Thursday, July 8, 2010

Bearing Burma


I am going to begin to explain what we have been up to the last few days.  Our journey to Mandalay, Myanmar began in Hong Kong.  The trip was fraught with exhaustion and persuasive attempts by Kristin to bypass Myanmar and settle down somewhere on the Andaman coast in Phuket.  We have been there though, and it was time to go someplace strange and new.  At 9:00pm, we flew from Hong Kong to Bangkok.  Landing around midnight, we had just enough time to shut and shoot back out the door.  Our flight to Myanmar or Burma as it is called in some circles, was at 7am.  We rose a little before 5, and in a synchronized display of discouraged movement, we all slowly meandered to the check in counter. 

Before the day really began to taste, we had already landed in Yangon nee Rangoon.  Rangoon was rebranded Yangon much as Burma was changed to Union of Myanmar by the current regime.  They also moved the capital from Yangon to the middle of nowhere one random night about 5 years ago.  Anyways, this blog will cease to explore my interpretation of the current situation here.  I do not want to be visited by spooks in the night. 

In Yangon, where the time difference is 30 minutes from Bangkok, we had no hotel and no plans.  My luggage was broken and we did not know what to do.  On a whim, the three of us decided to try and catch a flight to Mandalay.  We asked around for the domestic air terminal.  After encouraging my luggage down the bumpy road outside the airports, we finally came upon what appeared to be the Yangon domestic terminal.  We walked into this very old, quiet, and unassuming building. 

They did not know what to make of us.  We had no tickets, and since most travel in Myanmar is package travel through travel agents, we seemed kind of out of place.  With their little english proficiency meeting our exhausted brains, little progress was made towards our goal.  Our desires to purchase airline tickets confused their Burmese brains.  They finally shuffled us to a back room that was some kind of airline office.  We bought tickets how they were probably purchased in the first few months of commercial flight.  We asked where they were flying, and they told us.  We gave them money for our flights to Mandalay, and they hand wrote us unusual slips of paper in Burmese.  Only there were some complications.

Paying for the tickets provided us the opportunity to glimpse an issue that would plague our journey with confusion and anger.  U.S. dollars are widely accepted here.  For small transactions, you use Burmese Kyat, but for the larger ones, most places will only take U.S. dollars.  This is all fine and great, except for one huge formality.  The money has to be perfect.  They inspect every bill like a jeweler handling a questionable diamond.  They scrutinize every imperfection, and an imperfection makes the bill completely worthless.  Any bill that is not crisp and has any sort of marking is rejected.  Of the $800 that we have, about $300 of it is acceptable.  We have a perfect $100 bill from 1996, but no, they do not take bills lower than 1997.  We have this one $20 bill, so crisp that handing it can cause paper cuts, but it is unacceptable due to a large mark on Andrew Jackson's smug head.  In all of our travels, nothing has annoyed me more.  I know what you are thinking.  Justin, go to an atm and get some of that fresh dollar action, or even some Kyat.  Well, that is the other problem.  There is no ATM.  In the entire country.  Also, credit cards are out of the question.  We were screwed.  (side note, the local currency, Kyat, is widely accepted no matter how tattered and beat)

Eventually, after a lengthy submission and rejection process, we finally had our tickets to Mandalay.  The Yangon airport is like a cigarette stained time machine to the 1960's, except with no white people.  We sat and waited in the small Yangon airport.  When our flight finally began to board, which is made aware by a guy walking around with a sign and yelling, a booming storm had rolled in.  A line of Umbrella attendants dotted the path to our plane.  The drops violently pelting the plane sounded menacing, and we all exchanged "nice knowing you glances" as the turbo prop squealed to a start.  The plane vaulted us through the storm clouds unharmed.  Before we knew it we had landed, in Mandalay.  Except that it was not Mandalay at all.  We had landed in Heho.  No idea.  The plane dropped off a couple peeps and picked up a few more.  Within minutes, we were back in the sky.  It was confusing.

Finally reaching Mandalay airport, we were greeted by a veritable ghost town, err, ghost airport.  It felt downright apocalyptic, lights out, no people anywhere.  My luggage tumbled out of the claim, fixed.  How nice I thought.  It was as if those that flew with us had dissipated into the ether.  The vibe was eerie, so we grabbed a cab and got the hell out of there. 

So to recap, we flew from Hong Kong to Bangkok, Bangkok to Yangon, Yangon to Heho (wherever that is), and Heho to Mandalay.  It was freaking nap time for sure.  We drew the shades back in our posh little wooden room at "Hotel on the Red Canal," and just let the snooze take us to dreamland.

Upon waking from deep slumber, we decided to exchange some U.S. cash for Burmese Kyat.  We hired a cab to drive us to a money exchange location, and guess what happened?  Of the $80 or so that we attempted to exchange, the woman would only take 1 (ONE) $5 bill.  At this point in the trip, we were really pooping our pants about our money being no good. 

The Moustache Brothers are probably the most famous comedians in Myanmar.  They are a vaudeville-esqe act, and their lives have been intertwined with political disturbance and subsequent jailing for speaking out against the regime.  The leader, Par Par Lay is extremely famous, and was jailed 7 years for telling critical jokes.  During his sentence, many Hollywood types wrote letters petitioning for his release.  It did not work.  The whole group has been blacklisted from performing in public, and are reduced to secretly doing shows in their home.   They can only perform for tourists.  We got to catch them with just a 4 person audience.  My favorite joke was, "I had to go to Thailand to see the dentist because I cannot open my mouth in public in Myanmar." 

We spoke to the brothers for a good while after the show.  Being able to just walk in to their house and take in the show with 3 of us and a random Spaniard is a good metaphor for the Burmese tourist experience.  It is like a tourist desert here.  Walking into a famous person's home, that is pretty well known globally, and to watch them perform, this is crazy. 

Day 2 in Myanmar began with our driver from the night before flagging us down while we were leaving our hotel.  Guess what he wanted?  He wanted to return the $10 that we had paid him with for better money  What a pain in the ass.

Though I always feel like somebody's watching me, Mandalay is worth the creep.  We have seen maybe 10-15 tourists the entire trip, and having the place to ourselves is priceless.  We strolled the grounds of Mandalay palace for a few hours, criticizing the use of wood in timeless structures.  Wood does not age well in big things.  Things really started to get interesting when we got to the zoo.

Any day that you get to wing a cucumber at a hippos head, well, I say that is a pretty damn good day.  When after feeding hippos for about 20 minutes and you turn the corner and a baby asiatic bear runs up to, while, that is even better.  We did not know whether to be excited or frightened when a baby bear randomly approached us from behind a bush, clawing at our pants, wanting to play.  We are thankful we stuck around.  2 Asiatic bear cubs and 2 Sun Bear cubs were just hanging out in this little shady area, and the bear handler let us play with them for about an hour.  Maybe the best hour in my life.  Asiatic Black bears are kind of bastards, and sun bears are sweeter than a tired puppy.  We all held a sun bear.  Our videos of this are especially good, and I will upload those along with a slew of other videos when I get home. 

The zoo was by far the best zoo I have ever been to.  It was also pretty inappropriate.  You could feed pretty much any animal.   We were all set to feed a freaking tiger, until some guy came back and said, "He already ate at 2."   Such an odd place, throw in free range bear cubs, and it felt closer to a dream than reality.  We are definitely going back.

After the zoo, we watched the sun set from high up on Yankhing Hill, pondering this strange land.  It feels like going back in time maybe 50 or so years, and for that time to be in an alternate reality.  It is so dislodged from anything I have ever experienced that it is difficult to judge.  After a slow stroll down the hill, we were in for a real treat.  If you know Kristin and I well, then you know we drink about 15 bottles of water per day, each.  Water is a huge part of my life, and I love it more than anything.  I am literally addicted to it.  Anyways, a small monastery in the foothills outside of Mandalay possesses the purest water in the world.  Allegedly, numerous companies have approached the monastery to purchase the spring that they draw this water from.  They will not sell it.  The water cures a number of diseases and has holy properties.  We grabbed 4 bottles.  Although it felt a little dangerous drinking water from a well in the 13th poorest country in the world, every drop was savored and I am alive to talk about it.  

I have a funny story to tell.  So, first off, I need to remind you all about the $100 that no one will take.  Okay, remember that.  We decided to change our Thai Baht in for some Burmese Kyat.  We gave this guy about 2140 Baht, which is around 50USD, but something went wrong in his head and he exchanged it for $500 worth of Kyat.  I thought about it for a minute, and because I am a good person, told him that he messed up.  I told him twice.  It did not register.  He told me that it was right, and so we left, $450 richer.  When we arrived back at the hotel several hours later, I had a note from this gentleman pleading for the return of this money.  About 5 minutes later our phone range, he was in the lobby.  We really wanted to change this $100 bill, and no one would take it, so I gave him $350 worth of Kyat back, and told him I had spent the other $100 worth of Kyat that I owed him.  All I had, I told him, was this $100 bill.  Desperate men, apparently, will take $100 bills that are not perfect.  I felt like a true bastard, and I love that feeling.  That night we sought out betel nuts, which are these stimulants that are very popular in developing countries.  You chew them.   The nuts are wrapped in a leaf and mixed with coconut, tobacco, and a bunch of other stuff.  I abstained.  Kristin and Ryan partook.  They are alive and well.
 Ryan and I with Brother Lu Maw

 Moustache Brother Par Par Lay

Mid Skit 


Moustache Brothers Dance





Yes, No, and maybe 

 The laundry place where Ryan got his stuff washed 

 The Mandalay Palace, 3 mile moat on each side 



 Using the exercise machines



 Whole gang 

 Click through to read the sign.  Behind the wall are military barracks

 Mandalay Palace



Kristin in the queen's bed

 The grounds around the palace

 Lots of these wooden buildings that will need to be replaced every 60-70 years

 Palace built by King Mindon






 Mens restroom

 Hippos 

 The cucumber that I threw

 Its in there pretty far






 bears

 A sunbear cub that really really likes Ryan


 Sun bears are very mild mannered and sweet




 Sunbear in tree


 The more wild looking ones are the Asiatic black bear cubs.  They are fun to mess around with.



 They had a thing for bracelets 


 a bear pouts after being scolded 

 A sunbear suckling 

 Not the most flattering picture, but may I remind you, I have a bear cub licking my face



 The sunbears sit around like humans 


 Furmonster of the day - Sunbear
 High Five


 They were really playful, but the black bears seemed to pick on the sunbears




 A gibbons 







The last Dinosaur, New Guinea C 




 Full grown Asiatic Black Bear


 Look like they are saying bye 


 Road Scene



 Lots of stairs up the hill



 Buddha pointing to Mandalay, site of future capital 



 View from Nankhing Hill


 Beautiful temple at night 








 Where the water comes from 


 temple with best water in world 

 Betel Nut stall

 Making Betel Nut 

 More with the Betel

3 comments:

  1. We will be so glad when you are back home again. The pictures are awesome; but I did not have a good feeling about where you are. Be very careful!!

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