Myanmarvellous (Yangon – not quite Bagan)

Yangon.  The only S.E.Asian capital I had yet to visit.   To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much.  The big cities are usually more frustration than anything else.  I visit them because they’re “must see” spots and because I’ve got to apply for my next visa (or, in this case, purchase permission to cross the border into Myanmar), but I usually don’t manage to make it to many of the famous spots.  Cycling around in traffic is unpleasant, food is more expensive, and I can’t justify paying entrance fees to walk around big fancy temples when I can go sleep and chat with monks at simple countryside ones for free.

In other words, I’d rather be cycling.

Still, if I can get beyond my inner cynic for a moment, I have to admit that Yangon wasn’t bad.  Not as chaotic as Hanoi, not as mega-consumerist as Bangkok, not a sad fall from grace like Vientiane.  It almost feels like a small town, but on a bigger scale.  No shiny glass skyscrapers or ridiculous billboards (except for one advertising Merecedes from $80,000, in a country where the average yearly income is less than1/40th of that.), just a few million people doing business.  Each street by our hotel seemed to have its own speciality; stickers, flip flops, signs, toilet parts, engine oil, speakers, paint, so on and so forth.  One alley for each of the panoply of goods that, when all glommed on to one another, make up this civilization of ours.  I myself would rather do without them and just live in a grass hut eating bananas, mangos, and coconuts, but I guess there are others who don’t feel that way.

Anyway, my point was that Yangon, with its crumbling colonial buildings and streets full of knickknack vendors, felt honest.  Transparent.  Not so many ads related to real estate, automobiles, fashion, etc.

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Actually, I didn’t take my camera out with me on the days that engendered those reflections.  But I did take it out with me on my morning stroll they day before we left.  No surprise here: as in so many other places in S.E.A., the early morning park roamer is bound to happen upon calisthenics aficionados.

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A small protest just outside of the Independence Monument park, hinting at unrest that has kept many parts of Myanmar off-limits.  “Compensation” here is referring to money and perhaps housing that the government gives to villagers (usually ethnic minorities living subsistence lifestyles in areas that the government and corporations want to “develop”) in exchange for forcibly removing them from their land.

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For ethnic minorities, hill tribes, and other groups who get by by farming and foraging, removal from land means removal from lifestyle.  Few decent alternatives open up for them; they can try to find some unclaimed land (which hardly exists anymore) and learn to find and grow new sources of food, or they can move to the city and become unskilled laborers or worse.  They can also try to cross the border to Thailand and hope to wind up in a refugee camp where they can get some sort of assistance or job training.

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Sule Pagoda

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…the world’s fanciest traffic circle.

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An afternoon storm.  We feared that it might mark the beginning of the monsoon season, but here we are a month later still mostly dry.  Bad news for farmers (and eaters) this year…

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It’s not that they don’t have sewers, it’s that the sewers were full.  Yech.

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Daily schedule: 4:00 or 4:30ish wakeup, departure by 5 or 5:30.

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Early wakeups are a big pain in the arse, but it was compensated for by cool morning rides, sunrise spottings, and hammock naps during the hot hours.

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A brutal schedule to try to beat the brutal weather is the price you have to pay to see real countryside happenings like this one.  A procession of villagers banging on drums, cymbals, and bamboo clappers,

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All in honor of three suspendered boys on horseback.

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We followed them back to a party set up in someone’s front courtyard.  Chest-high speakers bared out music that was excruciatingly loud, but thankfully louder than the gas generator that was powering them.  When the music died down, one girl tried to explain what was going on: the boys were going to become monks and so had to perform a ritual involving riding horses to the temple at the east edge of town (about 500m away) and then back home.

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The three bros, desuspendered. I was hoping/expecting to see some sort of ceremony at the party.  Maybe a blessing by a monk, maybe a shaving of the heads and a donning of the robes, maybe something utterly unpredicatble.  Instead, the party pretty much stopped when we got there.  They cleared some space where people had been mingling, set out some chairs and tables for us, served us “Shark” energy drink and fruit punch, and sat around staring at us.  Probably not any more awkwardly than we stared at them.

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Also present at the party: babies.

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and grandmas.

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and dudes.

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Same day, different party!  Two in a day, why not?  Up front, monks calling out raffle numbers. Behind me, the prize depot, full of useful stuff like undershirts, towels, sponges, soap, and detergent.

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One of the kiddos kept tugging on my sleeve and saying “Paya, paya.”  He then led me out back to a set of eight golden Buddhas seated in a circle around the base of a Bodhi tree.  He found his favorite one and then prostrated himself in front of it, indicating that I should do the same.  Then insisted that I take a picture of each Buddha.

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They wanted me to take a picture of the reclining Buddha, but I’ve seen enough of those, so I tricked them into getting into the shot.

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The Paya/Chedi/Zedi/Stupa, still under construction.

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Taking photos of locals often gets me a bit self-conscious.  Am I patronizing them when I want a shot of their tree-bark makeup, or romanticizing when I take a shot of a group working the paddies?  If I showed up at a random wedding, birthday party, school, or office in the USA and started taking pictures, wouldn’t it feel disrespectful?


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These worries were slightly allayed in Myanmar, where we foreigners are so uncommon that many of the locals asked if they could take picture with (or of) us.

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Chaotic photo session outside a restaurant – each teenager wants a solo photo with each one of us.

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Scenery interlude!

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The first 400km or so of the 650 to Bagan were mostly like this: decent roads (not that I would complain if they were wider or smoother) with great tree cover.  Someone told us that this road, the Pyay highway, was built by the British.

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As we continued north, the trees thinned down a bit…

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Until by the time we neared Bagan…

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It was pretty much a desert.

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Down a little side road somewhere else,

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Farmers hard at work

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Until about 100 years ago, 90% of humanity got by this way.

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The day before Buddha’s birthday, everyone was out knocking these yellow flowers down out of the trees, then sticking them in their hair, on their vehicles, wherever.

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I didn’t even have to dismount the bike to get these – as I prepared to speed through another small country village, a guy on the side of the street started waving his hands and shouting at me.  He stuck this fistful of flowers out into the road with a big smile on his face and completed the handoff perfectly.  People here are so sweeeeeet!

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You know what else is sweet?  Mangos, 10 for $1.

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National mascot?

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Whenever I told Koreans that my stepfather works for N.A.S.A., they were wowed.

The Burmese slightly less so.

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Preferred method of transporting small goods: ye olde head balancing acte.

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Preferred method of transporting individuals and/or large amounts of hay, cement, bamboo, rice, or other sackable good: ye olde oxcarte.

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I watched a documentary that claimed that large swaths of Myanmar were essentially stuck in the iron age.  I can’t say I disagree.

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Unknown fact about chickens: they are vicious.  While taking a breather at the top of a climb, we witnessed an instance of the utter ferocity that is the battle for survival on earth.  A little gecko, for whatever reason, dropped itself down off of the thatch roof above us, landing right in the middle of a pack of hungry baby chicks.  Before we humans could even tell what it was that had plopped down onto the floor, there was a flurry of feathers and beaks, all chaos until one chick emerged victiorious with the mangled gecko corpse clamped in its mouth.  For the next two or three minutes, his brothers and sisters chased him around trying to get a piece.

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Extreme close up!  What a cruel, cruel world.

Another week in Myanmar, another life lesson learned.  Stay tuned for more!

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