Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The first Rule of Myanmar is you don't talk about Myanmar

When a monk takes you down a hillside into his quiet home, sits you down, and asks you with tired eyes, "How can we get democracy?"  Well, you begin to realize how much you take for granted. 

The first rule of Myanmar is you don't talk about Myanmar.  The internet is a barricaded realm of forbidden inquiry.  If you ask your taxi driver about the coming election, or what he thinks about current politics, he will quietly stare out their window in a forlorn trance.  People here are scared shitless of the military that keeps their freedom under lock and key.  And they should be.  The military will kill you.  

This country defies classification or judgement.  On the expectation front, I expected it to be strange, but what I got was an extremely opaque shade of this preconception.  It is hard to see into the soul of Myanmar.  At its soul is Burma, and it has been tortured and tattered.  Beaten and bruised.  This land is madder than a crate of otters smoking opium and eating dragon fruit.  Crazier even.  Fundamentally adrift from normalcy, and yet the people go on about their business. I could call it the quietest revolution in the world.  This would be an overstatement.  It is hardly a hushed whisper in a Yangon thunderstorm.  They flirted with democracy in 1988 when their democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, won the election to become Prime Minister.  She has essentially been jailed by the Junta ever since.  Pictures of her are outlawed in public.  The latest uprising by the monks in 2007, where they quietly marched in the streets and up to her house, was met with her peaking out with a gracious smile.  To the Burmese, she has a divine quality, and this gesture outraged the generals.  In the wake of the demonstrations, many monasteries were found empty.  All that remained was blood.

Monks normally do not involve themselves in politics or matters of state.  The participation by the monks speaks the desperation at the tips of Burmese tongues.        

It is hard to call it from Mandalay, or Yangon, or Bagan.  The people here smile.  Some are fat. It seems to be working, and yet there is an eerie presence in the air.  The regime has killed, and used China has a proxy to keep their garages stocked and mansions glistening.  The democratic elections are looming in October. Most believe that there will be no change.  They are probably right.

I am going to stop now, and save what is coming for a larger audience.  I do want to say one more thing.  I disagree wholeheartedly with the well meaning idiots that began boycotting this country in the nineties and continue to do so.  They think, by extension, the junta will not receive their tourist dollars and this will hurt the generals financially.  All this strategy accomplishes is a reinforcement of the isolation that plagues this land.

Our drivers, who randomly multiplied from one to two with no explanation or rate hike, took us out to the country towards U-Bein bridge.  We think we gained a government spy, but they both seemed nice enough.  We had no sinister plans or revolutions to launch, and in keeping things light, a certain levity transcended our suspicions.  I do not believe I have mentioned our mode of transport yet, but it is a miniature blue pick up truck with benches in the back.  It is very interesting.  

You can really tell that Myanmar is hurting for tourists, especially at huge tourist sites like U Bein.  The throngs of hawkers and kids and merchants really overwhelm you, and the situation sucks.  You feel bad knowing that they probably feel worse.  We saw about 5 tourists the entire day.  This would be acceptable at an obscure site, but this place is on the cover of the "Myanmar Lonely Planet" Guide, hardly the life for a cover girl. 

We bought some paintings for about 1000 Kyat each at a market in the middle of the bridge.  1000 Kyat is about one dollar.  We walked the entire bridge, which seemed about a mile.  On the other side we came upon a village.  In the village, a school had just let out.  We heartily greeted the kids, high fiving and snapping pictures.  The kids in developing countries really like to have their picture taken.  Even more, they like to see the pictures afterwards.  It is a strange situation though.  If you are in a temple or somewhere frequented by tourists, then kids will follow you around asking to have a picture taken, but will demand money afterwards.  

After exploring the U Bein area, we were whisked by our driver team to the hills of Sagaing.  Sagaing serves as a monastic center and retreat for many of Myanmar's monks.  The lush hills are a definitive departure from Mandalay's quasi-urban sprawl.  While climbing to the summit of Saigaing Hill, I began to speak with a monk that invited us into his home so he could speak more candidly.  He took us down the hill and we talked about revolution.  It was beautiful.

Back in Mandalay, we stopped by what is allegedly the longest book in the world.  Each page is actually a gigantic tablet, and each tablet is housed in 724 individual pagodas.  Wandering among the labyrinthian maze of white pagodas felt quite surreal.

We ended the night with a cocktail party back at the Hotel on the Red Canal.  It felt preposterous and bourgeois.  

The next morning, we woke up to the hot Mandalay sun breaching a sliver in our heavy cloth blinds.  Mandalay is full of betel nut chewers, lowrider jeeps, maroon cloaked monks, and allegedly, millionaire drug kingpins.  These are some random associations that I would like to submit to your mental picture that I cannot squeeze into my dialog. The zoo blares Myanmar pop music, and if you come upon a stray bear, scoop him up.  On the subject of bears, we spent our last hours in Mandalay returning to the joyous confines of the zoo.  Where for a quarter, you can wing a gherkin at (and feed) a hippopotamus.  

Admittance is 2 dollars, and we immediately made our way towards where we last saw our ursine buddies.  They were absent, so we looked harder. We recognized an older woman from the other day.  She pointed down at some wooden cages, and there we glanced upon the 2 misfit Asiatic Bears, acting like British football hooligans.  The smaller sunbear was in a crate alone.  She slowly unhinged the lock.  He shot out of the gate like a released inmate.  He briefly groped Ryan, licked his neck a few times before moving on to a banana bonanza that he would come upon in the woman's home.  We manhandled him for a few minutes, and than put him back in the cage.  

The Mandalay airport puts the heeb in herby jeeby.  Myanmar is full of situations that illustrate its struggle with the tourism sector.  None is more obvious in its sad rendition than this huge airport that only uses one gate.  Lucky for us, we were all set to take off into a raging thunderstorm.  The umbrellas held by airline attendants BROKE in the wind.  We took off in an old turboprop of an obscure Myanmar airline.  For those of you that call this a vacation, it is from moments such as this that I pull my rebuttal to this claim.

We landed safely in Bagan. 

Mandalay in all its underachieving splendor

The Myanmar bus system seems crazy

Our driver(s) spruced up the ride with some fragrant flowers

A strip of village outside of U Bein 

A flooded pagoda 

U Bein bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world 

Some youth on the bridge 

Ryan and Kristin buying bracelets 

Some river snacks 

A little one looks back 


The water was really high, and you could see waterrside restaurants underwater 

Schools out, love that kid in the right of the frame trying to catch up 

They were a mob 

Ryan trying a pair of high fives with mixed results

Alot of the women and girls here where this stuff on their face.  I never got a reliable answer about it.

I love this picture 

Some buds just hanging out 

The waterfront 


Back out on the bridge, we began out commute back to the other side 

We called this kid Beckham, he followed us around

I hate days when they sky looks like this, turns great pictures mediocre

Village lining the road 

A pretty tough looking tuk tuk in Sagaing 

After U Bein, we made our way into the hills of Sagaing 

The countryside is beautiful, and monasteries and pagodas stretch out for miles

We hung around at the summit of Sagaing Hill

One interesting thing about over here, is that you must take your shoes off everywhere.  This makes it very interesting and sometimes very hot.  We were told our feet are too "new"

Lots of golden stupas in Myanmar 

Love the tile 

Rabbit and carrot 


The tile 

A young monk and nun 

Our buddy the monk

A home 

A seamstress

Little homes dot the road 

The moat at our hotel, every day, there are men shining these stones 

Loading up in a truck for the lazy man's way up Mandalay Hill

View from atop Mandalay Hill

Mandalay Hill is significant because buddha climbed this hill and pointed out to the future capital, Mandalay 

Arches and mirror mosaic.  It is interesting how the style of these places slowly changes as you creep East towards central Asia.

Donations, a fundamental part of every religion 

In that structure is the most terrifying elevator I have ever used 

Good old agriculture.  Myanmar has a lot of fertile land to plant crops.  This is one of its saving graces.

Details, lots of bad luck for the guy that made these mirror mosaics.  In 2001, I made a mirror mosaic with a couple of friends.  I think I had several years of bad luck.


A street scene outside of Mandalay Hill

AN explanation of the largest book in the world at Kuthodaw Pagoda

The structures that house each of the 724 pages, one for each page.  It is a very large area.

1 page 

Real Cool

So, you go to the amazing historical sites, and no one is there.  It is the strangest thing.

In the center of the white stupas housing the books, is a large gold stupa, Kuthodaw Pagoda  

Kuthodaw Pagoda 

A small recreation on teh worlds largest book

Burmese Girl 

This is another similar facility next door to Kuthodaw 

We checked out the Mandalay Night Market, which was clearly not for tourists.  You can always tell if you are not supposed to be somewhere because no one bothers you.

Downtown Mandalay 

Krstin had to pee so bad that she went in one of these buildings 

Back at the market 

I do not know what use an SAT book would be here 

Check out the splendor of that spread.  The burger is insane.  This is probably how they picture us eating.  Speaking of our diets, we were talking with a few Israelis tonight, and we told them that we were from texas.  The girl had been to Texas before and said it was strange that we brought it up. We asked why, and she said, "Because I was just thinking about Texas when all these fat people just walked by."  Hilarious.

This is the kind of garbage your shirt with Asian lettering probably says 

Real Boss

Our room in Mandalay, the 3 bears

Our pool area at the red canal 

Our drivers and our ride. "Making a memory"No one wears trousers here.

Our buddy the bear

Seriously, free range 

The larger one was up in a tree just hanging out, not in an enclosure, just out in the open 

We got to hold these things, but had to come to a strange place to do so, risk/reward

The zoo is not very big, but they have this broken rail that takes you around 

We fed these otters fish 

Ol' 1 eye 

Binturong, my new favorite animal, Kristin touched one's nose 

large asiatic bear

dog treadmill at our hotel, they did not even have a people one 

Great, a storm to take off into.  Note the empty parking lot at the airport. 

I sure hope so 

Sneak peak of Bagan, an ancient abandoned city, coming tomorrow  


  1. Oh my gosh, "Binturong" soo cute!! Are you sure she just touched it and it wasn't a bap!?

    Doggie treadmill, I've got to get Lib/Raider one of those!!


  2. The stuff on their face actually comes from a tree. They buy or find pieces of the tree and then make that face stuff from the bark. They believe it keeps them cool.

    And you definitely need to get a longi like all the men wear (taxi driver photo). I bought a few for like 2000 kyat each to bring back with me! Will probably never wear them, but I have them. :)