Myanmiraculous (Myawaddy – Yangon)

2014-05-05 to Kyaito 038

Hey hey!  Guess what time it is!  At long last, it’s Burma time!  Or Myanmar time.  Choose the latter if you want to go with the name that Totalitarians chose after they gained power.  Or chose the former if you want the name that the Colonialists chose when they took over.  Or choose the former if you want to go with the name that was in fashion way back before the English dropped by.  Or choose the latter if you think the country ought to be named after the Bamars, the majority ethnic group.  This is only the first of many ways in which this country is confusing.

Either way, Burma/Myanmar time is 30 minutes earlier than Bangkok time and one hour behind Indian time.

Also, the numbers are different, so you never really know what time it is anyway.  Or how far is left until the next village, for that matter.


Another thing to get out of the way: yeah, Burma is kind of a police state.  Our passports were checked often, and their details were transferred into ledgers surely bound to rot on the shelves of some dank storage closet.  At checkpoints where we were waved through without much hassle, the police often confirmed that “There are six of you, right?”  Our reputation preceded us.

2014-05-02 to Kawakreik 008

Ok, so…photos here will be presented in approximate chorological order with little regard for storytelling.  Such is life.

Here’s Katya with five bikes.  From L to R: Mirek’s, Chris’, Minseong’s, mine, and hers.

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A brief stop at a roadside stall not too long into our first climb reveals something we all knew would be the case: Burmese kids are friendly and adorable.

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Celebrating good news: even tiny towns have “Beer Stations” where you can get a 330ml glass of cold draught fizzy stuff for $0.60.  Especially delicious after six hours riding in triple-digit heat.  It also helps to have your muscles artificially relaxed and your head slightly woozy if you’re going to try to sleep through the night at 30C with a fan running on intermittent electricity.

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Myanmar has monks.  Lot of ‘em.  But we interacted with them far less than with the monks in the rest of Southeast Asia.  This is probably because we had been informed that camping is illegal in Burma.  Our attempt at camping at a temple in the town of Thaton confirmed this; we showed up in the afternoon, got permission from the monks and locals, then went out for some dinner, beers, and board games.  We returned to the temple around dark, bathed, shared a nice meal and some getting-to-know-you conversation with the locals, and then prepared our beds, only to have the police show up at about 9:00 and kick us out.  Some villagers tried to argue with them, but as things got more and more tense we decided that it would be better to just follow the cops out than risk getting anyone in trouble.  At first it seemed that the cops had been hoping for a bribe, but in the end they took us to a locals-only guesthouse where we slept for $4 each.

Unlike monks in other countries in the region, Burmese monks chew betel nut and can accept cash donations.

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Lovely country villages.

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Houses and shelters with walls made of dry leaves.

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A Kiddo.

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On her face: Thanaka, a traditional makeup made from powdered tree bark.  In addition to lending everyone who wears it a certain mystique, they say it keeps your skin cool and protects you from sunburn.

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Burmese pastime/bad habit #1: putting too many people in trucks, or in the wrong place.  This is a mild example.

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Foreign cyclist pastime/bad habit #1: sleeping in various states of half-nakedness in random shacks.

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Somewhere near Hpa-an.  I think this was the day that some arsehole on a motorbike clipped my back left bag and sent me sprawling to the pavement.  On a road as completely empty as this one, no less.  Good thing I had knees and elbows to take the fall.

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New brand of draught beer?  Definitely ought to take a break and try a glass.  And then, as Mirko puts it, “one for the other leg.”

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Our bartender.

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So quiet you could hear the cows chewing.


Photo by Katya.

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A delightful surprise: a bunch of teenagers dancing on concrete slab in the middle of a valley.

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Kind of like a line dance, but really intricate.  The kids moved in groups and sub-groups, criss-crossing each other, bobbing up and down, doing that Southeast Asian Hand Twirl thing.  And chanting, too.

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Even a fair number of dudes were involved.  Very cool.

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Thanks for the show, guys.

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Another scene characteristically Burmese: the bicycle rickshaw.  The driver is almost always a scrawny, wiry, weedy little guy; the passenger might be a graceful older lady, or a gigantically fat aristocratic looking lady, or a lady with kids, or a big bag of mangos.

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Methinks this little man was in charge of his own makeup.

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For the most part, Burmese fashion is pretty cool; men and women alike wear the long-gyi, a tube of fabric that you can cinch around your waist (for an example, go back up to those photos of kids dancing).  They also tend to wear simple checked button-down shirts like you might see in a semi-casual office somewhere back home.  I’ve been told that even as recently as five years ago, it was difficult to find anybody wearing shorts, jeans, or t-shirts.  My, how times have changed!

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Characteristically Southeast Asia: poor people, dirty market, crappy road, but gilded temple not too far away.

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Brand-spankin-new temple complex.

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Majestic and stuff.

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Am I on LSD?

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I’m pretty sure the Buddhist scriptures don’t say anything about giant statues, golden robes, or psychedelic halos.

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Characteristically Burmese, exhibit 4: cows pulling a cart with man-sized wooden wheels.  Car may contain bamboo, hay, or wife and child.

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Chris developed a bit of a cow-cart photo fetish, so head on over to his blog to see all the different things people in a developing country need to lug around.

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Oh yeah, we cycled some too.  The roads were pleasantly pleasant.

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First, I saw it in a documentary.  Then I saw it in real life: many (if not all) roads in Myanmar are made by hand, and often by women and teenage girls.  Chipping rocks into pebbles, collecting them in baskets, carrying them to the right place, dumping them on the ground.  Only the final finishing process is done by machine.

It’s also been said that in remoter areas, and perhaps in times before tourists roamed the country freely, prisoners and slaves captured from minority ethnic groups were used.

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Market family.

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Happy baby.

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One particularly nice morning, I saw bus after bus full of Burmese girls with beautiful smiles pass by me.  Where are they all going?  Why, to work at the shoe factory of course.

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The bicycle is still the preferred mode of transportation around here, especially for mommies taking the kiddos to school.

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Kickass DIY mod

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Out of nowhere

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Let’s close with something a bit heartwarming: while waiting on a bridge for the rest of the crew, I fumbled and knocked dropped my camera’s lens cap into the nasty canal all full of oil and trash.  I stood there silently watching it float away and prepared to say my goodbye.  A few locals surrounded me, as they tend to do when you’re in the countryside and you stay in one place for more than 30 seconds.  I pointed at the cap in the canal below and mimed the genesis of my problem.  Before long, an old woman came by, looked me in the eye, and patted herself on the chest in a “you can count on me’” sort of way.  Then she nimbly climbed down the opposite slope, jumped in a boat, and went and chased down my cap and brought it back to me, free of charge.

What a nice lady.  What a nice country.

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One Response to Myanmiraculous (Myawaddy – Yangon)

  1. wd says:

    How did I miss this post? Awesome. Glad you’re still kicking.