Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Myanmar: Bagan: 2 February 2007 (Written 20 March 2007)

Upon arrival to Nyaung U, I jumped in a trishaw and asked to be taken to a guesthouse from my book. The driver agreed but as soon as we were approaching town, asked me if he could take me somewhere else. I surrendered and soon after I arrived at my hotel. I checked in, and highly considered taking the morning easy and having a quiet, relaxing day. I took a hot shower, and found myself packing my daypack and putting sunblock on. I had thought about taking a horse cart around the ruins for the day since I was quite tired from all the previous days of travel, but declined the offers from the reception of the hotel as well as the first two men that approached me in the street. Then, a man with perfectly round, innocent, curious eyes came up to me and asked if I needed a horse cart. Before I could even respond, he rattled off a number of facts, his name was Kyaw Kyaw, that his cushions were very comfortable, that he was from Old Bagan and had lived in the area his whole life, that he knew a lot about the temples and could tell me all that I wanted to know, that we could go to very famous temples, we could go to quiet temples with no one else, that…

I immediately liked him and his enthusiasm and friendliness so we agreed on a price for the day. Within 5 minutes of meeting him, he told me more about himself than most people tell me in a week. He was 38 years old, had 6 kids, and his father died while he was in university so he couldn't finish. He had been a trishaw driver for 10 years and had been a horse cart driver for 4 years now. I settled into the neon pink Minnie Mouse cushions and nodded as he continued his autobiographical monologue.

Bagan. What a place. Admittedly, in photos I’d seen before visiting, I hadn’t been sure what to expect – it was clear that there were a great number of temples in the area, but in photos you don’t realize that you’re getting a tiny tiny view of it. Panoramics don’t capture the grandeur and detail in each temple, and close-ups don’t do justice to the scale of the place. There are more than 4400 temples in the 42 sq km area that makes up the Bagan Archaeological Zone. It’s difficult to form a mental idea of what that means.

I wasn’t sure what to make of it even in the first hours of being in the area. We stopped at various temples and pagodas, many made of commonplace red brick, and Kyaw Kyaw explained what they were and what king had built them…until we went to one that I asked to stop at, and asked him what it was called. He stopped the horse cart, turned around, and with an expression that was grim yet laughing even while frowning, he said “I dunno!” and burst out laughing. He said, “Sorry miss, too many temples in Bagan, sometimes no name, and we don’t know who made it. Too too too many temples!”

As we trotted down the Bagan – Nyaung U road, catching glimpses of such wonders as Ananda Pahto and Taibyunnin, he showed me plants on the side of the road that were being grown for a government biodiesel project.

“Miss, sorry if rude, are you married?”


“But miss, you are very beautiful.”


“I am married.”


“I got married when I was 19.”

“You have only one wife?”

“Oooh yes! With one, enough problems. If two, I think I have to sleep horse cart!”

His laughter sounded almost like choking, as he constantly was chewing betel quids and in his complete laughter he needed to make sure the red liquid didn’t fly out of his mouth. As we approached Old Bagan, he asked me if I could lend him 200 kyat – USD 0.15. I said ok, and asked what for – “Lottery.” I laughed and said we would share if he won. He picked 2 and 5, making sure I was ok with his selection. I nodded and we rode on.

When we got to Taibyunnin, he consulted other horse carts and found that the winning numbers were 0 and 7. “Sorry miss, next time!” Chuckle, chuckle, chuckle. Two girls ran out to me with postcards to sell. I refused, and they asked me if they could walk with me. I said of course, but I wasn’t going to give them any money. They shook their hands vigorously and said, “No, miss, no money!” and grinned. They spoke excellent English and we were able to have quite a good conversation. Dii Dii and Ni Lah were both 8 years old and lived nearby; everyday afterschool they came to sell postcards to tourists. We entered Taibyunnin and walked very quickly through the halls, and my brilliant guides told me, “Small Buddha, small Buddha, Big Buddha.” Repeat. There was one particularly jolly Buddha, probably about 8 or 9 meters high, and Dii Dii turned to me with a grin that made her eyes disappear and said, “Same same you.”

We finished walking around the temple and we sat outside, and I made them cranes. They said that they wanted to come with me around the temples. I said it was ok with me but they had to ask Kyaw Kyaw. They yelled with delight and ran barefoot to where Kyaw Kyaw was taking a nap, and woke him up, jumping on him. He agreed immediately and all of a sudden what had been a spacious, quiet horse cart pulling me along became a loud, crowded vehicle with 4 kids piled on top of me. As we plodded along, Kyaw Kyaw turned to the kids and held out his palm, saying “You, 1000. You, 1000. Each pay 1000.” This made all the kids giggle and shake both hands back and forth, arguing “Noooo!”

The kids pretended that we were a happy family, Kyaw Kyaw was father, I was mother, and they were brother, sister, brother, baby. They taught me “Shideh”; Burmese for “I already have” – so I could say this to their peers who would try and sell me postcards. We visited several sites together, including a large pagoda on the bank of the river, and after a few hours, they returned to Taibyunnin because they were expected to come home having sold some postcards.

After visiting Dhammangyi Pahto, the largest of the temples at Bagan, which resembles a Mayan ruin, I asked Kyaw Kyaw to take me to Shwe San Daw Paya, which is listed in every guidebook as being the best place for sunset. It was the most horrible vision of tourism I had seen thus far in Myanmar; large tour buses crammed with German and Italian tourists blocked the entranceway, postcard vendors followed people around with aggressive tones in their voices, and the serenity of the other temples was replaced with noise and chaos. I decided to check out the view nonetheless, and managed to reach the base of the pagoda with minimal struggle. I looked up, and found that of the five tiers of the pagoda, the top 2 were already filled with people that looked like part of a jigsaw puzzle, and the people on the third were already starting to resemble sardines. There was still at least an hour before sunset. I decided to go all the way to the top anyway, because I was alone and thought I might be able to find a space anyway. The vertical steps with barely enough room to place a foot on were decidedly scary, and the metal handrail was gripped tightly by many people. I did make it to the top, and found a space, but after a few minutes of being pushed around by other tourists and listening to a cacophony of loud European languages, and realizing that the sunset wasn’t going to be spectacular due to nearly complete cloud cover, I descended and ran to Kyaw Kyaw who was surprised to see me so early, since I had been talking about sunset all day. I told him too many people, he laughed his throaty chuckle, and we went back to Nyaung U. I was at the point of sheer exhaustion and decided to take a nap before going out to dinner; I didn't wake up again that night

Monday, March 26, 2007

Myanmar: Pakokku: 1 February 2007 (Written 20 March 2007)

As soon as I got off the bus at Pakokku, a very enthusiastic trishaw driver grabbed my bag from the busboy, and declared that I was headed to the only place to stay in town. We passed through blocks of dilapidated colonial buildings, the blue, green, and yellow-painted bricks crumbling with a sigh of age-old decadence. As I arrived, 76 year old Htin San, wearing a grey Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, greeted me with some hot tea. He explained to me that I would be sharing a room with a Japanese man, if both he and I agreed, because there were only 4 rooms at this hotel, and they were full. I agreed and quickly left to explore the town, since I would have just a few hours before dark and I would leave the next morning while it was still dark.

Just around the corner was a betel quid stand, where the parents were playing with a young girl, about 1.5 years old. The girl was playing with photos of herself, in fancy clothes that had been taken by a photographer, and when I came over to say hello, she started to hand me one photo. As I reached out to take it from her, she pulled it away playfully, voicelessly laughing at me. Everyone else, including myself, laughed, and she did it again. I took out a sheet of origami and did the same trick to her. The adults loved it, and we played for several minutes before I left her holding the crane, which her parents were struggling to retrieve from her so as not to crush it.

I visited a few pagodas; a monk who thought for a moment, counting in his head, before he said he was 40 years old, showed me around until some novice monks and children practicing chinlon invited me to play with them. I have horrible hand-eye coordination and my chinlon skills or lack thereof are appalling, but we all enjoyed the laugh. I then struggled to climb over the wall to get a better look at the pagoda we were in front of, while kids hopped over the wall, and we took some photos. The novice monks are often times the sons of extremely poor farmers who have suffered the most from the regime’s laws and taxation; due to their families’ impoverishment they are sent at disturbingly young ages, commonly from age 4 or 5, to go live in monasteries because that way at least they will be able to eat from collecting alms. These children lack human love and affection and I don't know if I’ve ever seen kids that excited to have their photo taken; they had never seen a camera before.

As I was attempting to capture these giggling children, a woman who was very beautiful despite wrinkles and hardened skin, and tough hands, came over to ask me to take her picture. I explained that I wouldn't be able to give her a copy since it was digital, and she understood, but she wanted me to take it so that I would remember my visit to Pakokku and remember her. I conceded. She gave me a bag of fresh popcorn that she was selling on the side of the road just outside the pagoda, and insisted that it was a present, so I would remember Pakokku. By this time, I was admittedly quite lost and 2 kids, a brother and sister aged 10 and 12, walked me back to the hotel, smiling and laughing the whole way.

As soon as I arrived back at the hotel, Htin announced that we would be eating together as soon as the Japanese man returned. The Japanese man told me humorously that he thought the reason we had waited for him was because in Myanmar if you eat with a local person, they expect that you will pay for the meal; in effect, Htin wanted a free meal but felt better taking it from the man. I laughed, since I hadn’t experienced anything like that thus far, and thought it was quite clever. When we arrived at the Chinese restaurant on the other side of town, indeed Htin instructed us to each order a dish and he simply asked for an empty plate. I had no problem with this as the portions were huge but it was amusing. I wasn't drinking beer but Htin asked the Japanese man if he could just have half a glass, which was greedily drunk until he ended up having at least a liter. The thing is, he did it so innocently and casually that you just had to laugh at this sweet old man who probably ate every day with tourists.

After dinner, I went to a teashop to sit and write a bit, then went early to bed since I would be taking a 6am boat to Nyaung U, and my trishaw would be waiting at 5.15am. I was woken up at 4am by the sound of lots of male voices in the street. I remembered passing the monastery earlier and there was what appeared to be a market in front of it. What was going on? I grabbed my torch and camera and headed downstairs. As I walked into the moonlit street, I could see shadows of men; hundreds of them. I went to the monastery and saw monks all around, in orderly rows carrying their black alms bowls, waiting to received food from the enormous steel pot placed on a table next to what I had thought to be a market. I found a man who spoke English, rather, he found me, and explained that it was the full moon so the monks got to take part in a lottery where everyone would receive something; new slippers, books, robes, alms bowls, towels, and various other such things. They were chattering away in the middle of the night, excitedly discussing what they wanted most from the items available.

I stayed until it was time to meet my trishaw driver, and as we winded through dark streets, we passed many monks as they headed to their respective monasteries to take part in whatever festivities were taking place. I arrived at the ferry landing and walked down the hill in the dark to board the ferry. The boat to Nyaung U was very very cold, and I wrapped myself in practically every article of clothing I had brought to Myanmar and managed to get some sleep.

Myanmar: Monywa to Pakokku: 1 February 2007 (Written 19 March 2007)

When I woke up on the 1st, something felt different. I couldn't tell what it was. I still intended to leave that morning to head westwards towards Bagan, so I went to the roof to have my breakfast. All of a sudden it became very windy, and napkins, salt and pepper shakers, and the plastic flowers that were giving the dull wooden tables a bit of color went flying everywhere. Rain came unexpectedly in huge water droplets that were carried sideways by the wind. It was my first time seeing rain since I had arrived in Southeast Asia, and all the staff were also surprised, as it was the middle of the dry season for this anomalous rainfall to take place.

I ate my meal and went downstairs to chat with the owner about the buses headed to Pakokku; the previous day the young man at the front desk had told me that there would be a bus at 8.30am, and another at 12.30pm. I was actually concerned that with this thunderstorm my chances of travel might be affected, but when I asked I found out something entirely different. The man told me that due to the fact that it was a full moon, it was a holiday and there would be only one bus today – at 12.30pm. But, he insisted, there would be a steady stream of pick-ups headed that way. He said it would be less comfortable but I could pay a bit extra to sit in the front seat and then my bum wouldn't hurt as much. I decided to try my luck at the station and went with a trishaw who seemed totally unfazed by the rain.

On the way to the station, we passed what appeared to be a wedding; a corner of the street was decorated with bright pink, yellow, and orange ribbon and fancily-dressed people spilled out into the streets with fresh flowers and confetti. I almost stopped the driver so I could have a look but didn't want to ruin my chances of catching the 8.30am bus if it actually existed. We just crossed paths with a pick-up headed towards Pakokku as we were turning into the station, which had by now deteriorated into a maze of puddles in the dirt road so the trishaws were carefully navigating and skillfully avoiding splashing themselves and their passengers. The pick-up was very full, and the driver told my trishaw driver that it would be better for me to take the 8.30am bus to Pakokku. So it existed! We walked to the ticket stand, where they informed us that due to the full moon the only bus was indeed at 12.30pm. I stood silently for a moment, contemplating the fact that my only source of transport for the next several hours had just left minutes before me. The situation being what it was, I decided to buy my ticket and then wondered what I should do.

I decided I wanted to have a look at the wedding; had no clue how to communicate this so I said ‘pwe’ – festival – which I had been to the previous day so I knew the word very well. They said there was no pwe, so I consulted my phrasebook and was relieved to find ‘mingala s’aun’ – wedding – and they discussed what I meant. They explained to my trishaw driver where there was indeed a mingala s’aun, and after leaving my bags in their care, I was once again on a trishaw in the rain. I realized how absurd this was, for me, dressed in extremely informal clothing to turn up at a wedding with very minimal language skills, and considered asking the driver to take me back to the station, just as he stopped pedaling. We were at a completely different place than where I had seen what I thought to be a wedding, but here as well there were elegantly dressed men, women, and children. I asked nervously if I could just have a quick look, and the flower girls and doormen indicated with their hands and smiles that I was welcome.

I entered the large hall, and tried my very best to be inconspicuous and hid behind a large white column. Just as I felt I had seen what a wedding in Myanmar was like and I could slip away unnoticed, a gentle but firm hand held my elbow from behind me. I turned my head and looked into the eyes of one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. She pointed to herself and said, “Grandmother,” in English, and indicated that I should take her hand and follow her. She had perfect posture, a neat bun perfectly tied on top of her head, and an exquisite tamein with unparalleled detail and intricacy. She walked with her head high, and commanded the attention of everyone we passed, who either smiled and called out to her or bowed their heads with respect.

600 8216She had me sit at an empty table and turned to call her grandson to come and keep me company. Jyou Zu Win, this 9 year old beautiful boy, was ready to befriend me and escort me without any reluctance or hesitation. He and his brother, sister, and friends urged me incessantly to eat samosas, chocolate cake, and drink guiltily sweet tea. I luckily had some origami with me and as soon as I took out the colored sheets of paper, a crowd of children formed around me. I was happy to be distracted with the children and we started writing our names in Burmese and English and Japanese and drawing pictures and doing all the lovely things that people do when the only common language is smiles and laughter.

I looked up as a photographer and videographer told me to look at them, as the bride and groom came to stand behind me. They were going around the room, taking photographs with all the guests who had attended, and had arrived at the table I was seated at. For an instant they thought that I was the friend of the other; until they realized that I was not from Myanmar and they both started laughing, pleased that they had a completely random attendee on their special day. My flock of children stayed with me even when I went to the bathroom; one boy was instructed, by his peers, to guard my bag, and the others held my hands and skipped along to show me where it was and waited outside – if I hadn’t stopped them, they may have come in with me.

Time flew by and at about 10.45am, I decided I should probably make my way back to the station since I wanted to walk back and had no idea where I was. Until then, the young men, all friends of the groom, had been watching me discreetly but without even offering any glimpse of acknowledgement. All of a sudden, they broke into disarming smiles, stood up to shake my hand, and walked with me to the exit to send me off into the rainy day. I told them that I needed a few more minutes, because as I was saying goodbye to everyone who had come into my life so quickly and would leave so quickly, but stay forever, I realized that Grandmother wasn’t there. I asked Jyou Zu Win to go and find her and he flashed me a smile full of dimples as he raced off, nearly knocking people over to go find her. She came, held my hand and took me outside in the rain. There was a chorus of “Dada!” “See you again!” “Cezubeh!” and “Sayonara!”

As I walked to the bus station in the rain, every single person I made eye contact with smiled or waved. Although the streets were much less crowded than usual due to both the full moon and the rain, there was a peppering of trishaws with mushroom umbrellas in primary colors, pedaling while keeping themselves and their passengers dry. I arrived at the station thoroughly drenched, and as soon as I sat down a very outgoing man wearing a red flannel shirt and bright green longyi came to chat. He asked me to write his name in Japan-zaga (Japanese), which I did. As soon as this was done, several men jumped up to rush over and tell me their names so they could see them written in Japanese as well.

The man selling tickets, Ko Myo, was particularly interested in conversing with me; he wrote the few words he knew in English on a sheet of paper, and since he knew “Arigato,” I decided to teach him a few more words. I only wrote down a few words, transliterating them so he could read them, but he kept studying it and repeating the words to himself under his breath, and looking mildly irritated every time someone came to buy a ticket and interrupted his lesson. Construction workers, happy to have a break from work because of the rain, came to leaf through my phrasebooks, and a tanakha vendor beckoned me over to say “Kirei” (beautiful in Japanese) and did my make-up for me. It struck me that even when I was trying to escape for a few moments to be alone to reflect on the land I was in and let it soak in, I couldn't escape their smiles, humor and warmth, which could be found in every corner, often at the least expected places.

Finally I was on the bus, and Ko Myo kept repeating “See you again” with such solemnity and determination that it was almost as if by willing it to come true, it would. The men stayed waving their hands until we had turned out of the station and could no longer see each other. Just down the road, we stopped for petrol. Descending and waiting, there was a young girl selling fruit that was something like an apple, green, but smaller, and more resembling a plum in shape as well as the stone inside. We waited what seemed an abnormally long time for our bus stacked with bananas and bicycles on the roof, until it finally came to let us all climb back on board. We encountered almost no traffic on this journey through lush green fields, hurtling westwards to Pakokku.

Myanmar: Monywa: 31 January 2007 (Written 18 March 2007)

Alas, the time for me to part with Pascal and Ricard had arrived. On the morning of 31 January, I said goodbye to the friendly staff and loaded up a trishaw. When I told my trishaw I wanted to go to the bus station to go to Monywa, he was surprised and smiled broadly. “Me Monywa, my family Monywa,” he told me proudly. I had read in both books and internet forums that Monywa was a gem of a place, rarely visited by tourists because it was just a little bit too far from Mandalay, but had some spectacular sights nearby.

As the trishaw was arriving at the station, my driver starting to drip with sweat as the heat becomes unbearable even at half past eight in the morning, an old white battered bus pulled out of the parking lot, the assistant standing on the door opening, yelling out “Monywa Monywa Monywa.” My trishaw driver motioned to him that I was headed that way, and we quickly unloaded my bags and I jumped on the bus. The seats were so close to each other that there was no way anyone above the age of 8, Burmese or not, could put their legs in the space in front of where they were seated. What this meant was that the floor was stacked high with nylon bags filled with clothes, vegetables, mechanical parts, and presumably many other things that I couldn't see; all the products that would be necessary to transport to Monywa from Mandalay.

I was the only foreigner on the bus, and there was a very old man seated behind me with spectacles so thick they looked like they were weighing him down, and when you looked into this eyes they were comically magnified by the thick plastic lenses. He had a bad cough and was surprised and delighted when I offered him a throat lozenge. From that moment, every passenger on the bus decided I was ok, probably because his incessant noisy coughing stopped.

About two hours into the journey, most of which I had slept through, we stopped at a restaurant along the highway, where a dozen girls and women with carefully balanced trays of bananas, rice cakes, and roasted peanuts rushed out and announced with deep loudspeaker-like voices what wares they were offering. One young girl, who was probably 8 years old, kept waving to me and grinning.

We pulled back onto the main road and chugged along down the road, and arrived in Monywa at about noon. When the assistant wanted to find out where in town I would like to be dropped off, all of a sudden 5 men crowded around, ready to offer their insight to make sure we were communicating correctly. I told them the name of the hotel I would like to stay at and there was a flurry of discussion, which sounded like shouting, and before I knew what was happening they had lifted my bag out of the enormous pile and told me to get off the bus. Had I been in any other country I would have doubts and wondered if I was being deposited somewhere I didn't want to be, but the look of reassurance in the assistant as he stepped down first with my bag told me that I was ok. I descended, and this young man who I knew had been watching me protectively for the entire journey without ever speaking to me until then, held his hand out shyly and said “Than-choo.” The Burmese language pronunciation of the letters k and y together, as in ky, is ch, hence “Thank you” becomes “Than-choo.” We shook hands and even as this exchange was happening in a matter of seconds, an entrepreneurial trishaw driver came running, scooped my bag up and went running off. I decided I had better follow the man with my luggage, and trotted behind. He took me the short distance to my hotel and I checked in.

I opted to take a moto-taxi around for the day, since I had a very short amount of time, and the sights were scattered over a large distance, with very little public transport. I went immediately to Thanbbodhay Paya, which has over half a million Buddha images. I can only describe it as a cacophony of colors, with orange, pink, yellow, and everything in between scattered about with gold and silver tiled, Buddhas looking at you from all sides and angles, from the size of your fingertip to ones that tower over you. It was extremely disorienting to walk through the rows and rows of these statues. There were several pools, almost empty, with women seated around them with flowers to use as offerings, who all smiled and greeted me. Despite the size, scale, and remarkable craftsmanship of the place, I saw only 2 foreign tourists, whereas at Mandalay Hill I saw at least 25.

We continued on the dirt road, and from miles away, the standing and reclining Buddhas next to Aung Setkya Paya beckoned. The reclining Buddha is 90m long, and the standing one which was completed in 2006 stands 130m tall. They are both dressed in golden robes and their white faces with red lips are smiling, looking extremely serene and peaceful. Aung Setkya Paya located just next to them stands 60m tall, with glittering mirror tiles encircling its golden dome with tinkling bells forever creating music for pilgrims who have made the considerable effort to reach this wonder.

As we approached the complex on the straight dusty dirt road affording spectacular views, I realized that there was the sound of frantic drumming, and there were more people than usual, who were dressed in fancier clothes than usual, even considering that many Burmese are frequently paying respects to religious sites around the country, often wearing their best clothes because there are always amateur photographers at the sites who earn their living by providing these pilgrims with family photos that then adorn their simple homes, a memoir of their hard-earned trip to visit the holy sites in their country.

I looked around to see what the cause of this excitement could be, and was told by the driver, paya pwe; pagoda festival. Thousands of pagodas and temples around Myanmar have festivals several times a year, usually coinciding with the full moon; many of these festivals happen from January to March, before the Burmese New Year in April. Just my luck! I was one of very very few tourists to witness a village pagoda festival!

We passed by the festival, and I craned my neck to get a view of what was happening. There was a tall thick bamboo stick erected in the dirt, towering 20-30m above the ground, where young boys were hoisting themselves upward. To the left, there was a chinlon match taking place, with instruments next to them, and there were dozens of nuns and monks, and food vendors with rice cakes and fruit and drinks. I couldn't wait to get back.

We parked the moto-taxi at the base of a long covered walkway up to Aung Setkya Paya, and I walked slowly up the path with tanakha vendors on either side, along with a few others selling memorabilia of the site. I took off my shoes at the base of the pagoda, and after spending a moment in front of the Buddha image, climbed the pagoda via an unlit tunnel going through the actual dome, the stone that never sees the sun cool on my bare feet. Emerging into the open sky, there are breathtaking views as you walk along the rim of this enormous pagoda, and you alternate between views of the surrounding plain, with lush greenery, and then the imposing Buddhas just nearby.

I decided to go back to the base of the hill, and a few girls selling tanakha with big smiles asked me if I wanted to buy the tanakha. I declined, since carrying around a piece of tree bark would add more bulk than I could afford at the moment, but they beckoned me to come over and so I did. One girl took a piece of the wood and started grinding it against a round base, also made of wood. With some water placed on the base, a mustard colored liquid was oozing out of the bark. She asked me if she could do my make-up, and I was greeted with much laughter as I surrendered. She carefully covered my whole face first, including my forehead and chin; after all, tanakha is used as sunblock in this country that has constant rays. Then, she used a very fine-whiskered brush to apply more liquid on my cheeks, and used her fingertips to decorate my nose. I was surprised to notice how fragrant the liquid was; how wonderful to have sunblock, make-up, and perfume all in one!

We all went out from the shaded marketplace so we could take photos; they all insisted that with my tanakha on, I looked like a genuine Myanmar lady. As I left them, my walk down the rest of the vending area was completely different than the way up; everywhere I looked people were smiling and laughing at the ridiculous sight of a tourist with a huge camera walking around with golden tanakha on every inch of my face. I was all set to go to the pwe.

It’s impossible to fully describe the energy there; the Burmese on a daily basis are very calm, quiet, reserved, shy, and almost serious. At their festivals, the reverse is true. There were young and old, men and women, grandparents holding their tiny ones, cheering excitedly, kids jumping up and down, others shaking their heads in disbelief at the spectacles they were witnessing, others covering their faces, unable to watch is the climbers would fall.

The bamboo stick, when I first arrived, had young boys standing on each others’ shoulders to progressively work towards reaching the top. At the top of the pole was a metal ring with envelopes hanging off of it; each of these envelopes contained a cash prize and the goal was to grab one off. The boys had their longyis tucked in behind them so they looked much like sumo wrestlers would dress in Japan; their faces were scrunched up in determination and pain as they had the weight of 2, 3, or 4 of their peers on their shoulders. One older man was clearly the coach and kept yelling at them, which the boys would respond with newfound energy and determination to climb ever higher.

I moved to the chinlon area, and when the organizers realized that I was a tourist, and I wanted to take photos, they quickly ushered spectators out of the way so that I could have an unobstructed view of the players. By this stage, many children were curious about this strange person wearing trousers (I maybe saw 5 women not wearing tameins or longyis in 3 weeks in Myanmar) who was walking around with a metal black object pointed at people, so I started photographing them and showing them their photos on my screen, and inadvertently I became more entertaining than the talented young men performing all around us. I soon had a trail of kids following in my footsteps, and this continued until my moto-taxi driver said it was time to head back to Monywa.

Even as I got into the back cabin of the motorcycle, I knew I wasn’t ready to leave. I knew that I was being irrational, that it was well over 20km to Monywa on a road that was rocky and dusty for most of the way, with very little motor vehicle traffic, whether it be truck, bus, car, or motorcycle, but I wanted to stay at the festival. After 10 minutes in the motorcycle, I told him I wanted to go back. He wanted me to pay him double our agreed price so he could go back to Monywa and come back later that evening, but I told him I thought I would be ok. I was doubtful as to how much of a chance I had getting back, because there wasn’t public transport, but I decided to try my luck.

I had a quick lunch outside, and walked back into the energy. There was a traditional elephant dance costume being set up next to the chinlon arena, a beautiful piece of work with a black body carefully embroidered with bright pink, blue, and yellow fabric. At the chinlon arena, there was now a young girl wearing very shiny multi-colored clothing performing, using hula hoops as props to demonstrate her agility and flexibility. Sweat dripped from her face, forming puddles on the ground below.

I walked back to the bamboo pole, and a man, with grey hairs starting to make their presence known on his head, asked, “Japan?” and when I nodded, held out his right hand, using his left hand to touch his right elbow, grinned at me showing his betel-stained red teeth, and we shook hands. He bellowed, “Konnichiwa!” Everyone who was watching us giggled. He then told me to come up and sit with the announcer, and I obliged. All around me were children; kids with tanakha, poor kids dressed in rags with no shoes, nuns, monks, they were all the same; beautiful, lovely children of Myanmar. The instruments arrived then, with 4 men who kneeled, squatted, or sat cross-legged on the dirt and whose forearms bulged with their deft fingers and hands producing vibrant, dynamic music.

The announcer was a young man in his twenties with especially red lips and teeth, who whenever the camera was pointed anywhere near him, would self-consciously close his mouth as he was embarrassed of his betel-stained teeth. He had a bright yellow T-shirt on, and held the microphone close as he yelled out what was going on in the sky above with the brave young men.

At 5 o’clock 2 boys in red plaid uniforms – apparently the highlight of the show – came to the pole and the space around was quickly cleared. The older man who had first approached me to join them conducted a prayer ceremony to the nats, spirits from Burma’s original religion, asking for protection for the boys who were about to attempt perilous, impressive feats. And they were splendid.

Whereas other boys and men had struggled to move upwards, these two went up so quickly and made it look so effortless. They progressed to do more difficult things, spinning plates, waving flags, hanging upside down and descending the pole upside down without using their hands. I was so captivated by the show that I stopped taking photos, holding my breath when a particularly precarious event was taking place.

When the boys finished, I shook hands with all the competitors, announcer, and musicians, and moved to take a look at the elephant dance. There were two men underneath the elephant costume, moving with flawless synchronization to the drums and bells to make their creature come to life. It was dark by this time, and the many military men who had appeared by then began to eye me suspiciously because there was no obvious form of transport that I would be leaving on. Sad as I was to admit it, it was time to begin attempting to get back to Monywa, especially because nights get cold and I had only the clothes I had on in the very hot afternoon.

I managed to find a horse cart driver who agreed to take me to Thanboddhay village, 4km away. As we made our way in the dark, many bicycles and motorcycles, as well as jam-packed pickups headed towards the pwe. There were also numerous villagers making their way on foot. There were no lights in the street, and the only sound you could hear was the distant drumming and shouting, and the constant clicking and clacking of the horse’s hoofs and the wooden cart bouncing up and down.

We arrived at Thanboddhay junction just as a Monywa-bound bus was impatiently letting off passengers and my driver yelled out to the bus, but they either didn’t hear him or ignored him and continued down the pavement. He assured me not to worry and we left the horse to cross the road where there was a small house. He spoke quickly to a girl there, who told me her name was Dai Dai, and from what I understood he had asked her to take care of me, to make sure I made it safely to Monywa, and he would now go home to his family. Dai Dai had finished technical college for electronics and was 22 years old. She eagerly found an English phrasebook and her mother, aunts, and sisters all came out to see who this visitor was.

Myanmar has an impressive culture of a love for reading and literature, and at every bus station, in the smallest villages, and everywhere you look, there are books and magazines, often held together by tape and still falling apart, struggling until the print has faded and become illegible or the binding adamantly refuses to stay together despite any help that has been offered. I often saw English phrasebooks whilst traveling around Myanmar, and when I flipped through them I always found, much to my amusement, that they taught words and phrases that would serve no real purpose other than to make conversation with the opposite sex, give compliments, and try to put you in a favorable position with your peer. Dai Dai’s book was no different, and she pointed to phrases such as “You’re so beautiful,” “Quite charming,” “Would you like to go out tonight?” and many others along these lines.

The ladies told me I looked like a Myanmar girl with my tanakha, and proceeded to pinch and squeeze me; my cheeks, my arms, all the way up to my elbows, my fingers, fingertips, and palms, feeling how smooth they were. I felt like a farm animal being evaluated for how ready I was for cooking. They chuckled gleefully as Dai Dai told me I was very fat – the best compliment you can give to a woman in Myanmar. I made origami cranes for the sisters, as Dai Dai’s father emerged from the home, a stoic handsome man who had wrinkles so deeply engraved in his face that any sculptor would dream having him as a subject. He immediately told me “You. Sleep here. No pay. Tomorrow Monywa.” I explained that I had to go to Pakokku tomorrow, and that my bag was in Monywa, but I was truly grateful for his offer. Another reason I refused was because I knew that the laws against having people stay in your house are growing continually stricter; no foreigners can stay in the home of a local, and there are routine checks at homes to make sure only the people that are on the official register of a residence are staying there. Punishments range from small fines to imprisonment.

While all this charming conversation was taking place, it was growing ever later and colder, and I began to doubt that there would be a bus passing that could take me to Monywa. We debated this for awhile and finally agreed that I would return to Monywa on the father’s motorcycle. He went and got a wool hat and off we went in the greezing night. Everyone waved goodbye and Dai Dai hugged me, declaring “See you again” as she held my hand. I looked at the millions of stars in the perfect night sky as we raced along the asphalt. We arrived in Monywa and I paid the father for the petrol and he took my right hand in both of his hands before we separated. He made sure I was safely in the hotel, waved and flashed his white smile, so bright in comparison to all his black and navy blue clothes, as well as his dark sun-hardened skin.

After this seemingly endless day, with so much emotional and physical intensity, I was ready to go to sleep and have no stimulation whatsoever. However, I knew that if I didn't eat anything, I would awake in the middle of the night. So, I headed out once again. I walked quickly around the Shwe Eigon Paya barefoot, then passed by a restaurant very close to my hotel. The tables were filled with local people and I decided to go in. I realized, though, that I didn't want a full meal, and what I was really craving was fruit. I saw that many of the tables had plates of papaya on them, and decided that I would just go in and have some fruit.

As I stood by the entrance, a beautiful girl in her twenties with pigtails and dainty glasses walked over and said rice, and pointed at various curries in pots, indicating that I could choose between lentils, chicken, prawns, and other tasty options. I said Fruit, Papaya, Dessert, none of which she understood. So I pointed to the other table, and then she understood. I sat down and ordered a bottle of water, and instantly a pile of juicy orange papaya appeared in front of me, which I consumed rapidly. I asked how much, and she said, “Sister, Free eat.” Apparently the papaya was free for everyone, as dessert, but I told her no, I would pay, since I hadn’t eaten anything. She insisted, and said I could pay for the water (of course!) and we were both shaking our heads and smiling and arguing. She sat down and in broken English began telling me about herself. A student at technical college, which takes 6 years, she enjoyed English classes. She kept telling me to come back next year to Monywa, that she would be waiting. I stayed with her for an hour, as we wrote each other’s names in Burmese, Japanese, and English, we made cranes and other origami, and she gave me her photo.

I left as the restaurant was closing and fell asleep immediately. What a day.

Myanmar: Mandalay: 30 January 2007 (Written 14 March 2007)

Opening my drowsy eyes, my body and mind said, just go back to sleep, you don’t have to get up, there’s no need. But I had already decided, long before, that I wanted to go see the Moustache Brothers perform.

I walked through the twilight streets, busy with a final burst of energy before closing for the night, to dine at the chapatti stand again. Although I had only been there once before, many staff smiled in recognition and asked where my friends were. I lingered, watching young couples sharing generous meals, old men drinking tea while speaking with very thoughtful expressions, longyis carefully tucked under them so they wouldn't touch the ground or be indecent.

I joined a trishaw driver who was painfully thin but had a brilliant white smile, and we glided through the roads, as he pointed out good restaurants, pagodas and monasteries, and said to me “Life in Myanmar no good. Moustache Brothers good. Life hard. Life difficult.”

I was very early when I arrived at the small, dark building where the famous brothers live. The Moustache Brothers are an A-Nyeint troupe, traditional Burmese theater. A-Nyeint uses a combination of comedy, dancing, puppets and intricately crafted marionettes to provide all-night entertainment at festivals, weddings, and any other parties that may happen in Myanmar. In addition, A-Nyeint troupes are traditionally forums for political comic critiques, where performers can make fun of governments, politicians, and the problems of society. The Moustache Brothers are Lu Maw, Lu Zaw, and Par Par Lay. They were well-respected and loved for decades throughout Myanmar. In 1995, Lu Zaw and Par Par Lay attended a festival in Yangon at Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, and despite knowing the possible consequences of criticizing the government, they performed in front of a crowd of thousands and ridiculed, mocked, and criticized to their hearts’ content. Aung San Suu Kyi wrote about this event in Letters from Burma and comments how their spirits remained high before returning to Mandalay even though they knew they would probably be put in jail.

And this is indeed what happened. And rather than going to jail, they were sent deep into the jungles of Northern Burma to work alongside hardened criminals, building roads whilst being chained down. Thanks to international pressure from human rights groups such as Amnesty International, as well as well-known comedians such as Bill Maher, Par Par Lay’s sentence was reduced to 5 years instead of the 7 he was assigned, but Lu Zaw was indeed kept until 2001. Lu Zaw was maimed during his sentence and will never recover fully from his injuries.

I had come early because I knew that the small performance room would fill with tourists, and I knew that we could stay and chat after, but I wanted to, if possible, have a bit of time with the performers alone, before the people arrived. The show is every night at 8.30pm, and I had arrived just after 7pm. Lu Maw, the brother who wasn’t imprisoned, and the one that speaks the best English since he has had the most interaction due to the fact that he was receiving a lot of foreign visitors when his relatives were held captive, indeed has a large moustache and a giant smile. His whole body shakes when he laughs, and although he is aging, his eyes remain young and jovial. He welcomed me, offered me tea and a cigar, and showed me stacks of international magazines in which articles about the Moustache Brothers have been published, as well as a photo album full of pictures from when Aung San Suu Kyi visited their house in 2002 during a brief period of time when she was not under house arrest.

He left me, but returned a few minutes later carrying a magazine of his own, and asked with not a glimmer of hesitation, “Clive Owen. Is it clee-vay or clai-vee?” I answered with the correct pronunciation and he clapped his hands in delight. Realizing that I didn't mind answering his questions, he asked how to pronounce strategy, maneuver, red herring, and the correct usage of several idioms. As we were discussing and repeating words and phrases, a man entered the room and came to shake my hand. For every bit that Lu Maw was smiling, energetic, and enthusiastic, this man seemed depressed, disturbed, and somehow haunted. He was Lu Zaw. I am not sure if this was due to any particular circumstance, whether he was not feeling well that day or something was on his mind, but I had a deeply unsettling feeling with him.

I continued chatting with Lu Maw, and I was glad for the opportunity to ask very directly some of the millions of questions that had been firing inside my mind for days. He told me that the military used to attend every night, watching the performers and audience, but now it was ok. He explained a bit of the history of Myanmar, which I luckily knew most of, but he elaborated about the crisis in 1987, when the government devalued all the currency overnight and printed new money in different denominations, declaring that all paper money was now worthless. This event led to a huge number of changes within Burma, of which I believe two are most noteworthy.

The first was that out of the sheer desperation of literally having no money, many young women ran away to Thailand to work as prostitutes. Either having earned enough to come back or kicked out of Thailand for having diseases, many of these women returned to Myanmar with HIV. Under the current regime, HIV is not recognized as being a problem in Myanmar, and like in any situation when a growing problem is denied, there is no preventative measure being taken, and it is scary to think of how quickly this disease is spreading through the population. There are very few facilities that offer testing, and many are not even aware that they could potentially carry the virus, so there is no accurate way of knowing how many are infected at the moment.

The second was that the currency de-valuation led to widespread discontent among the population. They had already withstood over 20 years of corruption, impoverishment and unfair treatment, but for many, this was the last straw. Student groups, now with support from the sangha, the religious schools, as well as older people, began to organize with unprecedented fervor, and this culminated in the countrywide protests which took place on 8 August 1988. It was after this attempted revolution was crushed that the military, even more than before, persecuted those that spoke out in any way against the regime.

By this point, other guests were filing in. Some were clearly backpackers, dressed in outdoors gear and hiking boots, while others were at the other end of the scale, high heels, jewelry, and perfume. A mostly European crowd settled into the bright red and blue plastic chairs that were arranged around the small stage with the lonely microphone held together by duct tape.

The show began, and we watched an hour of dancing in many different costumes, listened to Lu Maw make jokes about how the tsunami didn’t have to do any damage to Myanmar because the government had already done more damage than even the tsunami could do, and watched a video clip of the film about a boy with Hugh Grant, where a reference to Par Par Lay’s imprisonment is made.

Lu Maw’s wife, who he repeatedly informed us had been the cover girl for Lonely Planet Myanmar in 1996 in Italian, showed us dance moves from a book and despite her age, she moved with such agility and flexibility that none were left unimpressed. Par Par Lay’s impersonations of dances from different countries, such as Thailand, China, and India, finishing with the Burmese government dance, in which he was dressed as a thief and tried to take my camera just as I was about to take his picture, was greeted with much laughter.

At the culmination of the show, they sold DVD’s of their show, T-shirts, and hand-crafted marionettes and the flock of tourists gathered around. I chatted briefly with Lu Maw and his daughter, and rode on the same trishaw back to my hotel.

Some members of the audience had difficulty understanding Lu Maw’s heavily accented English, while others continuously laughed for the whole show. I was somewhere in between; I enjoyed some of the jokes, but I came away with a deep sense of unease. There was something in the aura of Lu Zaw that made me feel disturbed; watching the wives and siblings of the Moustache Brothers performing alongside them, aging performers with no other chance to make money, I was thoroughly confused by the whole spectacle. Why does the government allow this to happen? Lu Maw told me that he thought it was because tourists bring money, the government wants to keep tourists happy, so they don’t bother them. I agreed, but I somehow felt like maybe by allowing this one tiny voice of dissent to persist, the government could keep all tourists going just to this one venue in Mandalay and not encourage other dissidents around the country. And I felt disgust and pity for the situation that this family was placed in, having to perform the same show night after night for rich foreigners, many of whom don’t know who ASSK is, or what the real living conditions in Myanmar are.

There is no doubt though, that I have a deep respect for these people who voiced their true opinions and beliefs in the face of a brutal regime, knowing what the consequences would be, and even after suffering for years, continuing to speak out. Maybe their small voices are drowned out, and the precious few who do see the show may go back to the countries they are from and forget these moustached men before long, but they are still continuing their life’s work, and for this they deserve admiration and support.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Myanmar: Mingun/Sagaing: 30 January 2007 (Written 13 March 2007)

Many visitors stay in Mandalay for the primary purpose of being able to visit the four ancient cities nearby: Amarapura, Inwa, Sagaing, and Mingun.

Amarapura is most known for its teak bridge, being the longest in the world at over 1.2km, Inwa is an ancient city on an island, Sagaing has dozens of monasteries and pagodas scattered through its peaceful lanes, and Mingun has a beautiful unfinished pagoda which is 40m high, even whilst being only a third of its intended size. Both Amarapura and Inwa are included on the US$10 government ticket for Mandalay, which I was doing my best not to have to pay, so I opted to visit Mingun and Sagaing instead.

On the 30th, we awoke early and found, as one often does, that the one time we were looking for a taxi, we couldn’t find one. Whereas other mornings we would be approached by twenty taxis when we were just trying to take a stroll somewhere, the one day we really wanted a blue taxi, all we could find were trishaws and buses. We did find a trishaw driver who spoke some English and was determined for us to find his taxi driver friend. We followed the trishaw down a complicated array of twists and turns and did find his friend, who was seated in his old blue taxi, with the door open, legs hanging out, chewing heartily on a betel quid, red liquid oozing around his teeth. We quickly negotiated and off we went.

The early morning ride through Mandalay was fantastic; the soft golden light on hundreds of monks and nuns parading barefoot with their alms bowls, the trishaws still enjoying the cool morning air before the stifling heat of the high sun, and the city coming to life gave a sense of a land frozen in time. The road quickly deteriorated, and clouds of dust were blown into our faces as we passed through. The view of Sagaing Hill from across the river, with countless golden peaks jutting out of the lush green landscape was remarkable. Continuing on, we passed through the old dusty roads of Sagaing, winding up and down hills, with our trusty blue taxi stalling and choking at times, before arriving safely in Mingun.

Most visitors to Mingun take a government boat from Mandalay, which we had chosen not to do, and having arrived earlier than the boat, we were alone. Mingun Paya is certainly awe-inspiring, a white arch surrounded by perfectly arranged brick walls towering above. Its location on the bank of the river undoubtedly contributes to its ambiance as well.

I had actually started not feeling well, probably the cold nights in buses and Inle, and just overall exhaustion from the previous month’s travel through Cambodia and Laos, so I skipped the other sights in Mingun and we proceeded to Sagaing Hill. Seemingly interminable stairs through pagodas and statues led to the top, with fantastic views, and a beautiful colorful temple. As I circumambulated, a painter caught my eye, with lovely watercolors of countryside images, with monks and nuns amidst villagers in serene landscapes. He was a very shy man, and obviously passionate about his work. He was also a land-mine victim, with no arms, and painted with his mouth. I don’t know what specifically happened at the moment as I walked away from him with a painting in my hand, but I crumpled in defeat and the tears came. I think the combination of exhaustion, and the multitude of emotions I had been experiencing throughout the past week just brought me to a breaking point, which happened at that specific point in time. As I struggled to breathe regularly and not be obvious about my crying, a woman selling tanakha looked at me and she smiled, and her smile said a thousand words without even opening her mouth. It was such a sad look of understanding in her eyes, with an expression that told me, don’t worry, it’s ok, even when it’s not, and there was even a sense of gratitude in some way, or perhaps I imagined it.

I decided to go back down before Ricard and Pascal so I could gather myself, and as I slowly went down the stairs, two young girls came and linked arms with me, smiling, without saying a word. They took me to a pagoda so I could get some water, and indicated I should wash my face, then smiled gently and said goodbye. It’s these seemingly tiny actions of hospitality by the people of Myanmar that just went straight to my heart.

I was really finished with my sightseeing for the day, but we stopped in Amarapura so Pascal could go see the bridge, and I just hung out with the driver and his endless betel quids. We arrived back in Mandalay and I took a nap because I had plans for the evening.

Myanmar: Mandalay: 29 January 2007 (Written 12 March 2007)

Mandalay. Almost every piece of literature I’ve ever seen that has anything to do with Mandalay starts by commenting on how this city has somehow achieved a romantic, fantastical place in the minds and hearts of everyone who hears its name, whether or not they know anything about the place. And so it is.

I perhapshad a bit more background knowledge about Mandalay than the average Las Vegas gambler who stays at Mandalay Bay. I had been reading about Myanmar for months beforehand, both in novels and guidebooks, as well as poems and personal experiences of recent travelers to the country. So, I knew that it’s not a city that everyone falls in love with, that it’s been recently rebuilt in large part with Chinese- style impersonal concrete buildings, that there is nothing actually beautiful about it, and it was perfectly understandable to only stay a day.

I fell in love with it.

The bus journey from Shweyaung was better than I expected. Pascal had kindly taken care of the tickets with Ricard the previous day, trying to make sure that we had seats in the front of the bus. We did, and I sat next to Pascal, with all my warmest clothes close at hand, and Ricard sat in the window seat across from us. As soon as we were in the bus, a karaoke video blasted at full volume, and I turned to see all the Myanmar people fixated on the screen, watching the bright neon lights, the well-dressed, young beautiful singers with perfect hair and makeup. What you see on the screen and what you see in real life, the passengers in the bus with tattered clothes and sandals, plastic bags for suitcases and sitting in the aisle because there aren’t enough buses, makes you wonder how these parallel universes can coexist so easily, without any questioning, discontent, or clashes – or at least how they can keep it so hidden.

I quickly fell asleep as we headed into the mountains, and after our brief stop for a meal, I didn't wake until our arrival in Mandalay at 3am. The representative of our hotel was there, and we piled into a motorcycle taxi to go the 7km into town from the bus stop.

We had a leisurely morning and decided to walk to Shwe In Bin Monastery. Our hotel was very near Endawgyi Pagoda, and the morning prayers started by 4.30am. Stepping into the street downstairs, the golden dome loomed above us, a constant reminder of the land we were in. The first thing I realized was that despite its population of 2 million, being the second largest city in the country, it was just a big village. Monks by the dozen were walking around collecting alms, trishaws weaved through the streets lined with endless merchants selling onions, garlic, tomatoes, and potatoes alongside noodles, samosas, endless kettles of tea, and the ubiquitous betel nut stand was never out of sight.

Almost every person we passed called out Hello or Mingalaba to us, and huge smiles surrounded us. It was completely unexpected, given my conceptions of how the larger a city is, the more impersonal and unfriendly it becomes. When we were within 1km of Shwe In Bin, numerous people came out of their homes or shops to indicate that we were going in the right direction. They were so welcoming, and so proud that we had come all this way to visit their monasteries.

Shwe In Bin is certainly worth visiting. An old teak monastery, its dark wood is meticulously carved with such fine detail that you could easily spend hours walking around it continuously. Dozens of columns support the structure, and although it is not so astounding in its size, the atmosphere is so grounded that I found myself lingering there.

As we left and walked towards the river, I stopped to watch a group of monks playing a board game with cowrie shells in the shade of one of the many green, leafy trees in the area. We smiled and as I was walking away, one monk came to me and spoke to me in English.

He invited the 3 of us to accompany him to his monastery, New Monsangein. We obliged, and followed the deep red robes winding through the streets. He told us it was the largest monastery in Mandalay, but it didn’t really sink in until we entered the gate with the big clock tower, and all around me was a sea of maroon. Everywhere, only males, head to toe in crimson and brick colors, all turning their heads to unabashedly stare at us. Many were extremely shy and once they realized that we realized they were looking at us, they turned away, but others smiled brightly and waved. We wandered through, a bit flabbergasted by the 2700 monks surrounding us, and every step was surreal as we were led by 3 monks, one of whom spoke very good Japanese. They invited us to watch the Pali lesson which would take place at 1pm. 15 minutes before the lesson began, dozens and dozens of monks gathered in the classroom building, coming from all directions, a steady stream of these religious men. They were chatting or quiet, smiling or pensive, and all neatly discarded their shoes at the door of the classroom, which can hold 1000 students. They sat and immediately opened their books, chanting and murmuring, all the while sneaking glances our way. The energy that filled the room was unlike any I’ve ever experienced in any place of religious gathering that I’ve been to thus far.

We left the lesson and took refuge under the shade of a large tree in the courtyard, where we could have a good view of all the bustling activity of the monastery. More curious monks cam to say hello, and we discussed the tenets of Buddhism in Myanmar as opposed to in other countries, as best we could given our language difficulties. The young monks, between the ages of 20 and 25, were so eager to discuss and help us understand their belief system. We decided to move along, and a small crowd of monks followed us along to make sure we were on the right road to our next destination, Mahamuni Paya.

Mahamuni Paya is one of the country’s most important monuments, and probably the second most visited one by locals after Shwedagon Paya in Yangon. It is a Buddha image, which is covered in gold leaf, and every morning at 4.30am men brush its teeth, and throughout the day people come to cover the statue in more gold leaf. Women cannot approach the statue but instead stay in pathways leading up to the statue, kneeling and praying, or as often happens in Burma, chatting away with friends. Mahamuni Paya can be accessed by a variety of entrances. Walking barefoot, you pass through indoor chambers with vendors selling everything from photos of Aung San Suu Kyi (often as a child with her father, Aung San) to tanakha (yellow makeup/sunblock/lotion made from the tanakha tree) to pots and pans. You emerge to the central area, where the Buddha image is, along with plenty of exhibits of General Than Shwe making donations and being blessed by monks. There are several other things to visit in Mahamuni Paya, including tablets engraved with teachings of the Buddha, and a number of small temples.

Given that we had walked across the city and stayed on our feet the majority of the day, we took a moment to stay in the shade, then went to the exit, where I was first introduced to a formal chinlon event. Chinlon, known as sepatakuro in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, is played with a small woven wooden ball, and the ball is passed with the feet amongst the players, making sure not to touch the ground. I had seen the game played by children and men along the road, but I had not yet seen an organized event. There was a very small stage area, circular, with seats ringing the outside of it, where we sat, and to our left there were musicians with small drums, an instrument resembling a xylophone, and something like a tambourine. The players, with green and yellow uniforms, had sweat dripping down their faces as they ran around the circle in a frenzy. I marveled at the fact that this could be happening on the same grounds as where normal men laid sheets of gold on an ancient Buddha.

We then went to Mandalay Hill, well known for its views over Mandalay. As we descended from our motorcycle taxi, 5 novice nuns came walking in our direction. I hesitated with my camera, and one girl, probably 6 or 7 years old, with a cleanly shaved head and untainted pink robes, beckoned me with a solemnity and assuredness I have never seen in anyone that age, and urged me to take their photo. She looked into my lens with such determination I wondered what events had transpired in her life to make her this way at such an early age, or what deep convictions she already held.

As we approached the first set of stairs going up to the peak, a group of 15 or so locals sat, resting. As I went nearer, they were staring, and 2 of the youngest, novice monks around 7 years old, gaped with mouths wide open until I smiled, waved, and said Mingalaba. They smiled but immediately became shy. They were still staring, all of them, so I asked if I could take a photo, they nodded, and they instantly started squealing with delight and politely pushed each other aside to get a glimpse of themselves in my small LCD finder.

Mandalay Hill has several pagodas and temples on the way up, and the concrete stairs seem endless, especially after our overnight bus journey and many hours of walking during the day. From the top, a vista of the Ayeyarwady River, and behind it, the Shan Hills which melt into the distant skies, gives you a sense of how vast the expanse of this country, and how rich it is in natural resources. We stayed for the sunset then descended.

The corner of 27th and 82nd St. If there is one place I ate in Burma which breathed the people, place, and life of the country, it was this place. The Chapati Stand. A pair of women busily rolled out chapattis and passed them to the boy who had the grill, flipping the thin pancakes and acknowledging so subtly the orders that were being placed that you could hardly detect the nods or grunts of communication. The tables were along the entire corner of the two streets, low plastic tables with wooden stools, and on the other side of the corner, the tea station, with huge pots of hot tea, large cans of condensed milk, buckets of sugar, and the strong delightful scent of freshly brewed tea wafted over the whole scene. The waiters, young boys who paid attention to fine details of every customers’ request, whether it’s that the man wanted condensed milk but no sugar, the women wanted her tea not as strong, or the young couple wanted their biryani after the chapattis, nothing was forgotten.

We ordered a pretty standard meal of keema curry, chicken curry, biryani, lentils, and of course, chapattis. Both Pascal and Ricard had claimed not to be hungry just minutes before, and had only come along because I was hungry and vocal about it, but as soon as the food arrived they were consuming more speedily than I was. The food was fresh, hot, and absolutely delicious. And of course it was, by the sheer volume of people coming to eat there; as soon as a table paid and got up to leave, it was replaced by new people. People arrived by motorcycle or trishaw to take food home with them, and many of them also took tea, poured expertly into plastic bags that could then be emptied into teacups once safely home.

Feeling fully satisfied for the first time since I had left Japan, we slowly made our way back home, walking towards the golden dome visible from several blocks away, and I fell into a deep, sweet sleep with dreams of this land I had so quickly been captivated by.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Indonesia: Jakarta/Bunaken: 25 February to 9 March, 2007 (Written 10 March 2007)

The land where I was born. Why on earth did it take me so long to get back here? Upon arrival at Bangkok airport, I found out that flight schedules had changed and I would have to wait 12 hours (at least) to get on a flight to Jakarta. So I walked around in several hundred circles, checked my email in 5 minute chunks with horrible metal keyboards that didn't work so well, ate random food I wouldn't have eaten otherwise, and read several hundred pages of Shantaram (what an incredible piece of literature!)

Finally made it to Jakarta at 6am on the 25th. Manggi and Wati, who had known me when I was too young to speak, were waiting for me, which I was and am and will be grateful for. They are both wonderful, and though it's been more than 20 years since I've seen them (I later found out I had seen Manggi in DC when I was about 10, which I don't remember at all, oops), I feel immediately comfortable with them and am happy to be in Jakarta.

This enchantment with Jakarta is probably due to the fact that they live in a beautiful compound with plenty of greenery, amazing homecooked Indonesian food, and I don't have to venture into the scary traffic and noise of Jakarta. Though it's not nearly as bad as Dhaka, thank goodness. I sleep a lot, given the fact that I had a very tiring day in Bangkok the day before, then I go with Wati to see the house I had lived in when I was born, we run some errands, and in the evening I go out with Manggi for dinner.

The next day, I fly to Manado in Northern Sulawesi and transfer to Bunaken. Still bleary-eyed, jet-lagged, and probably in a horrible mood, I was still impressed by the rich shades of green all around, and the friendly smiles of the people even when sitting through traffic jams. Arriving at the small harbor, I meet Sem, a boatman from Bunaken village nor learning to be a dive guide, and he has one of those wonderful smiles that fills half his face, and all the wrinkles on his sun-kissed face are the grooves that have been carved out by his smile.

What to say about Bunaken? Its turqoise waters, lush greenery, quiet lack of cars, and constant background of guitar strumming and singing is addictive, and sneaks up on you and then all of a sudden you realize you don't want to leave, that you'll do anything to stay even a moment longer.

Admittedly, I wasn't that excited at the beginning, due to exhaustion, humidity, heat, and hunger. The fantastic food and comfortable beds quickly changed that, and the next day I was all ready to dive.

And diving is the name of the game here. I've been spoiled and been fortunate enough to dive places that most people would envy; Sipadan most recently, and in the past, the Red Sea, Similan Islands, Galapagos (still the most enviable I must say), Cozumel, and a few other spots. In every other place, the operators boast of the richness of coral life (excpet in Galapagos where none is left after El Nino, but other things remain the star attraction of this heavenly archipelago) - but Bunaken blows them all away. Where other places have several species of coral growing side by side in an orderly fashion, the coral of Bunaken has an overgrown, wild sense; on one piece of coral, you'll see a completely different species on top of it, and then with assydians on the side, and then an anemone branching off of it, and then...it just goes on. It's mind-boggling, and it's incredibly heartening to see an underwater ecosystem that is still thriving so fully.

The diving is great because you don't have to go so deep; the multi-level dives usually start at 25m maximum depth for the first dive, then the second one goes to 18 or 20m. This means you can stay underwater for much longer than in some other places, and the majority of my dives were over 80 minutes. The last 20 or 30 minutes could be done at 5 or 7m, where there is so much color from the sunlight, and still so much to see. The diving in Bunaken isn't action-packed like in some places; in general, there aren't many big exciting animals to see, due to its location in Manado Bay, though you still get occasional sharks, turtles, and rays. The reason it is spectacular is because on every single dive, you will find something new; whether it's a nudibranch (sea slug) that you could not have dreamed the color combinations up for yourself, or a new type of coral, or some strange fish or crab that can barely be seen, the possibilities are endless.

There are more than 1300 species of fish in Bunaken, and still more being discovered frequently. I don't think I can even comprehend what the means in terms of biodiversity. Whatever it means, it is beautiful and breathtaking.

After 2 long dives in the morning, you return to the resort to have lunch, and usually, a nice afternoon nap. The island is so quiet and so utterly peaceful that you find yourself falling into the rhythm of the island. There are 3 villages, the largest being Bunaken village, with a large church, long pier leading out to the sea, and many many smiling faces. On the other side of the island is the smaller village of Tanjung Parigi, which retains a sense of being lost in the jungle, and emerging on Pantai Lintang, a beautiful beach where during low tide, the entire shoreline is covered in exposed coral.

The evenings alternate between quiet small groups playing guitar, and big birthday parties with plenty of palm-wine (SO), singing, and dancing with big speakers brought in by speedboat from the village. The people of Northern Sulawesi, who are majority Christian, are known for their love of music, and it is one hundred percent true. As soon as the music starts, it doesn't matter if you're staff or guest, male or female, everyone just starts moving. It's impossible not to fall in love with the place, and even more so with the people.

The people are so enthusiastic when they realize that you're making even the tiniest effort to learn Bahasa Indonesia. It's a charming language, with grammatical simplicity that makes you wonder why we had to invent gender, conjugations, and verb tenses. After every dive Kris, my fantastic guide, would practice with me words he had previously taught me and throw in some new ones; the rest of the day, every one else of the staff that wasn't too shy to run away from me would chat with me and laugh delightedly at my progress, or lack thereof.

I really didn't want to leave when the time came, but I know that I'll be back. It's a magical place, not only for what lies underwater, but as well for what is above.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Bangladesh: Bandarban to Dhaka: 19/20 February 2007 (Written 20 February 2007)

Because I had kept dozing off on the bus ride TO Bandarban, I decided to return by day to Dhaka. It was also because I still hadn’t made it to Old Dhaka, and I knew that I would regret it if I didn’t. So, on the 19th, I headed back to Dhaka. I was wrong, though; even after sleeping 11 hours the night before I was hovering between consciousness and unconsciousness, and judging by the fact that I don’t remember too much of the ride, sleep won. I did, however, stay awake for more than the journey there, and I was struck again by how green and unspoiled (to the naked eye) the countryside of Bangladesh appears. The abundance of water is everywhere, as there are rivers and lakes of a huge variety in size. Sure wouldn’t want to be here during the monsoon.

I got back to Dhaka at 6pm, and Micah wouldn’t finish work til 8. I went back to his apartment though, and already exhausted of Dhaka, I sat in his stairwell, reading. A neighbor invited me in and gave me tea and chocolate cookies, for which I was extremely grateful.

Micah arrived, then Benton arrived, and we went to the American Club, where I indulged in non-Bangla food for the first time in 3 days; felt much longer. It wasn’t a super-late night, because I was determined to get up early to get to Old Dhaka before the crazy morning traffic started.

So today, the 20th, I left Banani at 7am and was in Old Dhaka at 7.30am. Headed straight to Sadarghat, where boats proceed by the dozens on the Buriganga River. Small wooden boats steered by a single boatman, larger wooden structures with motors, huge freight vessels with peeling paint and rust all shared their home, along with people bathing and cooking and cleaning. A teenage boy immediately came to me saying that I could go in his boat for 200 taka an hour. I had read that a reasonable price would be 50 taka, so I told him no. He then said 100, and since I really didn’t care too much either way about taking a boat ride, I still rejected. As I was walking away he said 50 so I thought, ok, why not, and climbed in. I am so glad I did it. Sadarghat is the Shinjuku of Tokyo for Dhaka, with boats going every direction. We headed up for about 15 minutes and turned around; I didn’t mind, since I had basically seen what I had wanted to see anyway. When we arrived back where we started, exactly 33 minutes had gone by, according to the photos I had taken. Well, my little boatman didn’t think so. He claimed that it had been 2 and a half hours; he had gone upriver for an hour, and coming back had taken an hour and a half. A sly one, he had observed I didn’t have a watch and claimed it was now about 10am. I showed him my camera and corrected him, saying it was actually 8:30am, and he was good-natured at his defeat, but still insisted I give him 100 taka. Then 80 taka. I was not happy about this for obvious reasons, and argued that if we were really going by honest time rates as had been discussed, I should only give him 30 taka since we were only on the water for 33 minutes. He still shook his head vehemently as I generously gave him 50 taka but other boatmen encouraged me that I was ok and should go without worrying. Man, what these people will do to try and scam you.

I went to Shankharia Bazaar, where saris hang from balconies and artisans work, making bangles from conch shells, tombstones, and Hindu art. It was really nice not to worry about where I was and what to see, and at every intersection I looked at the possibilities and chose the route based on what it looked like ahead; no motorized vehicles and preferably lots of people, but not too many. The first half hour walking around was wonderful, and I found the jingle of rickshaw bells pleasant, noting the lack of horns with relief. After an hour, I was going crazy with the sound of bells in my head.

The small alleyways and markets were so vibrant, alive, and colorful. Huge smiles from men, women, and children, wanting their photos taken, with no hint of wanting money or anything else from me. It was wonderful. I got lost, probably went in big circles, and finally, at about 11am, I headed back to Banani. This was my longest Dhaka excursion yet.

Bangladesh: Bandarbans: 16-18 February 2007 (Written 20 February 2007)

It was easy for me to get a CNG downstairs at 7am on the 16th. A Friday, it was quiet. At the bus station I had a quick breakfast and boarded. I sat in the front next to another girl – the only other girl on the bus. She spoke just a tad of English and was very friendly. She immediately made it her personal responsibility to take care of me.

I don’t know what it is; I had gotten a decent amount of sleep the night before, I was really interested in seeing the scenery…but I couldn’t stay awake! During the first three hours, every time I’d become conscious I’d determinedly watch as villagers worked in beautifully alive green rice fields, or stare at the vast networks of rivers littered with boats, and my eyes would just close against my will. Very very interesting.

At our rest stop, Kanon Restaurant, I had a chicken burger that was extremely spicy and my female friend paid before I even finished eating. She took me to the toilet, literally, and think she would have come in the stall with me to make sure I knew what I was doing had I not smiled and told her I would be ok. The next 7 hours of the bus ride (our bus broke down for an hour somewhere) was uneventful except for the carefully timed offers of caramel candies that she produced. What a gem. In Bandarban, she took me in a rickshaw to where I could get a baby taxi to the Hillside Resort. I got in one, and within 5 seconds of it moving, it had hit a moving bicycle and a huge crowd gathered to survey and vocally offer counsel. The man was uninjured, his bicycle was less happy. A bunch of locals advised me to get out and get in another baby taxi, as this procedure was bound to take awhile, and finally, I arrived unscathed in Milonchori.

The Hillside Resort owned by Guide Tours is wonderful. Located really up in the hills, with great panoramic views of the Bandarban Mountains, its friendly staff and great restaurant were just what I needed.

On the 17th I went with my guide, from the local Bawm village, to visit a Bawm, Marma, and Tripura village. The Tripura women struck me the most; arriving in their village an enormous snakeskin was being dried on bamboo rods, and older women wearing nothing on their torsos but dozens of beaded necklaces walked about, silver earrings shaped like arrows pointing upwards piercing the length of their ears. There was no pretense, no sense of being in an open-air museum as I’ve often heard northern Thailand has become; this was their home, they were going about their business, I had walked in on it, and they didn’t really care at all. Cool.

In the afternoon, we walked down to the river, a beautiful, green, leafy descent, and climbed into a small boat. The boat drivers actually propel the boat forward by pushing against the bottom of the river; they find the perfect shallowness or depth to maximize movement and we moved lazily along the Sangu River. We passed numerous villages, watching people wash, farm, play; life was living. Layers of mountains disappeared in the distance behind each other, and there was light boat traffic in all directions. Serene and peaceful.

Arriving in Bandarban town, we walked through a bit of the fruit market where locals were happy to have me photograph them, and I decided I would come back the next day to spend more time there.

On the 18th I went down to Bandarban town, knowing that there would be the tribal bazaar held every Wednesday and Sunday. What a sight to behold; women in burkhas walking alongside Chakmas with bright, boldly-colored wrap skirts and headdresses, Tripura women with baskets resting on their foreheads, and a dozen other tribes gathering to buy their household goods. I realized that unintentionally markets have become a favorite hangout of mine, watching people come together and engage in a pleasant setting. Immediately after having this thought I went a bit too far, past the vegetable section, and landed in the meat section, which was monitor lizards or something very similar, chopped up in chunks and placed on skewers. Looking 10m ahead I saw pigs’ heads and I decided to head back to my less graphic or aromatic tomatoes and pumpkin.

It was coincidentally also a holiday where the local king collects taxes so I stopped by the ceremony, but I really didn’t get too much out of it, since I couldn’t understand what was being said, and all that it appeared as to me at that stage was an elderly man sitting in a very nice chair, talking to a crowd. It was hot.

I started my walk back up to the Resort and happened to pass by a primary school that had just gotten out for lunch. 5 excited, smiling children ran up to me shouting “Salaam aleikoum” and we chatted a bit, played with the camera, and I proceeded to start making cranes. A crowd of at least 20 gathered as I clumsily folded paper and even passing rickshaws stopped to see what the spectacle was (nothing too exciting). As I continued along the road, the youngest girl, a very feisty ball of energy aged 6, took me by the hand to take me to her village. I obliged, and it was amazing; that there was a village literally on the main road, yet it was clear that there were so few, if any, tourists visiting her village because presumably every tourist drives in to town and back.

I took a break, and then headed up to Tiger Hill, where at the top is a red-roofed building with breathtaking panoramas of the hills. A straight uphill walk, I was alone, and dozens of small colorful birds flitted around in surrounding tree branches. I was hypnotized by the wind swaying the tall bamboo and pampas grass. My legs were starting to turn into jelly by the time I arrived back, and I was warm and cozy, dozing off by 7.30pm.

Bangladesh: Dhaka: 15 February 2007 (Written 20 February 2007)

On the morning of the 15th, Rafia Chowdhury came to meet me at 8 o’clock. It was such a change to be in an air-conditioned car that did not honk as we paraded through Dhaka. We headed to Dhanmondi, an old residential area where many schools are located and it was fascinating watching children head to school. We had breakfast, fresh hot parathas and chapattis with dhal and bhaji, fresh cooked vegetables, along with chicken curry (hmm I used to consider this a lunch when I would go to a South Asian restaurant at home…wherever that is). Rafia also took me around the environs of Dhaka University, and also on a tour of the Girl Guides Association, a respectable organization based on empowering females and giving orphans a chance. The Dhaka day did start to wear me down, though, so after stopping by her house for some tea, I was done with my day. At noon, basically.

That afternoon, I went with Micah to Coffee World, a place that tells your best logical defenses, No. It is a place where you can get the confusing varieties of coffee akin to the selections you find in any of the name-brand coffee shops in Tokyo or Los Angeles, where you can get sandwiches, cakes, or chips and sit on comfortable leather (real?) furniture and sit in air-con. Sitting in one in Dhaka just didn’t make sense, but it was all I really wanted. There were 3 men sitting beside us, speaking in English. They all looked Bengali so I was confused; I proceeded to ask Micah in Spanish why they were speaking English and he answered that it was a class thing, and they wanted to show off the fact that they were able to speak English; that they were well-educated. The absurdity of this made me laugh, but it was also the cruelty involved; speaking to the lower class employees of the establishment in English, when both of their native tounges was Bangla, just to prove their superiority. How disgusting.

We proceeded to delve into various topics swimming around my head; beggars in Dhaka; the last thing I want to do is ignore any human being, but every time I look into the eyes of someone coming up to any vehicle I’m being transported in, it breaks my heart and how is it even conceivable to give to every begging leper, polio victim, acid attack victim, starving man, woman, and child that solicits me? We talked about treating people as human beings, of the starvation of people from human touch, which when you think about it, could be seen as even more heartbreaking than deprivation of food; I recalled in Burma how the kids in Bagan had simply wanted to hold my hand, nothing more; no food or money was involved. The fascinating thing was that Micah himself had experienced so much of what I was currently deciphering and analyzing, but after 2 years here his views have taken a realistic turn from the idealistic foundations that we share. It was a refreshing, inspiring conversation that I’ll remember for a long time to come.

That night we headed to the Bagha Club, i.e. the British Club. I relished my grilled cheese and fish and chips with Benton. We then went to the Nordic Club for gin and tonics; there was a DJ and the scene was strangely high-school-dance-esque, a lot of people dressed up with big smiles and makeup, many that didn’t know each other, many sticking to their small groups of designated friends, not venturing out of their safe social circles. As a group of high-school students arrived, presumably an international crowd, it struck me what it would be like to live in Dhaka for a few years as an international high school student and then return to my home country, say, for instance, the USA. How difficult, if not impossible, it would be for me to assimilate back into teenhood at home? Where I grew up, in suburban Maryland, ages 15 and 16 were sitcoms and Friday nights at the mall and experimentations with alcohol and makeup. In Dhaka, on a daily basis you were seeing people your age working, often times plain old hard, manual labor, maybe even you had a child servant working in your house or if not, then at least in your building. What a crazy world, or worlds, that we are living in.

Benton and I decided to leave the Nordic Club around 1am, but we were both hungry so we headed to a lounge called PM, Past Midnight. As we went up the stairs, several uniformed men greeted us (or so I thought) with a big smile, said Good Evening, Sir, bowed, and opened the door. No Madam, I noticed. For the next 40 minutes, I was invisible. Sir was asked where he wanted to sit, Sir was asked what he wanted to drink, Sir was asked what he wanted to eat, Sir was asked to pay the bill. I smiled, tried to place my own orders and voice my opinions but it was as if I had ceased to exist. Frustrating for a girl like me who is startlingly independent in almost any context I’ve ever been placed in. Discussing it with Benton, he explained that it’s out of respect, which is kind of messed up anyway, but the philosophy is that if they were speaking to me it would mean they thought I was a whore. Hmm there is something wrong with this picture. Sigh.

Bangladesh: Dhaka: 13/14 February 2007 (Written 14 February 2007)

Horns, horns, horns. There are so many impressions of this insane city, and my mind is spinning with dozens of them, that I feel at a complete loss for words.

Even while waiting to board the plane in Bangkok, I knew I was stepping into a different world. I was the only person I could distinguish as being a foreigner on the plane – possibly there were others from India or other parts of the region…

Arriving at the airport, I was surprised to find it drizzling outside. Refreshing in a sense, but a bit worrying since it is supposed to be the dry season in this part of the world; the rains are not to begin until May. Inside Dhaka airport was orderly enough. Passing through immigration and getting luggage was surprisingly efficient and smooth. Then came the reality; outside to find a taxi.

On the left side as you exit the airport are the official taxi stands. Micah, who I’m staying with here in Dhaka, had told me the real meter rate would be about 70 taka (approx. 1USD) but they would probably ask for about 250, and he said I should really try and get it down to 150 or less. Well, the guys at the stand insisted that 350 was a fair price. After talking one down to 300, I moved on down to the other end of the fence and they rapidly started yelling at each other, presumably forming an agreement not to lower the price any further. I asked the military guard at the gate if there would be taxis outside, and all of a sudden he no longer spoke any English. I went back under the shelter and sulked for a good 5 minutes, debating what to do: pay the outrageous 300 taka (after all by American or Japanese standards it’s not so much, right?)…call Micah and beg him to come save me, or go out into the street and hope that a normal taxi would pick me up and I could talk the price down??

I decided to go outside. A huge crowd of hungry eyes and searching bodies leaned heavily against the fences between which was the exit. No one, literally, was walking through. Everyone was leaving in taxis or other vehicles. I went determinedly forward, and found the military guard telling me I was not allowed to leave like this, and I would have to take an official taxi. I told him no, and kept walking. I was pretty apprehensive, though. Immediately a swarm of begging children surrounded me, and 4 local taxi men came running. I told them I needed to go to Banani and they all said 300. Finally, one very questionable young man who spoke English arrived on the scene just as I was getting one cab to agree to my price of 150 taka. He insisted that the driver didn’t speak enough English to get me to my destination and said he would join. I told him that I thought it would be fine since I had the address and he insisted – I told him if he wanted to, he could come but I was not, under any circumstances, going to give him any money. At this he took great offense and made some claim about how he was helping me in the name of Allah, and money was not a motivation at all. Sounds like stories I got in West Africa all the time…

Traffic in this city is absolutely mad. The honking is incessant and I have no idea regarding the mechanics of it, but the horns are LOUD; way louder than anywhere else I have been in the world. Traffic, if my memory serves me well, is even worse than Cairo or Bangkok. With gritted teeth and stiffened knuckles, we proceeded through the rainy roads. Along with other taxis, we shared the pavement with colorful rickshaws, CNGs (green caged motorcycles with a passenger compartment behind), jam-packed public buses, also very vocal, and countless other vehicles and pedestrians. The ride that Micah said would take 15 minutes took well over an hour.

The questionable young man made a very crude sexual remark at which I got very indignant and he apologized profusely but I was not impressed. Arriving in Banani neighborhood, we found we were lost, and drove around in repetitive circles all the while Micah trying to explain where we should go (I later found out he had told them to stay where we were and he would just come meet us since we were so close but of course this wasn’t how it worked out). Finally, we met and drove a very short distance home. All of a sudden, the young boy who had been helping me in the name of Allah, after hitting on me, demanded money for his services, to which I replied that I had told him over an hour ago that I wasn’t going to give him any money, and Micah and he had a short (seemingly) heated conversation and inside we went.

Welcome to Dhaka.

The evening was pleasant thereafter, lots of stories, laughs, and a definite refuge feeling from Micah and his flat (thanks thanks thanks). We went in the neighborhood to buy really horrible wine from a Burmese family and it was surreally peaceful, walking through the rain in the quiet evening.

This morning as I awoke, I was filled with dread and reluctance. I knew that there were parts of Dhaka that I would like to see, but I was weary at the prospect of getting there. Tuli, Micah’s maid, went down the street with me so that I could call Rafia Chowdhury, Fareez’s aunt. Fareez was a good friend of mine in high school in Washington, DC, and was my initial contact that sparked my interest in Bangladesh. He had enthusiastically advised me to call his aunt in Dhaka when I told him that I was finally visiting his country.

No one answered the phone, and I headed to the bank, then got in a CNG with the hope of going to Gulshan II circle where Guide Tours was located. My driver spoke no English and a few minutes later, kept saying Korea over and over. I said no, Japan. I’m pretty used to people asking me where I’m from or thinking I’m from other Asian countries so it was nothing noteworthy – until a few minutes later I was sitting in front of the Japanese Embassy. Agh.

More communication difficulties and I finally ended up where I wanted to be. The staff at Guide Tours was exceptionally friendly and I spent a good amount of time in their haven-like office, before heading back out into the crowded noisy street.

I visited the Grand Central Mosque, a big white cavern of a building, and decided to walk all the way back to Banani rather than go through another CNG ordeal.

The streets are so full of life. There are so many people, the women are dressed in beautiful colored robes with eyecatching makeup, and well, people do stare. I saw not one tourist in the whole day (though I think I wasn’t in a very tourist-oriented place if they even exist here). The rickshaws are decorated with bright neons and flower patterns, the crumbling sidewalks interspersed with puddles from the unseasonal rains make people hop and jump from one protruding safe dry foothold to another. The spicy smell of betel lingers in the air, and street stalls with dhal and cha line crowded walkways. I was filled with an intense feeling of hatred and amusement in the same moment; in any case, it is intense, with all senses heightened as it feels like walking 500m down one road is an obstacle course that requires supreme awareness and technique.

I was hungry. I found a place recommended by Lonely Planet, Dhaba, and walked in to see Micah at the first table! A very pleasant surprise. He was with an American friend working for IREX and we sat together and chatted. Given that there are so few tourists here, I really wonder how I would be feeling if I didn’t have a local contact that I am so comfortable with.

I finally got in touch with Rafia and we will meet tomorrow. The next day I go to Bandarban in the Chittagong Hill Tract, which is covered with tribal villages, and also known for political instability, and after 3 nights there I will head back to Dhaka for a day before going to the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world. The Sundarbans also have a reputation for pirates. Hope I don’t see any.

Myanmar: Inle Lake: 27/28 January 2007 (Written 20 February 2007)

We were meeting our boatman at 6am. Which meant it was still dark, and very very cold. I walked with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, telling myself I was on a warm beach, and we climbed into the longboat. First light on the lake is magical. There is fog and mist everywhere, and the boundaries between the mist and the sky and the water and mountains simply blend, confusing the senses and playing their magic. I was captivated.

We proceeded out onto the big lake (22km) and stopped occasionally to watch some of the small boatmen. When we would go near them, and turn off our motor, it would be completely silent. The only thing you could hear was breathing, and the almost inaudible sound of the water moving under the one oar controlled by the boatman’s leg. Watching them move their vessels in the water is watching a being completely in harmony with its own environment; the fluidity of the movements, the muscles working in ways that they have been, day in and day out, for decades. It has a surreal quality that words and photos cannot do justice to.

At around 7:30am, we arrived in a village. The light was what struck me and will stay in my memory forever. The water is so clean and clear, producing startling reflections of the huts, the boats, and the people. The people come out of their houses to wave, shout Mingalaba!, and watch as you float your way away.

We visited a floating market, which I am sure over the years has grown increasingly to cater towards tourists, but still retains much of a local atmosphere, especially when visited at the right time; since many tourists head out of Nyaungshwe as the sun is beginning to warm the lake, we arrived early, and had the whole place to ourselves. The people from various tribes shopped, gossiped, chatted, drank tea, ate breakfast and snacks, and we wandered through the aisles.

We proceeded to the Jumping Cat Monastery; a bit bizarre, and also a different pagoda, and decided to head back to Nyaungshwe.

In the evening, we decided to eat on the street by the market; street vendors had set up little frying pans and pots, and we at delicious mini-pancake like things; fried dough with green onion and corn, with chili dipping sauce. There were children playing in the street, their faces bright with full smiles, dressed in rags, with no toys, yet their souls were intact. They would be playing games simply tagging and running, but their laughter and ability to play amazed me. As we walked back in the dark, we stopped to watch a group of children playing hopscotch in the street. Kids everywhere in the world are the same, aren’t they?

On the 28th, I was totally exhausted and lazed about in the morning before heading off into town with no direction whatsoever. I stopped to watch the watermelon seller play checkers. I asked if I could play and they were surprised but delighted, and even more delighted when I lost. The man, a thin, wiry man with an old fading purple longyi gave me a big slice of watermelon, and as I tried to pay, said present with a very firm look in his eyes, and I accepted. I strolled down the street with watermelon juice dripping down my face and hands, and entered a pagoda, where a family sat in the front with a thermos of tea. They immediately tried to sell me an offering to the Buddha, which I refused, but after my walk around the temple I accepted their invitation to sit and drink tea. I took photos of the family as well as their 3 year old son, and they ooh-ed and ahh-ed when I said I was from Japan. The woman that spoke the most English (really not much) said take me to Japan, I can teach Myanmar language. I smiled and said I would if I could. This was not the only time, by any means, that a person in Myanmar asked me to take them to Japan. I thanked them kindly for their tea and promised that if I visited Nyaungshwe again I would stop by the temple.

On my walk back I passed the watermelon stand and since I had no agenda, decided to make some cranes for my opponents who I had lost to. The group of 7 or 8 men were very pleased, and asked me to demonstrate again, giving them sheets to follow along with. A few of them also made me things they knew how to make, a boat (hle), an envelope, an airplane. They asked me to write their names in Japanese, and we sat around with my phrasebook, taking minutes to convey single-word thoughts. Lovely. Sateen, the original watermelon seller that had given me the juicy slice as a gift, now insisted that I eat his lunch. I was delighted to try some real local food, but also realized that this was a poor man and I didn’t want to take what little food he did have. I also didn’t want to refuse and offend him, so I decided I would take a few bites. He dismantled the stacked silver cylinders, and the first container had a lima bean curry. The next, plain rice. The last had plain rice and a few tablespoons of chili. Excuse me, but not a very nutritious and sustaining meal for a man that is presumably working on the street from daybreak to dusk. I did take a few bites, offered a few hundred kyat, at which he vehemently resisted and instead brought me tea. I drank, and explained that I should go and meet my friends, and we shook hands and waved with big smiles. I cried as I walked away.

Somehow the town had transformed, or I had transformed, or my role in the town had transformed, within the few short days that I was in Nyaungshwe. People that recognized me from the watermelon stand waved and smiled, whereas just a day before I had been stared at, I think mostly because people had no idea where I was from. I was in love with Nyaungshwe.

I met Ricard at the hotel, and he told me he had just eaten some delicious noodles, so I asked him to show me where it was. We walked back to the market, waving again to Sateen and Co., and sat at the tiny noodle stand with a very motherly woman with a grin covering more than half her face. She delighted in the fact that I was enjoying her Shan noodles and everyone within a 10m radius burst into laughter when I asked for a second bowl.

Sadly, it was time to go and we headed back to Joy Hotel to pack our things and take the pickup to Shweyaung where we would get the bus to Mandalay. We had a lot of time to kill at Shweyaung so we sat in a teashop, drinking delightfully sweet tea and munching on greasy samosas. The bus arrived after dark and I happily slept for the majority of the journey to Mandalay.