A somewhat belated Mingalaba from Burma!
Whatever happens, don’t let me drive for a while, if and when I eventually come back home.
After months of switching between left and right hand lanes, I was riding into town – from the airport at Yangon – for a good 20 minutes, before I realised that I was sat on the right hand of the car, with the driver in front of me, cruising down the right hand side of the road. Well, that’s definitely different.
In my defence, I was preoccupied by my first glimpses of Burmese life. I find the billboard advertising in each new place a fascinating thing to observe, as an introduction to a country’s current mindset. A cultural primer, if you will.
In this land of golden stupas and political oppression, the one that sticks with me is the advert for a half coffee, half tea drink. Yummers. Perfect for those days where you just can’t make your mind up what to drink, or need the day off work, due to violent, uncontrollable retching. Perhaps I misread the wording.
Peering through my taxi window, it looked as though the women had just come from a mass cake bake off, with yellow butter, sugar and flour goodness coating their cheeks. I was intrigued, and hopeful there was a pile of pastries going unwanted somewhere nearby.
It turns out, sadly, that it wasn’t cake mix but thanaka tree paste. Painted onto the face, the liquidised bark of the thanaka tree has cooling, sun-protecting effects. Interesting, but I’d have preferred it to have been victoria sponge, obviously.
Wandering around Yangon, I could take barely five steps between men asking me whether I wanted money changing. With no ATMs available to foreigners (something that’s about to change, I’m told), the market in trading the mandated pristine, post-2006 US dollars for Kyat is buoyant.
The constant soliciting reminded me of Havana and its taxi and gigolo hawkers. Nobody’s offered me a man here yet, though it may just be a matter of time.
Or maybe I was too distracted to notice, dodging the puddles of red liquid that splatter the pavement, like the aftermath of a bloody night out in the Northern Quarter. But this isn’t blood, it’s betelnut juice, which so many of the locals chew that it began to seem odd when someone smiled at me and didn’t have bright red teeth.
Of course when you first see it, your immediate thought is ‘holy crap, they are all cannibals and smiling because they are about to eat me, why on earth didn’t I do some research before coming here?’.
Although travel teaches you to expect the unexpected, it’s all too easy to revert to preconceptions. A mental laziness I suspect. And so it was when I stood open mouthed at the cause of the sudden delay in the flow of pedestrian traffic along the pavement.
A crimson clad monk, head down, was transfixed as he replied to a text on his mobile phone. Firstly, I didn’t think many people here had mobiles yet (I’d heard SIMs cost thousands of dollars) and secondly, and more stereotypically of me, I guess I thought holy people shunned technology.
I must have been confusing Buddhists with the Amish – easy done.
Actually I wasn’t that far wrong – mobiles have only very recently become within reach of anyone not pulling in government back handers. Indeed the very Burmese alternative to the mobile still proliferates across the city – phones on tables on almost every corner that have been tapped into somebody’s landline. Here’s hoping they don’t have itemised billing.
I’ve seen a fair few temples over the last few months, and quite honestly would be absolutely fine if I didn’t see any more for a while. So it’s possibly not the best of ideas to have come to a country jam-packed with them. But I wanted to see the country before people like me, pouring in from across the globe, ruin it with our Western demands and tastes.
And it would be churlish to not go see one of the grandest ones, now that I was mere miles away. Perhaps I wasn’t the most receptive, then, to take in the wonder of the Shwedagon Pagoda. It just felt a bit like a Buddhist Disneyland to me.
Although I did admire the synchronised floor sweeping. Perhaps a future Olympic sport, if Burma ever cleans itself up enough politically to be allowed to host the Games.
I don’t know why, but I didn’t love Yangon, and wasn’t particularly gutted to be moving on to Bagan.
At the domestic air terminal I was momentarily distracted from the tales of airline unreliability (not so much turning up late, more blowing up) by the delicious pastries on sale at the departure café. Amazing what a bit of patisserie can do to my sense of bravado.
One charming feature I’ve not seen before was the use of stickers on every passenger – indicating which flight they are on – to compensate for the lack of departure boards. Staff then scour the lounge for any late stragglers. I’m not sure quite how scalable a solution it is, but you have to admire their ingenuity.
When I put together this trip, the intention was to have 12 months of summer, to make up for the perpetual lack of decent weather in the UK. What I hadn’t really paid much attention to, was that summer can mean very different things in different countries. I’ve since learnt that 49C feels like your thighs are being slow-roasted in a giant open-air oven. It doesn’t feel nice, trust me.
I’ve come to the conclusion that a temperature where you don’t think about temperature is best and for me that seems to be somewhere between 25C and 29C with low humidity. So the weather in Bagan was perfect.
The fact that I wasn’t squirming in sweat-soaked underwear always makes me more likely to fall for a place. If you add dusty sand-strewn streets, people pottering around on bicycles and the sound of monks chanting being carried on a light breeze, I’m almost certainly going to be smitten.
I loved the chilled out vibe of the town and adored the local market, sunlight streaming through holes in the corrugated iron roof to illuminate the vast array of wares – from heaps of rattan balls, to stacks of laquerware, cuts of chicken and fish to lengths of thanaka wood.
The last time I road on a bike on a public road – which come to think of it was perhaps the only time I road a bike on a public road – was on the Isle of Man, on a school trip, when I was 12 or 13. For ease of transport we had folding bikes and mine decided to demonstrate its folding capabilities mid-ride. Bikes, combined with my lack of spatial ability, make me nervous.
So it was a good result that my bike ride around Bagan involved only one crash – with a motorbike that decided to perform a U turn without indicating. Turns out you can’t hear a twinkly bicycle bell from inside a crash helmet – or perhaps he just didn’t care. Luckily it was only a 2 mph collision and I ended up with just a pedal shaped bruise on my shin, rather than a broken leg a mere four weeks before my month-long (and already paid for) yoga course was due to start.
Of course, being English, I apologised profusely for the whole thing.
Stopping to take a quick snap of some local monks, and give my bruise a quick rub,
we headed on to a local village where a man in his forties or fifties was carrying a boy, most likely around 13 or 14 but looking much younger and clearly living with quite profound cerebal palsy.
I recognised that same heart-melting full face smile that so many CP kids seem to flash at strangers. I’m generalising of course, but my experience is that they never learn the social guardedness that afflicts so many of us and for that reason their souls shine even more brightly. I soon realised he was carrying the boy, most likely his son, as that was the only way to get him out of the house.
And then it dawned on me how few disabled people I’d seen in Burma generally. Whilst I don’t know, I suspect most don’t have such a ridiculously dedicated father to compensate for the lack of state-provided equipment.
At home I don’t give it a second thought that my nephew has an electric wheelchair to get himself about. I wanted to figure out a way to help but, before I could ask our guide to translate, the man had disappeared.
I’m not convinced that charities here are sufficiently independent from the government to ensure the funds go to the intended recipient. After all, Burma (Myanmar as it is officially known) is still seen as the fifth most corrupt country in the world, based on the 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index (up from third in 2011).
Indeed one local I spoke with, a self-confessed former smuggler, who used to bribe his way across into Bangladesh with gifts of girly calendars for the border guards, said some of his friends are not sure they want the system to change, as this is the only way they know how to do business.
And whilst the king encourages people to vote many don’t bother, as they know their vote has ‘already been cast for them’ in the massive vote rigging operations. Of course this is hearsay but from local people with no apparent agenda.
Marco Polo described Bagan as one of the finest sights in the world and who am I to argue with a man who loved travel even more than I do. Although Marco didn’t have to contend with bus loads of other travellers…
Bagan’s thousands of stupas pop up across the landscape, like giant artistically-done termite mounds. I’d hoped to see them by hot air balloon but the recent boom in tourist numbers meant there wasn’t a spot to be had.
Indeed, it feels like the ‘imminent’ tsunami of tourists has already crashed through the country. There are coach loads of people, met by thousands of hawkers, and locals are fluent in an array of foreign languages that would put most polyglots to shame.
We clambered our way up one temple for a view of the sunset, jostling for position with the hundreds of other visitors. And this was a quiet day!
I did smile to myself as a woman, with distinctively nasal New Jersey accent, commented loudly to a fellow American that this was the last great travel frontier.
Then you see this and you understand why so many people want to come.
Far too soon our time in Bagan was over and it was onward to Mandalay. But not by road as it turns out – in a snub to Kipling we were to travel by river, the Ayerwaddy river (which I still knew as the Irrawaddy river, I’m really not keeping up).
Our charming, rustic vessel awaited us on the riverbank and a night on deck lay ahead.
Although this post is now a month after the fact, I did actually start it onboard – my legs dangling over the front as we headed upstream passed golden stupas glinting in the sunlight.
And that overnight sleep on the boat, with the crisp breeze blowing in my face, as I snuggled down under my thick fleece blanket to watch for shooting stars, will stay with me for a very long time.
My very own little piece of Burma magic.