Category Archives: Myanmar

Leaving Yangon

I have waited to write this post because I thought a bit of time and space might help me understand my feelings a little better on the matter of leaving Yangon. I have even started writing this post several times, but what sounds right in my head never comes across clearly on the page. The fact remains that my thoughts and feelings about my time in Myanmar continue to be as contradictory and complicated as the place itself.

Any country that insists on driving on the right hand side of the road, using right wheel drive cars, is bound to be a challenging place to live. Nothing is done easily when it can be done in a more complicated, laborious way. It is done that way because it’s always been done that way, and while change is wanted and needed in the country, it seems a distant hope rather than a present possibility. This could be considered charming, and a characteristic of a country that is determined to maintain its unique identity, or it could be an indication of the very long slog Myanmar still has ahead of it as it makes its place in the world.

My personal experiences were very frustrating. I’m sure much of it stemmed from the transition of living and working in the UK to becoming an expat in a developing country. Things weren’t going to be easy, but I felt I had enough travel and professional experience to adapt. Certainly, my impression of the country as I travelled around left me spellbound with the Golden Land. Ancient pagodas; beautiful landscapes; tropical beaches; charming, funny people who didn’t have much but were willing to do anything to help you and who smiled at the drop of a hat.

But Yangon was a different case altogether. The gateway to Myanmar, but a singularly unattractive one. Dirty, dusty and inconsistent are the adjectives I mostly associate with the place. It could, and did, give with one hand and then take away with the other. It has the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is beautiful, it has Scott Market and pretty much everything you need in some way, shape or form, if you are willing to search it out. It does have what you need. Mostly.

But.

Things are hard to find, both in a retail and geographical sense. Sometimes you can find items that you want, if you are prepared to shop around. Often you cannot. Everything is very spaced out across the city, nothing is in easy reach, and sometimes I couldn’t find places I’d visited many times before, even after 9 months of living there. I can read a map. I have navigated my way around many, many cities using a map, my common sense and visual cues. Yet, I found it impossible to navigate Yangon. My map proved useless, with insufficient detail to pinpoint locations. Taxis never took the same route twice due to severe traffic congestion, so my visual cues never took root, plus, apart from Shwedagon, the city lacks memorable landmarks. My common sense was repeatedly thwarted. It frustrated the hell out of me.

I wanted to like Yangon but it never grew on me. Day to day living was often more complicated than it needed to be. Being white meant hugely inflated taxi fares. A visit to the Post Office could take up half your day. A walk up the road could put your life in your hands when dodging traffic, open drains and crowds who appeared to have no spatial awareness whatsoever. Even the simplest task became hard work when faced with rigid rule followers, inefficiency, or insufficient language to communicate successfully.

I was luckier than some. I had school accommodation, a cleaner and a two minute walk to work. However, my accommodation was dark, uncomfortable, and regularly infested with visitors of a less than welcome kind. My job did not live up to its promise and the place seemed to become a microcosm of the frustrations I encountered in Myanmar society. It became clear to me, fairly early on, that I was not going to stay two years as I had hoped.

However, if I hadn’t gone to Myanmar I would never have had the opportunity to do the travelling I have so recently enjoyed. I wouldn’t have had the time or the money. By ending my contract early, I was ideally placed to visit other countries on a shoestring and scratch the eternal itch of Wanderlust. I spent a very happy summer doing just that and arrived at my new destination eager and ready to go. For that I am eternally grateful.

I am also grateful, that on my last, predictably frustrating, exit from Yangon Airport, (I was prevented from taking an empty water bottle in my hand luggage but the multi-tool, lying forgotten at the bottom, was completely missed. The transfer check-in staff in Thailand however, nearly had a fit!) Yangon chose to show me a sight I had always looked for but never seen. As I flew away to Chiang Mai to start my new adventure I could see the whole city spread out beneath me, with golden Shwedagon sitting proudly on its hill, the towers and grid system of Downtown visible to all; all cradled by the broad arm of the river, separating the emerald rice fields of Dalah from its urban neighbour.

It was beautiful!

Happy Thingyan

A festival is brewing. Like a much-needed storm to break the hot and humid weather, Thingyan is needed to clear the spirit and renew the soul in preparation for the Myanmar New Year. Four to five days of washing away one’s sins of the previous year makes one ready to pay obeisance to your elders, make New Year’s resolutions and gain merit or possibly even become a novice and join the monks to be immersed in the teachings of Buddha.

It is also the opportunity to gather together (the Government having relaxed the rules on mass gatherings for this period), throw water at each other, play pranks, dance, and eat. It is a boisterous time that allows the normally calm population to let off steam (literally, when drenched with cold, dirty water, in 40 degree heat!).

The Burmese enjoy a good celebration and will find any excuse to have one. Aside from the public holidays (often dictated by Government, not calendar) there are often festive parades occurring. Drummers, pipers and singers crowd onto the back of a truck, broadcasting tinnily to the world through speakers tied onto the roof with rope, for any number of unfathomable religious reasons. But they are growing in size, volume and frequency as the countdown to Thingyan continues.

Anticipation has risen with the temperature in Yangon. Stages, called pandals, which double as water spraying stations and dance floors, have gone up around lakes and on key roads, often sponsored by rich and powerful families in the area; yellow Thingyan flowers (padauk) have been decorating businesses and taxis for weeks; hoses, water pistols and plastic wallets to keep your phone dry have been on sale on stalls and in supermarkets or sold on the road by strolling hawkers; the population has got slower and lazier and the taxi drivers crazier as the excitement has grown.

The day before festivities really kick off everything seems quiet. The city shuts down for the week and many businesses have started their holiday early. A sense of calm holds back the tide of celebrations. But for how long?

The religious broadcasts so beloved by our neighbourhood start early in the morning. Actually, the festivities began last night with what sounded like a Bollywood party happening somewhere nearby. By 5am the megaphone sermons are underway at one of the monasteries close by. Yet, from my building, everything seems normal. There are less people on the streets but life continues to pass close by and everyone seems dry and happy.

Later, I spot one or two boys on bikes, dripping wet and looking for the next soaking. I start to wonder if going out is a good idea but having made myself stay to see the event I know I will have to go eventually, or kick myself for a missed opportunity.

I venture out around 5pm. The day is cooler, a little over cast, and safer than venturing out, pale skinned, to get soaked and burnt in the hottest month of the year. At first, nothing happens. I start to wander around the neighbourhood but the streets are very quiet. Then I see a small boy, looking nervously at me with a plastic bucket in his hand. His father is with him and I smile at him, and nod. The father encourages his son to approach me and douse me with water. It is very gently done and I only yelp because the water is quite cold! The boy beams, and so does his father, as I mumble Happy Thingyan and walk on. Suddenly, the streets seem full of small groups of children and men with hoses, buckets, water guns and loud music. I deliberately take paths that lead me past them, smiling and nodding to let them know it’s ok, that I want to join in, although the fact that I’m already wet helps take away their caution. I’m often escorted through the melee by a parent, and asked if I’m OK? Passers by smile and laugh with me (and at me!) It is a sweet experience.

I head down towards Insein Road where loud music suggests a more boisterous atmosphere. There are no stages on Insein or Inya Lake Road nearby. If there were, the already unbearable traffic would grind to a halt. I can see the road glistening in the sunlight before I even get there and as I turn on to it I see a small water station dousing passing cars. Many people are crowded onto the back of trucks rolling slowly past the stations cheering and yelling and throwing water back out onto passers by. The bucket aimed at me missed but I was caught instead by a little old lady in a food stall, who got me square in the back with a cup of water. I spun around and laughed when I realised where the water had come from, and she laughed with me.

After a while, I head home, water logged, with squeaking shoes. I can imagine that over the week, the water-fights become less reverential and I know from my students that it isn’t always the charming experience I had. Water from the lakes (or worse) is used, as residential water is limited until the monsoon season starts in a month or so. And the water here is not safe to ingest at any time! Pranksters are known to put ice, or worse still, stones, into the buckets of water that are thrown and drinking (and drink driving) results in plenty of accidents.

But my brief experience of Thingyan was positive. I return home feeling baptized and ready to begin my own new year. I start my travels again tomorrow and I hope I can now go with an open heart and soul, ready to embrace another new phase of my life.

Movie Magic

Cinema experiences in Myanmar are certainly memorable, although not usually for the film itself.

First of all, I have to find the cinema. That can be a challenge in itself as there are several in the city but even my students can’t always tell me where they are! It’s also quite difficult to track down which cinema is showing what film as the websites I know of are rarely updated and the censors are quite selective about what films they show. Hollywood blockbusters are available but they don’t stay for long and are only shown by selective cinemas, so I have to be fairly attentive to worldwide releases if I am going to catch a film I really want to see.

I’ve managed to see Mocking Jay, The Hobbit and Insurgent, all series I originally started watching in the UK. I dread to think what Indie gems I’ve missed by being here though, and I really miss my regular Sunday outings to the cinema in MK.

However, my first visit to a Myanmar cinema was to see a nice little French film, shown as part of a European Film Festival last October. I was so starved of cinematic experience at that time that I would have happily sat through anything, including the dull Myanmar short about a family separated by work, reuniting over Skype while the child did her homework. It was only later that I realised the poignancy of that film, when I learnt that it was not unusual for families to be separated in this way and that going to Thailand was often the only solution many people have to earning enough money to support their families.

On that occasion, a mostly Expat audience gave me a feeling of being at home, the only real difference being that we had to stand for the Myanmar national anthem before the film. I could get a Coke and a box of popcorn and the tiered seating and red, velour seats were like a poor man’s West End Theatre. A golden curtain, breathing gently in the air-con, even covered the screen. It was very 1970s!

My other experiences have not always been quite so comforting. When I stumbled upon a cinema showing Mocking Jay, I immediately took the opportunity to enjoy another cinematic experience. I’d arrived just in time for the 3.30 showing (nearly every cinema in the city show films at 10.30am, 12.30pm, 3.30pm, 6.30pm and 9.30pm for some strange reason), bought one of the last remaining tickets and rushed up stairs to the cinema.

Modern metal music greeted me as I entered and I found myself surrounded by a young audience, some of whom were ‘courting couples’ who were gently bringing back the meaning of ‘sitting on the back row of the cinema’ in the face of stringent cultural attitudes towards open displays of affection.

The trailers and adverts in Myanmar cinemas make me laugh. In some cinemas, after paying homage to the flag, film posters are displayed on the screen informing the audience of the films that are currently showing or will be showing soon. In some of the more modernized cinemas, real Hollywood trailers are shown as well, but it’s taken me several visits to learn this.

I still remember the amateur adverts for curry houses and electrical stores at Uckfield Picture House back in the day. Adverts in Myanmar can be very much like that. Or, even worse, a 1980s mixture that evokes cries of ‘Whoa, Bodyform!’ or ‘The Best a Man Can Get!’ that would get howled off any self respecting UK screen these days. Audiences chomp and chat and play on their phones during this time but I’d expect that anywhere, it’s not the film; it’s just the prelude.

I can also watch films in 3D. This surprised me, as I hadn’t expected any form of advanced technology here, but for a very reasonable price, you can see a film in 3D, with glasses provided. For additional reassurance, the little I-Dog comes onto the screen and I am transported back to the UK in an instant.

Finally, comes the film. At this point, I’m ready to absorb myself in the next installment of a series, or experience a unique story for the first time. I’m eager to know how the director has reimagined a book or idea, and decide whether it matches my imagination. I love the cinema because I can just drop into another world without the everyday interfering, and escape.

Not so in Myanmar. Often, I can’t hear the opening over the rustling and chatting that continues from the adverts; phones go off and are answered, in spite of the usual reminders to switch them off, and people regularly get them out, bright lights included, to play on them when they can’t understand what’s happening in the movie, which is, of course, most of the time. The films I have watched have always been in English but without subtitles (don’t ask me why, I have no idea!) and audiences are not always able to follow them fluently. Some of the more dramatic bits can be lessened by the over excited squealing of audience members (often American girls), or regular visits to the toilet (may be three or four times per film), by audience members in my row, can interrupt my viewing pleasure.

At times, I have felt like I am on the worst school trip ever, except I wasn’t the teacher and I was outnumbered by a cinema full to one. *Sigh.*

This is not unusual for audiences in Myanmar. I have attended several events, both public and within school, where the audiences have not paid the slightest bit of attention to what is happening in front of them. ‘Theatre etiquette’ is unknown here and I consider myself lucky if I manage to enjoy half of what I’m trying to watch. But I won’t stop going to the cinema because of it.

Cinema visits are still a very essential part of my aesthetic pleasure, and while they will never be completely satisfactory in Myanmar, my visits are better than nothing.

Reflections on Inle Lake

As my brightly painted long-tail boat sped back across the vast, tranquil waters of Inle Lake, I took a moment to count my blessings. The sun warmed my back as the moon beckoned me on to my hotel in Nyaungshwe and I felt, well, blessed.

According to Timehop exactly one year ago to the day I had spent ten successive days marking and moderating GCSE folders, crunching data, writing reports and filing progress checks, on top of my normal teaching timetable, while frantically searching for new accommodation and a new job! Fast forward 365 days and I was exploring an area of natural beauty by wooden boat, visiting watery villages built on stilts over the lake; watching local fishermen balance, one-legged, on the very tip of their long, low wooden boats, reeling in nets while steering with a pole entwined by their other leg. I was laughing as flocks of black cormorants dispersed before us, taking cartoon runs across the surface of the water before settling down a few yards further on.

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I was realizing how lucky I was to experience this place. Popular, by Myanmar tourist standards, but vast enough not to feel crowded. I could see plenty of other long boats scudding along in the distance and hear the lawn-mower hum of their engines but I was also passing ordinary fishermen, plying their trade, mostly oblivious to us. I felt like I’d gone back in time and I stopped taking photos and just watched what they were doing, drinking in the scene. Having the time, and peace, to be able to do that was a world away from last year. I was in a different world, and I was happy to be there.

So happy, I ordered salad and a virgin mojito for dinner because heavier food would have spoilt the satisfaction I was feeling with the world! The place felt unsullied by modern living. (That is, if you look away from the perennial problem of plastic that litters the sides of the lake quite deeply in places). Simple, peaceful, almost unspoilt. I had to count my lucky stars.

I didn’t think I could like Inle Lake any more after that first day but I fell in love with it all over again the next morning. Scooting back down the canal to the now misty expanse of lake was a chilly experience, but to see fishing boats emerge out of the mist in all their pastoral glory is a sight not to be missed.

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Continuing my exploration of the channels, villages and floating gardens didn’t get old on the second day and, while I was subjected to the tourist sell even Myanmar can’t escape from, I enjoyed learning about the process of weaving lotus silk, the way to test true silver and cheroot making, each illustrating a culture rich in colour, creativity and industry.

I also loved the day market I visited. Once I’d got past the tourist stalls (yes, I did purchase – I can’t even resist the soft sell!) and into the local’s section I lost all sense of time and orientation as I wandered happily, watching cheroot smoking grandmas and a plethora of brightly hatted locals wearing colourful headscarves made from local material, or more often than not, simply colourful towels. I’ve always loved markets but this riverbank rural delight comes close to the top of the list.

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I also loved Shwe Indein Paya, a mad juxtaposition of old, crumbling, brickwork stupas reminiscent of Began, and recently restored white and gold stupas that seemed charmless in comparison. Many of the new stupas were restored with donations and had plaques of dedication on them but I preferred the older, ruinous sections more, with trees growing out of stupas and broken buddhas. Myanmar has many such sites which could be UNESCO Heritage sites but after a long period of isolation from the world the country has been slow to take on the offers of help from outside agencies, leaving beautiful sites to crumble or managing the renovations themselves, resulting in a strange juxtaposition of old and new like at Indein.

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To reach Indein you have to follow a long canal. I say canal because it was vaguely reminiscent of the scrubbier parts of the Grand Union, and it even had locks. Not the locks we know it the UK but man made steps up and down the waterway. Here, they are simply bamboo poles driven into the riverbed leaving a gap wide enough for one boat to pass through at a time. Then sandbags and reeds and debris ‘walls’ stop the water from passing and raise the level of the river behind it a little way. When you ride them in a longboat it is like bumping over the little waves on a water-ride, although the prow of the long boat rises several feet into the air and it makes it look like you are cresting white water!

My third day was very lazy. Nyaungshwe is a typical tourist base these days with little to see or do so I went to the Red Mountain Winery to spend the morning gazing out across the Shan plateau with Inle Lake to my left and rolling vineyards to my right, tasting wine and eating pizza. In spite of everything, Western influence is galloping a pace across the country, but, as yet, it hasn’t spoilt it.

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Again, I got to reflecting on how lucky I am. I was enjoying beautiful scenery less touched by tourism than many places in the world today. I’d met lovely people and seen amazing places that I’d never even heard of twelve months ago. I wasn’t working my arse off for little reward or stressed out beyond all reason. I was enjoying myself. I was content.

Pilgrim’s Progress

Burmese Buddhism is unique, blending the ancient, authentic Theravada school with the Nat worship (more linked to natural spirits) of the hill tribes and Hindu-Brahmanism of early traders to the country. Most religions, consider pilgrimage to be an essential part of the road to enlightenment but in Buddhism, it is not a duty, although Buddha emphasised its importance as a means of travelling to a higher state and purifying karma.

Pilgrims are often wanderers. People who have abandoned the world and freed themselves from worldly things to gain religious merit. While I am not a Buddist, nor a pilgrim in its strictest sense, in the last month I have visited the four most significant places of pilgrimage in Myanmar:

Shwedagon Pagoda

Mandalay Hill

Bagan and

Mt. Kyaikto (Golden Rock)

And in Myanmar, pilgrimage to one of these holy sites is a must. In fact, it is often a regular family excursion with three (or more) generations attending a site and praying together. Babies are carried, toddlers herded and grandparents slowly escorted up and down the many steps. All this is done in quiet reverence making these sites a haven from the constant hubbub of everyday life. Voices are hushed, raised only when chanting prayers.

Shwedagon Pagoda

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Shwedagon Pagoda is probably the holiest site in Myanmar because it has the relics of three Buddha enshrined in its summit. One of these is some hair from Gautama’s head. As legend has it, these hairs emitted a brilliant light that radiated to all corners of the world and cured the sick. The site of this miracle was Singuttara Hill, where Shwedagon Pagoda resides. Shwe is the Burmese for gold and Dagon means three hills, therefore perfectly encapsulating the legend. By day or night, in sunshine or in rain, it seems to hover above the city and glow. Even when covered in scaffolding it is lit up to be a beacon to all that is holy.

It is also huge! I got lost the first time I visited because it has four stairways leading to it and I foolishly did not take note of which one I had entered by. It also contains numerous gilded Buddha including a bejeweled Jade Buddha.

It is sumptuously faded yet still very impressive. It is also a great place to sit and contemplate life as you watch the pilgrims pay homage to their chosen shrine, be that their cosmological animal (a bit like our star signs) or another of the multitude of significant images. Offerings cluster around statues or in the base of Bodhi trees. Flowers, paper umbrellas, baskets of fruit, jasmine wreaths, even full meals lovingly cooked and left in homage. Candles are lit, water is often poured, and, at some point, each person will kneel, keeping their bare feet pointing away from the shrine as a sign of respect, and bow and pray with graceful reverence.

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Once homage is paid they may then strike one of the many, huge brass bells that are so much a part of Buddhism, resonating soulfully around the temple to release their prayers and encourage mindfulness.

Mandalay Hill

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Mandalay Hill, the setting for glorious sunsets after a day of temple visits around the area, also has its pilgrims and offerings, shrines and prayers. King Mindon founded the City of Mandalay in fulfillment of an ancient prophecy by Gautama Buddha that on the 2,400 th anniversary of his death a metropolis of Buddhist teaching would be built at the foot of the hill. Now, it is also a mecca for Burmese students who wish to learn English.

Sitting in the temple at the top of the hill, waiting for sundown, foreign tourists are often surrounded by eager students desperate to practice their English pronunciation. Whether these foreigners are British, American, French or Dutch, English is spoken as the country reflects upon its old colonial roots and looks towards new opportunities in the West.

The temple that crowns the top of Mandalay Hill is colourful and mirrored, glinting and glowing as the sun sets over spectacular views of Mandalay, the Ayeyarwady rice fields, and the Shan plateau. It has a majestic feel to it, overlooking as it does, the now ruined Royal Palace and it was a wonderfully peaceful experience to finish off a lovely day.

Bagan

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The Lost City of Bagan is another place altogether although just as inspiring as Shwedagon and Mandalay Hill. A 50 sq. km plain of brickwork stupas, hailing from the medieval era offers you approximately 2,200 temples, pagodas, kyaung and other religious sites to explore. There is less gold and more dust here, yet it has a more mystical feel about it that makes you love it even more.

Each temple has its own unique silhouette in the sunrises and sunsets Bagan is famous for, and each has its own significant story, although some sites are more significant than others:

Shwezigon Pagoda is more like the temples of Yangon and Mandalay with, as the name suggests, plenty of gold, and surprisingly good Wi-Fi!

Ananda is a dusty white temple with a gold stupa that is considered a masterpiece of Mon architecture, with labyrinthine corridors, tall teak Buddha images and illustrated Jutaka tales lining the walls.

Dhammayangyi’s ruinous silhouette reminded me of the Great Pyramids of Cairo yet it is the best-preserved temple in Bagan with beautiful brickwork and masonry and a vast array of puppets hanging from a tree near the entrance.

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Truth be told, at times it was difficult to remember which was which as we explored the vast area, but I know that, for me, this pilgrimage was by far the most significant. I loved the feel of Bagan, and the people I met there.

Mt. Kyaiktiyo

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Golden Rock Pagoda is quite a spectacle. The small (in comparison to the other religious shrines) 7.3 meter, gold covered rock is purported to be held in its precarious location by the hair of the Buddha. Legend has it that the hair was given by a monk on the proviso that it was installed in a rock the shape of his head. By magical means the king, Tissa, was able to fulfill this request and brought a giant rock from the seabed up to the mountain, an epic task.

The effort it took to visit this site was also by far the most arduous with noisy night buses and a very uncomfortable open-topped truck amongst our methods of transportation, but these were still preferable to the hefty 7km hike up the mountain that the devout can take.

I visited in the height of the season, with hundreds of visiting families and the odd foreigner milling around the mountain. Sadly, this resulted in the feeling I was attending a theme park rather than a spiritual place. Parts of it were certainly very touristy. The village at the bottom of the mountain, Kinpun, where most of the accommodation is, had a very makeshift feel about it and the stalls of souvenirs that cluttered the steep steps along the mountain ridge were a Burmese Blackpool. The open-topped truck, particularly on the return journey, was like a roller coaster that never quite dropped but kept you teetering on the edge of the abyss that fraction too long!

However, walking around the rock itself was quite a moving experience. As is often the case in Buddhism, women are not allowed to go to the sacred rock itself or apply gold leaf to it because, according to another legend, the rock is a female that only men can touch it (!), but they are able to pray nearby. Candles and offerings fluttered in the chill morning air as bundled up pilgrims made their prayers beneath the towering pagoda, with their backs to the forested mountains around them. Swifts dotted the sky and the early morning sun gave the rock a rich glow that is only enhanced, so I’m told, when viewed at sunrise or sunset. It is peaceful in a more natural way than Shwedagon or Mandalay Hill and gives a more concentrated feeling of worship than Bagan but I feel it needs to be experienced at a quieter time of year to be truly appreciated.

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Pilgrimages are a way to gain merit in the afterlife but I like to think that actually I have gained more from these experiences over the last month than that. Myanmar has some beautiful religious sites and provides some memorable adventures in the exploration of them that truly brings out the wanderer and the wonder in me.

Uninvited Guests

I have an apology to make. Tim Newton – I am sorry I ever laughed at you for being jumpy about insects and other creatures while we were in Peru.

There, said it. So why?

I am not the most unflappable girl I know. I do not like things that slither, scuttle or jump but I can cope with spiders and creepy crawlies quite well. Having been owned by cats for many years I had got used to dealing with their flapping, scurrying, screaming gifts. I do get startled by unexpected movements but I’m not exactly a nervous-Nancy. In Peru, Tim often made me laugh because he would jump at the tiniest bug (remember the creature in the bananas?) while I found I was able to cope with most surprises confidently. Even when a bat flew towards my flashing head torch in a toilet in Yarina I didn’t make a sound. I just dodged and continued to make my water! I later laughingly described it as something out of a slasher movie but it was just a good story, I wasn’t really bothered.

Then I moved to Myanmar. At first, it was just the mosquitoes. The tortuous buzzing in my ear at 4am drove me mad. I tried to get the landlords to put up a mosquito net but instead I got new window covers and some of the gaps around the windows stopped up. It didn’t work! I have to spray my rooms on a near daily basis and its essential if the maid’s been in as she opens all the windows and doors while she’s cleaning. I have a mosquito tennis racket thingy (pretty rubbish) and a little machine that I put on an hour before bed that is supposed to neutralize them (also pretty poor.) More often than not, I still wake up half eaten-alive, itching and swearing!

Again, I have to apologise to Tim. When we debated the killing of poor, harmless insects and I accused you of murder, I was wrong. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than squishing the blood-sucking, bitey little bastards. Although if I get a blood-filled female I do gag a bit.

Next came the lizards. I admit I wanted a lizard to act as pest control for the insects. When I finally got one I was pleased and named him Squishy (#Pixar) but I found him difficult to live with. He took up residence in the kitchen and every time I went in there and turned the light on, he would scuttle for protection and I would quietly jump. I learnt to manage this by announcing my presence before entering the room (a mad cat woman trick learnt from years of living with a nervous cat) and being prepared for movement. And it worked.

Recently, he startled me again when I nearly stepped on him in the TV room. Then, on closer inspection, I realized he wasn’t moving. On even closer inspection (once I’d got the nerve up) I realized he was belly-up, stone-cold dead, in the middle of the room, almost like he’d had a heart attack mid ceiling-crossing and dropped where he stood. He was unceremoniously binned and removed the next day, poor thing.

Now when I go into the kitchen I still jump, as a new, tiny Squishy has taken up residence in the tiles by the light switch. Oh well, back to square one!

Then there were the bats. Having survived my bat encounter in Peru unscathed, I thought that would be an end to it. However, twice, I have returned home and switched on my bedroom light to encounter a startled bat circling my room like a toy aeroplane on a string. The problem with bats is that they do fly straight at you until the sonar kicks in and they swerve. It takes a braver girl than me to try and dodge that while trying to open windows and provide an escape route for a creature who mysteriously entered the room in the first place. Frustratingly, the first time it happened I called my neighbor in for support but when we returned the bat was gone. We searched my sparse bedroom high and low for it but it had vanished. I’m pretty sure my neighbour thought I was slightly hysterical as I squeaked and dodged my way around the room.

The second time it happened, witnesses were closer to hand, and I was vindicated because the bat did the same disappearing act again. We concluded that it must have crawled through a hole in the wall next to the air-con. Not a very big hole but certainly big enough for a bat. I have since stuffed the hole with plastic bags and am (thankfully) yet to receive a third visit.

The straw that broke the camel’s back though, was the mouse.

I had had a dark, mysterious stranger (not the nice kind) visit me for the first time in October. Something moved across my floor, just in my eye line, and entered the kitchen. I wasn’t much bothered and assumed that it was Squishy. But then it scuttled into my darkened TV room and peaked out at me from behind the TV stand. Maybe it was the darkness, or the film that I was watching, but I admit it, I was freaked out! I made a fast, girly exit from the room and closed both that and my bedroom door firmly behind me, spending a nervous night in the relative safety of my bed.

After an anxious morning checking behind the TV I decided it was a one off and forgot about it. I was only reminded of it when something similar scuttled at me from under the shoe rack, just before Christmas. Again, my neighbour was nearby but not witness to the reason for my squeak, and again I put it down to Squishy.

It was only when I returned from my Christmas travels that I discovered who my uninvited guest was. The truth is, I may have continued to live innocently alongside the bloody thing for much longer if I hadn’t been too lazy to put my things away properly. I couldn’t get my wardrobe door to shut properly because of the strap of my rucksack. Instead of dealing with it properly I just kicked it, which resulted in a small, furry bullet shooting out from the pile of bags in there and ricocheting off my foot before retreating under my dresser. I’m ashamed to say that that did elicit a scream from me. Not the stereotypical Tom and Jerry woman, standing on a chair, holding up her skirts scream, but a scream nonetheless. It got the same scream an hour later when it did it again as I put clothes away in the dresser. This time it went behind the headboard, so I bravely stood on the bed and shone a torch down the gap to check my suspicions were right. Yep. I had a mouse.

Since then it has been a running battle to get rid of it. The manager has been slow on the uptake and claimed he couldn’t find the hole it used to get in. He has finally put down poison but it remains untouched while the little rascal is getting bolder by the minute.

Last Sunday I was sitting on my bed relaxing, having just returned from Golden Rock, when the creak of my wardrobe door made me look up in fright. Creeping out of the cupboard was the bloody mouse. My ‘Gasp. Oh Shit!’ sent it running for the dresser, while I huddled on the bed clutching my knees.

During the week, the feeling that I was not alone in the room, has repeatedly wakened me.

Last night I was woken again. This time I distinctly heard squeaking and scuttling. It was dancing the fandango on my dresser and rattling my jewelry on its china dish. I shouted and switched on the light to glimpse the bloody thing streak up the mirror and over the top. I continued to hear rustlings for sometime to come but couldn’t bear to go and look. I was too nervous to put my feet on the floor or switch off the light and go back to sleep. If it can get on my dresser, it can get onto my bed. And me! I barely slept for the rest of the night.

This morning, when I was confident I was alone in my room (it had probably sidled past doing the two-fingered salute earlier) I went to get a cup of tea. I ended up cleaning the whole kitchen from top to bottom as I found mouse droppings everywhere. I also found that the devil had scaled my stand-alone fridge freezer in the front room and helped itself to an apple from my fruit bowl.

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I admit I don’t have it as bad as some. Another neighbour discovered a rat running loose in her kitchen, a third had a cockroach in her bed (the insect kind!), and a friend in Mandalay has rats and snakes to contend with, but I’ve had enough. Every rustle, creek, and rapid movement caught out of the corner of my eye has my hairs standing on end and a cry on my lips. I’m a walking wreck through lack of sleep and I’m about ready to pack my bags and find a new place to live. I’ve never missed owning a cat so much in my life as I do right now and I’m annoyed that a rodent has the better of me.

I promise I will never laugh at those who are nervous again. But feel free to laugh at me and my pathetic inability to cope with life in the Tropics!

Going Postal

Until recently, I’d had nothing to do with the Myanmar GPO, and had had no desire to do so. While others had enjoyed the old-school thrill of post and packages, I had neither sent nor received any paper communications, preferring instead to rely on web-based technology to get my messages across.

However, a kind ex-colleague endeavored to reunite me with my Leavers Book – signed by my old work family back home on my leaving, and hurriedly left behind as I jetted off to the first of my adventures in Peru. I had provided an approximation of my address (I’m still not entirely sure I know what it is!) and she’d advised me about Marmite as prevention for mosquito bites. (You eat it not wear it, for those of you who just thought about that!)

That was in September, and I feared that that was the last I’d hear of it.

In early December I received an A4 page of paper, covered in Burmese, from one of our receptionists. I recognized it as a missive from the Post Office having seen the other expats waving similar slips around on previous occasions. My initial reaction was fear. Had my mother acted on the polite email I had sent her providing contact details to send me yet another Cats Protection League calendar? I desperately hoped not. I hoped it was my Leavers Book, as promised, but two months down the line I’d all but given up hope of ever seeing that again. Still, the next morning I set off Downtown with my slip expecting to encounter Myanmar officialdom at its best.

I was to be disappointed. Having arrived extra early at the sorting office I was first in the queue and dealt with extremely quickly. Apart from the oddity of having to watch my parcel being opened for me, to reveal, not only my Leavers Book but also a jar of Marmite from my St Paul’s friend, everything went like clockwork. Amidst the emotional response I had to the lovely messages I had received in my book I had to hand over a small sum for the ‘handling’ of the package and that was it. Done.

I proceeded to go next door to the official Post Office and bought a stamp for a Christmas card for my Mum. Also easy. A man at a window labeled STAMPS dealt with my request. He also informed me that I couldn’t send an envelope addressed in festive pink pen, and made me re-write it in blue biro!

After that, I thought my dealings with the Myanmar GPO were over. That was until my very best friend managed to leave items of clothing behind at my flat during her Christmas visit.

Having packaged up said items, alongside a little extra I thought she might like, I headed back Downtown one afternoon after work having recently learnt that you can’t post packages on a Saturday in Myanmar!

When I arrived I walked in and kept my distance from the counters labeled International where crowds seemed to have formed, with the intention of watching the process before engaging with the chaos. In two beats, a friendly lady had grasped my hand and led me to the front of the queue, chattering rapidly in Burmese to the woman behind the counter, having seen me hesitate with the package in my hand. To her credit, I think the counter lady told the other woman to make me wait my turn as she was already serving another customer, but as is customary in Myanmar this was all done with smiles and laughter while I stepped back to queue in true British fashion, with my cheeks slightly pink from embarrassment.

Soon enough it was my turn and the counter lady called me over. She wanted to know what was in my carefully cello taped package, and I told her, but that wasn’t enough. I had to show her. I protested, but she handed me a new box to put the items in and presented me with a slip of paper to fill in (with carbon copies attached). Of course, I couldn’t open the package without ripping it so I had to use the box and then rewrite the address on the slip. The contents were then inspected (sorry mate!) and passed along a line of women, all of whom had a quick look through the box before the contents were logged in another book, also stuffed with carbon paper between its pages, then the box itself was briefly marked in red crayon. I tried to watch the progress of my box, worried that items could fall from its unsealed bottom. However, a greater concern became the problem that it was placed next to an identical box, also unsealed and unlabeled, waiting for attention. I watched with increasing agitation as both boxes went to the men employed to seal the packages. Expertly they bound the boxes so that nothing could escape and placed them, side by side again, ready for the next step.

By this time, I had been called over to pay, my slip having been processed by the man in charge of accounts, who took $18 for the package. In true Myanmar fashion, they have a set-pricing table according to weight so anything up to one kilogram is all charged the same rate. They grinned at the expression on my face and jovially commented ‘expensive?’ as I grimaced and nodded my agreement. They then tried to charge me for the box and packaging. At this point, I laughed in their faces and pointed out that I hadn’t required that service as my parcel had been ready to go when I arrived and that they had forced me to use the box. Of course, I did this in a light and friendly manner but my meaning was clear and they didn’t push the point. I suspect they had made more than enough profit from my initial payment to cover the packaging on this occasion.

Finally, I was given a receipt with a number on it so I can track my package. Initially, it was a ‘computer number’ until I asked which website I could use, then it became a phone number I could call, in spite of the fact that it has letters in its combination. I insisted that I check the box, now fully sealed and correctly addressed as well, and the receipt, and they seemed to match up. At this point, I simply had to let go and decide to put my trust in the simple fact that regardless of the labour intensive and invasive methods used in this country, things like this simply manage to work out. Don’t ask me how. I have no idea.

So now I wait in hope. I hope the right package with the right contents reaches the right person in the right place, in one piece, in a reasonable length of time. Here’s to hoping!

Temple Run

The aim of the game: to see as many of Bagan’s ancient temples and pagodas as possible, maneuvering the hazards and gaining merit as you go.

Level 1: Getting Started

Getting started is very simple. Step out of your hotel and choose your mode of transport – taxi, e-bike, horse and carriage etc. Negotiate your price and off you go.

We elected to do the horse and cart. Our driver, Aung-Aung, and his young, bitey but much loved pony whisked us off at a brisk trot to visit all the major attractions of Bagan.

Level 2: Temple Running

Running the gauntlet of hawkers is usually the first hazard you encounter. Our first stop was the Shwezigon Pagoda. We were greeted by ladies directing us to the entrance (via their shops of course) but Aung-Aung had already pointed us in the right direction and informed us the wifi here was better that at our hotel, so we avoided our first hazard and gained the wifi bonus with ease.

I can’t say we were so successful at other stops. I’m a bit of a sucker for a smile and a joke and the pagodas are full of helpful people directing you to the best bits in exchange for a visit to their stall full of job-lot souvenirs or sand paintings. I’m afraid I lost a few lives by stopping and shopping with nearly everyone I spoke to. I didn’t always buy but I did make a considerable contribution to the economy during our stay. I’d like to think I was gaining merit instead!

Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoyed the exchanges. Stock phrases were delivered with charming smiles and it was in no way the aggressive selling I’ve experienced elsewhere. It’s also the only income the people have, as the ticket for the archeological zone, purchased at the airport, finances the Government not the local people or their families, and the only source of employment is within the tourism industry; so I was happy to fail and repeat this level a number of times.

Level 3: Left or right?

This bit is always tricky, choosing which way to turn to see the best bits of a temple. Again, Aung-Aung, in helpful hints mode, explained the significance of the temples we visited and told us which way to turn to see the best paintings or statues of Buddha. Although his English was limited we always got the gist, and his twelve years experience of guiding certainly enabled us to see the best bits. Serene Buddha’s, cartoon like paintings and dramatic, dusty vistas abounded on our first day exploring Bagan.

Level 4: Hazards

Of course, there are many small hazards to be aware of here. Taking your shoes off to enter temples means stones, bat poo and, on one occasion at a lesser-known site, snakes.

Then there’s the stairs. Most of the temples are out of bounds for tourists and some are just too eroded to attempt but a few are prime locations for viewing the 50 square kilometer archeological area. However, to get up them you have to navigate the steps. These are often steep, narrow and oddly leveled to create an uneven rhythm when climbing. Sometimes they are on the inside of temples, resulting in pitch-black leaps of faith, or, they are climbed in the dark before sunrise or after sunset.

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When allowed to navigate them in a timely, cautious fashion they are surmountable but throw in gung-ho Americans with no brakes, narrow spaces with no handrails and people jammed in, heading in both directions and it becomes a terrific feat of balance, especially in the dark. Thankfully, my accident-prone companion and I both managed to survive these hazards with (some) grace and humour!

Level 5: Increasing the challenge

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Our second foray into Bagan was by e-bike. Neither of us are big fans of bikes, roads nor traffic as both of us are a bit accident-prone but these electric bicycles presented us with an opportunity not to be missed. We managed to find a repressed, reclining Buddha and a fantastic view of the Ayeyarwady River by simply heading off the beaten track and wobbling our way cautiously down unfrequented tracks. Sandy routes, other inept riders and unpredictable traffic did keep us on our toes but we survived this challenge unscathed and saw plenty more of Bagan as a result.

Level 6: Rewards

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Apart from the fact that we got to explore an amazing archeological zone, the rewards from this experience were plentiful. Dusty, leafy vistas and red brick stupas were everywhere we looked, the sunset was only marred by other people(!) and the sunrise was truly breathtaking, and only enhanced by the twenty or so balloons floating majestically over the misty landscape. We met a wonderful array of locals and had fun chatting and bartering with them. We challenged ourselves, treated ourselves, and rested too. The greatest reward of this visit was Christmas Day by the pool with a book, a real treat!

All in all, I think we mastered our version of Temple Run, and we certainly had fun playing!

The Road to Mandalay

So, I’ve finally found my way to Mandalay. Not by ‘the road’, which, incidentally, is actually the Ayeyarwady River in Kipling’s poem, but by train.
The adventure began when we hailed a taxi to the station. Actually, we hailed three who either a) refused us point blank b) tried to overcharge us because we looked like tourists or c) did not understand what we wanted. Eventually an English speaker offered a fair price and we were helped on our way by a couple of the Orange Shirt Assistants from work, whom we’d met in the meantime.
At first I was concerned that we had found another cabbie who hadn’t quite understood us. The route he took to the station was not one I’d ever used before. The roads he used were like the stairs at Hogwarts, changing our direction until we were disoriented, glimpses of familiar landscapes passing us by before discovering yet another unfamiliar part of town just seconds later. However, we arrived at the station in plenty of time and were directed to Platform 1 (not 9 3/4) to wait.
Our tickets (which I’d purchased three days before) were simple slips of paper which were handwritten with our name, passport number and seat then stamped in official blue ink. To our amusement the price of the ticket was four times that of the life insurance our purchase also included. Apparently, we were only worth 3000 kyat (£1.80) each!
You may wonder why we would need life insurance on a simple train journey. Well. The train, and the tracks, have definitely seen better days. Our carriage was rusty, our seats grimy, the wooden bunks looked rotten, spiders and cockroaches hitched a free ride and everything rattled with the movement of the train. It could be said we were taking our lives in our hands by choosing this method of transport.
We did have a toilet to alleviate the discomfort of this 14 hour journey. I had been warned that they could be pretty gross and envisioned it to be like Glastonbury on springs. However, the toilet itself was fine. A typical, stainless steel, western toilet over the tracks. Positive luxury as long as we didn’t stop to wonder when it was last cleaned. Of course, remaining seated was a challenge and probably the reason we needed life insurance. That said, we were at greater risk of either getting locked in there by the dodgy lock or exposing ourselves to the compartment if the door rattled itself open over particularly bumpy sections of the track.
We were sharing our sleeper with a Dutch couple who were following a similar itinerary to us over the next few weeks so we spent the first hour of the journey discussing Yangon and Thailand. I felt quite the traveller as we shared experiences about Yangon and I offered advice for their return trip there.
Night fell quite soon after we set out. The purple and blue sunset gave way to a canopy of stars. If I stuck my head out of the window (avoiding passing trains obviously) and looked up, I could see all the familiar constellations of the Northern Hemisphere. Although Orion’s Belt was ‘hanging low’ according to my companion.
Bedtime also arrived quickly. The lack of sufficient beer, lousy snacks, a rather grumpy co-traveller and the typical Myanmar mixup of lights to light switches left us preparing for sleep around 8.30. I had the top bunk, which I was initially grateful for having witnessed the broken nature of the lower one. However, I revised that opinion quite early on when I found myself bumping around like an over enthusiastic teenager having bad sex!
Sheer exhaustion and a good sense of balance kept me up on the narrow bunk for most of the night, shivering under a thin sheet and my travelling scarf until I could lie there no more. Bruised and battered I clambered down from the top and managed to witness multiple sunrises as the train bumped around a ridge of hills to the east, that re-revealed the golden sun to me time and again.
A few hours later and we had arrived in Mandalay: sleepless, bruised and hungry. But we had arrived, in one piece, ready to explore Mandalay and beyond.

Taxi!

Mingalar bah! Can you take me to the Airport? Airport? You know (mimes an airplane) Yes, airport! How much? Nooo. 4000. Ok, good. Let’s go.

Oh, a registration card. You’re a driver by trade? Not one of those guys who hires a car for the day and picks up unsuspecting albinos, gets very lost and then tries to charge them extra.

You drive a Corolla. Who doesn’t? Yours has seen some service though, it looks like it’s travelled from the 1950s. Oh, it did? That explains the holes then. The petrol tank in the boot is an interesting feature. I guess that’s only really dangerous in the event of an accident, or fire. As long as no one’s in the boot when it happens… ah, you can carry six. Two in the boot? No thanks, I’ll sit in the front.

Shall we get going then? Yes, I’m putting on my seatbelt. It’s the law back home you know. At least you have seatbelts. You don’t need the Angry Bird seat belt buckles that stop that annoying beep newer cars have. You know, the safety feature that makes you wear your seat belt? I do like what you’ve done with the dashboard though, cute decorations. Yes, Buddha and dancing flowers are very kitsch and the wooden seat covers don’t slide about or numb your bum too much. Well, who needs padding when bouncing over potholes anyway?

I’m glad you don’t have those horrid betel stains down your door. You simply open the door and hawk it up when you’re sitting in traffic. And when you’re moving? A plastic bag on the choke would do it, yes, better than the floor of your car anyway.

Mirror. Signal. Manoeuvre? You should have three mirrors but waving your arm out of the window and moving off has much the same effect I’m sure. The one in the middle isn’t simply for hanging decorations off you know. What about your wing mirrors? Yes, it must be difficult driving a right-hand drive on the left side of the road; that’s why mirrors are a good thing. Ah, that’s how you lost them?! Oh well, let’s just roll out and hope then.

Lots of traffic today. Well, every day really. Insein Road is just that, insane! Oh, a space. Let’s go for it. Just you and four other drivers, not to mention the fume spewing bus. Yes, please close the windows, one face-full of pollution is enough thanks. Oh, you don’t have air-con? Never mind, I’ll hold my breath until the bus has passed.

Finally, we’re moving. Oh, you know the New York Cabbie one-second rule? But we’re moving. Oh, I see, you’re not impatient; you’re letting the drivers without mirrors know you’re coming. A bit like jungle drums maybe? It’s quite a complex code you use.

Oh god, mind the pedestrians. I don’t think a beep is enough. No! I said mind them not swerve to hit them! Phew! They slipped between the cars before you reached them. That’s another reason to stay in lane, so you don’t hit the pedestrians dodging the traffic. In lane, you know, between the lines? No? Well I don’t suppose anyone else does either.

Ah, we’ve made it! One hour to cover five miles isn’t bad at this time of day I suppose. Thanks for opening the door for me. No, it wasn’t stuck, there just wasn’t a handle!

Kyei: zu: be:!