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Subject:  Report from Yangon (Rangoon)
Date: Afton, Vriginia, Sunday 23 November 2003

Dear family and friends,

Much to my surprise and his, I have been in touch with Ron several times via email. We had both read and been told that there was no Internet access in Myanmar. The first brief messages were sent from an email service with a single email address for sending and receiving. I sent my responses with Ron's name in the subject line. Ron mentions this service below, but doesn't talk about the process: he would write out the message by hand, and then someone from the email service would type it into the computer (without Ron seeing or editing the message). The combination of Ron's terrible handwriting, along with what I suspect would be a typist who is not very fluent in English, resulted in some messages I puzzled over and never could figure out completely. Here is Ron's description of a visit to a special pagoda, which I have cut and pasted directly from the original message:

"One morning before sunrise I visited the SHWEDAGON pagoda and took a lots of pictures as the day broke. While I had soon pictures from a distance I never realized the often of the several stutust or areas with several BUDDHA models.When I first arrived there were four people praying the light and colors green with the sunrise.Gradually, more people arrive and by the time the first tourist arrived the peaceful experience has strangered."

You see the difficulty! I was thus very glad when he found the Internet cafe where he was able to type his own messages.

I am making progress on organizing our photos from Bali and Kuala Lumpur and preparing to mount them on our Web page, along with the travel reports we sent.

Many thanks to all of you who have sent me email messages welcoming me home. I think, 11 days after returning home, I am finally over the 13 hour jet lag -- thank goodness!

Several people have commented on how funny they found the story of rebooting the car. Apparently it is not a totally unknown thing, since our son-in-law once had a similar experience. He tells me, "In fact I have heard of that... I once bought an '81 Chevy truck for $250 (of all things) that wouldn't run until the internal computer was powered off, the main memory shorted out and repowered. Then it ran like a champ, until the guy I sold it to neglected to keep oil in it."

Love to all,

Ellen

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Ron's report from Yangon [Rangoon], Saturday 22 November 2003

Dear Ellen,

When I got my visa for Myanmar at their Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, I was disapointed when they said that I could only get a visa by air and could not use the southern land border from southern Thailand. The Embassy also told me that I could not get an extension to my visa after arriving in Myanmar. Because all my plans were in doubt, and the logistics of dealing with the bicycle while also working out the unknowns, as well as several people advising me not to bicycle in Myanmar, I left the bike in K.L.

My experiences so far have been far different from the expected. When I arrived at the airport I found a welcome reception. While clearing the customs/immigration section I was never asked to exchange $200 into their Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs) which I understood from everyone that they made you do. Either I missed the counter or the procedure has been discontinued. After clearing the official counters, there was a counter selling taxi service and information about hotels, and I was taken to my downtown hotel for a reasonable $5.

When I inquired at the official tourist information site in downtown Yangon a couple of days later, I was told that there was no problem staying longer, and when I left I would just be charged $3 per day that I was over my visa, but that I could also get extensions to my visa at a more favorable rate. There would be some paperwork involved and I should check about three days before my visa expired.

And then one morning I met a guy on a bicycle near my hotel who was leaving for Mandalay. Now I was wishing I had brought my bicycle with me and I was envying his adventures. I hope I find him in Mandalay.

Every thing I had read said that there was no Internet Service available in Myanmar but I found a service that would send and receive emails for $0.50 per page so I started up an exchange with Ellen. A few days later I missed my bus stop and got off at the next one and found an Internet Cafe. Wow. And it works, even if rather slow and the connection sometimes being lost. When I tried to use my traveling email account at Operamail I got a web page saying the site had been banned for inappropriate content. I think Yahoo and maybe Hotmail are also banned, but I found that I could access my home email account by webmail. This will save me a fortune in what would have been weekly phone calls to Ellen. I wonder if I will find email or Internet Cafes in Mandalay?

I have found the people to be very friendly, interested and kind. While there have been people approaching me on the streets in the center of town to change money or trying to start up a conversation that I can tell will only lead to trying to sell me something, overall there have been far fewer hassles or hawkers than I experienced in Bali. I have not been followed or felt any military or police presence, other than seeing people in uniforms or police at road intersections working traffic.

Yangon has lots of cars, taxis, buses and trucks, and lots of bicycle rickshaws with side cars for two with one person facing forward and the other backwards. But I have not felt the presence of motorscooters like I have in most Asian cities. Now that I think about this, I have seen hardly any, so I will have to pay more attention to this. And I have not seen very many bicycles either.

The buses, which I am now using to some extent, are extremly crowded and cost 20k which is less than $0.03 US. While it is hot, it is not as hot as Bali and less humid but on the buses if feels and smells like a sauna.

Yangon is very level and would be ideal for encouraging bicycling to head off the already growing traffic congestion in the morning and late afternoon, but there appears to be no accomodations for bicycles and almost none for pedestrians. The motor vehicle is still the king of the jungle, and vehicles turning seem to have priority over pedestrians crossing in crosswalks, so sometimes there are no safe times to cross intersections.

One of my first adventures outside of Yangon was a trip to Twante. For the tourist price of $1 I caught a boat from Yangon to the other bank of the Yangon River. While trying to figure out how to get a front seat in a jeep rather than the crowd in the back, I met a red headed guy from New Zealand who had a Myanmar lady guide whom he had met at a "hash harrier" (English track and running events) while he was working here as a diver for 8 months. She now works as a professional travel guide. The three of us took a taxi to Twante. I had no expectations but found this day to be one of my top travel days. The local market was large, uncrowded, in a fascinating high roofed wooded structure which went on and on so it was cool and shaded. The products for sale were for the local region and many were very unusual, so I took lots of pictures. We continued to walk around town and invited a couple of young girls who had followed us all through the market to have lunch with us. After lunch we just walked around town. The village is somewhat protected by being cut off by the river. While the main road into the village has been widened for the jeeps, most roads were just dirt lanes with large trees and small homes with almost no traffic other then bicycles and bicycle rickshaws. We stoped at a food stand so that Rusty could sample the local beer, and the kids gathered around. Sharley (the guide) purchased cookies for all the kids, which was a wonderful experience.

The village is a wonderful example of what things were like before the automobile. Peaceful, quiet, people getting around by rickshaw. When the one lone jeep came through, it ruined the experience until it disappeared and the dust settled. Lots of kids, dogs, people walking around. I took loads of pictures and hope to return again. There is no place to stay and it would be a good opportunity for someone to have a little hostel for backpackers. We took a two hour boat trip back to Yangon at sunset, most in the dark. Just a wonderful day thanks to my friends. At the email service they took the pictures from my camera and put them on 3 cds, so I could also give both of them a copy, so while I had a guide, they had a photographer. We met again a couple of days later.

The market areas in downtown Yangon are extensive. I explored Chinatown and Indiantown and the road between. I met a guy who has been here for three years building his own schooner, and some guys who just brought their sail boat here to have it refitted. They arrived with no visas and expect to stay for a few months.

And today I leave for Mandalay on the afternoon overnight bus. I am ready to experience a smaller town and then smaller ones yet.

All together my first week in Yangon, Myanmar has been easy and a challenge at the same time. Learning the customs, some language, experimenting with the food, finding restaurants and information, figuring out the transportation. Perhaps my next reports will be more like traveling instead of experiencing a large city. But I feel secure and ready to venture out.

Ron

 

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