrounded by a wall and a moat. As I was not in the mood for royalty, I continued biking along the east side of the palace and to the foot of Mandalay Hill.

Entrance to Mandalay Hill

Entrance to Mandalay Hill

After paying 200 kyat to the bike watchman, then leaving my shoes with the shoe watchwoman (who told me that upon my return she would sell my shoes back to me for 200 kyat) I embarked on the half hour climb up the hill. I enjoyed seeing what seemed to be the more ordinary aspects of Mandalay life: monks praying, vendors hawking small souvenirs and crafts, local tea shops. During the ascent I was accompanied by some foreigners as well as locals.

Craftsman making sandalwood beads, Mandalay Hill.

Craftsman making sandalwood beads, Mandalay Hill.

Remnants.

Remnants.

The final product.

The final product.

Artist, Mandalay Hill.

Artist, Mandalay Hill.

Pagoda at top of Mandalay Hill.

Pagoda at top of Mandalay Hill.

View from top of Mandalay Hill.

View from top of Mandalay Hill.

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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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