Now that I’m though ranting about the Burmese Government, I thought I’d post a little trip report for my 8 day tour around the country.
I’ve posted pictures from the trip on Picasa, you can find them here: http://picasaweb.google.com/JesseCMaddox/BurmeseDays . If you want the play by play, check out this (part 1) and this (part 2) from Julia. Since she did all the hard work, I’ll just summarize a few things that stick out in my mind.
- We arrived with no plans, but were convinced to hire a taxi, driver, and guide from our hostel for $80/day for 7 days. At $280 total, this was about the same as flying around, but gave us the benefit of seeing the country on our drive, the ability to stop whenever we pleased, a guide to arrange our activities when needed and point out little-seen places, and transportation within each of the cities we were in. While I’d recommend doing this to anyone traveling there, we had a few rough drives in the taxi (8 bumpy hours to Kalaw on some of the worst roads I’ve ever seen, and an epic 15 hour drive from Mandalay to Yangon overnight to give us a full day in the old capital).
- Our taxi was a piece of crap. It had a sunroof that didn’t work, a radio that didn’t work, and might have had shocks, which as you might guess, didn’t work. Running over a pebble made that thing shake like we were in a tornado, so you might imagine how it handled on a lot of the rougher roads we found ourselves on. Anyways, from what I could tell, 2/3 of the cars in Burma had steering wheels on the right side, the rest on the left. This makes no sense, as they drive on the right side of the road, making it difficult for most drivers to know exactly how close to passing cars they are. That said, worrying about where the steering wheels are in Burma is kind of like freaking out about the color of the doctor’s scrubs before open-hear surgery; there are more pressing concerns at hand.
- We visited Yangon/Rangoon (the old capital), Bago, Kalaw (treking area), Inle Lake, and Mandalay. Yangon and Mandalay are both big, sprawling cities with high concentrations of ethnic Indians, moderate traffic, and only modest attractions.
- Inle Lake was my favorite place: its got a low-key beach town-y vibe and is a great place to rent a bicycle and pedal around. Plus, taking a longboat around the lake was interesting and refreshing.
- We skipped Bagan, which has thousands of pagodas. We saw plenty of pagodas without visiting Bagan, and frankly after 10 or so, they all start looking the same. Some of them were really awesome:
- Longyis are awesome, and wearing one for the first few days was a great decision. Not only are these “man skirts” comfortable in the humid heat, but wearing one immediately drew a warm smile from any local that saw me. I learned four Burmese phrases: “hello” (ming-la-ba), “how are you” (olay-gong-la), “thank you” (jezu-bay), and “its comfortable” (my day). The last I learned in order to have some kind of response to every smile, nod, and point I got in response to wearing the longyi.
- The Moustache Brothers in Mandalay was interesting- its a troupe of brothers who do a stand-up comedy routine and dance show, and basically the only entertainment in Mandalay listed in the Lonely Planet guide. One of the brothers was sent to prison for 7 years for making jokes about the government, and now they can only perform in English and out of their home. I don’t think humor translates so well between languages, and most of it wasn’t funny. The dancing was a little boring as well. One of the four dancers came out and was just hideous. These guys are making like $250/night, I’m sure they could have found some more beautiful faces. All was explained when he introduced her at the end of his show as his sister in-law!
- During a one day trek in Kalaw, we had an awesome guide who opened up a lot about the people of Burma and their thoughts on the governments. A few points that he made:
- The Burmese people don’t really understand democracy and how it works, and if you asked many of them what they think about the government, they really don’t have much to judge it against. They probably wouldn’t give you the pros and cons of military rule, they’d just tell you that they’re afraid of the government
- He told us an Aesop’s Fable, “The Frogs Asking for a King”, ultimately saying that the Burmese people have gotten the leaders they deserved. The Buddhist underpinnings of their disposition made it such that they allowed the military rulers to take power and abuse their rights. I think that’s what he meant.
- The guide had been a student during anti-government riots in the 70’s, and though he didn’t participate, he was putting out a fire and believes his picture was taken. In the picture it looked like he was participating, even though he wasn’t. As a result, he was expelled just before finishing his degree, which he was ultimately allowed to get over 10 years later.
- The guide was reluctant to get involved in any kind of politics, saying that now all he cared about was money. He said it was because there was nothing he could do, that the situation seemed so hopeless, and it only made him sad to think about it.
- We passed through a village during the trek, and the guide went to several houses and handed out medicine to the locals, one who had a frightening case of the measles. After finding out that the funds for this medicine often came from tourists, we gave him $25 at the end. $10 for his own pocket, the rest to buy medicine with.
- We visited maybe 20 pagodas during the trip, and while we saw tons of monks, there were two who really “adopted” us during our visit to their pagoda. One was super-quiet and nice, the other was ADHD-talkative; really, he wouldn’t shut up. (Left, ADHD, Right, Quiet Monk)