Preface from Ellen in Afton, Virginia, Wednesday 10 December 2003
Dear family and friends,
Since my last message, we have had a snowstorm that left 5 inches (13 cm) of snow here in Afton (but as much as a meter in the northeastern US), and an earthquake! The earthquake was centered about 60 miles (95 km) east in an area of rural farmland, and measured 4.5 on the Richter scale. I was at work, and the building vibrated and there was a very loud rumbling noise. Our building is right next to some train tracks, and all of us thought at first that it was a huge and very loud freight train -- but there was no train. Virginia is not a major earthquake area, so it was quite surprising.
At the end of Ron's last message, he spoke of an expatriot from New York who had been living in Myanmar for several years, and said, "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." Well, that didn't happen. He emailed me later that getting the truck to Namhsan proved hopelessly difficult, so he took a boat to Bagan instead. Bagan is southwest of Mandalay on the Irrawaddy river, and in some atlases (including my National Geographic atlas) appears as Pagan.
Love to all,
Getting up at 4 am in Mandalay to get to the river to buy a ticket at 5 am for a boat leaving at 5:30 am (when it is still dark) is not what I call relaxed pleasure traveling. But perhaps it will seem to you to be more leisurely when you understand that the slow boat takes 14 or 15 hours to get to Bagan. It was a short night and a very long day.
They put all the foreign travelers in the east half of the top section of the boat. Perhaps there were 20 of us. The three from Poland stayed on the first level which they found more interesting, with one playing a guitar and the others singing with him. He was a very interesting guy who works for the Krakow Radio station and has traveled to over 100 countries. The other two are entrepreneurs and had small businesses. I met 2 of a group of 7 Italians while we were having coffee before the boat left, and was invited to sit with them, their guide freeing up a chair for me to use. There was an interesting German woman traveling with suitcases instead of a backpack who was planning on staying at the most expensive hotel (~$125) and some other backpackers traveling on the cheap. A French woman was getting off at Pakokku, a town before Bagan, to visit a tobacco factory and a textile plant. She was a young photographer, 22, who was doing an article with photos of the Irrawaddy River between a bit north of Mandalay and Pyre, somewhat north of Yangon.
When the boat arrived at Bagan it was late, dark and confusing with all the guys wanting to sell transport to the travelers. I joined the three Polish and we selected a horse carriage instead of the rickshaw or taxi, and for the same price they put us into two horse carriages for our trip to Old Bagan.
The hotel we selected from the Lonely Planet had sold out of cheap rooms and only had expensive rooms left, so we tried another one. Finally the driver said he knew a cheaper hotel back in Nyaung Oo, the village where the boat landed about 6 km North of Old Bagan. For future travelers the name of the hotel was Yar Kinn Thar and for $10 US I got a large single room, with two beds, icebox, TV, air conditioning, hot water and breakfast on the roof patio. The same street, Anawrahta Road, is full of other cheaper accommodations and fine restaurants for travelers.
The next day the Polish threesome and I rented bicycles and made a general tour of Old Began, visiting many of the stupas and temples in the central area (the total is spread over 40 sq km). It is quite impressive, with 2200+ still standing of the original 13,000 that were there before the Mongol's invasion and destruction. Trying to imagine six times as many is not easy.
In the evening Cecile, the young French photographer, arrived after her exciting night and day in Pakokku, where she may have been the only tourist to arrive there for some time. On arrival they shone a flashlight in her eyes and demanded to know why she had come to Pkokku. So I guess they don't get many tourists. Cecile also rented a bicycle and we continued to explore the area for the next few days. She gets up around 5 am and goes to take pictures of a different section of the river each day and goes to bed early in the evenings. But we would meet late morning and share the rest of the day, with the exception of the day we were to meet at the Archaeological Museum entrance and we both waited at different entrances not far apart but did not see each other.
In 1990 the village that had grown up in the area called Old Bagan was moved out of what was declared the Archaeological area. The upscale places were allowed to stay or were opened later. A new village called New Bagan was built south.
The days were pleasant, relaxing and interesting and I spent 5 days there. I recommend Bagan as one of my favorite traveler's spots. Some people find it more impressive than Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but I still think Angkor Wat is one of the most impressive sites on earth that I have seen.
One afternoon we were exploring the river below New Bagan and found a small village that was preparing for an initiation of Buddhist novice monks. We returned in the afternoon for a most interesting series of events. The young boys were dressed up in very fancy clothes with heavy makeup, and put on horses on in carts drawn by cattle and taken for a ride around the village before being taken to the monastery for the ceremonies. They were carried to and from the horses and carts by people whom I assume were their parents. We took a shortcut and followed the procession to the monastery where we were allowed in to watch. Afterwords they were taken back to the village center where other events were being held. On the top of one truck there were some entertainers singing or making music. One was very unique, with a costume that had a second head, female, so the dancer, a man, appeared to be dancing with a woman. We were lucky to happen across this event since there were only two other tourists there.
At many of the more popular stupas and temples there are lots of local people selling various clothes and handicrafts. They vary in their level of aggressiveness, but the hawkers at the main pagoda in Nyaung Oo were the most aggressive hawkers I have ever met anywhere.
The food is a mixture of Indian, Burmese, and Chinese, with the restaurants in Nyaung Oo advertising all styles available. My most frequent meal has been fried rice with cashews for less than a dollar, with a couple of dozen whole cashews for which at home I would probably pay more than the whole meal here. Fried noodles with vegetables has also been popular. And mango juice has been a special treat when it is available. Cecile taught me to order the Myanmar breakfast instead of the European breakfast, so I am now eating noodles with peanuts and lime juice instead of fried eggs and white toast. I have also been finding some chapaties, which have been a treat. Here in the Big Mac Internet Cafe in Yangon I have had chicken burgers and fried chicken. In Bagan complementary peanuts and a fruit salad were served.
In the village of Nyaung Oo, across from the Central Market, I found an email service where I could send messages to Ellen. I also found a computer store up the street where they could take my pictures from my digital camera and put them on a CD. This freed up a chip so my last morning I got up at 4 am to go to the central market area with Cecile to take pictures of the monks being fed, and then pictures of the market in the early morning light. I almost filled the chip up again (250 HQ pictures), so here in Yangon I have made another CD.
The trip back to Yangon (Rangoon) was an uneventful 15 hour night bus ride. The young woman next to me gave me her picture although we only spoke a few words. Perhaps because I gave her a nickel ($0.05 US) with Jefferson and Monticello on it, trying to explain where I was from. She is learning to speak Japanese. Also on the bus was Warren from Colorado, who failed to realize on the Monday morning after his arrival on the weekend that his ATM bank card did not work here in Myanmar. He arrived with only $100 cash and was spending freely during the weekend. (I loaded him $20 to help him get by on his last day before leaving.) Do you think I will ever see the $20 again? Another English lady came only with travel checks and found that she had to pay 20 percent commission in Yangon to get them cashed. Another woman loaned her some money and she thanked me for doing the same with Warren. There was an Australian behind me, who granted was not well, but he had the whole two seats to himself, with the seats tilted back, and still kept intentionally pushing my seat back upright so I sleep almost not at all. He then checked in the same hotel in Yangon and I saw him sitting at the next table to us when I joined the Swiss couple I had dinner with in Bagan.
The Swiss couple was leaving for Bangkok the next morning and for their last dinner we went to the Karaweik, a restaurant built on Kandawgyi Lake to resemble a boat. It is a huge concrete structure with lots of lights built to look like "the mythological Karaweik bird". I had read about it in another traveler's report on the Internet, but neither of our guide books said much about it. He had a picture postcard of it. At night with all the lights it is quite a sight. There was a good buffet, Myanmar dancing, marionettes and juggling for around $6.
In general the Burmese people are very friendly and polite, many can speak some English, and speak very softly, often in a most formal manner. I feel very safe and have no worries for myself or my possessions. The conditions of poverty are pervasive, which explains the many hawkers trying to sell something to the tourists (perhaps 100 per day), but there have been few beggars. Transportation in general is very crowded in Mandalay and Yangon, using very old trucks, vans and buses (not the long distance buses which the tourist also use). Inside the crowded buses it feels like a sauna and I become aware that many of the monks might not have access to baths. In the Bagan area traffic was very light and there were many rickshaws and horse carts and a few buses. Every now and then a newer tourist bus would appear. Bicycles, motorscooters and rickshaws are the predominate means of transport in Bagan, while in Mandalay they also have taxis. But in Yangon there are more buses, taxis and cars, with a noticeable decrease in motorscooters and bicycles. Rickshaws have been banned from some of the main roads but there are still many around the downtown and other sections.
While I had planned on making a trip to Inle Lake and perhaps a beach on the west coast, I decided to return Yangon instead to use their communications and sort of take a break. And once in Yangon I decided to go to Cambodia instead. One of the things about traveling alone is that I am very flexible and can make decisions on my whims at the spur of the moment. I know there are places and things in Myanmar that I have not seen, but the last trip to Cambodia was for only 5 days in the winter of 91-92, and it will have changed and there are many places there that I would also like to see. I have begun thinking about where I would like to spend Christmas. Maybe a beach. Maybe Phnom Penh? Here in the Dagon Shopping Center in Yangon I noticed Christmas trees and decorations in the lobby and I am listening to Christmas music as I sit in the Internet Cafe.
In many ways my whole trip planning was altered when I left my bicycle in Kuala Lumpur. With the exception of Pyin U Lwin, all my time has been spent in a large dry plain going from Mandalay to Yangon, and I may have gotten bored bicycling in the heat and dust in the same type of terrain for long periods of time. While it is easy to rent bicycles in Mandalay, Pyin U Lwin, and Bagan, if I had my own bicycle with me I would have gone more afield and made more trips outside the main towns, including Yangon. The rented bikes are one speed Hero bikes, either made here or in China. They are old, well used and poorly maintained.
When I have my bicycle I feel free to just get up and go, without planning, without bus schedules, tickets, and other logistics, and in cities I can just wander around without really knowing where I am going or trying to read maps. When I travel with my bicycle and am moving between places rather than bicycling, I am much more encumbered by the bicycle and the necessary gear such as helmet, tools, spare tire and tubes, etc. But traveling without my bicycle, while I often miss it, I feel unencumbered and very light with just my day pack. Traveling light has a lot of advantages.
I don't have a clear plan, but this Friday I will fly to Bangkok, hopefully visit some German friends I met in China, and then catch a morning bus to Cambodia using the southern route.
I have really enjoyed my time in Myanmar, liked the friendly people, and would love to return some day to see the places I haven't visited. At the same time I am looking forward to a change in my environment and having difference experiences. So stay tuned.
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