put some adventure into the adventure

most adventures that people go on while traveling these days are.. well, not all that adveturous. pretty much everything anyone does and any place anybody goes is based on information they read in a guidebook. people follow well trodden paths, and even when you try to go “off the beaten track”, there’s probably been tons of tourists that have done the same thing before you. during this trip, i’ve really been hoping to do something a bit adventurous, something that millions of others hadn’t done, but i could never figure out just what i could do, nor how i’d find out about it.

in myanmar things are a bit different. because of the government’s carzy rules, foreigners are totally forbidden to all sorts of random areas of the country. there are pockets all over where not a single tourist has gone before. one of the places i was particularly interested in was Chin state, which is in the west of myanmar. foreigners are only allowed to visit one tiny little area in the state, and this even only on a very short half day guide-led trip. i decided that i really wanted to go there. although bagan (where i was now) is not all that far from chin state, there are no roads going there that are open to foreigners at all. the only way to get there for a tourist would be to do this huge loop that would take days and days and days of travel… but there were roads that burmese people could take.

after thinking about it for a while, i decided that this would be my chance to do some adventuring. i was going to chin state no matter what. i was going to ask around and try to find a local who could sneak me in somehow. part of me though this plan was ridiculous, and really sketchy… but hell, people have done crazier things than that, and you only live once. what’s the worst that could happen, right? the government here has deported people for doing things it had forbidden, but being deported wouldnt be the end of the world. the main question i had was how i would find someone to bring me… and that’s where the two brothers walk into the scene.

on my second day of sightseeing in bagan, i was walking away from a temple when two burmese guys walked up to me and told me that they wanted to show me something inside the temple. i was a bit weary, but i went back inside anyways. turns out, they are artists and they spent the next 20 minutes showing me their art and pressuring me to buy something. and then, believe it or not, i find out that the reason they are anxious to get money, is that they are going to a festival in chin state the following day and were hoping to earn some extra cash by then. i couldnt believe it. all of a sudden it looked like my opportunity had fallen right into my lap. so, diverting the conversation from the paintings, i started asking about the festival, and then basically told them that i wanted to come with them. they were a bit surprised at this, and told me that they were traveling by boat and that traveling would be rough… sleeping on deck, no western food, no tourists anywhere, uncomfotable, etc etc. they tell me i probably wouldnt be into traveling like that, and then try to diverge the conversation back to selling their art.

but i’m insistant. they tell me that they could probably take me, but they’d have to talk it over w/ the boat owner. they ask me one more time to “help them” by buying a painting, and i mention that if they can help me get to chin state, i’d help them w/ 10 bucks. with that they said they’d go talk to the boat owner and stop by my hotel later. as soon as they left, i started worrying a bit. was this such a good idea? going off, god knows where, w/ two random brothers and their friends? the other though that kept nagging me in the back of my head was, what if i got these people in trouble? i wouldnt want my stupidity to affect others, and who knows what kind of punsihment would face them for taking foreigners into restricted areas. all of these thoughts rolled around in my head as i biked back.. but then i comforted myself w/ the thought that the brothers may have been lying and probably wouldnt even show up at the hotel.

precisely on time, i got a knock at the hotel door. uh-oh. the brothers had talked to the boat owner and he had agreed to take me. the cost of fuel etc for the boat was expensive, so he would need 40 bucks compensation. also, part of that money would be used to bribe authorities along the way if there is any trouble. was i down? if so, i’d have to grab my stuff and check out of the hotel immediately. i thought about it all, realizing that if i decided not to go, i’d probably regret it.. and so i agreed. the brothers (Naing Naing – 25 and Lwin -19) also told me not to worry about the 10 bucks i had promissed them, they thought it’d be fun to have me come along, and didnt want any money from me. they went on to say that they’ve been to this festival 3 times now, and that there has never been a single foreigner there. i was to be in for a real treat.

i rushed back to my room and gathered my stuff. when i told the hotel that i was taking off right away, and forgoing my night’s lodging, they were really shocked, but said ok. they asked me where i was going, and after i told them, they started arguing loudly w/ each other in burmese. uh-oh. it was an awkward situation. on one hand, i didnt want to give anything away, in case the hotel tried to stop me, but on the other hand, i kind of wanted to know if the hotel seemed to think that this was really unsafe. all of a sudden, the argument stopped, and they let me leave. hrm.

the brothers lived in new bagan, a village about 9km from where i was staying. we took a scooter there, and the ride was absolutely terrifying. 3 people on a scooter is one thing, but 3 people and a *huge* backpack is quite sketchy. add to this lots of gravel in the roads. and bumps. ugh. when we finally arrived, i was extremely relieved. we pulled up to their house and i met their family. their father was a fisherman and their mother sold the fish in the village. the house they lived in was tiny. made out of bamboo and thatch, it didnt have much in the way of walls and the floor felt like it would give way beneath you any second. no furniture of any kind.. no bed, table, chairs, anything. the family slept at night out on the porch. the bathroom was an outhouse in the back of the yard. it really is a surprise to me that people live like this, although i guess in myanmar it’s the way life goes.

we had a few hours to kill, so we walked around and lwin showed me some pagodas near his home. eventually we wandered over to the boat owner’s house where people were cooking *huge* vats of food for the trip. the boat owner was a really cheerful guy who seemed excited by the fact i was going on the trip and assured me i’d have a great time. he also told me that if i had any problems w/ anyone or anything, i should bring that to his attention immediately. the atmosphere at his house was great and full of anticipation. everyone just couldnt wait to get going!

eventually we wandered back to the brothers’ home and it was time to get 2 hours of sleep before our 2 am departure time. w/ no fan and no aircon, it was near impossible to fall asleep, but eventually i drifted off.

more on the trip later!

*v

myanmar day 5 and 6… Bagan

i arrived in bagan at 6am, completely exhausted, and all i wanted to do is sleep. luckily, i was able to find a hotel immediately.. only 5$ for a room w/ a hot shower, air-con, breakfast, and towels included. not bad!

the guidebook describes bagan as “the most wondrous sight in myanmar, if not southeast asia”. that’s a pretty strong claim as southeast asia is full of some incredible places. the thing that bagan is famous for is, surprise surprise, temples… but the sheer quantity of temples here makes it stand apart from any other place in the world. around a thousand years ago, people started building temples in bagan. and they kept building and building. they didnt stop building for a couple hundred years by when they had built around 4,000 temples. as you move around town, there are temples everwhere you look. small temples, large temples, crumbling temples, dark temples, light temples.. it’s really crazy. also, these temples are really different than the other temples i’ve seen around the country. unlike the typical burmese temples which have the large golden bell shaped stupas, these temples are mostly made out of brick and stone, giving them this old historic mythical appearance.

the temples are spread out all over town, so the best way of seeing them is by bike. pretty much every guesthouse here rents bikes for a buck a day, and you just go off to wherever you want. it’s a bit hot riding a bike around town in the billion degree heat, but i was determined to go see stuff, so i set out. i was a bit nervous about biking around in my longyi. i could picture any second now, my longyi getting chewed up in the chain or gears or whatever and me crashing headfirst… luckily it didnt happen. oh, two things i’ve forgotten to mention earlier. it’s not only the men here that wear longyi. women wear them too. yup, the whole country wears longyi. the only differences are a) the patterns: men usually wear plaid or checkered longyi while women wear solid colors w/ designs on them and b)the way the longyi are tied: men and women tie their longyi differently. the other thing i’ve been meaning to mention is thanaka. when i first arrived i noticed that almost all the women on the street have this cream-colored paste on their faces. some of them have it very neatly on each cheek in a perfect square pattern, while other have it just smeared all over the place. it turns out that this is a special cream that is good for the skin and also used as sunblock and conditioner. it’s pretty trippy seeing so many people wearing the stuff.

one of the biggest pagodas in town is shwezigon paya, a paya that is built in the new style and not the old brickwork i mentioned above. as soon as i walked up to the pagoda, i instantly had a bunch of women run up to me and pin little owl penants to my shirt as “presents”. i kept saying over and over that i didnt want any, but they wouldnt listen. i quickly found out the purpose of the owls. as i walked down the corridor to the pagoda, women would jump up from their shop, run up to me saying “remember me! remember me!!” and pointing to the owl they had put on me, “i give you present earlier. come look at my shop!”. it was totally ridiculous, and it was impossible to even walk through since each woman would literally grab you by the arm and pull you to their shop. i was so shocked. i would have expected this tactic in any other country, but myanmar had seemed pretty much tout free so far. i had been so psyched to finally be in a country that was tout-free, but i guess that’s just not possible. it was sad that even myanmar had gone in this direction.

after shwezigon, i biked around and checked out some of the old temples. there’s just so many of them that you dont even know where to begin. you can’t bike down the street for 2 minutes w/out seeing a stupa. i knew i couldnt stop at all of them, but then i also didnt want to pass them up either. eventually i left my bike on the side of the road and wandered deep into the brush checking out temple after temple after temple. it was getting dark , and then the sun started setting. i looked around… not a single tourist in sight. it was kind of a remarkable experience… just me, an ancient pagoda and the setting sun. everything was completely tranquil except for the softly blowing (and much needed) breeze. i sat down and watched the sun set, realizing that i was in a really magical place.

the next day was more of the same. more pagodas, more biking, more heat. this time i watched the sunset from the top of one of the temples, looking down on the town from above. from above, you really got a good impression of just how many payas there were… tons of them scattered over the horizon. at the top, a family of burmese people spotted me in my longyi and got really excited about it, asking to have their photo taken w/ me. heh, i guess it’s not only in india where that happens.

after dark, i went searching for food. i’m ashamed to say that i’ve gotten to be very afraid of burmese food. in fact, i’ve kind of started avoiding it. i feel bad about it because usually i’m all about eating the food of the country i am visiting. i am usually really not down w/ eating western food while traveling. it’s important to experience everything about a country, and the food especially… but 95% of the time that i’ve gotten burmese food, i’ve ended up not being too happy w/ it. who knows, maybe i just need a break from it. over the last 2 days, i’ve had italian and thai for dinner…

*v

myanmar day 4… Pyay

it’s tough to get across just how miserably hot it is over here. even after dark, it’s still pretty damn warm, but during the day… sheez, a lot of the time you’re just praying that you can get to somewhere that has either shade or AC. to make maters worse, the people here frown upon it if you wear shorts. it sucks so bad to have to wear pants in this crazy heat! when i was still in yangon, i asked my burmese friend whether foreigners ever wear longyis, and whether the locals would think it weird if a foreigner did so. he said that he has seen some foreigners do it, and that the locals totally wouldnt think it was weird, in fact they would like it. i still wasn’t particularly convinced, but later, at shwedagon paya, we actually did see one white dude w/ a longyi on. one person isn’t exactly a great precentage, but it was still good enough for me… i knew that wearing a longyi would be a hundred times less warm than pants. so we went to a store and i became the proud owner of a longyi.

a couple of days later, when i got to Pyay, i still hadnt put it on, because i had no clue how to tie the thing. the men here often readjust their longyi while walking around town, and they somehow manage to tie it in 3 seconds flat, while walking even.. but i havent managed to get a really good look at exactly how it’s done. so, that morning, i sheepishly asked the hotel manager to help me out. i proceeded to get a hands on demonstration right there in front of the hotel, much to the amusement of curious onlookers. i awkwardly got the hang of tying it (it still doesnt look quite right) and then set off to see town wearing my new skirt.. errr, i mean longyi.

i gotta admit, i felt really really weird. on one hand, it was definitely much much less hot while wearing the longyi. and it was actually really really comfy. but still, despite the fact that i kept telling myself that i was wearing a longyi, i kinda felt like i was basically wandering around town in a skirt which is a bit embarassing. also, i really did wonder what the locals thought of this. it did seem that a lot of them thought it was funny, but i really couldnt tell if they were laughing w/ me or laughing at me. some people said “oh! longyi!! very handsome myanmar style!”, but i gotta wonder if they were just trying to be nice. eventually, as time went on, i started becoming ultra paranoid. everytime anyone was laughing anywhere, i would instantly wonder if it was about my longyi. plus i still dont think i was really tying it correctly. and walking up stairs was really hard without tripping and falling. plus, now i dont have pockets which is an incredible pain in the ass as i have to carry a bag w/ me to keep all my junk (camera, money, etc). so many reasons to ditch the longyi… but for some bizarre reason all the reasons just make me determined to keep wearing it.

anyways, enough about the damn longyi. the town i was in, Pyay, was a tiny little town, about halfway between myanmar’s two most famous cities. it’s got some cool stuff in it, but i get the feeling like people mostly stop here just to break up the long bus ride. one neat thing about it though is that the whole day i did not see one single other tourist until i got on the bus to leave town… not one.

i spent the morning battling it out w/ the damn internet. having issues w/ email and accessing my site. i can tell that being online in myanmar will continue to be a pain. here’s one crazy thing i learned about the city: they only have electricity 24 hours at a time in alternating cycles. in other words, they’ll have electricity from 2pm to 2pm the next day. then, from 2pm to 2pm the third day, no electricty. and so on and so forth, every 24 hours. what kind of a bizzare system is that?? so, every other day, places that can afford it, run on generators.

the most famous thing to see in town is shwedaswan paya (yes, half the temples in myanmar have names that sound almost the same, other than 1 or 2 letters). i went down there and spent some time strolling around. i really enjoy the atmosphere at these pagodas. whether there are a lot of people there or very few, they always have this incredible feeling of calm and tranquility. just being there totally changes your state of mind. somehow, no matter how hot i am, or tired, or frustrated, all of a sudden i feel totally at ease. instant serenity. part of it is the fact that all these pagodas are incredibly beautiful, with large open courtyards, and incredible decore. part of it is the other people there praying quietly. part of it is that almost of all of them have little bells strategically placed in different areas, and as the wind blows in any direction you hear the quiet chiming.

the really cool thing about this pagoda in particular, is that when sitting by it, you get a great view of this huge buddha statue across from it. and by huge, i mean about 10 stories tall. this thing is absolutely gigantic and towers over the trees in front of it. when looking at it, it kind of feels like there is a huge giant peering at you. i found a good spot where you could see the buddha well, and sat down. instead of just walking through and snapping photos, i’ve tried to make it a point to actually sit down and just take it all in at each of the pagodas i’ve seen. after a while, a 14 year old monk came up to me and we chatted for a bit. people here are so friendly, and really seem to enjoy talking to foreigners!

eventually, when i left the pagoda, i managed to get myself totally lost… again. i dont know what my deal is, but somehow over the last several years, i’ve lost all sense of direction. for most of this trip, if i didnt have caryn w/ me telling me which way to turn, i’d be lost daily. no, really. to complicate matters, it’s really difficult to ask for directions. first off, a lof of people here dont speak any english. plus, my pronunciation of their language is so absolutely pathetic, that even when i try to say the names of well know landmarks, they still usually have no clue what the hell i’m talking about. often it’s completely impossible to communicate.

eventually, i took the bus that night for a 10 hour journey that started around 8 at night. there were two other tourists on the bus, and i got seated next to a 45 year old guy from albaquerque. this guy was pretty cool, and had gotten a leave of absence from work to travel around SE asia for a few months. we got to talking about poverty in the world etc, when he told me the most impressive story. he was just in cambodia and, wanting to help the poor somehow, he decided that if he could make a difference in just one person’s life, it would be good enough for him.

to get around, he had hired this cambodian kid to drive him around on a motorbike. it’s really difficult to make a living being a motorbike driver. you can only take one passenger at a time. also, you have to charge less than if you have a real taxi. this kid was obviously struggling to get by, and seemed like a good guy… somehow he stuck out to albequerque man as a really honest, hard working kid. so, albuquerque man bought him a tuk-tuk (an auto rickshaw). i dunno how much a tuk-tuk would cost, but i cant imagine it being under $1,000. i just couldnt believe it! i cant imagine just giving a total stranger that kind of money to help his life. but then, just when i was begining to think that this guy must be the nicest man ever on the planet, he got into this huge altercation w/ the girl in the seat in front of him, just cause she wanted to lean her seat back. he had long legs, and got uncomfortable, but instead of just nicely asking her to tilt forward, he made all these snide remarks until she overheard him, and then got in a huge fight w/ her. it was surprising that someone that had the capacity to be so incrediblly kind to someone and freely give tons of money, would be so stingy w/ his legroom.

oh, btw, if you’re wondering what a longyi is, i was able to find one rather crappy photo online. see it here: http://www3.worldisround.com/photos/1/426/328.jpg

*v

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myanmar day 3

the next morning, i ran into the israeli who i had met on my first day. when i mentioned the burmese guy i had been hanging out with, he said “oh, you mean your guide?”. i told him that the guy wasn’t a guide, just someone who wanted to practice some english etc and hang out, but the israeli was skeptical.. he mentioned that *lots* of people in india for example, say that they are just practicing english, but then hit the person up for money. later while i was at the front desk, the receptionist also asked about my “guide”. i started getting worried.

was this guy really a guide? not that i think there is anything wrong w/ guides. guides can be very useful and hiring one is usually money well spent. *but*, it’s a completely different story when you’re hanging out w/ someone and you feel like this person is your friend. it would be pretty sad if what i thought of as some kind of friendship was actually just based on money. so many thoughts started whirling around in my head. this guy had been really cool, it had been a lot of fun hanging out… but was all of this just a ploy so that he could hit me up for money? was i being used? ugh. but then, at the same time, assuming that this guy really was legit, i started feeling really bad for doubting him. but, i also was dreading that at some point, he would hit me up for money, and then i’d feel like a chump.

a bit later, i met up w/ the guy, still having all sorts of doubts in my mind. when i suggested going to get food, he marched towards the nearest tea shop as usual, but i said i really wanted to finally try some burmese food from a restaurant, so we headed to a place in my guidebook. i was excited to finally try burmese food, but when i got to the place, my excitement vanished immediately. as i looked into the pots of food in front of me, i started getting a feeling of dread. none of it looked good. i cant say that it looked completely disgusting or anything, but it definitely wasn’t appealing. pots of weird goopy stuff, shrimp w/ a million little legs sticking out from them, chicken bones, odd lumps of fish…. none of it looked good.

it was too late to turn around and run. i would have to eat something, so i chose some of the least offensive looking things. some venison and these shrimp balls. the side dishes also didnt look too appealing, but i got some anyways. in the end, the food that i got didnt taste half bad. in fact, the venison was actually quite good… but still i started getting a bit worried about burmese food. is this how it usually is? if so, i was in for a rough time.

this was to be my last day in yangon, and so i needed to arrange my ticket out. making travel plans in myanmar can be quite difficult. first off, there are many places where the government wont allow you to travel. certain roads are off limits which makes figuring out how to get places a bit confusing. for instance, i wanted to go to this cool town called Mrauk U. it seems that you should be easily able to get there, but since only locals and no foreigners are allowed on this one road, instead, i’d have to take: a 5 hour bus ride then 9 hour bus ride, then 12 hour boat ride then 6 hour boat ride. in other words, a total pain in the ass. not everyone who sells tickets is informed about all of these things, so depending on who you talk to, you get different answers which makes things even more confusing. plus, since the country isn’t as tourist oriented as others, certain connections to get places just arent set up right. for instance, to get to one town that i wanted to go to, you had to take a bus somewhere else and then sit at the bus stop in this random town from 1am to 5am until you caught another bus going to where you actually wanted to go. not exactly convenient, right?

in the end, i wasn’t able to get a ticket to where i wanted to go, but caught a bus to a town named Pyay, halfway in between. my burmese friend helped me get my bus ticket and took me to the bus station. in the end, he never asked for any money or anything and i felt like a total dickhead for ever doubting him. he just ended up being a totally nice guy, and kicking it w/ him really made by time spent in Yangon so much better. he totally showed me around town, translated stuff for me and helped me interact w/ shopkeepers etc, explained things to me that i never would have known, and just in general made everythng more fun. i hope that i can kick it w/ him again when i come back to yangon to fly out of myanmar.

the bus ride to pyay was about 5 hours long and in the begining, quite uneventful. when we stopped for a food break, i was once again confronted w/ the long row of pots holding strange burmese delicacies. none of them looked good. finally i decided to go w/ the one that looked least unappealing, the mutton curry. after tasting it, it turned out to be liver which i hadnt expected. *sigh*. maybe i should start sticking to teashops and noodles?

one thing that has taken a bit of getting used to here, is that everyone makes these kissing sounds. that’s how you get someone’s attention. for instance, if you want to call over a waiter, or you are trying to have someone talk to you, you make the sounds. i’ve seen this happen a little bit in other countries, particularly in the middle east, but not nearly as often as i’ve seen it happen here. here you here this constantly. it’s a really bizarre sound to be hearing all around you all the time, since in america no one really does it unless maybe it’s some lewd construction worker trying to get a woman’s attention.

as the bus ride continued, the person next to me, who hadn’t said a word to me during the last 5 hours, all of a sudden said “hello! i am leaving off the bus now. bye bye!” and handed me a small folded piece of paper. i unfolded the paper to see a neatly handwritten receipt from a grocery store. noticing my look of complete confusion, the guy told me to to look at the other side, where i saw written “do you know Aung San Su Kyi? free free Aung San Su Kyi. In Burma Struggle for Democracy!”. and then he got off the bus.

Aung San Su Kyi is the leader of the party for democracy in Myanmar. because of this, she has been put under house arrest at least 3 times. despite the fact that she was elected to lead the country by the peole, the military regime here instead put most of her party in prison and never gave up their own brutal leadership. for the last several decades, there has been a struggle in this country for her to gain her rightful leadership, but each time she is released from house arrest, she is just put back in after a while. in all appearances, it really seems that any struggle against the government is futile here.

i looked down at the note in my hand. it was really crazy that the guy had handed it to me. i’m sure he could get into huge trouble for giving that note to someone, especially a foreigner. yet the people here desperately want to be free, and i think they really want their situation to be known by the outside world. once again, i felt like my life was some kind of crazy movie. here i was on a bus, in a country ruled by a military regime, and being secretly handed pro-democracy notes by locals. so unreal.

it all makes me realize just how lucky i am to be living in america, where we have so much freedom. i know i bitch about my country all the time. i often complain about how much the government infringes on our freedoms… but really, we all have it so good in the states. we dont have to live our lives constantly being in fear that we’ll be arrested for voicing our opinions. we may have a terrible administration in the whitehouse now, but at least we know that in the future that can be changed. all of us living in the US are so lucky to be there. we could just as easily have been born in some oppressive country. in fact, i actually was born in such a country, and if it hadn’t been for my parents giving up everything they had to move to a country where they could give their children and themselves a better future… who knows where i’d be now. things could have turned out so differently.

as i pondered all this, a cop borded the bus and sat down in the seat next to me. uh-oh. just a coincidence? i quickly put the note into my pocket and sat there waiting. on one hand, there was no way the cop could know, since he had just gotten on the bus… but you do hear stories of people being spied on around here. could the guy who handed me the note get into trouble?

i started thinking back to my time in McLeod Ganj. all over the place there were posters that had a stenciled picture of a man’s face and said something like “i am sentenced to die. save Tenzin.” this was regarding a man named tenzin who was sentenced to death by the chinese for “subversive activities”… which he allegedly did not commit. the posters urged people to campaign for his freedom. i promised myself to check out the website until i noticed his execution date… december 2004. seeing the date was so chilling. this man, who’s face i had seen staring back from posters daily, was now dead. dead for no reason. eventually, after looking it up online, i found out that he in the end was pradoned from being killed. “luckily” now he only had a lifetime in prison to look forward to.

as i sat on the bus, i wondered how many people here in myanmar had suffered the same fate as Tenzin. *sigh*. anyways, eventually we arrived in Pyay, and everyone got off the bus. the cop hadn’t said anything, and i had worried for nothing.

*v

myanmar day 2…

sheez, i’m starting to really fall behind. it’s my fifth day here, and i’m still writing about day 2!

woke up in the morning and only had about an hour to get some breakfast before i was supposed to meet up w/ my burmese friend. i wanted to go to a real burmese restaurant, but the guidebook didnt show any nearby. when i asked the reception desk, they told me to try New Delhi restaurant which, despite its name, serves both indian and burmese food as well. i walked down there in the stifling heat and got a table. the menu looked like it was mostly indian but had some weird stuff i’ve never heard of that i assumed must be burmese. i called over the waiter to clarify:

“i would like to eat burmese food. which of these are burmese?”

“yes!”

“no, no.. i’m asking… *which ones* are burmese. i want burmese food, not indian”

” we have chapati, samosa, curry!”

“ahh. but those are indian?”

“Yes!”

“i dont want indian, i want *burmese*

“ok! what would you like?”

it became very clear that there was no way i’d get any info on what kind of food is on the menu. the language barrier can be so frustrating some times! i ended up ordering something called “chicken toeshay” only to find out later that Toeshay was just a weird way of spelling dosa, a very typipcal indian food. the chicken didnt even come inside the dosa, instead there was a sad looking drumstick in sauce on a different plate. oh well, looks like i’d have to wait before really trying burmese food.

after eating, i scramled back to the hotel to meet up w/ the burmese guy from the day before. we spent some time walking around town, and he showed me several small pagodas and a chinese temple too. once again we talked a bunch about life in burma, what people here do for fun, how life is, etc. i began to realize that i was really lucky to have met this guy to get a good insight into the burmese way of life.

as i mentioned before, myanmar is run by an oppressive military regime, and life here is hard on the people. you cant say anything negative about the government without being locked into prison. whenever he would tell me anything about the government, he would cautiously look around first to see if anyone was in earshot. everyone has to be careful here because they can be thrown into prison for the smallest of offenses. all newspapers etc are censored by the government. the internet is censored by the government. furthermore, economic sanctions imposed by outside countries (to punish the regime) often limit what can be brought into myanmar. schools here dont have computers… even in the universities. as we talked, i mentioned that in america, people can say whatever they want, and they can even say “bush is an idiot” and the government can’t do anything about it. he was very shocked to hear such a thing. talking like that in his country would be unthinkable.

another thing that i found very interesting was just how religious the people are here. for burmese, religion isn’t just a sidenote to their lives, it’s something that touches all aspects of their life and is thought about and practiced daily. one of the things that can bring merit to a buddhist is to donate money to a pagoda. this money is used for the pagodas upkeep and often to add more gold ornamentation to it. people visit these pagodas very frequently and often donate money.

we were sitting inside a pagoda (partially to see what’s inside, but also to get out of the heat!) when an old lady started talking to me very quickly in burmese and was gesticulating wildly. she kept talking and talking though i didnt understand a word she was saying. my burmese friend translated that she was asking me to donate to the pagoda. she said that she lived in a small village far far away from yangon. she sells flowers and earns about 500 kyat a day (50 cents). out of those 500 kyat, she saves about 100 kyat daily. after a year of saving, she travels through burma to a new pagoda that she has never been to yet and donates all the money that she has been setting aside for the whole year. after doing this, she goes back home and starts the process over again, reapeating it year after year. it was such a touching story. i couldnt believe that a lady that only makes about 180$ a *year* still manages to contibute about 30 of it to buddhism.

it was very inspiring and i told my friend that i would like to donate some money too, since the lady suggested it. it turns out that other than just dropping money into a donation box, there’s a very interesting way of donating. you pay someone at this desk, and after giving you a receipt, they put a copy of the receipt ina small box, and then put this box into a statue of a winged horse. they play all this music and jingle a bunch of bells, and then using pulleys, the horse “flies” up to the top of the pagoda with your donation.

as we walked away, my friend told me that donating money to the pagoda will bring me good luck and help ease my mind… and then told me a story about his friend. his friend woke up one morning, with a huge desire to donate to a pagoda. because of some urge, he got together all of his money, to the last kyat, and went and donated it all. when he left the pagoda, he felt really good and wasn’t worried about having just given away all of his money… and then on the way home, he found a gold pot weighing about 4 pounds in the bushes. i found this story a bit hard to swallow, but my friend says that he didnt believe it either until his friend showed him the pot as proof!

eventually, we came up to Shwedagon Paya, the most famous pagoda in all of myanmar. this place encompasses a *huge* area filled with tons of small ornamental structures of many different shapes and sizes. everywhere around you there are glittering golden stupas, intricately colored pagodas, and buddha statues of every shape and size. it took us a lot of time to just walk around the whole thing. i really wish i could put some photos up to show everyone what it looked like, but i cant really upload pictures here.

at most of the big pagodas there are 8 posts arround the pagoda, one for each day of the week (wednesday has two, one for wed morning and one for wed night). each post usually has a small buddha image, something for storing water, and a small statue of the astrological sign for that day. you’re supposed to go to the post that corresponds to the day you were born and pour water on the buddha… one cup of water for each year of your life. my friend showed me where the station was for friday, and i poured 28 cups of water on the buddha image. apparently, now that i not only donated money to a pagoda, but also poured water of the buddha, my luck will *definitely* be much better!

as we continued walking around the pagoda, all of a sudden i saw a huge line of women coming towards us armed w/ sticks! upon closer inspection, it turned out that they weren’t sticks, but brooms and this army of women was sweeping the pagoda. these people weren’t being paid, and they didnt work there… they were just women who had come by the pagoda and volunteered to help sweep. my friend told me that he also often comes by here to help sweep up. so crazy. i couldnt imagine anyone in america just going somewhere to help clean up. it’s unheard of. just another example of how devoted these people are to their religion. also, following the broom ladies, was a huge army of mop ladies who all lined up in a single file. a guy would stand in front of them and then once he shouted some commands and sprinkled the ground w/ some water, all the ladies would rush forward, still in a completely straight line while mopping. too funny! eventually we sat down and watched the sun set over shwedagon paya. during this whole time of walking around myanmar’s most famous site, i still had seen very few tourists. there were some, but very few. it was such a nice change from other countries we’ve been to where toursists are everywhere. i was really overwhelmed by how glad i was to be there and to be in myanmar. it’s such a nice country, luckily still not completely tainted by tourism.

after shwedagon, we went to a tea shop to get some food. i tried this tea leaf salad that is very popular here. it’s a mix of dried tea leaves, peanuts, sesame, and spices and it tastes hella good! the waiter that served us was extremely courteous as all waiters here seem to be. they have this thing here where when they take your money, they take it w/ their right hand and touch their right elbow w/ the palm of their left hand while doing it. i dunno what it is, but there’s something really cool about the way they do it. the one thing that concerned me though was that the waiter was very young. probably no more than 8 years old… and i see a lot of waiters about that age here. it’s sad that the kids here, instead of going to school, spend their youth working at tea shops. apparently, school here is very expensive, so not many parents can afford to send their children there. not only that, but the quality of education is very poor, so even if kids do attend school, they still dont get a good education. the only way to get a really good education here is to hire a tutor to come and teach the kids at home, which is incredibly expensive, especially considering that people here often only make about 2$ per day.

we had spent all day walking and were a bit tired, so we took the bus home. the bus here is pretty hectic. at each stop it kind of slows to a crawl while mobs of people hop on or off. it’s crazy packed inside, and when the ticket collector shouts for money, all of a sudden there are hands everywhere shoving money at him. i dont really understand how the system works. it’s impossible to see which hand belongs to who in the crowd, so there’s really no way of knowing who paid or not. i guess most people here are very honest, so that’s not a problem. actually, i’ve heard that crime here is virtually nonexistant and theft isn’t a problem. because of the way exchanging money works, most toursist are walking around with *huge* stacks of myanmar currency, yet everyone feels pretty much safe.

actually, i think i havent mentioned the money situation yet. there are no atms in myanmar. none. and there are no places that accept credit cards. so basically, you need to bring any money with you that you are going to need while there. this really sucks because no one really wants to carry around a crapload of money, and if you somehow miscalculate how much you’ll need, there’s absolutely no way of fixing it by getting more money. but it gets worse. the official government exchange rate is a ridiculous joke at 450 kyat for 1$.. about half of what the dollar is worth. this is the rate they tell you at the airport, and if you fall for it, you just lost about 50% of your money. at hotels in yangon, you can usually get about 900 kyat for one dollar, a much much better rate. but, the rest of the contry has lower rates than that. so, you may want to be smart and stock up on kyat in yangon to get the best rate *but*, the biggest bill here is 1000 kyat. for one hundred dollars, you get 90 of these… quite a big pile. if you decide to exchange several hundred, where do you plan on storing hundreds and hundreds of bills (which happen to be really large in size as well)?

*v

sneaky sneaky…..

so, already i cant seem to access my website. i keep getting an error saying “access denied”.

myanmar day 1 [continued]….

at the airport in calcutta, while we were waiting for our flight to myanmar, caryn met this israeli dude who was flying to myanmar on our flight and hoped to get some info from my guidebook. when we got to myanmar, i ended up sharing a cab w/ him into town which was over 20km away from the airport. the cab driver got totally lost a bunch of times, and eventually had his tire blow out while driving. instead of pulling over to the side, he proceeded to change the tire right there in the middle of the street, and the israeli guy (who’s name i cant remember cause i’m *horrible* w/ names) and i went looking for a place to stay. it’s about 98 degrees here, and wandering around town w/ a heavy backpack wasn’t exactly pleasant. finally we found a place, left our stuff, and went hunting for food.

the streets of yangon (and apparently everywhere else in myanmar) are lined w/ outdoor “restaurants”. by restaurant, i mean they have a few rickety tables, tiny stools to sit on, and someone w/ a frying pan full of stuff… or sometimes, there’s no pan and everythining is just served as is.. cold. we pulled up to the first place we saw, and sat down, not really knowing what there was in store for us since there is no menu. the grinning and laughing cook asked us what we wanted and we pointed to a bowl that another customer was eating from. we got served something called “chop-chop” which is a chopped up fried egg roll with some sauce and cabbage. despite wondering about the health risks of eating food that has been sitting in the sun for possibly hours, i really enjoyed it. the bowl was small, so we ordered something else… noodles. the lady behind the counter scooped some noodles int a bowl, added sauce, cabbage, etc and then proceeded to mix everything together… with her bare hands that she didnt bother to wash as far as we could tell. as i watched her hands deep in my bowl of noodles, i decided that one thing was for certain, eating in myanmar isn’t for those obsessed w/ hygeine. the noodles tasted great.

the other thing that is *everywhere* i myanmar is tea. every single restaurant seems to have a kettle at each table and you just refill your tea cup as much as you want. people here drink so much of it!! cups and cups and cups of it in one sitting, and then sometimes have an empty water bottle filled w/ more tea so they can drink it later. the tea cups are in this little bowl filled halfway w/ water, and when you finsih your cup, you just throw it back in the bowl… and the next person grabs the cup, sorta rinses it about in the water, and then uses it. so basically, the cups you drink from are sitting all day in liquid that is part water, part leftover tea, part backwash, and has had people’s hands reaching into it all afternoon. and there’s no soap for the cups of course. it’s my fourth day in myanmar now, and i’ve been ok so far, but i’m sure that at some point while here i’ll end up sick to my stomach. just a question of time!

it was still about a billion degrees, maybe more, and part of me wanted to go hide in a place w/ air-con, but it was my first day in myanmar and i was too excited about seeing things, so i decided not to wait. after paying $2.50 for the meal, i went off to go sightseeing while the israeli guy continued to search for a room. one of the main things that myanmar is famous for is its pagodas. the whole country is filled w/ buddhist temples from big to small, most of them shimmering w/ gold. reading through the guidebook, it almost started to seem like pretty much the only thing to see in this country was temples.. which worried me a bit. would i get bored of seeing temple after temple? would they all just end up looking the same? well, that still remains to be determined, but as it was my first day, i hadn’t gotten sick of pagodas (called “payas” here) yet, so i set off to see my first one.

right in the middle of downtown is Sulye Paya a huge glittering temple standing 46 meters high. you can see it from pretty far away, and it’s definitely the main landmark in downtown. the temple was really beautiful and i spent some time just wandering around and looking at things, watching the monks and people pray, etc. one thing that i thought was interesting, is that a lot of the buddha statues had radiating halos next to their heads made out of LEDs. it looked like changing colored circles of light were throbbing from their heads. it was really odd to see something like electric lights used on something as old and traditional as a buddha statue. the first time i saw it, it struck me as kind of cheesy, but after seeing it more and more, i’ve really grown to like it.

eventually, i couldnt deal w/ the heat anymore, but i didnt want to leave, so i sat down under some shade and just watched everything around me. minutes later, a burmese guy came up to me and said that he was a student learning to speak english and wanted to talk to me to practice his english. alarm bells instantly went off in my head. in thailand, i was often approached by people who “just wanted to speak english” but after a few minutes, they ended up delivering a salespitch for a shop or a tour or some other crap. it was always insanely frustrating… you spend a bunch of time talking w/ someone, and feel like you are building up a rapport of some sort and are glad to have a new acquaintence, only to found out that the whole thing was fake and you were just being used. i wondered if this was going to be the case now, but i ended up talking to the guy anyway.

he ended up being a really cool guy. 23 years old and studying physics. we ended up going to a tea shop near the pagoda and talked some more and he told me all sorts of stuff about he country, life here, what to see, etc etc. tea shops are another really big thing in myanmar. they’re *everywhere*. they serve as much tea as you can drink, or you can order coffee etc. usually they’ll have a random array of prepackaged cakes and breads on each table that you can buy. also, if you know what they serve (no english menus) you can order some random food as well.

anyways, after hanging out for the rest of the afternoon w/ my new burmese friend, he suggested we go to a beer hall. once again, alarm bells began ringing in my head. i’ve read online that this can often be a popular scam: random local appears out of nowhere and befriends you; after spending some time w/ said local, you begin to trust them; said local takes you to a bar; you order 3 or 4 beers; bill arrives: surprise!!! each beer cost $150!!; when you protest, large men come out and escort you to an atm of your choice; you shell out large quantities of cash and feel like a chump. yeah, i know it sounds crazy, but it really does happen. so anyways, w/ caution, i accepted his offer to go to the beer hall. as i ordered i made sure to ask the price of each thing i got so there would be no surprises later. the beer hall had a “stage show” which consisted of a guy banging away on a keyboard while girls, one at a time, would come out and sing. i cant say that i was impressed with the entertainment, but the food and beer was *great*.

at 8pm, my friend had to leave since he had to catch the last bus back home. i stayed a bit longer since i still had food. a random man started talking to me in the bathroom and seemed really excited to meet a foreigner. later, as i sat at my table, he kept coming over and pouring handfuls of peanuts into my hand, and then eventually said that i should sit w/ him and his friend. he asked me if we had these “peanuts” in my country, and was surprised when i said “yes”. at first, he seemed like a really nice guy, telling me about his favorite music (madonna), and his children… but then he informed me that he comes to this stage show *every single night*. why? because he likes to stare at the girls on stage. he started trying to probe me as to which girls i thought were “sexy”, despite the fact that i told him that i had a girlfriend. as he started going on and on about how he liked american “sex position”, i realized that i should probably get going. as i was about to leave, he pulled out some bootlegged dvd’s which he said were korean pornography and told me that he could copy them for me if i wanted. at this point, i told him i had to leave. it was just too much. but before i could go, he invited me to dinner the following night at his home so i could meet his wife and 4 children!! wtf?! i told him i’d be busy, and hastily left…. i guess even myanmar has its share of weirdos!

*v

so far so good!

i arrived in myanmar, and surprisingly, i’ve been able to log into my site and my blogg etc!! a local has befriended me and has helped me find a place that has good internet access!!

so.. here i am in myanmar, and what a change it is from india. even before i got out of the cab that drove me from the airport, i could tell that i was in another world from the one that i was in this morning. first off, when i walked out of the airport, i wasn’t attacked by a million taxi/rickshaw drivers as i would have been in ndia. instead, i was calmly talked to by just *one* person who directed me to a cab.. and even suggested that i save some money by splitting the cab w/ someone. i didnt have to haggle and fight over the fare in the cab either… instead, they just charged us a total of 5$…. for a ride that was 22km!! it was such a strange feeling all of this.. not having to fight tooth and nail every step of the way to get anywhere as i was used to while in india. could i actually relax now?? could i for one second put down my guard and not have to constantly worry that everyone around me was trying to rip me off or swindle me??

the cab ride itself was so different than any ride i’ve taken in the last 2 months. for one thing… myanmar actually has traffic lanes!! and people drive straight within the lanes instead of swerving all over and practically crashing into everything else on the road. and *gasp*… people actually stopped at red lights!!! for once i didnt feel like my life was at risk while on the road! the next thing i noticed was… myanmar is clean!! where were the huge piles of trash i was used to seeing all along the roads? there wasn’t any! not only did i not see any trash.. but i didnt see any beggars. not a single one during the ride to the hotel… and hardly any for the rest of the day. later, after the ride, as i walked down the streets, i didnt have people constantly grabbing at me asking me to buy things… no rickshaw drivers yellin at me… i could just *be*. all of this was such a shock. it was like i had been driving a car at a 100 miles an hour, having to constantly stare at the road and be alert…. and then all of a sudden slowing down to a crawl and being able to take a deep breath and just chill. ahhhhhhh. nice. i could tell that i was gonna like it here.

the next thing i noticed was the heat. it’s hot here. damn hot. ridiculiously and painfully hot… the guidebook even goes so far as to call it “intolerable”. even with the wind rushing by me as we drove, i was sweating bullets. i looked out the windows and watched the burmese peole stroll by on the streets. many of them had umbrellas to block the sun from beating down too much. at least 80% of the men i saw were wearing longyis which are basically an equivalent to a sarong (imagine a man wearing a huge towel made of thin fabric around his waist and you get an idea). this was the first time so far that i had seen so many men of any country wearing their traditional clothing. usualy, as far as i’ve seen, if anyone wears traditional stuff it’s the women: sarees in india, headscarves in the middle east, etc. most of the men from any country i’ve seen just wear western clothes: pants and shirts. not here though. longyis everywhere. and i can see why… in this heat, waering a thin longyi would defintely keep you much cooler than pants. another thing i noticed was that there were lots of monks wandering about wearing their red robes. and the toursists…. or lack thereof. looking out the cab window, i saw hardly any white faces. compared to so many other places, myanmar gets very few toursists, and it was very nice and refreshing to see a place that wasn’t jampacked w/ backpackers and didnt have a netcafe/souvenir shop/ guesthouse on every corner.

eventually i got a hotel room. my room is tiny. no really… i mean *tiny*. the room has a bed in it and that’s all beacasuse the whole room isn’t much bigger than the bed. there room is just 6 inches wider than my bed, and about 2.5 feet longer. that’s all. i couldnt even fit a chair in there if tried. luckily, there’s a fan hanging from the wall or else i’d fry. the cost of the room? 4 bucks… breakfast included. not bad eh?

….. i’ll write more about my first day in myanmar later….

*v

no more thisisvlad.com for 3 weeks??

tomorrow, i’m getting on a flight to Myanmar… the country formerly known as Burma. it’s a country that i’ve been really curious about for a long time, and i’m excited to finally see it. it’s one of the least touristed countries in all of asia and therefore their culture has not been corrupted by outside influences. many people still wear their traditional clothing instead of the western styles that you see everywhere else in the world. the country is filled with beautiful buddhist temples and natural scenery.

i’m only going to be there for a short time, just two and a half weeks… and i’m going by myself. caryn is going to go see the famous temples of angkor in cambodia and spend some time in laos, and then we’ll reunite in thailand after we’re done. it’s gonna be weird and kind of sad to be traveling alone, buit like i said before, i think solo taveling is really important and definitely adds an interesting dimension to your trip.. so i guess i’ll endure the 2.5 weeks of solitude ;).

one other thing i have to mention about myanmar is that it’s ruled by an oppressive military regime. this government doesnt tolerate any kind of political dissent and is very strict about many things that go on in the country. the newspapers/tv/radio are censored. people aren’t allowed to discuss politics. there are no atms/credit cards in the country. and also, from what i’ve heard no one can use their own email. that’s right. no email. the only way to email anything is to go through a government run account, that is highly monitored. yahoo, hotmail etc are all blocked. i thought that maybe since my email is on a random unknown site, that it might slip by unnoticed, but just recently i heard of someone going there and not being able to use her email from her own private website. so… i dont know what to expect. i *might* not be able to post any entries for the next 2.5 weeks. i may aslo have no email contact. who knows… we’ll see!!!

*v