Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream – making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams…
- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Burma… Oh man, I don’t even know where to begin with this one. In my futile attempts to describe this experience to friends, a word that has continued to pop out of my mouth is “wild.” And the more I think on it now, the more I find that to be an appropriate adjective. This was unlike anything I’ve ever done or anywhere I’ve ever been. Burma is another world unto itself. This was not just another vacation trip. It was a true experience – a traveler’s exploration of just how far away one can get from the rest of the world. Burma is a magnificent exhibition in the way isolation breeds personality and the way a small group of misguided but powerful leaders can affect generations of a nation’s population. Every day, every hour, every minute in this country offered a surprise. Just when I started to think that I’d had the world sussed up neatly and understood at least to some manageable degree, Burma hit me like a brick, reminding me that I really don’t know a thing.
PreparationMore than any other country that I have blogged about previously, with Burma I feel the need to offer a brief preface. Burma is so often misunderstood. It’s important, I think, to understand the situation there and why traveling there may or may not be a good idea. The government is and has been run for quite a while by a military junta – basically a regime that legitimizes its authority simply with military power. Historically, the government has been notorious in making drastic changes with complete disregard to the nation’s people. The most recent example was in 2005: the government changed the capital city from Yangon (the country’s largest city by far) to Nay Pyi Taw (an empty city of nothing in central Myanmar) on the whim of a fortune teller’s reading. For many years they have also maintained an isolationist philosophy, limiting foreign investment as well as making it exceedingly difficult for Myanmar citizens to leave the country legally. All of these are clear indications that supporting the government is bad. However, this does not mean you shouldn’t visit Myanmar. It simply means that you should be conscious of the situation and not spend your money on government run services or organizations. Stay in guesthouses instead of upmarket hotels. Book bus and plane tickets through only the private companies. And whenever possible avoid the entrance fees at major attractions. Doing these things will maximize your positive economic and intellectual impact on normal Burmese society.
Now, you can’t really approach a trip to Burma the same way you would most other countries. There are deffinately some things you need to know and be prepared for before you get there. Firstly, to my knowledge the only means of visiting the interior of the country is to fly into Yangon, which can only be done through Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. So if you want to travel in Burma, you’ll first need to make it to one of these cities, which is actually not a huge issue because of my next point. Before you arrive in Yangon, you must have already attained a Myanmar visa from an embassy outside the country. The one frequented by most visitors, as well as the one I used, is the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok. The process is straight forward and after applying it takes about two business days to process the visa.
So now you have your plane ticket and your visa. Well, what about money? Another very important point is that when traveling to Myanmar, you will need to bring with you all the money you plan to spend for the duration of your trip in clean, crisp American dollars. There are no ATM’s in the entire country. And when I say clean, crisp dollars, I mean they need to be damn near flawless or you won’t be able to spend them or exchange them anywhere, rendering them totally useless. After receiving mine from the bank in Bangkok, I kept the bills pressed in a thick book until I got to my guesthouse in Yangon, whereupon I immediately exchanged about half of my money for kyat - the currency of Myanmar. You should not exchange all of your greenbacks however because all government fees must be paid in U.S. dollars. You encounter these fees at the entrances of major attractions or any government run services, such as the trains. So save a reasonable amount of American dollars and keep them in mint condition. Now, speaking of exchanging money, what is the exchange rate for kyats to dollars? Actually, no one knows. The government lists the official rate at something like a laughable seven kyats to the dollar. This is absurd, and if you change money at this rate, you are simply giving away your money to the government. The unofficial (true) rate is somewhere in the range of 700-1000 kyats to the dollar. So what you must do is exchange money via the black market, which although being highly illegal, is pretty much accepted as standard in Yangon. There are a number of places where you can change money around town, and they all post slightly different rates, but I found the most convenient and safest method was just to exchange your dollars in the guesthouse or hotel. There you can be reasonably certain they are not going to try to rip you off or cheat you.
Keep these things in mind, and you will at least guarantee a successful entry into the country, at which point you’ll realize the craziness hasn’t even begun.
YangonStepping out of the airport I knew I was in another world. One of the first things I noticed was that all of the vehicles on the road seemed to be at least twenty years old, especially the taxis. The next thing I noticed was that there were no motorbikes to be seen anywhere. Motorbikes – the only thing more ubiquitous than noodles and rice in a Southeast Asian city, and here in Yangon there were none. The reason for this is that at some point in the past and for some odd reason the generals of Myanmar declared that motorbikes would be illegal to drive within the city of Yangon. Thus, the only things on the road are the ancient cars and buses and the trishaws (bicycles with a sidecar attached). After getting over those oddities, I flagged down a taxi to take me the thirty minute trip into the city, and then I noticed something truly strange. In Myanmar they drive on the right side of the road, as in America. But they do so in cars built with the driver’s side on the right, as in England. I’m not sure if there is any other country in the world where that is the case. Apparently this happens because many years ago, when Burma was heavily colonized by the British, the country used British style cars and drove on British style roads. But after the country won its independence and Burma became Myanmar, the government decided to change the road system, requiring that people drive on the right side. However, this change was enacted without any regard for the vehicles on the roads, and so people kept their old cars and just learned to drive them on the other side of the road. That first taxi ride into the city certainly made for an unusual but appropriate introduction to the country.
It was about 9am local time when I finally settled into my guesthouse in downtown Yangon. I suppose in this case “settled” is somewhat of a misnomer, as my room was on the eighth floor of a old stone building with steep winding stairways and labyrinthine hallways. Needless to say there were no elevators, so just going from the front desk to my room was an adventure. But the place was clean, centrally located, and the staff was incredibly helpful, so I didn’t mind the extra effort of getting to my room. After changing money and packing my day bag, I stepped out into relentless urban wilderness that is downtown Yangon.
My destination was the train station, but I took my time getting there, so as to take in all the powerful sights and smells and sounds of the city. Yangon is not by any means a big city, although the riverfront downtown area is densely packed together. The streets are chaotic. Buses roar by as their attendants hang out the doorway shouting the routes. Merchants present their wares over every available inch of sidewalk. Incense drifts out from storefronts mixing with the wafting fragrances of Burmese and Indian curries. Every man, woman, and child I pass has teeth stained blood red by the omnipresent bettlenut that the Burmese chew incessantly. Every step I take is a dip, duck, dive, or dodge to avoid the crimson loogies being hocked loudly and indiscriminately. The lack of crosswalks and traffic lights mean pedestrians play a frantic real life version of frogger to cross the busy roads. Eyes wide, I take it all in – all the wild, all the chaos of an average Monday morning in Yangon. My face begins to smile involuntarily as the realization finally hits me that I’m in Burma, and this is quite unlike any place I have ever known.
Eventually, I made it to the train station. From this central station, there is a circular train route that leaves the city and meanders around the countryside for a couple hours until heading back into the city. I thought this would make an interesting excursion for my first day in Burma. The train is not for tourists – rather it offers a cheap means for people that live in the outlying villages to come and go from the city. But for me this would offer a great opportunity to catch a glimpse of real Burmese life – the good, the bad, and the ugly – perhaps especially the ugly. After purchasing my ticket for the circle train for US $1, I found an unoccupied area on the platform and pulled out my new camera. It wasn’t long before a couple bold Burmese children spotted the great white monkey carrying some space-age picture box and decided to investigate. As I sat on the platform, the children ran from pillar to pillar hiding from me every time I would snap a photo. I could see each of them daring the others to get just a little closer before I would turn with my camera and surprise them. How I must have looked to those young Burmese eyes, I can never know. Some strange white apparition from another world with unknown motives offering only momentary evidence that somewhere out there things are very, very different. Watching those children playing in much the same way I would have been at that age, I realized that kids are kids in any country in the world. No matter the language, no matter the culture, kids are all the same. Youthful innocence is universal. Only with time are we corrupted by understanding, molded by our surroundings. And in this realization there was sadness. Looking from the faces of those children to the faces of their parents and the adults around them, I saw their future. I saw the lives they would grow into and the hardship that would permeate their existence. Was it first world guilt I was feeling? I don’t think so – rather just a vivid comprehension of the inequity of the world.
Snapping me out of my philosophic contemplations, I suddenly realized that someone was shouting at me. I look over to where the commotion is coming from, and I see the attendant from whom I had bought my train ticket gesturing wildly at the train that was just pulling into the station. Taking his obvious direction, I sprinted off for the still moving train, hopped a couple of tracks, and jumped aboard one of the ordinary class cars. There were no seats in the train, but instead just a row of wooden benches along each wall with full open windows. As I walked over to an empty seat, every head in the car turned to follow me. I found a seat in the back corner of the car next to a police officer. I knew the circle train generally completes a circuit in about three hours so I leaned back and settled in for the ride. The Burmese countryside is wild and beautiful. As far as the eye could see was lush green farmland. The sky was such a powerful shade of blue. Little shacks and huts would crowd in along the tracks, especially as we neared a station. At every stop locals came and went, the men carrying their huge sacks of grain, and the women balancing a whole variety of odds and ends on their heads – each and every one taking note of the solitary blue-eyed visitor in the corner.
Eventually a rather loquacious Burmese man decided to practice his English with me, and we spoke for a short time. While I was talking to him, a man finally came to check my ticket. As soon as he looked down at my ticket, I knew there was something out of order. The man with my ticket said some words to my loquacious friend, who then told me that I was in fact not on the circle train at all. Without voicing the string of curses that ran immediately through my head, I tried my best to ask how I would be able to get back to Yangon. Some discussion began among the train man and the other people around me. Eventually it was decided that I could ride this train all the way to the end, wait at that station, then ride it all the way back. So that’s what I had to do, and the experience ended up being not all that dissimilar than the trip I intended to take. I actually spent quite a memorable hour waiting at the end-of-the-line station in rural Burma with a group of local men that had befriended me. One of them invited and taught me to play some type of board game that looked like a combination of billiards and checkers. I had time to finish two games with the man, the second of which I won, and all the while not a word of English was shared between us.
The return journey was a bit less eventful. At some point along the way I met another Burmese man who spoke English pretty well and wasn’t afraid to practice it with me. I was able to learn of lot of interesting things from this guy. He told me about many of the restrictions the government imposes on the people. For example, Burmese people are forbidden to take pictures. You can imagine my surprise upon hearing that as I had been snapping photos with my Nikon DSLR for the past three hours, but he assured me that it was okay for foreigners. He also explained to me why there was a police officer stationed in each of the ordinary class train cars: because at the moment they were worried about the possibility of terrorist type attacks on the train. Wow, I thought, "Glad he told me that after I had spent upwards of three hours on the train..." Generally, I always like to be well informed and knowledgeable about what I’m doing and where I am, but I think in this case ignorance would have been bliss.
Back in Yangon, there was still one thing that I really wanted to do before calling day one a wrap. I had a quick bite to eat then found a city bus heading to Shwedagon Pagoda. Shwedagon Pagoda is the single most sacred and important Buddhist site in Myanmar. The Pagoda itself is a massive golden monolith that dominates the Yangon skyline. You can see Shwedagon from almost anywhere in the city even though it is a ways outside the downtown area. Hundreds and hundreds of years old, the pagoda is rumored to house the hairs of Buddha himself. Over the years, numerous layers of gold leaf have been laid over the entire surface of the structure and at the very pinnacle of the spire there sits a massive diamond that glints in the mid-day sunlight. Surrounding the pagoda is a number of other religious shrines, but by far the main event of this site is the towering golden structure itself. I got to Shwedagon around 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon and was able to make some nice photos in the waning light. After wandering around the peripheral sites, I sat down and waited for night to fall. At night, spotlights aimed onto the golden edifice bring the pagoda to life, illuminating the whole world in a warm golden shimmer. At this hour at Shwedagon Pagoda I think it is never more apparent why Myanmar is known as “The Golden Land.” Its not just Shwedagon, but literally every religious site, structure, or building of any importance is simply saturated with gold. And I must agree, there is something powerful and entrancing yet elegant about that color that seems fitting for a place like Burma. Yes, for them gold is the color of all things of the spirit. But it is also the color of their heart and of their dreams. A color so wrought with meaning and hope that I cannot think of a more appropriate descriptor. For what it is to them, for what it represents, I will indeed know Burma as The Golden Land.
I wanted to spend my second day in Yangon doing some independent exploration. The day before I had checked off my “must do’s” from the list, and so now I was free to wander the city without any real goal or destination. I began by walking through the riverfront area which still maintains some large and beautiful, if not crumbling, British colonial architecture. I found a nice hideaway between the river and the main road where could relax with a beer and watch the progression of one of the typical Burmese days. Later, I cut up through the center of town, passing by the axial Sule Pagoda. I made my way to the large and well known Bogyoke Market. On my way there I passed by a Baptist Christian church, which is something I don’t think I’ve seen in ten months. The market itself had a lot of interesting items, and it seemed to specialize in cloths and crafts. However, I wouldn’t say it was particularly special compared to any of the other megamarkets of SE Asia.
After Bogyoke, I slowly wound my way back to my guesthouse to gather up my things and prepare for a long overnight bus ride. I had a ticket for the 5 o’clock bus to Bagan, but I had to leave my guesthouse around 3:30 pm because the bus station was so far outside the city. The bus station itself cranks the chaos up to another level. Hundreds of large touring buses were constantly coming and going without even one paved road within the station. I frequently saw young Burmese guys clothed only in shorts disappear up to their knees beneathe and inside the engines of the buses. Shortly after I found the correct terminal I was able to board my bus, and that was that. In roughly ten short hours I would be in Bagan – a place that had existed in my dreams for as long as I could remember. “Bring it on,” I said. Soon I would be dreaming in truth. Dreaming with my eyes open – dreaming in The Golden Land.
------------------------ The adventure continues in "Dreaming in the Golden Land"
BagoMy short day trip to Bago occurred much like an epilogue to a wonderful but much too short story. I had arrived back in Yangon at 4 am Saturday morning, sore, sunburned, and exhausted. My adventure into the heart of Burma had simply been magic. There was nothing that was ever going to top that experience, but I had an extra day before my return flight home. So on this, my last day in Burma, I found myself back where it all began – at the train station. I had come full circle in a matter of six days in this wild, brilliant land, and now I was headed about two hours up these familiar tracks to a tiny beat town called Bago. Bago is known for one reason really. Within and throughout this little hamlet is a great variety of notable and usually massive religious sites. When I got to Bago I immediately hired a motorbike driver for the day to lead me on the tour through town. I gave him a few extra kyats, and he promised to help me avoid the main entrances of all sites where I would’ve had to pay the government fee for entrance. Over the next four hours he and I scooted around from temple to pagoda to shrine. Some of the stops on our tour included the second largest Buddhist monastery in Burma, Shwemawdaw Pagoda (which looks very much like, but is actually bigger than Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon), the Dragon Pagoda, the Snake Pagoda (where followers actually give offerings to a live Burmese Python), the Lion Pagoda (where lies a few more strands of Buddha’s hair), and three different Reclining Buddhas of varying shapes, sizes, and styles. The largest of these Reclining Buddhas is actually housed within a massive open shelter comparable in size to an airplane hangar. As you may have already guessed, all of these religious sites were lavishly and beautifully adorned in all gold everything.
It was truly fascinating to see how in a place so poor and destitute such as Bago, the people were still so openly and unquestioningly generous when it came to their spirituality. Its amazing to me. Why is it so often the case that the most giving people are the ones with the least to give? In Burma I saw it everywhere. Why is it them? These people isolated by their leaders and forgotten by the world - how do they still manage to have hearts of gold?
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