PART V: GO SOUTH YOUNG MAN!
with apologies to Horace Greeley
Leaving the tourist trail–
Dateline: 1/23/13–Yangon, Myanmar
I have been in Yangon three days now. It seems longer mainly because
- I have mostly run out of things to do.
- It is taking me all this time to get my bearings in Myanmar and to plan some adventures.
First of all, anything you have heard or read about this country more than two months ago is no longer true. Tourism is exploding. Room prices have doubled or more since last year. Vacancies are rare and expensive in the big four (big four, pay more) tourist destinations.
For example, I tried to book a flight to Sitwe, the capital of Rakhine State, and the gateway to Mrauk U and the Bay of Bengal beaches where a fellow blogger had visited a month before my arrival. I was told that the area is closed to foreigners due to a resumption of one of the three civil wars currently going on in Myanmar.
Another plan to visit the famed Golden Rock is ‘fortunately’ halted when a northbound traveler informs me that the famous gold leaf covered rock is totally obscured by bamboo screening while the government performs maintenance. (What are they doing with the tons of gold leaf that pilgrims have deposited there for eons?) They are still charging tourist to walk up the stairs and see nothing so I am saved an unnecessary bus trip and government admittance fee.
This mornng, I heard that a truck had driven off the bridge heading south closing the road and stranding hundreds of vehicles. Such is day-to-day life in Myanmar.
I didn’t see Michael (the Time Travel) Turtle at breakfast (did I mention they have a legendary breakfast here at the Whitehouse). I think he has left and later confirmed this with the front desk). However, I met Ryan (a summer tour leader in the states) and Snowy (an Aussie grad student) at breakfast. We hit it off. We decide that we will take the night train to Mawlamyine tomorrow. Today they are going to meet a young man and woman that Snowy connected with the day before. The two locals are learning English and want to show us around. We meet at Sule Paya and then walk to the train station where we purchase tickets. We eat some good street food and have a spirited conversation along the way. After, we go to a locals’ tea shop and drink a lot of hot green tea which causes me to perspire profusely in the 105° F heat. Later I visit the 158-year-old Jewish Synagogue. Then comes a stop at an Indian restaurant where I have a great dinner, fish curry, cauliflower, lentils and all the trimmings for about $4. Everyone is staring at me like they have never seen a white boy. I smile back and enjoy the meal. By 10:30 I am sound asleep.
The next morning I meet Ryan and Snowy at breakfast. We go to pack up. I decide to leave a bunch of stuff at the hotel while we travel south. We go for a long walk along with Laura from Italy. We walk through a park with a huge lake ($2). Eventually we arrive at our goal, the temple of a 65 meter reclining Buddha. After some time there we part, agreeing to meet at 7:30 pm.
Later I get a bunch of samosas on the street for 100 kyat (25 cents). Then some yummy Shan style Chinese food (pork cashew and rice and a beer) in a sit down. I got totally stuffed for $4 including the beer and chatted with a local there before heading across to the Traders Hotel to try some blogging.
OK, I rocked on the internet. Traders was “out” of gin and tonic–how can that be-it is so British, ha ha. So I got a beer, uploaded major photos and wrote a blog post. Toward the end, I was moving at light speed as my computer said it was almost 7:00. But I got it proofread, double checked and published. I then realized my computer was on Bangkok time and it was really 6:30 pm, whew. Yes, Myanmar has its own time zone which is 30 minutes behind the rest of the region.
I hooked up with Ryan and Snowy and we taxied to the RR station. The train took off promptly at 9:00 pm. What an experience! We’re in “upper class” which has seats with some padding that are fixed at a slight recline. The narrow-gauge RR bounces violently up and down at times, often swaying from side to side. I actually manage to sleep in 10-15 spurts on and off. At one point the ride is somewhat smooth and I get up to pee. Right in mid-pee the train starts bouncing and swaying and I am spraying!!! Somehow I managed to miss myself but hit everywhere else. Seats and walls. Fortunately, they have the Asian style bidet so I at least rinse everything off with water for the next person.
Dateline: 1/25/13–We get into Mawlamyine at 8:00 am and take a tuk tuk to the Breeze Guesthouse. We get a triple room for $6 each. Really nice owner, Mr. Anthony aka Mr. Tony who will help us with anything. Have not seen any white folks yet…love it. We grab showers and then sleep for a few hours in hard, but comfortable enough beds.
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the Temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”
Moulmein, the former name for Mawlamyine, is where Rudyard Kipline spent the entirety of his three days in Burma and wrote this famous poem (opening stanza quoted). He never actually laid eyes on Mandalay!
Ryan was throwing up on the train and is still rather sick in the gut. Snowy and I get up around noon and take a walk along the bay. This is also where George Orwell lived for several years and worked as a policeman. He wrote his first book, Burmese Days, and developed themes for Animal Farm and 1984 while here. We stop and have lunch sitting at a table overlooking the water. Lunch is about $4.
I am already loving the laid back vibe of this seaside town and can hardly believe it is Myanmar’s third largest city. We return to the Breeze, rest some more and book a tour to Ogre Island with Mr. Anthony for the following day. Some dinner, a beer, and it’s early to bed. We all sleep soundly.
Dateline 1/26/13–We breakfast on the veranda at 7:00 am. By 8:00 we are off in tuk tuk with seven others. Mr. Tony is charging us $15 for an 8 hour tour to the island which includes, boat and tuk tuk transport both ways and lunch. I do not often due packaged tours but this sounds like a good deal. Besides, a certain tour person has already been expounding at length with me on his political views. That alone makes this worth it.
We arrive at the boat dock and get on the crowded open wooden boat. We are told the sexes are segregated so Snowy sits with the women down in the bow and Ryan and I sit top side. I get some photos of the fisherman. It’s maybe 40 minutes to the island. When we arrive, it is pandamonium. Fortunately, Mr. Tony has preceded us and arranged tuk tuks at the other side and we take off.
First stop is a Buddhist shrine built over the water that you walk barefoot along an old wooden pier to get to.
Then off again. Along the way locals on bikes and scooters and foot stare at us like we are the wildest thing they have ever seen. Ogre Island is huge and we spend hours traversing it. Along the way, we see waving smiling children and friendly adults. We are definitely a novelty item. There are a few very low tech industries and yes even a few attempts to sell us souvenirs.
We stop for a juice and BR break. We hit some cottage industries along the way including a hat factory that reminds me of Bridge on the River Kwai.
A rubber band factory is interesting as well. I doubt the process has changed in the last 150 years. First the rubber tree sap is cooked. Bastches are colored and poles are dipped into the thickening mixture. When the coating dries three days later, the tubes are cut in a human powered cutting machine.
Next we stop at a village where nothing appears to have changed in a very long time. Women and men still draw water from wells and occasional electricity is provided by generators. We have a typical Burmese lunch and then we walk around the village.
On the way back to the boat, we stop one last time at a pagoda Climbing many steps, I discover Yoda Buddha.
While waiting for the boat we have a couple beers which we are told is included in the tour! The boat ride back is very hot but otherwise fine. Mr. Tony is ready to call it a day but not before arranging a tuk tuk to take us to the main pagoda overlooking the town. We get up there a bit early for sunset so we stop and have a sugar cane drink. Then climb more stairs and admire the pagoda and watch the sunset.
You might not notice but if you look down and to the left, upon closer inspection you will see a very large military base and what looks like detention blocks.
We decide to walk back to town and encounter a festival sampling street food and having great fun with the local children coming up to us and saying “hi” and “goodbye.”
We get back to the hotel and purchase ferry tickets for tomorrow’s planned boat trip to Hpa-An. We meet up with some other guests and walk to the beer and BBQ place for dinner. Coldest beer in Myanmar. It’s a fun capper to a very full day and needless to say, we sleep great!