Mingdala Bah Phreds,
Another country is now complete, the intriguing, but troubled country of Myanmar. I was extremely interested in seeing the many impressive sights and interesting cultures of the country, but knew that this would involve some difficulties and problems. The good news is that for the first time since leaving Australia, I was back on the soil of Gondwanaland. I’m not 100% sure where the plate boundary lies, though I think it’s near the mountain range that forms the Myanmar-Thai border. It just felt right once again.
Myanmar has had a complex and significant history. Its first well-documented society began in the 9th century and the subsequent “golden age” (literally) continued for about a thousand years, with the exception of a short dark age after the country was flattened by the Khan’s Mongols in the 13th century. During most of that time great cities were built, the country’s borders expanded, and general trouble was sent the way of neighboring nations. Eventually, things began to fall apart, and Myanmar was rather easily occupied by the British in the 19th century. From that time until recently, the country was incorrectly known to the world as Burma. The modern era has also not been kind to Myanmar. The land was a major battleground in WWII, during which the local army aided whichever side they believed would more quickly grant independence. Since then there has been a succession of coups, assassinations, failed attempts at a modern-styled governments, and highly xenophobic authoritarian rule. The most recent of these began in 1988 when the military violently ended long, large protests that had been pushing for reform. A group of generals took control, and did not release it, citing a need to keep the country from falling apart.
Myanmar is a surprisingly distinct society compared to neighboring South and Southeast Asia, though by no means is it a homogenous one. The majority of the people are Burmans, who live mainly in the central river valleys, and who share distant ancestors with the Tibetans. However, in the border regions there are several other cultures, including the Mon, who are related the the Khmers, the Shan, who are essentially Thais, the Kachin, a separate group with Tibetan origins, those related to the Bengalis, and the Karen, who live on both sides of the Thai-Myanmar border and have a unique culture. A number of these groups have been fighting for independence or autonomy since the end of WWII, which has often been cited by the military as a reason for strict rule.
The generals, led by an unusual character named Thang Shwe, have often claimed to be only a transitional government (a story in the “official” English-language newspaper described a proposed new constitution that seemed reasonable to me, except for the large fraction of the legislature that would be permanently appointed by the military.)
However, in a well-known election in 1991, the opposition, lead by Nobel Peace laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi won with something like 82% of the votes cast, and the generals then basically said, “Well, nevermind.” The international community typically blew its response by not recognizing the new government, and Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for most of the time since then. With every year that passes her opposition party must certainly be losing credibility in the eyes of the people.
In a stunningly bizarre example of the priorities of the military government, one morning near the end of 02005, they decided to move the capital of the nation from Yangon, where it has resided since the British era, to the vicinity of a small town in the center of the country called Pyinmana. No one was informed in advance, the move occurred when few buildings were ready, there was no ability for government workers to bring their families with them, and those who preferred to resign from their jobs were told that they would not be allowed to do so. Even more baffling was that the move occurred at precisely 6:27 AM on a Monday morning. No one is quite sure why the move occurred, but speculations involved the fear of an invasion from outside, or that Thang Shwe was intending to establish a new Royal dynasty, which was historically done by setting up a new capital. Another possibility, given the unusual time of the move is that the whole business was based on the advice of astrologers. Well, if it worked for Ronald Reagan....
More practically for visitors, the government has messed up other things as well. Most outrageous is the way they have skunked up the internet. Web-based e-mail services such as Hotmail, Yahoo, and perhaps GMail, have all been disabled (so has the webmail service from my small isp) Access to many Web sites has been blocked as well, including, perplexingly, the control panel site that I use to update my Web site. (?!) All of the ‘Net cafes use various tricks, such as various proxies and alternate browsers, so its possible to get something done one way or another, but its all painfully slow.
Another annoyance is that due to international sanctions credit cards can not be used, there are no ATM’s, and US Dollars, which are an official second currency, are only accepted if they are crisp and new, without any marks, dirt, or creases. This would turn out to be a particularly important problem in my case.
All of this means that traveling to Myanmar is a difficult decision. The US government has urged a travel boycott. I have made my opinions on the uselessness of such actions known in the past, but if was still not an easy choice for me to go there. Due to the tensions between the separatist minority cultures of the border area and the central government, which have simmered for over fifty years, there are no land borders between Myanmar and any of its neighbors open to foreigners, and most of the border states are off-limits to foreigners in any case. That is the reason that it is required to fly in and out of the country. In my case I had no ideal option. To get from Southeast Asia to India, I could have gone north into China and then entered India from the North. However, due to the climate at this time of year that was out of the question. I could have just flown over Myanmar altogether and not gone there at all, but that would have been no good either, as I really did want to see the country. So, I had to break my vow to avoid planes and fly in and out of the country, which turned out to be horribly inconvenient in both cases.
The people of Myanmar, or at least those that outsiders are allowed to meet, are another group of exceptionally friendly people. They are rather relaxed and polite, however, a situation which I suspected may contribute to their apparent reluctance to more openly oppose authoritarian rule. Dress is rather conservative, with most men wearing a longyi, which is a long fabric wrap snugged about the waist. Pleasingly, bicycle use is higher there than any place I have been so far, and with the popularity of longyis, there is a rather high proportion of “girl’s bikes,” with angled top tubes, in use. Many people also wear a yellowish-white face paint which makes for a quite distinct look.
Other practical matters related to touring are a mixed bag. Food was pretty decent in restaurants, which are easy enough to find, though the readily available Chinese dishes I found to be better choices compared to the common Myanmar noodle and rice dishes. Small food shops were once again a little sparsely stocked, though there was usually a nice selection of locally produced baked goods which were much better than the packaged counterparts found there and elsewhere. Small supermarkets were only found in the two largest cities. During my visit the weather was quite good with no rain and even a few comfortably cool nights. Camping sites were hard to find in the central valley area, which is moderately, but uniformly, populated, and which has few places to turn off the highway. In the highlands the situation was a little better. However, accommodation was easy to find and often reasonably priced. Traffic was, rather surprisingly, a notch heavier than, say, Laos or Cambodia, with a high fraction being smelly old busses and trucks, and included a return of the obnoxious habit of horn-honking. Most significantly, the roads in Myanmar were by far the worst in Asia, throw in Australia and the islands as well. About 80% of the distance that I rode was on roads that ranged from unpleasantly bumpy to completely disintegrated. That had a major impact on the outcome of my tour.
My plan was to start in the capital, Yangon and then do a loop to the north heading clockwise, visiting historic Bagan, the second-city of Mandalay, and naturally beautiful Inle Lake before returning to Yangon to fly out. The one advantage of that was that I could finally apply for my Indian visa there, which always seemed to take many days to process at the other consulates I had tried, and then pick it up when I returned. Originally, I had scheduled plenty of extra days so that this visit would be relatively easy. Of course after falling behind in Laos and losing a few days, there would now be just under three weeks available, which seemed like just enough, or so I thought.
Finally arriving in Yangon, after the ordeal of reaching Chiang Mai and the tiring flight through Bangkok, I was completely exhausted. Consequently, I stayed there two days instead of one as I had planned. That was unfortunate as I could have really used that extra day later on. Yangon is a rather large city, but sort of a middle-scale place. Neither especially beautiful, nor particularly ugly, it is a place where old markets are mixed together with mid-rise offices and apartment buildings. Though relatively sprawling, it is reasonably easy, if not always quick, to walk around. Jaywalking is happily tolerated and it took me a while to realize why it felt a little calmer. Apparently, unlike virtually all other Asian cites Yangon has an effective ban on motorbikes, and has somehow silenced the horns of the vehicles that are using the roads.
The main attraction in the city is the spectacular Shwe Dagon Pagoda. It is a 2,500-year old pagoda complex set on a hilltop near the city center. Numerous elaborately-decorated temples and shrines which each contain a nice Buddha image, surround the even more impressive central stupa. That structure is a 110-m tall Burman-style stupa, or one that resembles an overturned champagne glass, without the base. The picture is completed by its beautiful guilding and gold plate that add up to some 30 tons of the shiny metal.
Once the ride finally began, the first couple of days were fairly uneventful, with only a few noticeable events. After a tedious ride out of the big city, I reached a junction just to the north of town. That day, and the next few as well, were characterized by a complete lack of any road signs whatsoever, even those written in the Myanmar script, which, by the way, is unique to the country and probably one of the most appealing I have ever seen. Asking, for directions I was distinctly told to go in the wrong direction, which, of course, I did not realize right away. Once I did, I was far enough along that I was reluctant to turn around. Instead, I simply decided to do the loop in a counterclockwise direction.
It was not long before the fairly decent road became uncomfortably bumpy, which slowed my progress down somewhat. Later on I noticed the first of many road repair crews trying to repair the surface. What was notable was that the workers were predominantly young women. Their task was to gather loads of rocks from the large piles dumped on the roadside, carry them to the road in baskets, and spread them on the surface. I have read accounts that there are instances of forced labor at construction projects in Myanmar. I have no way of saying whether that is true or not, however, I did notice that the women workers were among the most outgoing and friendly towards me as I passed by shouting hellos and giggling at my humorous appearance.
Also of interest were the long convoys of olive-green military trucks that passed by, heading north, every afternoon. It was only after I had seen a few of those, that a truck with its back flap open revealed that its cargo was ordinary-looking office furniture. The convoys were still moving the capital to Pyinmana, which is a few hundred kilometers north of Yangon on the highway to Mandalay. On the third day, that move would affect my travels.
My next destination was Inle Lake, high in the eastern mountains. The most direct route there would have been to turn east off the main highway towards the town of Loikaw, and then due north to the lake. The information that I had said that Loikaw was open to tourists, so at the turn-off I headed in that direction. It was much more pleasant riding on the quiet road heading east, but after 10 km I encountered a check-point. The immigration officer there informed me that I would not be allowed to ride to Loikaw, as the road was “too dangerous”. Yeah, right. The area south of Loikaw has been in the past involved in the Karen separatist struggle, but as they had no quarrel with me, I knew it would have been safe. I pressed the issue for a while with the group of officials there, none of whom seemed very interested in their jobs. I was not making much headway, and the best I could get from them was some vague directions for another route to the north. The places they were talking about were not readily apparent on my map, and I was having ominous visions of a repeat of my experience in Laos. In fact, those places were actually on the map, but were much farther out of the way than I was hoping for, and spelled differently as well. I finally gave in to their demands and turned back to the highway after one man gave me distance information for the route that I was being told, drastically underestimating the actual values, of course. Incidentally, when someone in Myanmar tells you how far it is to a particular place, they give the distance measured in “miles.” How quaint! A sure sign of a backwards society.
That afternoon, after the morning’s delay, and more bumpy roads, I was not as far as I had hoped. It looked like I would not have time to get beyond Pyinmana that day. Since I needed to work on the bike a little, I decided to stay there that night, and I adjusted my pace so as to arrive just at sunset. Once there, I thought that it was a rather nice small town, with some lively streets lined with weathered old buildings. The first hotel that I was directed to was “full”. The second, and three more guest houses were also “full”. Just after being turned away at the last one, a local official caught up with me and informed me that foreigners were not allowed to spend the night in Pyinmana. It was the mysterious new capital, after all, though no one had mentioned anything about that to me. Thanks for making that readily apparent to those passing through town, Sirs. Instead of getting some much-needed rest, I spent the evening in the lobby of the police station, while they arranged to dump me on the nighttime bus north to the next town with a guest house that was far enough out of the way to prevent me from doing any of the spying that I obviously had intended to do. All that time, I was thinking that it would have been much better if I had offered a bribe to the officials in that morning to let me through to Loikaw. It was after 1:00 AM, when I finally reached a room for the night, after a really annoying day.
The next day I should have had just enough time to get very close to Inle Lake, which is located at 950 meters above sea level. However, the climb there topped out at 1,460 meters, which should not have been so bad were it not for the deplorable condition of the road. That was surprising as the road was one of only two leading to Taunggyi, the capital of Shan state and one of the largest cities in the country. Despite that, the road was narrow, rocky, and very dusty, including considerable cow residues, with a surprising amount of truck and bus traffic. Additionally, thanks to a stunningly bad piece of engineering, many of those trucks had their engine exhausts vented horizontally to the right side at shoulder level. So each time one went by, in addition to a thick dust bath, I received a face-full of steamy black diesel soot. Accckk! There was another matriarchal road crew trying to upgrade the road, but their progress looked to be rather slow, and with the continuous damage done by all the heavy vehicles using the route it seems to be falling apart faster than it’s being repaired. In the end the day was slow enough that I was about 30 km farther away from the lake than I had wanted.
Nevertheless, I was able to get there by 10:00 AM the next day for almost a full day there. Fortunately, all of the effort was worth it as Inle Lake was one of the most interesting and unique places that I have visited so far. Inle is a large shallow lake surrounded by tall mountains, and the home to one of Myanmar’s smaller cultures, the Intha people. There are about 100,000 Intha living around the lake, and they have a fascinating lifestyle. Most live in traditional villages consisting of wooden still-homes, and grow crops in large floating gardens. Those are made from mud on top of reed mats, and are long and thin, so that someone on a boat can easily tend the crops. The Intha fishing boats are fascinating as well. The fisherman stand on a narrow platform on the stern of long wooden rowboats, balancing on one foot, while pushing their oar with the other foot and one hand. It makes for an interesting image. The Intha are talented at producing handicrafts as well. With less time than I had hoped I had planed on just riding down to the lakeshore from the town of Nyaung Shwe, and back. However, for once it was much better to leave the bike for a while and take a boat tour around the lake. That was really enjoyable, as I was taken through the villages, gardens, craft shops, and fishing areas around the lake. A really enjoyable day.
Next, I was to take two days to drop back down to the valley and reach Mandalay, for a longer break. That was surprisingly tough as well. The first day, I awoke without my voice and feeling a little sick after inhaling so much foul dust in recent days. Riding was not too tough due to that, but the road soon became bumpy again and progress was slow. I had a short detour planned to the town Pindaya and it was rather late in the day by the time I arrived there. In Pindaya there is an interesting monastery including a large limestone cave that contains over 6,000 Buddha statues. I had assumed that that would be a rock shelf with a lot of the type of knick-knack Buddha statues available all around Asia, and that I would only spend a short time there. Much to my surprise, the cave was filled with beautiful guilded statues, many of which were 2-3 meters tall. It was absolutely impressive and I lingered long into the afternoon. With that, and my sick body, I called it a day there, and stayed in Pindaya, causing more delays. Pindaya was a charming town, however, so it was not such a bad deal.
That left slightly more than one long day to reach Mandalay, but since I would be dropping 1,400 meters in elevation I thought that it would be possible to do most of that distance. A man back at Inle had told me that I would be on the “new road” going that way, so that made me feel more confident. It was quite a while, over more rough roads, before the decent started and, much to my dismay, the road got even worse. It was another case of slowly crawling down a decent that should have been a rapid course, and I frequently could only travel at 8 km/h. This was as frustrating as it was surprising. This was the second of the two routes to Taunggyi, and I assumed that one of them would have been tolerable. After two-thirds of the painful decent was passed something resembling a “new road” appeared, which was fortunate as sunset was quickly approaching. With that I reached the base after a while, the whole decent taking 3.5 hours instead of the 30 minutes that I had expected. That was another half-day lost and now my schedule was completely blown up.
I still had plenty of time to reach Yangon before my Sunday evening flight. However, I needed to be there on Friday morning to pick up my Indian visa, and there was not enough time to take my desired day and a half off in Mandalay, visit Bagan, and ride the rest of the way. My new plan was to ride to Mandalay, Bagan, and further south to a town called Prome and then skip ahead to Yangon on a train.
Mandalay is a much more typically Asian city than Yangon, hectic, noisy, and somewhat disorganized. My feeling was that there were not too many really nice sights there, which was fine since I was mainly interested in resting. The only visit I made was to the rebuilt Royal Palace from the days just before the British occupation when Mandalay was the capital. It was interesting, made entirely from timberframe, but not as elaborate as other old palaces in Asia. From Mandalay, there were two more days to get near to Bagan, which were also slow, mostly because there were yet more gravel, sand, and bumpy paved roads, but also because I stumbled upon a dedication ceremony for a recently renovated pagoda. There was a big crowd there and the ceremony was fascinating to watch, with a traditional Buddhist style.
Arriving in Bagan later in the morning than I had wanted, once again, I had just the rest of the day to explore the surprisingly spectacular site. Bagan was the first capital of the original Burman kingdom in the 9th century. Over the next few centuries it expanded to a huge city rivaling the greatest of Asia. Similar in land area to Angkor, the site contains over two thousand pagodas and temples, most constructed of brick, once covered by stucco, and many of impressive scale and design. However, while Angkor scores with beautiful stone carvings, its cities are in a more decayed condition and are largely obscured by jungle. In contrast, Bagan, in a more arid area with thinner vegetation, spreads out before one’s eyes with the spires of numerous pagodas poking up above the bush like a brick forest. Moreover, many are still in good condition, with some guilded with gold. It’s also nice to see that some of the structures are still used as religious places by the local population. With such a large site, and only a moderate number of tourists, it was easy to wander off alone and explore some isolated pagoda. I would certainly like to have spent a few more days there, especially as the town was nicely low-key, but with many nice places to stay and several good restaurants. However, if I was going to reach Yangon according to my modified plan, I had to leave the next morning. Once again, that didn’t work out quite as I expected.
Leaving the next day, the roads were not perfect, but had improved enough to make reasonable progress. I expected to remain on track, but at some point I passed another unsigned fork in the road and without much notice continued on the road which appeared to be the main highway. Later I reached a town that I thought was the next along my route. Soon I learned, however, that it was a place called Chauk, which meant that I had taken the wrong fork in the road and had now circled back almost all the way to Bagan. Now there was not enough time to complete my bike-train plan. Since I was going to have to fly again once I reached Yangon, I just bagged the rest of the ride and prepared to transfer directly back to Yangon from Bagan. Since Chauk seemed like a pleasant little town, I thought there was no point in rushing back to Bagan that evening and I would just stay there. Ah yes, once again “no foreigners allowed” in Chauk. There was no apparent reason this time. It was not a new capital or some similar type of place, just a little town with ordinary people. Perhaps it was near to a secret Myanmar uranium enrichment facility. On the bright side there was now another day to stroll around Bagan.
Now back in Yangon, I successfully picked up my India visa, which was a big relief, and did a little souvenir hunting before my flight to Dhaka, Bangladesh at 6:00 PM on Sunday. At that point, with all of the extras of involved in getting back on time, I had just enough cash left to get to the airport. Sunday evening arrived and I entered the terminal at four o’clock and found the Biman Bangladesh Airlines desk deserted. A few more passengers showed up and we were all baffled. Finally someone from another airline told us that the flight took of at 1:00 PM. Apparently, the airline changed the flight time without telling anyone, or at least without telling me. Oops. At that point I was really in a bind since I had only a small amount of soiled US dollars, which no one would accept, and so was unable to get on the only other flight out of the country and since it was Sunday evening, all of the travel offices were closed. Somehow I made my way back to town and managed to exchange some of my dirty money on the street at 70% value. On Monday I finally was rebooked on a flight out, but via Bangkok once again, turning my short 1 hour flight into a 12 hour ordeal. Have I mentioned how much I hate flying?
In any case, I was glad to finally be on the way out and onto the next country, with this complicated, though very interesting, section of the tour behind me. The annoying difficulties caused by the military rulers of the country had started to take their toll, especially the screwed-up Internet and the lack of access to banks. At this point I can’t quite give a full endorsement of Myanmar as a touring destination, not primarily because of the issues above, but mainly due to the bad roads. With the way things are going, it does not seem likely that that situation will change much in the near future.
In downtown Yangon there are a few large red billboards, one right across the street from the US embassy, which read:
· Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views
· Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the state and progress of the state
· Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the state.
· Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.
Everyone who knows me, knows that I am a just stooge with many negative views.
One of those is that if the people of Myanmar could once and for all get their affairs sorted out, the country would quickly become one of the most spectacular places on Earth, and a first rate tourist destination.
The Tour of Gondwana
May 02005 - Oct 02007