Posts tagged ‘Myanmar’

Daily Life, Myanmar

Bagan

Bagan

The thing I like best about travelling independently is having the freedom to adjust things as we go along. Of course, there are some constraints imposed by time, it would be lovely to be able to go somewhere and just wander until I’ve done everything, but like most other people, I have neither the resources nor the freedom to do that. So given what is available to me and my travelling companions, we try to see as much as we can by being travellers, rather than tourists. We eat in local food stalls and cafes, we talk to the people we meet in shops, in the markets and on the streets and we walk, catch trains and trishaws, tuk-tuks and so on. So far, we’ve never had any dreadful experiences and apart from a couple of unwise eating choices, have generally had no major tummy upsets. We were a bit concerned about going to Myanmar, since there’s not a lot of information available, but sites like Trip Advisor, The Man in seat 61 and other similar sites are sharing more and more information about what used to be a big unknown. We found the people to be pretty much like us, the country is a melting pot of people from all over, with all the major religions well represented as well. We didn’t go to Myanmar for any political reason and that didn’t keep us away earlier, but we were very interested to see photos of Aung San Suu Kyi widely in display in shops and on the street.  The general cleanliness and maintenance of infrastructure of the cities, particularly Yangon and Mandalay, isn’t wonderful, but that could be partly attributed to the fact that it’s the dry season and very dusty. With the new interest in the country lots of foreigners are going in looking for ‘opportunities’.

railway side market, Yangon

railway side market, Yangon

Hopefully the old buildings will be refurbished rather than replaced and it would be a blessing if the waterfront along the river could be renewed, there are currently lots of rather ugly godowns taking up the space which could be beautiful boardwalks and parks.
Life is obviously pretty tough for a large proportion of the population and there is a clear division between rich and poor. Yangon is much larger than we expected and is really a collection of townships which are sort of merged together, with the centre of the city more or less around the Sule Pagoda, south of the railway line. Some of the highlights and observations that made impressions on me – the huge avocados for sale. They were good too and we brought three home with us.

watering the fields, Yangon

watering the fields, Yangon

The turf growers along the railway lines. I was particularly intrigued by the watering cans – a pair of 4 gallon drums with a spout attached which had holed drilled into it. Slung across the shoulders, the water-er could water double the space within the same time. We watched farmers ploughing, planting, harvesting and winnowing rice at various locations and we saw the toddy palms with their ladders to the tops which grow around the edges of the rice fields. Because we were a bit late leaving our hotel in the morning we were to depart from Bagan, we were lucky to find ourselves in the middle of a celebration – the young boys going off a monks. A little bit of serendipity.

Festival in Bagan

Festival in Bagan

We were equally interested in the hawkers along the roads as we wandered about. They looked very familiar, though selling slightly different things. There were sugar cane juice sellers, people selling all sorts of kueh (cakes) and people sitting on small stools dipping meat on sticks into bowls of steaming broth. There were a few people selling Eu-char-koay, but they were selling it with curry, though we didn’t try it because the roads were very dusty. One thing we saw in a number of locations was someone with small birds in a basket. They were obviously selling the birds for release, but they also sold corn for you to feed the many pigeons flying about.

Public telephone, Yangon

Public telephone, Yangon

We knew before we arrived that our phones would be useless for calling, though we had internet, not brilliant, but it worked, in all the hotels. Some of the cafes had it available as well, so we were able to stay in touch. It was quite nice to be ‘cut off’, sort of, for a week or so. Because mobile or public phones are so non-existent in Mynmar, the locals have come up with an innovative response using land lines. Here and there around the city, you will see a few regular house phones set up on small tables (or sometimes in a booth, with advertising!) where you can go to book your calls. They probably won’t be needed for too much longer, progress will come fast, including in the provision of the communications systems.

 

Myanmar – Pagodas by the score

pagoda-4358Many years ago we visited Thailand and were ‘templed out’ after a couple of days. I think because they were all very similar, all very busy and apart from one we visited in Chiangmai, they didn’t really seem to have much to differentiate them from any of the others. There was enough variety in the temples of Laos and Vietnam to keep us interested and Angkor is, well, Angkor. You really appreciate just how magnificent Angkor must have been in its golden age only after you visit Myanmar. You can imagine what the temples would have been like with their roofs and stucco, their gold leaf, jewels and frescoes. There are differences of course, the shapes are different for a start and the temples in Myanmar all look like they had an ice cream upturned on the top. Angkor has been described as a grand Chinese dinner, served course by course. Myanmar, in particular Bagan, is a smorgasbord  Of the estimated original ten to twenty thousand stupas and pagodas, only about two thousand remain. Some have been lost over the years through attrition and earthquakes but many have simply been washed away by the Irrawaddy river as it eats into the bend of the river around old Bagan. The first temples in Bagan were probably built from around two thousand years ago, but most were constructed over about four hundred years from the mid 9th Century,  until the kingdom was over-run by the Mongols at the end of the 13th Century. We’d have loved to see the lot from an early morning balloon ride, but at nearly $300 US a pop, that was out of the question. So we went by horse-cart. Our driver Ko Ko took us around the main temples except for the Shwezigon Temple which was a bit far for our horse, but the others were just as impressive in their own ways. We set off from our hotel in New Bagan heading North to Old Bagan, stopping on the way to visit the Nagayon Guphaya in Myinkaba. pagoda-5038It was built in the 11th Century by King Kyansittha after he was sheltered by a snake which covered him with its hood as he slept. A short walk away is the Lay-Myet Hna Pagoda which has a terrace you can access via a small dark staircase, but affords you a wonderful panoramic view of all the other large temples laid out to the north and west of you. When you descend, the caretaker is very happy to show and he hopes, to sell you, one of his sand paintings. A little further on, we made a quick stop off at the Apeyadana Pagoda, before heading for Myinkaba town. Tucked in behind a row of laquerware workshops, you will find the Gubyaukgyi and Mayazedi Pagodas. The Gubyaukgyi pagoda has some rather impressive stucco detail at eye level, but it is well worth it to continue on to the Mayazedi Pagoda next door past lots of enthusiastic but relaxed sellers of sand artwork. Here you’ll find the Mayazedi pillar, the Myanmar version of the Rosetta stone. Carved into each side of the stone is the same description of Prince Rajakumar’s feelings towards his father, in four different languages, Pyu, Mon, old Burmese and Pali. I guess he was just making sure the point was made.
Ananda is surely the most beautiful of all the Bagan temples, with it’s impressive frescoes and the four Buddhas of the four ages. The frescoes are being slowly restored, and a walk around the grounds so you can view the temple from a distance is a rewarding exercise. We made sure we gave the bells a good beat as we went by for good measure. Dhammayangyi is the largest of all the pagodas and looks like one of the Egyptian pyramids from a distance. The brickwork is very well done and the fit is said to be too tight for even a fine blade to penetrate the joints. Thatbyinnyu Pahto is the tallest, not by a lot, but the golden spire makes sure of that, reaching to 62 metres. Dhamma Ya Zi Ka Pagoda is unusual in that it has a pentagonal terraced design. Four sides are for the already revealed Buddhas, the fifth is waiting for the one yet to come. We arrived just in time to climb up to one of the western facing terraces to see the sun drop behind the hills. Sunset in Bagan seems to be pretty reliably spectacular. In most places you need to have some clouds to give definition, but the sand in the atmosphere around Bagan, even if it’s not too obvious, brings out the reds and adds an extra dimension to the stupas laid out before you. Each of these beautiful buildings was worth the visit but we barely scratched the surface. A look on the internet lists far more than we managed to see in our brief time, you could happily spend a week of more in this lovely location and still not see everything.
We probably sold ourselves short by spending only one day in Mandalay, there are lots of side trips we could have done and we didn’t even make it up Mandalay Hill. The town itself, at least the part we wandered around, is quite dusty particularly once you get off the main streets, but the people are friendly and will point you in the right direction if you get lost. We found a Hindu temple down a back street, though we didn’t go inside. Myanmar is a melting pot of cultures and there are many mosques and churches alongside all the Buddhist temples.

pagoda-7099If you have no time or inclination to visit any pagoda in Yangon other than one, choose between the Sule Road and the Swedagon Pagodas. We were staying in Sule Pagoda Road and thus walked round the Sule Pagoda a number of times, admiring it from all angles, including from the over-bridge on the western side that skirts the pagoda itself at the upper terrace level. You can also get a wonderful view of the pagoda from the footbridge over the road, a block north. This is the space that was filled with thousands of demonstrators in 1988 during the uprising of students and monks against the government. The other rallying point was around the Shwedagon Pagoda, to the north of Sule Pagoda. It is a magnificent building, visible from many parts of the city and worthy of an afternoon and evening set aside for a visit. As with all the pagodas, temples, stupas, however big, small or seemingly unimportant, they are all revered places and no footwear is allowed, including socks. You are also requested to cover your shoulders and knees, and men in shorts will be offered a longyi to wear to cover up. pagoda-0725Apparently the Northern entrance is pretty impressive, but we weren’t at all disappointed going in at the western entrance hall. There is a separate entry for foreigners and you can safely leave your shoes in the shelves there after paying your entry donation of $5. We didn’t mind walking up the long flight of stairs. There is an escalator, but it wasn’t running and there is a lift at one of the other entrances. We stopped to buy some flowers so we could make offerings at the little shrines around the main pagoda. Which shrine you go to depends on the day of the week you were born, with Wednesday having a different one for morning and afternoon/evening. As we made our way into the complex, a young chap attached himself to us and sort of took over as our guide. We didn’t have the heart to send him away, especially as he was a mine of information. After we’d done one round, we decided we wanted to sit and wait for the sunset so we gave him a little thank you for his help and he went off happy. He’s a student at one of the universities and apparently lots of students earn a bit of income taking people around. The Shwedagon Pagoda is enormous. It is home to many monks, though not as many as before the uprising. A lot were arrested and some decided to go home. The whole complex has lots of small pagodas, stupas, shrines and each one is unique. There are gold ones, white ones, highly ornamented ones. Two huge bells have their own homes and there is a small museum / gallery where you can find out about the buildings and detailing. We found out the the finial on the main pagoda holds a huge (that’s HUGE) number of precious stones – diamonds, sapphires,  rubies one of which is around 80 carats, probably a bit big for my finger. We also learnt by listening in on someone else’s guide, that if you stand on a certain tile, you can see one of the diamonds blinking. We tried it and yes, it’s true and it changes colour as well. Taking a photo was something more of a challenge though, since it’s right up high.
By the time we’d wandered round a couple of times and watched the people doing good works sweeping or washing the floor, watched the group of local ladies in ethnic dress having their photo taken, watched the monks taking their exams, praying, meditating or honouring the deities, we decided to head back to our hotel. We weren’t the only tired ones, I spied one chap reclining in front of the reclining Buddha statue, fast asleep. I was torn. Would I take a photo or not. Would it be rude? I always prefer to get some sort of acknowledgement before or after taking, but he was out for the count. Then I noticed the lady beside me giggling away and snapping enthusiastically with her phone camera. I made a bit of a ‘should you’ expression, but she laughed some more and asked me to take some too, telling me it was her brother, so go ahead.

Myanmar – Don’t eat the Ulam!

Where we got sick.When you travel there is one rule you NEVER break, the one that says don’t eat it if it’s raw. Two of us broke that rule this time. Luckily we weren’t too badly affected me less so, and the Chinese medicine helped a lot, but that little reminder never hurts. What did we eat, well, Myanmar food is similar to what we’re used to, but different as well, in the way it’s eaten. Our horse-cart driver KoKo recommended us to a very nice little restaurant just near the Ananda Pagoda in Bagan as we said we wanted local food. Apparently lunch is the best meal for this, a number of small dishes served with rice, soup and a bowl of raw veggies with dipping sauces. We all ate the cooked dishes and a few of the raw veggies  Baby eggplants, ladies fingers and so on. The one that probably did us in was the pegaga, a leafy little fellow that was really delicious dipped in the sauce. We didn’t stop to think what the fertiliser might be and how it was applied.
Other than that, food was not a major problem. We ate local food in the hotel the first evening after we arrived, sharing the three set menus offering different main meat dishes and most of our other meals in Yangon were taken at Sakura, at a little cafe close to the Kyauktada Police Station in Sule Pagoda Road. They serve local / Thai food as well as some basic western dishes, local beer, great fruit drinks (the papaya juice is excellent) and coffee.

Helping with the maths.

Helping with the maths.

Mandalay was a bit more difficult. Not having much time in the city, we wanted somewhere near our hotel so we walked to a local shop recommended by the staff at the reception. It was what we’d know as a coffee shop / kopitiam / mamak stall, selling freshly made food and drinks. The pancakes sounded good so we ordered three banana ones. When they arrived, they were very like Malaysian murtabak, except much less oily and a little crispy. They were delicious and we ended up having mutton filled ones at a roadside stall later for dinner. At the second stall, the little boy taking our money tried to give us back too much change and was quite bemused when we explained the maths to him.
Apart from our lunchtime ‘adventure’ in Bagan, we enjoyed dinner at the Sunset restaurant along the river a few minutes walk from our hotel, the Thiri Malar. We were glad we had our trusty little torch, because there are no street lights and there were signs in our rooms warning us to stay on the paths because otherwise we many encounter snakes, scorpions and nasty prickles. We certainly heeded that advice. Our breakfast, eggs, toast and fruit with fresh pressed juice and tea / coffee was enjoyed on the rooftop terrance, admiring the view. There are pagodas everywhere and it is a very pleasant way to wake up and enjoy breakfast in the cool of the morning, even if your tummy is not completely happy. Before we left we had lunch just round the corner at the San Carlo restaurant. Home made pumpkin ravioli, spaghetti and hone pancake filled the cracks nicely before we set off on the train back to Yangon. The long distance trains do have restaurant cars, but we didn’t try them out. We ordered food from the one on the Yangon Mandalay run, which was fine, noodles, but we didn’t feel like rocking and rolling our way through the carriages in between to actually go there ourselves.

Myanmar by train

I love trains and when we’re travelling, if there are trains available, I’ll look at using them to get about, especially if I can save us a night’s accommodation in the process. However, the over-riding consideration is that they must go where we want them to go, and approximately when we want.
It was therefore with some trepidation that I factored two train trips into our much anticipated visit to Myanmar recently. Having read everything I could find, which wasn’t much and was mostly out of date or had lots of ‘can’t guarantee this is correct’ comments, I put on a brave face and convinced my travelling companions that all would be well.
I have to say that I pulled the correct straw out of the bundle. Phew. The trains ran where we wanted and when and had sleeper cars attached.

So. Here is the latest information on travelling by train in Myanmar as at January 2013.

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Yangon Railway Station

First rule. You need to buy your tickets in your town of departure. Don’t panic, there should be seats available, at least our trains were not overbooked. The latest timetables and fares are posted below, it will cost you USD33 for a ticket Yangon to Mandalay, and despite it stating that Bagan to Yangon is USD50, we only had to pay USD40, plus $2 to the agent. You don’t go to the station to buy though. In Bagan, that is miles out of town and going there once is enough. You can buy your tickets from the agent in Nyaung U, your hotel should be able to point you in the right direction. In Yangon, the ticket office is a very dark building directly over the road (Bogyoke Aung San Road) from the Sakura Building. You will need your passport and nice crisp USD.

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The ticket office, Yangon

Get to the station at least half an hour early and you can make yourself at home once you are able to board. There is a tourist’s waiting room in Bagan, but it looked like it had never been used and anyway, the platform was much more interesting. The trains are all pretty old and look like they are originally from Malaysia. At least the sockets in the Yangon / Mandalay ones were, they had SIRIM stickers. You will be hassled by chaps taking your dinner orders (7000Kyat) in Yangon, delivery at 7pm, but not in Bagan. You should take food and plenty of drinking water. We loaded up with individual packs of biscuits and fruit we bought at the market so we were fine. There is a restaurant car, but we didn’t actually go to investigate, though the food apparently came from there on the Yangon Mandalay journey. Take something warm, jackets, a sarong to wrap up in, extra socks. They give you a thin sheet, but it gets really cold and you will welcome every extra layer you can find. This is the cooler part of the year, mid-year might be the opposite. The trains aren’t air conditioned, it’s all natural aided by a ceiling fan if you need it. We didn’t.

You will get a free massage during the trip. You get rocked side to side, front to back and fishtailed. Or if you prefer, it messes with pitch, roll and yaw. But the ‘best’ is the up and down. NOT! Our carriage Yangon / Mandalay obviously had a faulty spring somewhere, so everytime there was any reasonably hefty bump, the up & down movement took on a life of its own and intensified. One of our group ended up with a nasty bruise on his hip as a result.

On the whole, I would have to say it was a positive experience. The toilets were reasonably clean (but take toilet paper) and I at least, managed to get some sleep once I got into the rhythm of the train. If you wake up in the middle of the night when you’re in a station, you can see all the local travellers getting on and off and as you get close to your destination in the morning, you will see lots of morning markets at the stations. In fact, many  tourists take the circular route round Yangon to see how the other half lives. If you’ve come in on the Bagan train, you’ve already seen this, at the right time of day, so you can save your $1 and put it towards a drink at The Strand hotel instead.

One note about the Mandalay station. If you have a big bag, negotiate for a taxi straight off the platform. Then you don’t have to carry your own bag down millions of steps with no directions.

Enjoy!