Myanmar:

Burma Visit Jan 2013

Pre-trip musings:

In my own lifetime, I’ve seen the incredible impact of the influx of Pakistani nationals on my home town of Bradford, and other nearby towns. But although this has had a devastating economic impact on the area, it was a secondary effect, brought about by enterprising individuals and families escaping from abject poverty in their own countries. The worldwide problems associated with the differences between the Muslim and Christian beliefs, are not directly associated with the economic dominance of any Muslim nation.

The worldwide changes being brought about by the Chinese are however much more far reaching, and nothing to do with religious beliefs. The Chinese God is money, which in the end will have a greater impact than any other God.

After eight hard years in China I finally throw in the towel, but wait ! The Dragon in the opposing corner is in league with the referee, and they don’t accept the towel. Battered, bruised and almost totally finished, it seems that many more rounds must be fought, and a quick honourable retirement will not be possible.

Leaving China in October 2012 for what I feel will turn out to be a long time, I have no feeling of regret but relief is also absent. The last year has been so hard, that the sinking feeling in my stomach got deeper every trip. I know from bitter experience however, that even the clean air and beautiful countryside of Thailand, will not be enough to purge the Dragon’s impact.

In the last few weeks of 2012 I continue battling from home, via internet and phone for many awful weeks. Finally Christmas and New Year bring a welcome respite with our children, and the prospect of the trip to Burma to look forward to. Modern communication is so difficult in Burma, I don’t feel too guilty dropping the constant email checks.

This Burma trip is the first of a plan to visit all SE Asian countries as soon as possible, but first I’ll write and distribute this Burma travelogue to friends and family, for constructive criticism.

Then the first real book “ The Fall of the Woofies “ will tell the story of  those eight hard years in China, and the growing challenge our Children and Grandchildren will have to face. What’s a Woofie ? – it’s a company 100% owned by a foreign national (Wholly Foreign Owned Enterprise)

In this case I am the foreign national of course.

There are many horror stories of Western/Chinese joint ventures.  In retrospect a JV may have been the better of two evils, but time can’t be turned back.

If this first book is successful, the next book will go back a few years and tell the equally enthralling story of how I managed to build a 2 Billion Dollar Company, and lose a personal fortune of well over $150m in the process.

Finally the third book in the series will bring you up to date on life and business activities, currently in progress in Thailand and South East Asia. I can promise you it will also be fascinating, as anything and everything is in Asia.

Then – or perhaps simultaneously – if I prove to have any talent as a writer, I’ll write a novel or two probably with the same Western/Asian theme.

Hua Hin to Bangkok:

I wake to the sunrise and another beautiful day in Hua Hin. The deep red glow quite quickly gives way to orange then pink, and I wonder if it will be similar in Burma. Yangon is only a couple of degrees further North, so I guess so. ( having only packed shorts however I’m soon to discover that places further  North like Mandalay are much much colder at night.)

Our taxi to Bangkok is on time, but then follows Sue’s usual phone conversation with the taxi company owner in English, who then relays our destination to the driver ( I vow once again to  start Thai lessons – after this trip )

He’s a good driver, but spends half the time on his mobile phone ( we’ve given up trying to tell them it’s dangerous ) Sometimes the drivers are scary, which is not surprising really, as there’s no practical driving instruction or driving test.  This linked with bumpy roads littered with potholes, often makes for exciting journeys, but looking out of the window at the beautiful mountains silhouetted against an azure blue sky, these details are quickly forgotten.

We stop at traffic lights and see a lady in a chequered mask heading towards us. Her whole face is covered up to avoid the sunlight, as they all want to be as white as Westerners want to be tanned. It’s the same basic reason – a white Asian lady doesn’t need to work in the fields, and a tanned English girl has the money for exotic holidays ! It’s almost as prevalent with the men working outside, and guys’ masks are truly scary, making men on building sites for example, look like a gang of bank robbers !

The mask peers into the car, and hands over a beautiful garland of fresh red and white flower petals, which the driver pays for and hangs over the rear view mirror. The scent permeates the car, and although the Buddhist religious significance is lost on us it seems to bring a certain peace to the journey. We hope the “ safe trip “ his purchase is intended to engender, will be  the end result.

Mountains continue to roll past the window, some topped by beautiful temples with glistening gold domes and spires – – Buddhist temples all seem to command amazing views over the surrounding country side.

Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok:

We arrived before 8.0 am for  the 9.0 am opening time, to be met by a queue of over 100 people spilling out onto the road.

“ folding chair rental – only 1000 baht each ! “ – as the queue was growing  by the minute, I’m sure he would have got some takers.

As we finally get into the little room with its low ceiling and harsh fluorescent strip lighting,  the feeling of excitement and expectation is almost palpable, and in marked contrast to the heavy silence I’d experienced visiting Chinese embassies. It doesn’t seem to matter that the grey metal grid behind which the officials sat high above us, force us to bend forward to speak and thrust through our documents, through the small gap in the base of the grid.

Everyone seems to be excitedly exchanging contact details with everyone else. We get into conversation with a London PhD student called Patrick who’s thesis is Burma’s economic progress in the last few years – – he has lots of tips about Yangon currency scams and places to eat.

Returning to collect the visas, I exit the sky train at Surasak just as school gets out. Hordes of children in purple blazers with gold braid and matching satchels, swarm onto the pavement, but it’s all very genteel and ordered with no sign of any rowdiness.

Back in the visa collection queue, everything’s still buzzing and even though the Thai agents with their great wads of passports seem to have priority, everything remains good natured.

Whilst we wait a very fat, grey haired, sweating Spaniard proudly tells us he’s from the Basque country and has been visiting Burma twice a year for twenty years. I innocently asked him why, but then he falls strangely quiet. Many westerners in Asia have a story to tell, but don’t always want to share it.

Peter and his Polish wife Ania from Krakow regale us with stories of their travels throughout SE Asia – – Laos seemed to get their top marks  where the Laos people were ALL friendly “ even those in the tourist industry ! “

I seem to be surrounded by “ professional travelers “ and enjoy listening to their stories, just adding the odd business comment.

Burma –  Yangon

map

As we walk through customs, I initially think the men’s skirts are a traditional dress worn for the sake of tourists, but quickly realize most of the men wear the men’s version of the longyi or pa soe, for men, all the time. It’s a tubular breathable material which must be very comfortable, but it’s initially strange to see the men often loosening it, and flapping it around, before tying it up again with a simple knot in the front ( ladies tie the knot at the side )

We meet our guide Umyo who is one of the very few men wearing  jeans, and although it transpires he’s never been out of Burma, he speaks excellent English.

Like Thailand the cars are mostly RHD but they drive on the right too ! This was reportedly changed in 1962 by General Ne Win, because one of his astrologers felt that Burma had moved too far left, in political terms. The bus below is a good example of the chaos this caused and still causes, with the passenger entrance re-jigged for RHD. Also in  1987, Ne Win introduced 45 kyat  and 90 kyat currency notes, as the face values added up to nine, his lucky number.

bus

Our car is a 1986 Toyota Corolla and there are many other cars of the 1980s vintage. Umyo apologises for the traffic ,which has doubled in the last year since the movement towards democracy has gathered pace.  Another strange law is the rule against motorbikes and bicycles in Yangon ( except a very few used by some government departments and the military ) – surely this would help the gridlock.

We see car sale lots on the road side, mostly full of used Japanese cars, as there are no new dealerships yet. The only new car is  the Myanmar Mini, similar to the Indian tata nano assembled in a plant owned by the Ministry of Industry 2 ( Generals’ cronies ? ) but the recent influx of used Japanese cars has significantly reduced the demand for the Mini.

Crawling along in the traffic we learn many hotel groups are  also owned by “ Cronies “ – it sounds very much like the Russian oligarchs.

The Chinese presence has apparently increased enormously in the last few years, since the move to democracy gathered real momentum.

Chinese roadside food stalls and restaurants already outnumber Burmese establishments, and Umyo tells us many of the large infrastructural projects are Chinese owned and managed. Their sharp business acumen will ensure a rapid Chinese infiltration into the nascent Burmese economy.

The Burmese are a gentle people, and regard the Chinese as rough loud and dirty, but they’ll be unstoppable.

He adds that Burmese people prefer Thai products to Chinese as the quality is higher, but so is the price.

Finally arriving at the Sedona Hotel there are two doormen dressed in smart white tunics to welcome us. It’s a grand old Colonial building with very high ceilings and a sweeping staircase, leading to a minstrel’s gallery overlooking two life-size elephants.

The gridlocked journey was pretty boring, but now we seem to have entered a fascinating colonial time warp, as we cross the huge lobby to the dark wood panelled reception.

Cash dollars are the main currency in Myanmar apart for the local Kyat ( approx 850kyat to one dollar ) but only really clean dollars, not folded or in any other way imperfect ! It takes Umyo and I around twenty minutes to select acceptable dollars to pay his charge for the holiday. ( the Thai bank clearly didn’t understand the Burmese instructions on “ acceptable dollars “ )

Administrative systems don’t seem to have changed since Colonial times and still require lots of paper and signatures, but Umyo has sorted all this out for us and we just hand over the pre-paid vouchers he’s prepared. Credit cards are not accepted and Computer systems are very slow and unreliable, but the staff are very helpful and obviously used to handling western frustration.

My first port of call is to the Thai Embassy to get a business visa, which is the first requirement for obtaining a work permit back home in Thailand.  Monks are everywhere with their rusty red robes and shaven heads. I’ve experienced living in close proximity to monasteries and monks in Thailand, but my first impression is that the Buddhist religion is all pervading here – it definitely adds a certain air of calm and peace.

There’s a long time to wait and we get chatting to a friendly monk called Dhemme Merperla ( westerners seem to evoke interest and spontaneous conversation ).

His monastery is near to the Shwe Dagon Pagoda ,which we’ll visit later in the day. With some help in English from Umyo he invites us to call in and visit him.

Umyo comments that since the democratic movement gained such momentum a year ago, people are more aggressive, dissatisfied and material and Dhemme Merperla agrees but it’s no more than one year since a layman and a monk could speak openly like this, and I feel privileged to observe them experiencing this new found freedom.

It’s early days though, and although the Burmese are now speaking openly about things they don’t like ( Chinese businessmen seem to be at the top of their list ) it’s not yet certain their voices will be heard.

I read a story about a huge copper mine in North West Sagaing region, a joint venture between China’s Wanbao company – a subsidiary of the arms manufacturer, Norinco – and the deeply unpopular business arm of the Burmese military, ( which also has lucrative stakes in everything from banking to beer, as well as a monopoly on the gems sector. )

Residents were forcible evicted from their homes so protest camps built up bringing the mine to a standstill, but only a few weeks ago, on 28 November 2012, riot police cleared them all out in a very brutal crackdown.

Democracy is certainly still in its infancy, and the old regime’s history will continue to influence the future.

I read a comment from Kyaw Min Swe, the editor of a weekly newspaper called The Voice, from  which I quote below:

“ The old regime got everything it needed from China – legitimacy, weapons and political support… and people had to put up with this for so many years ”

It’s interesting and encouraging however, that on the day before our visit, the Ministry of Mines withdrew defamation charges against The Voice over an article it published about corruption – perhaps democracy is getting stronger, let’s hope so.

During a lull in our conversation my own recent experiences come flooding back into my consciousness ( they’re never far away ) and I think of the impact a nation who’s god is money will have on our world. This emerging country with less than 5% of China’s population, will be massively impacted by the Chinese, and with India on the western side they’re sandwiched between half the world’s population !

After lunch our first Pagoda visit – at 99 metres high the gilded Shwe Dagon Pagoda dominates the Yangon skyline.

Shwedagon

It is the oldest and most sacred Pagoda in Burma. We walk barefoot and serene, in a clockwise direction round the base of the Stupa ( the solid gilded structure in the centre ) I see mostly Asian pilgrims showing real religious fervour, praying to the glittering statues of the various gods, donating money in the many glass sided boxes provided ( no hiding your offering in a velvet offertory bag ! ) buying and lighting incense sticks, and pouring water a set number of times over these golden bejeweled statues.

To the Burmese it is very important to know the actual day of one’s birth, as a child can only be called certain names associated with specific days.  Also in order to  be able to calculate ( with the help of an astrologer ) which planet is in the ascendancy for you personally, and how many cups of water to pour over the statue. There seem to be much longer lines to pray to appease the evil gods’ anger, than to thank the good gods for their kindnesses.

As we complete our circle of the glittering twinkling monument, I notice one more offering opportunity which is also well attended. Slivers of gold leaf are being purchased and put into a little trolly, which when full is hoisted aloft on a cable, where high in the sky workers looking like tiny puppets re-paint faded surfaces. Higher still the stupa is  domed like a bell where it’s literally gold plated using 8,688 sheets of gold ! Even higher the top of the stupa  is topped with over 5448 diamonds and 2317 rubies which twinkle in the gathering darkness.

Returning to earth, so to speak, because it certainly does leave an ethereal impression, I go to collect my shoes and apologise to the shoe lady that I have no change. She shoos me away kindly, saying something like not important and hoping I enjoyed it. Looking at her badly stooped back, and the dark brown heavily crinkled skin hanging off her face and arms, I think it could have been important, and wonder how long this sort of attitude will survive the march of progress.

It’s difficult to top the Shwedagon, so we decide to go for a drink before dinner, but first we need some kyat. The traffic is even worse now, but we’re entertained on the way by an evening football match – it’s a great spectacle played in bare feet with pa soe’s all tucked up out of the way !

Banks have closed now so we’ll have to go to a money changer, but apparently the rates are quite similar. Three little girls welcome us at the entrance to the little room with a delightful chorus spoken, or almost sung, in unison“ kyo tzo pa eit “

Throughout Asia entrances to most establishments, even including elevators, are staffed with greeters. These little girls are obviously delighted to work like this and seem to be really enjoying themselves ( we hope they’ve been to school during the day and this is just for after school pocket money )

Once again our dollar notes are not good enough, so the initially good rate of 855 is reduced to an average of 845 ! Although this seems crazy, it’s because they cannot exchange “ inferior “ notes themselves outside the country – – or so they say !

On the way out we see a local man coming in with two huge carrier bags overflowing with kyat – – perhaps he’ll get my inferior dollar notes in exchange !

We head off slowly through the crawling throng of old cars, to Sakura Tower opposite Trader’s Hotel (recommendation from Patrick whom we met in the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok )

This Japanese designed and built building, is certainly the best in Yangon. We alight on the 20th floor, and step into what looks like a tired, dirty, dingy old coffee bar with only one of the twenty or so tables occupied.

The view is indeed magnificent – 360 degrees overlooking the Yangon river, and the beautiful Shwedagon pagoda we just came from. The windows however are dirty and criss crossed with metal window frames, and there’s no patio which would have been wonderful. It stands in stark contrast to the stunning multi-hued Sky bar in Bangkok, suspended in the sky on the 63rd floor of the leboa hotel.

Wandering round the empty perimeter of the room I see tired old buildings, with flaking faded paint, as far as the eye can see. The imagination boggles at the transformation which will be wrought on Yangon in the next few years, and the money that will be made in the process, as long as there are no serious reversals in the current atmosphere of commercial freedom.

I’m certainly no expert in this regard, but feel that irrespective of the progress of democracy, the great god money will win in the end. After all what is China if not a successful commercial dictatorship? I feel that as long as it continues successfully all will be well, as almost no Chinese care anything at all for communism per se.

The service and drinks are average and expensive, so we leave after one small drink and repair to 50th  street bar which is another recommendation from Patrick.

I come to the conclusion that Patrick or his family are very well heeled, as the bar is OK but almost empty, and very expensive again.

Umyo leaves us to get a bus home and we’re left with the driver, who speaks not a word of English, but has been tasked with finding “ a local non-touristy “ restaurant. He does us proud as the food is good, the wine and beer less than half the price, and the waiter extremely helpful and loves trying out his English.

Having woken at 4.30 we’re pretty tired so sleep soundly.

Very early the next morning I gingerly test the water of the swimming pool, and realize why I’d never seen any swimmers up to now. Pride won’t allow me to go back to the room, so I manage a few laps during which time I slowly approach hypothermia.

Asking at reception, if the sun warms the pool much in the day, they quickly answer yes, but also kindly but firmly shoo me quickly to the elevator. I’m dressed in trunks and flip flops, with a big towel draped conservatively over my little body, but seeing the consternation on their faces rings a vague bell. I seem to remember reading somewhere that Burma is very traditional, and body revealing clothes should be avoided!

There must be a robe in the bedroom which I haven’t found yet, but this faux pas rings other bells in my sleepy head. So far I haven’t seen much evidence of the highly fashion conscious dressing we noticed in Shanghai, and to some extent in Bangkok too. Burmese women wear little makeup, and no short or slinky skirts, and the young men politely stand aside for ladies or elders. I’ve only been here a day, but the feeling of empathy and warmth these people exude, has left a lovely impression and seems very genuine.

Breakfast is a splendid buffet of Chinese, Indian, Burmese and Western food. Chinese predominate and we’re seated near to a large table of Chinese where the short grey haired old manager holds forth in a very loud voice, his eight underlings mostly listening respectfully. The man to his left is rude to the waiter, and the girl on his right plays games on her mobile phone. Recent memories flood over me again.

Bogyoke market ( Scott market )

market

We set off to Scott market straight after breakfast.

The bustling market is clean and located in a wonderful colonial building with cobblestone streets inside. It’s really great with absolutely everything on sale, from Burmese handicraft and jewelery, clothing stores and local foodstuffs. The vendors are good natured and customers primarily local. The dark shaded alleyways piled high on either side with goods of all description, were a welcome respite from the glaring sun outside. Little samples of food were sliced off for us to try, with no pressure to buy, although we did of course.

Having lots of experience in the knock off markets of Shanghai, we count ourselves as experts but are beaten again, albeit in a more genteel manner. Sue wants a beautiful handmade fan as it’s getting hot already ( temperature change between dawn and noon is considerable to say the least ) The initial price of 8000 kyat is bartered down to 3000, and the cute little boy with excellent English looks appropriately begrudging as he pockets the notes and runs off. Leaving the market we find the same item on an outside stall for 500!

At this juncture we hear from Umyo that our ‘plane has been cancelled and we must change to another one. Our physical tickets were taken by a colleague of his to the airport. Later in the day we met this person again who brought us the new tickets. We tend to forget how recently electronic tickets were adopted, and how slow and cumbersome things are without electronics.

Having experienced the early morning cold, I realize I’m going to need long trousers which I forgot to pack. We select a pair in a small clothing store, and are told they’ll be turned up to my short leg length in half an hour.

On returning we find the girls in the shop have cut off the bottom with scissors, folded the cloth over double half way up my leg and sewed it up themselves. Sue assures me the bottoms are guaranteed to fray.

An interesting hour ensues ( for Sue ) whilst two of the shop assistants accompany her to find a “ real tailor “ To my amazement they return with the hem perfectly tailored.

Dinner is again in a local Burmese restaurant, where we also sample the local Red Mountain sauvignon blanc, which is really quite good. It seems rather expensive at 45000 kyat but I pay and we leave.

Lights are turned out and we’re falling asleep when the phone rings – it’s the lady on reception, who explains that the restaurant has discovered a mistake in our bill which should have been 15000 kyat less, and they want to come to the hotel ( amazing they remembered where we were staying, as it was only mentioned once to the waitress )  to give us the 15000 and apologise for the mistake. I thank them and say please leave the money at reception, but feel guilty I didn’t make the effort to meet in person.

This unusual level of courtesy should have been reciprocated, and I feel guilty again next morning, when they finally find the money after ten minutes and three people searching ( it’s amazing how difficult things are without good computing systems. )

Inle Lake:

 

This is our last destination before returning to Yangon,and onwards to Bangkok. This will be a very brief post, as there is so much on the internet about this area, I feel I cannot really add to it. Suffice it to say however that we are already planning to return to visit more of the 22 villages surrounding the lake.

Sue loved it too despite finding lots of places in temples she couldn’t visit ( out of respect for the Buddha )

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Obviously I found this hilarious !!

We arrive at He Ho airport to a hazy blue sky and a cool 16 degrees.

Our guide Soaping has excellent English which he learned in a Catholic school, but he adds that he’s a devout Buddhist.

His English father, Lesley Christ, left Burma in 1963 never to be heard of again.

Sue promises to try to find his father.

The journey in the long tail motor boat is amazing. Sat one behind the other in the narrow boat, covered in a blanket, actually reminded me a little of Alaska. The place is wild and unspoilt, but the fishing is certainly different.

inle lake

 

 

InleRowing

 

The houses are all mostly dark teak and built on stilts, so transportation is only boats.

 

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The floating gardens are anchored to the lake bed by bamboo poles, and produce some really large but very tasty vegetables.

 

 

InleLake,FloatingGarden

 

The treasure hotel was excellent, and our room overlooking the mountains facing east, gave us two glorious sunrises, with wonderful cool evenings on the patio in the evening.

These two evenings were the most peaceful I can remember for a long time, but now,on with “ The Fall of the Woofies.”

 

 

Mandalay:

“ On the road to Mandalay

Where the flyin’ fishes play “

is ringing in my head as we wait for the ‘plane to take us there. I knew the tune and a few of the words, but looking it up find it was Rudyard Kipling’s poem popularized as a Victorian parlour song.

Looking down on Mandalay as the little ‘plane descends I see a lot of mist that turns out to be dust !This turns out to be quite an issue in the town but not too bad in the countryside.

Alighting from the ‘plane we all get in an old bus with a row of small single metal seats on each side, and a rather cold wind blowing through the open windows.

We meet our guide Phyu Phyu who is a lovely, tall intelligent twenty three year old, who’s enthusiasm is highly infectious. She’s a trainee guide who will go far, and we agree to keep in touch with her and her parents ( traders in clothing ) straight away.

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PhyuPhyu on the Irrawaddy river  1

After checking into another excellent and fully booked Sedona Hotel ( these Cronies must be doing really well ! )

we head off in a comfortable, well maintained but 20 year old car of indeterminate make, to view the “lunch offering ceremony“ at the Mahargadayone monastery in Amarapura, close to Mandalay.

We’ve seen quite a few monasteries by now, but this is definitely different, as it’s home to over 1500 monks and is one of the top teaching monasteries in Burma.

We first visit the “ kitchens “ where Monks wielding massive  knives are very roughly chopping up great carcasses of meat and vegetables, which are then thrown into huge copper vats with flaming wood fires underneath. More Monks then constantly stir the bubbling stew with gigantic wooden ladles. The area is surrounded by half starved dogs and cats, and hygiene does not seem to be a high priority.

It feels somewhat sacrilegious that the bloody carcasses, rusty red robes, bald heads, leaping flames and bubbling cauldrons conjure up an image of dante’s inferno, which I try hard to dispel.

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The lunch offering ceremony itself was a truly moving experience, with hundreds and hundreds of monks from pre-novices in their angelic white robes, to really old guys in their rusty red robes, all waiting patiently and walking so sedately with eyes downcast, holding their alms bowls in front of them.

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Lunch Ceremony Mahargadayone monastery  1

Figure 1

We watch them, all sitting cross legged, eating in a huge dining hall, but the noise and bustle from such a large group is totally absent. Somehow needy local orphans are included too, but even they eat gently and quietly.

Before leaving we chat to a few of the senior monks about the monastery’s role in running local orphanages. Thai families in trouble, seem to leave their dogs and children in the care of the local monastery. None are ever turned away.

We also discuss the monks’ disciplined life style. They will not eat again until early tomorrow morning, and the rest of the day will be spent studying and meditating.

Somewhat uplifted we head off for our own lunch, and Phyu Phyu is delighted we want to eat in local Burmese restaurants, as often she’s asked to choose exclusively western restaurants – imagine that !!

We arrive at a bustling local place where we’re the only westerners. All the waiters watch our expression, as we sample seven or eight different little dishes from the buffet. Most of them don’t seem to have an English equivalent. The meat, fish and vegetable dishes all have a mild and very tasty curry flavour and only one was just too salty for us.

Our final visit of the day was to U Bein bridge in Amarapura, Mandalay district, at 1.2 kilometers the longest teak bridge in the world, over the Irrawaddy river.

The picture of the bridge at sunset below, is better than any  words, or it would be if I could get it the right size.

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Mandalay day 2:

The Mandalay palace is close to the hotel, and turns out to be a must see. It was the last royal palace of the last Burmese monarchy up until 1885, when the British entered the palace and captured the royal family.

It’s surrounded by a moat 15 feet deep and over 200 feet wide, which must have presented a formidable obstacle to any besieging army.

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Mandalay palace moat  1

On the way out I ask Phyu Phyu what the purpose of the small wooden tower is on the roof of the palace. She explained that it housed a soldier who’s sole duty was to shoot any “ unlucky “ bird, such as an eagle, who’s flight over the palace could bring the King bad luck. Superstitious beliefs seem to figure quite strongly in Burmese culture.

The final, most memorable visit in Mandalay, was a boat trip  to Mingun Island on the western bank of the Irrawaddy river.

We arrived at the “ harbour “ which was a jumbled conglomeration of shacks, tents and piles of logs on a steep muddy bank of the river. The boats were stacked four deep in the water, and the only way across to our boat furthest from the bank, was to negotiate a chaotic path of gang planks with a “ human held bamboo pole handrail “ from boat to boat. Naturally the boats were floating at different heights in the water so the planks went steeply up, then down, with a small jump across at the end.

mandalay harbour

Mandalay Harbour

Having finally reached our boat, we are further entertained by a couple of guys diving beneath us in the freezing muddy river, to untangle our rope from the prop of their boat. It was a dangerous difficult job, to which the picture below cannot really do justice.

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The journey upriver to Mingun Island is wonderful as the weather is perfect, with a slight headwind, and we have the long tail boat to ourselves apart from one returning Monk. It’s a very picturesque working river with barges, rafts carrying logs and vegetables, colourful fishing boats and tourist boats all presenting a moving patchwork quilt on the silvery surface.

It’s beautiful but still very serious work for all the Burmese who make their living on the Irrawaddy.

We are apparently very lucky to see a couple of PSaw            ( Mandrakes ) on the river shore, and when the driver turned off the engine we were surrounded by dolphins jumping a few feet from the boat.

The next part of our journey on the Island is equally picturesque, as we’re pulled by two lovely white oxen to see the monastery of King Bodawpaya . It’s nice to see how kindly the driver is to make them go a little faster – – just a gentle prod on the tail with his hand and off goes the older one, with the young one obediently following his mother’s increased pace.

The monastery itself however is very disappointing although  we should of course have read up about it. I climbed the long flight of stairs to the entrance, only to discover that that was it ! Unfortunately in 1790 the King’s astrologer told him that if the temple were to be completed he would die, so he stopped it at the entrance. Burmese astrologers seem to have influenced many things in Burma, right to modern times with General Ne Win’s 90 kyat note.

Mingun monastery

Mingon unfinished temple 1

There were just the two of us plus Phyu Phyu and the two crew, on the journey back downstream. They’d set out a tablecloth on a little table with a cold beer, which I sipped as the deep red sun sank below the mountains to the west. The end of a perfect day.

Our arrival at the harbour was further enhanced, by enterprising but very young and small children physically pushing us both up the steep banking, making us feel a little like Gulliver and the Lilliputians. Necessity is the mother of invention, creating commercial awareness even in the very young, even on the banks of what to us is the beautiful Irrawaddy river.

Sadly however this effort ended in tears as they tore the 20 baht note in half trying to snatch it from my hands. I didn’t give them another one – life’s tough – perhaps they’ll learn to work more as a team.

Bagan is a small city in the Mandalay region of central Burma. In its heyday over a thousand years ago, it had reputedly between 50,000 and 200,000 inhabitants, but now just a few thousand live in old Bagan. There are over 2000 temples and pagodas remaining.

Yangon Airport: Umyo meets us at the Yangon hotel at 4.30 am. It’s dark and cold as we collect our breakfast boxes, but the doormen are still smiling broadly. Interestingly there’s no room check system, and I wonder how many guests just decide to pick up a box.
It’s still cold and dark, but our morning is brightened up before dawn, at the security check. Everything goes very quickly because liquids, metal, computers etc just go through the belt or as “carry on” with impunity ! Walking through the metal detector it beeps every single time, so the guy with the wand vaguely waves it left and right then points to the luggage belt – – – every time was the same – left, right, point ,- – – left, right, point, with the wand beeping cheerfully every time too !! Many others are in stitches with us, but the man just carries on like a dancer, without missing a beat ! We never really figure out the system at the gate. Every person has a round coloured sticker on their clothing ,and we just watch carefully and when others with the same colour move to the gate, we follow. We can’t tell what language the announcement is made in, as the loudspeaker is totally inaudible. A man walking around with a board, displaying the  current colour, seems to be the final sweeper. Bagan arrival day one: As the little prop ‘plane descends, the early morning mist is still hanging low over the ancient monuments dotted across the Bagan countryside. Dawn is just breaking, but there are  already four or five hot air balloons sailing low and serene over the archeological wonder dominating the landscape below us.

balloons over Bagan

Leaving the ‘plane we walk across a dusty courtyard, with a single magnificent multi coloured bougainvillea tree in the middle, and into a small square room with a sign “ luggages waiting “ The luggage cart is parked almost 100 yards away from us, but the smiling enthusiastic porters run backwards and forwards, bringing two or three cases each trip. Exiting into a large outside arrival hall, our names are written on a board held by a girl in traditional dress who asks our nationality and gives this information, together with ten dollars, to another girl who writes it down in a lined exercise book. ( all this is part of the inclusive tour price ) We’re then taken to meet our guide Jo Jo. Jo Jo  is around 50 with a gentle voice and a kind and studious expression,  wearing traditional dress and a colonial style hat. Jo Jo notes our names, but continues to address us as Sir and Madam throughout the trip. He’s been a guide most of his life, but except for the last year’s unprecedented boom, has always had to supplement his income with teaching as there haven’t been enough tourists, especially in the Summer. We should have read lonely planet, or at least done some research before visiting Bagan, but as we hadn’t the trip from the airport was pretty amazing “ look at that one “ “ there’s another one ! “ “Look at that big one over there !” Most of the buildings were built from the 9th to the 13th  century when Pagan, as it was then called, was a flourishing Buddhist area, and the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later constitute modern Myanmar. As there are no modern buildings at all on the journey, it seems like we’re in another world, and I feel a surge of excitement at the prospects for the next couple of days. Although there has been some criticism of the military government’s restoration attempts, most of the monuments look to be in an excellent state of preservation. The rural vehicles, apparently made in China many years ago, look and sound amazing. The noisy two stroke engine perches proud and totally uncovered ahead of the front wheels, and only goes a little faster than the many beautiful white oxen pulling carts laden with everything from water to sugar cane and schoolchildren. In-between what must have seemed to Jo Jo our naive exclamations, he tells us that his Grandad liked the colonial times, because they got good tins of tuna from the British army and also good Raleigh bicycles! The local market is our first visit. It’s a conglomeration of open corrugated iron roofs with a few sky lights, and tent fabric temporarily supported by bamboo poles. The narrow corridors of hard packed earth in-between the stalls are cool and dark, with a lovely earthy smell which mingles with the scent of flowers, vegetables, spices and local ” cigarettes ” which look and smell more like cigars and seem to be the favourite of older ladies. Local fabrics, wood carvings, lacquerware, meat  and fish all mingle together  in a very local and hassle free environment. Bargaining is expected but very gentle, and the prices so low compared to western equivalents we feel a little guilty. I still have in my wallet a five kyat note and remember there are 850 in one dollar. I purchase George Orwell’s “ Burmese Days “ for a dollar from an enterprising young lad and Sue buys two batteries’ worth of spices ( twenty  batteries is 1.8 kilo! ) We return down the  “ main street “ of Bagan which is truly picturesque, with little restaurants and shops crowded haphazardly on both sides. The street is a combination of hard packed earth and broken tarmac, with the proprietors sitting under trees or canopies, chatting together on the dusty sidewalks. We stop at a bike rental shop and I finally choose the seventh bike after quick test rides of each of them. All the others have buckled cranks, which is a shame as they are obviously quite new. The chains and other moving parts, have clearly never been cleaned or oiled since the bikes were new, but with Jo Jo’s help it becomes clear there is no concept of maintenance whatsoever. The proprietor is a smart looking man in his mid thirties, who also owns the adjoining shop and restaurant, so it’s amazing really that he doesn’t grasp this. My mind starts to spin a little as I think of the potential of educating SMEs in Burma. Patrick the Phd student we met in Bangkok, has already met with the Secretary General of the Myanmar Chamber of Commerce, and I plan to contact him about this idea soon. Taking a horse cart we catch the sunset for an evening drink, on the banks of the Irrawaddy river. The view is truly breathtaking,  watching the deep orange sun sink below the mountains on the opposite bank of the slowly meandering river below us. I am slowly beginning to appreciate how important the Irrawaddy valley is to the whole country.

sunset irrawaddy river Bagan

Bagan day two: I’m up bright and early and off on the bike, on the almost deserted road. I swam in the evening this time after the sun had warmed the pool a little ! It’s not difficult to imagine it’s a thousand years ago, as I park the bike and walk in eerie silence through the first few rusty red brick monuments, and white marble stupas. They’re all totally unique,  but each one has a Buddha statue up to ten feet tall, or sometimes four statues  in a square shape. I then see a huge one in the distance, and leaving the bike I climb a wall and walk across the intervening woods and scrubland. It’s the biggest deserted monument I’ve seen, and I have a truly awesome feeling as I walk through what was once the gated entrance, and look up to the imposing archway above, at the top of a long wide flight of stone steps. I don’t know why, but I tiptoe softly all the way up the stone steps. I’m even more awestruck and stare transfixed, when on reaching the arched entranceway, I am faced with a massive forty foot high Buddha staring impassively down at me. Woooosh – – – the big flapping wings beat the still morning air into a frenzy all around me, as they swoop close by me out of the entrance into the open air beyond. I feel like I’ve been knocked down although not a single wing actually touched me. It takes a few seconds to recover and look around to see the guano on the floor and up in the eaves high above. The Buddha however, although a little dusty, is quite clean. Perhaps the birds feel the same respect as I do. I’m beginning to learn the likely layout now, and am not too surprised to see three more massive Buddhas, on walking round the temple. Coming back to the original entrance, I spy a small narrow archway with very steep stone steps, and standing at the bottom look up to see a pinpoint of blue sky at the top. Walking carefully up these steps, which would certainly be roped off as dangerous in the West, I have to bend down to get through the exit at the top, and smile to myself thinking how tall  I would have been 1000 years ago. Stepping out onto a sort of battlements, I gaze over the parapet at a most astounding view of hundreds of other temples as far as the eye can see. Walking around I am astonished at the view from every angle, and will try to attach some of the photo’s soon. I’ve never bothered to take pictures anywhere but Myanmar has changed all that, perhaps for good. Walking rather carefully round the occasionally crumbling parapet, I come across more but smaller Buddhas casting their baleful eye on the Western intruder. Having done the full circle, at first I couldn’t find the steps back down, and the thought flashed through my mind that it was a medieval maze and I’d be stuck for ever !

and my photography too

“my  monument “

Buddha  in " my monument"  MUCH bigger than it looks

Buddha in ” my monument ” MUCH bigger than it looks

Steps to " my monument "

Steps to ” my monument “

I’m cycling back now ,and in a sort of reverie about the morning’s adventures. There’s a local guy in front going somewhat slower so I overtake him. “ Ayah! Ayah ! ” comes the shout from behind! I think I’ve had enough shocks for one morning, so the unexpected shout really makes me jump. I look back to where the loud shout came from and the guy is laughing his head off !! It’s a sort of local game it seems and we both laugh together at my shock. Language is not always a barrier. I wave him goodbye and go back for breakfast but I’ve missed it. Never mind it was worth it. My next cycling adventure is less dramatic, but really brings  home that there is truly another way to live. I cycle and walk ( sometimes the deep sand on the paths make the going only suitable for oxen )  through beautiful local villages, with no electricity and only oxen for transportation. I am welcomed into a little three level bamboo house, where I take pictures of living areas for seven family members and three dogs, no bigger than the average western kitchen. The bamboo floor and walls feel  like they’ll fall down easily, but I’m sure they won’t.

Bagan family of seven

Bagan family of seven

The children and the dogs are as calm as the oxen, munching contentedly in the garden, pictured below. IMG_0153

Bagan free water

Bagan free water

I’d forgotten my water bottle on this trip, so I stopped at one of the many water stations on the road side which are usually full. The water is kept in large clay jars, and stays remarkably cool – it tasted great.

Although we visited more commercial places like mt Popa and a number of lacquerware factories, my abiding thoughts of Bagan will forever be that there truly is another way to live. The Generals and their military dictatorship seem to have left this lifestyle largely untouched, in fact by some perverse logic they’ve helped to preserve it a little longer.

We had a great dinner in a local restaurant ” Ka Min Thit ” owned by Ko Htwe and his wife Ei Ei Mon. The food was great,but he suggested we pick up wine at the local mini mart a hundred yards away. Another opportunity for profit gone begging.