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Preface from Ellen in Afton, Virginia, Sunday 30 November 2003

Dear family and friends,

Photos! -- well, some of them.... I've posted to our Web page all our travel accounts from Bali and Kuala Lumpur, plus Ron's two reports from Myanmar (the one below and the earlier one from Yangon), and have added the photos to the accounts from Bali for 1-24 October. Go to, and follow the link to the fall 2003 travel reports. I still have more Bali and Kuala Lumpur photos to post (25 Oct - 12 Nov), but they should go much faster than the ones I've already done...

Ron's Mandalay report, 29 November 2003

Hello Ellen,

While the tourists usually fly between Yangon and Mandalay, the travelers must choose between the train and the bus. My instinct was to take the bus and later I spoke to a couple who took the train. They said that even though they had a sleeper they got no sleep because of the rocking of the train on the uneven tracks. However, I slept well on the tilted back seat on my air conditioned bus, even though there were two movies during the trip. With my little flashlight I read until I fell asleep wearing my little travel pillow. Sunrise was a beautiful experience, watching the mountains in the distance across the great flat land, with some large trees, some of which could be palms, and much of the land cultivated, leading up to the mountains.

Mandalay was cooler, but still hot. I have found more travelers and spent a couple of evenings with an English/Swiss couple. Over the past week I have several times run into two guys, one from Belgium and the other from Australia, that I met on the bus from Yangon. In Pyin U Lwin I met a French woman, living in southern Spain, and we rented bicycles to go to the botanical gardens. Meeting and sharing with other travelers is always a pleasure to me.

One late afternoon I took a rickshaw to the base of Mandalay Hill where I was greeted by two large white elephants at the entrance to a series of covered steps leading up to a series of pagodas built around statues of Buddha. I was told twice that there were 1,729 steps. And I believe them. It took quite a while, and at each level I thought maybe this was the top, only to find another set of covered steps. My bare feet were not used to such walking.

At the top there must have been at least a hundred tourists, but I think most of them were in groups and had guides and vehicles who dropped them off near the top. It was a beautiful sunset and I stayed to watch the lights come on in Mandalay, way down in the plains below. I was about the very last to leave; the others I think took the vehicles, and I walked all the way down. The walk down was also interesting and I could observe that many people who sold things at the various stalls along the way also lived on the mountain. They were closing up their stalls and I could see rooms off of the walkway where they lived.

Another day I returned to the area of Mandalay Hill with the intention of ascending again for another sunset after visiting the Kuthodaw Paya, a pagoda housing the "world's largest book". There are 729 slabs of marble, each having inscribed on it one page of the Tripitaka.

My rickshaw driver dropped me off at the lane leading to the Kuthodaw Paya, and as I started to walk up the lane I was greeted by a monk squatting on the curb by the side of the lane talking to a rickshaw driver. I walked over and we talked as he could speak a bit of English.

He was making fun of me, saying I was going to the pagoda to give my $10 to the military and he didn't want me to do so. I said I was only going to give them $3, as I didn't want a ticket for all the pagodas. After the pleasant and interesting exchange, I continued up the lane to the pagoda. I stopped and sat outside on the steps to take off my shoes. As I stood up a young lady accompanied me inside and pointed me to the ticket desk set up on the side. Of course they wanted $10 but I pointed out that I only wanted to visit this one pagoda and they finally agreed to sell me a ticket for $3. The young lady who walked me up to the desk was doing the translating and explained to me that I could see two pagodas for the $3, so I asked for my ticket. They explained that there was no ticket. I asked for a receipt. They said there was no receipt. I wondered how I was to get into the second one if there was no ticket or receipt, so I asked for my money back, and they returned my $3. After I had put my shoes on, the lady doing the translating said she would show me the second pagoda, and we proceed to walk down the lane to the right and entered another pagoda that also had pages of the book. I guess there were too many, so they put them in two different pagodas next to each other. Since I couldn't read the pages anyway, any page was the same to me.

After we had left the second pagoda, and were walking down the lane, we met the monk I had talked to riding in the rickshaw, driven by his friend who was with him when we met. We talked again and I was pleased to report that I did not give any money to the military and enjoyed seeing the pages of the book at the same time. He seemed very pleased that I had done the correct thing. I found this to be most interesting.

The young lady continued to lead me to the monastery and then later I invited her for a coffee. While we were having coffee, the rickshaw driver who was with the monk appeared and I invited him for a coffee also and the three of us had quite a conversation.

I learned that the lady was a psychology student at the university, but had just dropped out because she could not pay the 5000 K per month (about $6.50 US), and was working as a guide to earn money to return to school. Her father was dead and she was living with her unemployed mother and her siblings. The rickshaw driver said that he had an English teacher who worked in a hotel but taught English classes in the afternoon at 4 pm near the entrance to Mandalay Hill. Since it was already 4:30, I asked him why he was not in class, and he explained that he did not have a customer today. I told him I would like to meet his teacher and attend the class, and he took the guide and me, riding back to back on his two seated rickshaw, to a restaurant near the two white elephants.

First I was introduced to the teacher's wife, who could also speak English, and later the teacher came out and joined us. We all sat around a large outside table, the teacher, his wife, the guide/student, the rickshaw driver, and a couple of others. The teacher and I got along very well and I enjoyed his company and conversation. The whole day felt very good, it just flowed as I just went with the people I met. At no point was money mentioned and it felt friendly, casual, relaxed and not commercial.

The teacher and I got along very well together, and I really liked him. He told me all about his six children and shared pictures of their lives, including when his two young sons become novices.

I talked to the teacher about what the guide had told me about dropping out of college and he explained how she would need to pay to reapply for a new semester, and when accepted pay more, and it would probably cost about 15,000 K for the semester.

I then told the teacher the story of Max and he translated for the others. (Many of you may know this story about how I decided to not give money to beggars in Vietnam and instead gave all those little bits of money to one person in the hopes that I would make a significant different in his life). They all seemed to understand and enjoy the story.

Then I gave the teacher's wife $20 US and explained that she was the custodian for the money, and to insure that it was used to pay the University expenses for the student to return. I provided another $1 for her to send me a report on her progress. The teacher and his wife assured me that she too would end up as a manager, just like Max. They also told me that the student was teaching the teacher's wife Japanese. So they all knew each other.

The rickshaw driver took me back to my hotel, with the student/guide riding along. I paid him well. The wonderful day felt right.

I've made one trip so far out of Mandalay, and spent a couple of nights in Pyin U Lwin, a small town to the northeast. It took a couple of hours in a truck with benches in the back which serve as their buses. Most of the way was a divided highway, but in a few cases some bicycles and motor scooters, and even a couple of trucks, just drove both ways on both sides of the divided highway.

At breakfast the first morning I met an English guy whose grandfather and grandmother came to Burma. He was born here and attended school in this town, which was a hill town retreat for the English on their R&R. He comes back on his one month vacation every year to visit with his school friends, a couple of whom have become generals. It was fascinating to walk around town with him. Everyone knew him and wanted him to come visit or have meals with them. Their faces just lit up when they saw him. He has invited me to visit him and his wife in Perth, Australia where he is now living.

It was good to rent a bicycle and just ride around, wishing I had brought my bike with me. Pyin U Lwin was much higher in the mountains and it was much cooler in the evenings.

A French woman and I bicycled to the botanical gardens and wandered around the grounds for a few hours. It was the day after the last day of Ramadan and a holiday. Many families and business groups had come from Mandalay for the day and were picnicking or relaxing. One Moslem family shared some food with me (just one plate and spoon which I shared): mint leaves and peanuts fried with sesame seeds and garlic. Very good.

Mandalay has been interesting, and I have enjoyed talking to the people. There is quite a mix of Chinese, Buddhist, Moslem and Christian. Some people have told me that there is some friction between the Moslems and the Buddhists because the Moslems marry Buddhist women and then make the woman and children Moslem. The Chinese seem to own most of the big buildings and businesses, but I don't pick up any resentment about this fact. A man this morning told me that I was unusual, as not many Americans come here. He said there were a lot of French but they often couldn't speak English and the people here don't speak much French.

In Pyin U Lwin I met an expat from New York who lived in Prague for about 15 years and then moved to Myanmar for the past few years. He has a coffee roasting business here and is now opening up a chain of restaurants. He told me about Namhsan, which he described as a magical place, so this evening I am going to catch a night truck to visit Namshan. It will take me back through Pyin U Lwin, and follow some of the same road towards Hsipaw where most of the backpackers go, before turning off to the west and heading up to Namhsan. So I must run and try to get a front seat in the truck. Wish me luck.

Love and miss you.



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