The morning sun rising over one of the four thousand temples in the town of Bagan, Myanmar


I flew from Bangkok to Myanmar via Air Asia for a relatively cheap £70 return.  The flight was really good – I think as monsoon season has kicked in, turbulence doesn’t appear to be an issue.

To get into Myanmar, like many countries, you need a visa and one that is obtained prior to entering the country.

For me getting a visa turned out to be a bit of adventure.  It started out with an earlier than normal wake-up, about 9am, so that I could get to the visa site early to ‘beat the queues’. 

Instead of getting a cab, I decided that after a diet of McDonalds, Burger King, sweets and chocolate (of course interspersed with some magnificent local food), I felt that I should take to the streets and burn it all off.

With my GPS phone at the ready, I typed in Myanmar Embassy, 30 minutes away it proudly calculated, and began my walk.  You’re always advised among backpacking forums and websites that if you are going to attend an embassy and ask a representative to enter their country then it’s important to look decent.

So, I was plodding along in my jeans, funky chequered shirt (absent of my favourite which was donated to a worthy cause), and my well-bargained legitimate Vans trainers (or sneakers, if you don’t have a real grasp of the English language).

90 seconds into my walk, I was sweating.  It was warm, and whilst I proud myself on being a ‘day walker’ (a term from the movie Blade, where vampires can walk in the sunlight), I searched the route for shade as often as possible.

Keeping to my map, and remembering the instructions from the website I found the street that Google told me to go to and there was no embassy to be seen.  Darn it.  I had less than thirty minutes before the place paused for lunch and was planning to go to the IMAX later that day to watch the final instalment of Harry Potter.

I gave in after ten minutes of searching and grabbed a cab to take me there.  It was about a five-minute drive from where I was originally.  Annoyingly I passed the very same place twenty minutes before – clearly I didn’t see the giant sign and Myanmar flags. 

I missed it for good reason too. 

I had recently downloaded a new suite of podcasts to listen to whilst I was on my walkabouts around the city, and one of them really had my attention.  It was the 2011 Reith Lectures, with this years lectures focussing on the theme of  ‘Securing Freedom’.  In five parts, two people discuss their views on the subject.  The last three (to be broadcast in September) would be Baroness Manningham-Buller, the former director general of the Security Services, MI5.  And more importantly for me, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy leader who after winning an election in Myanmar was immediately arrested by the incumbent military government.

Picture of Aung San Suu Kyi (taken from the BBC press release of the 2011 Reith Lectures)

Aung San Suu Kyi talks about the plight of her country, how she is inspired and proud of the revolution in other countries that were under regime control similar to Myanmar (Libya and Egypt as an example), and describes what it was like to be under house arrest, released, re-arrested, and now currently released.  To give you an example of how tight control is Myanmar, the BBC emphasised that the recording was done in secret and was smuggled out of the country.
  
I entered the embassy with about fifteen minutes to spare, hoping for a quick an easy way to get the visa like most of the other embassies I have attended in the past.  No, that wasn’t the case.  The place was full up, like a Doctors Surgery on a Monday morning.

I completed the forms that were required, handed them two passport-sized photographs (a must if you’re travelling, take a load of them), a photocopy of my passport with my actual passport and then 800 Thai Baht in cash (about $20).

I had to come back two days later, Friday afternoon, to collect my visa and passport ready to embark on my flight 24 hours later.

Friday.  I decided to hit the shops to buy some more clothes after a laundry incident that occurred in Kuala Lumpur (KL).  My adopted Canadian sister, Ally, kindly bought me a t-shirt that she lovingly referred to as Super Ginger.  It is similar to the superman logo but with a G, and says hug me underneath the large logo.  Ally was hoping that people would read it as ‘hug me, I’m a super ginger’.  Very clever I thought from a Canadian with an incredibly weird accent.  (Right now I can imagine Ally seething at that last point, it’s her silver bullet!).

As you do when you’re backpacking you take your dirty clothes to a laundrette and hand it over for the staff to wash and dry it, and then give it back to you the next day.

After living on my own for such a long time I understood the concept of separating colours from all the other ones (it took a few failed attempts though!).  So I had two separate bags and handed these to the lady at the desk, paid the fee and returned the next day.

As I was leaving for Phuket, I simply stuffed my clothes into my bag and headed off to the beachy Thai island, unbeknown of the fashion horror that would await me (which some may say is my normal wardrobe attire anyway).

For some reason, the laundry took my two cunningly separated bags and washed them together, resulting in much of my lighter clothes having splashes of yellow originating from the Argentine chicas favourite, my Angry Birds t-shirt and more devastatingly my new Super Ginger t-shirt.  It was a massacre.  Even my pink Japanese shirt that I bought thinking it was white was brutally injured.  A white shirt that I bought just for KL was also coated in yellow Angry Birds blood.  Gutted.

However, every cloud has a silver lining and I allowed myself to go shopping for some more shirts.  Taking forever in the shops to pick the right kind of shirt (it can’t be too thick, ideally needs to have long sleeves and can match both jeans and my Columbia pants/trousers).

So drifting away in the world of shopping I suddenly realised the time. 3pm.  I had to be at the embassy within 30 minutes as I remember seeing a sign by one of the clerk windows showing the time of 1300-1530.  Quickly paying for my shirts I headed to get on a tuk tuk to whizz me there.  There was something that I didn’t account for.  Bangkok traffic.  The place was jammed, and credit to my driver he knew all the shortcuts – cutting through a university campus and office complex.  Excited by his skilfulness and gloating about his brilliance, he turned to me and said “not long to the Vietnam embassy”.  “Come again…” I said.  “oh no!”, he yelped, “Myanmar, Myanmar.  Not Vietnam”.  “Yes , Myanmar” I replied.

It was 1530 at this point.  I was doomed.  I began to think what could be in my grovelling speech to the embassy officials to let me off with the time and go into the visa office to grab my passport.  I had to be in Myanmar the next day; I had accommodation booked; I had a friend expecting me there.

Constantly replying “Myanmar, Myanmar, Myanmar” over and over, laughing at his mistake, he cranked the tuk tuk up to eleven and went like a lightning bolt through the city.  It was one of the most exciting and heart stopping rides in a vehicle I have ever experienced – even crazier than the driving of a one Dr Jones navigating Russell and myself through the French Alps in a hire care on our yearly skiing trip.  Dr Jones would aim to get as close to the edge, leaving my heart in my mouth.

We arrived at the embassy at 1550 and I was for sure doomed.  I opened the doors to the embassies visa office and there were people still there.  In fact it was quite busy.  It turned out, in my stupidity, I read the wrong opening times for the visa collection office, and the time that you needed to be there was 1530 – 1630.  So I was on time. 

The flight to Myanmar like I said was really good and prior to boarding I took advantage of my Diners Club Card, which grants you free access to the worlds first class airport lounges (the best £50 I have ever spent!).

The airport at Myanmar was basic and transport from the airport to my hotel (pre-arranged by the hotel for free) was an old fashioned bus, which was rickety, dusty but had character (if a bus can have character that is).






The roads around the country are patchy concrete but in the main they are basic gravel roads, especially if you head out of the former capital Yangon (I say former as the regime moved the capital further north, but many people – including the locals, treat Yangon as the capital).  The movement of the capital has resulted in very little funding or attention by the local government and in parts the city does appear to be crumbling – the people however, soldier on.


Now I can't remember the name of this game....

Catch the pigeon!

The hotel I stayed was basic; I had a double bed to myself, which as a backpacker is a god darn luxury!  I was waiting for team Japan to arrive and settled myself at the reception desk talking to the staff about the best places to visit within the city and to learn a little more about the Burmese. 

The conversation moved to an issue one of the receptionists had with a former boyfriend and she wanted me to teach her some English language insults and ‘bad language’ to use against him.  I didn’t want to get too involved but was happy to give her at least a page of phrases and sentences she could use.

Her English was incredible, her German better (I like to claim I can speak a little and we often said things in German, myself getting prouder that I could understand her.  But in the end, and to be frank, my German is terrible.  In fact my ability to speak any foreign language is non-existent.  Perhaps it’s a built in British ignorance that I any many of us Brits tend to have).

After only Misa arrived from Team Japan, we grabbed some food at the hotels restaurant and retired for the evening, ready for a busy day tomorrow.  I awoke sprawled out on the double bed like a starfish in a fan only room that only spun the heat around rather than keep me cool (I’ll spare you on the details of what little I was wearing to keep cool).

I left my room and went to the shared shower.  Little did I realise, that not only the shower was shared with other guests, it was shared with the toilet too – you could easily sit on the toilet with the shower head above you (perhaps an efficient way to start the day).  This isn’t uncommon in South East Asia, but the toilet was incredibly small and being only a short guy, I had to pirouette through my shower cycle.

Misa and I headed off to Yangon’s famous Buddhist monastery, the Shwedagon Pagoda.  This place was incredible.  I remember prior to leaving for Myanmar I asked a previous visitor how they would describe the country.  They replied with one word; Gold.  All you could see was these amazing gold temples, really stunning.  I honestly thought that I was all templed-out after my trip to Tibet, but these were magnificent.  They were built between the 6th and 10th century, but nobody is sure of the exact date.  Some claim it was built 2,500 years ago.













  


There’s also something remarkable about Myanmar.  It really does have a beautiful sky.  An odd comment to make, I admit, all clear skies are pretty much the same.  But it was here that when you looked up at the golden stupas, you could really see an amazing sky.  You often felt, whilst staring at their magnificence that you floating in the clouds.

All this beauty and lovely tiled floors does present a problem.  As a mark of respect everyone is requested to leave your footwear at the door and proceed barefooted.  Myanmar, especially this time of year is hot.  This meant that those exposed tiles you were walking on were like walking on hot tiles.  Even better, to quote Steve Coogan’s character, Alan Partridge, they were “hotter than the sun”.  So you dodge to each part of the temple lurching from shadow to shadow.  The sweat is pouring off you – I thought I was hot walking to the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok, but this was something else.









After a few photo calls, again the locals love to take pictures with tourists, we were then approached by a former university lecturer who sat with us within one of the covered areas and we had a really good chat about the religion here and travel.  His Japanese was very good, which patriotically pleased Misa a lot, so I was trying to decipher what they were saying (thankfully they did provide a translation after looking at my very confused face!).

Later that evening Misa and I had to embark on a 12 hour coach journey to the temple region of Bagan across dirt roads.  We luckily got the back seats and three stops later, and some bumpy, very bumpy roads (I left the seat on a couple of occasions) we arrived at our hotel in Bagan.



one section of the huge bus station

Thankfully our bus wasn't this busy

check out the funky portable phone, you see quite a few of these around Myanmar

Our coach, and to Misa's delight it was an old Japanese one

We got quite a bit of attention from the local staff who wanted to take pictures with my camera

Some of the staff at the "service station"
Arriving at reception we said we had two rooms booked in my name.  They didn’t have a reservation.  Oh dear.  It was 3am at this point and our ride had gone.  We were in the middle of nowhere, so we were pretty screwed.  Thankfully, this is low season and they could accommodate us.  It turned out that the internet was down which meant they didn’t get my email.  The internet remained down most of my time there which made it difficult to get messages out to loved ones.

I pretty much slept all day, and only left my room to go for dinner with Misa at the hotels restaurant whilst we plan which temples we will visit the following day and tried to brush up on our Burmese, which Misa could recall in an instant after only hearing it once, and I fumbled my way through.

I was really impressed at Misa’s linguistics, as I have with most travellers that I have met who’s first language isn’t English.  It seems that if you are fluent in two languages (your own and one other), your ability to assimilate other languages becomes easier than if, like me, you only knew one language.  The darn words just don’t stay in my head.  I’m hoping over the next year to learn a new language.  I’m trying to decide between Spanish (the second most spoken language in the world) and Chinese (soon to be second!) – however seeing the challenges my friend Michelle has with Chinese (she is very good, but it doesn’t appear to be easy) so it may be the chica’s language of Spanish!

Misa praying that I will learn at least one Burmese word

The day of our adventure arrived, but commenced with a 0530 wake up from Misa who was keen to see the sunrise and for me, the person who brought their camera, to take pictures.

It was worth getting up for.  Apart from occasional insect bite, watching the sunrise over some of the temples was magnificent and I tried my best to capture those moments with my camera (you’ll be the judge if I managed it or not!).

Just managed to catch the birds in the different stages of landing!

Now to head on our trip to the various temples the only real way to do this was by horse and cart.  With all the horses and carts around you would think you were in an Amish village.  But the bumpy ride around the area was rewarding.

our ride for the day

A local high school

We had the opportunity to climb a few of the temples and for Misa, a Buddhist, she had the opportunity to pay her respects to her faith, which was incredibly humbling to witness.












A mother helping her children with their homework




The final day in Began I spent most of it asleep.  I was exhausted from the previous day and my air-con was not that useful, but I think it was because I got used to the coolness already – it certainly wasn’t 16c that it displayed brightly on it’s screen.

The time came for getting ready to catch the bus back to Yangon – another long trek.  I was packed and ready with what I thought were moments to spare for our pick-up arrived.  I went to get Misa, and she answered with a towel around her head, drying her hair.  “Come on, we’re going to be late!”, unaware of the time she started rushing about whilst I was in the main room. I then heard a swoosh of water, and a thud.  Misa had slipped in the bathroom. 

“Oh crap.  I’m going to have a dead Japanese girl on my hands and I’m in her room.  How the hell am I going to explain that one!”  Thankfully she was alive and didn’t bang her head but did injure the base of her back, but could still carry on packing and get off to the bus (under the comfort of some pain killers).

The ride back to Yangon was uneventful.  We took a wise step and secured ourselves seats in the middle of the bus which certainly made a huge difference to the bumps.

We arrived back in Yangon at 3am, headed to the hostel where we left our bags and as I didn't want to pay money for a room the just a few hours I slept on some chairs in the reception whilst Misa got onto one of the archaic computers and tried to respond to some emails.


Property in Yangon

 
We then finished on a final tour of the city before heading to the airport and taking a flight back to Bangkok.

There are some real quirks about Myanmar.  The first is the currency conversion.  There really isn't a set exchange rate to follow (vs the US dollar), so people tend to make it up.  Lonely planet guides believe you're looking at 1,000 khats to the dollar, but the best I could get was 750, and in Bagan it was 700!


Room for one more?








The other is something called Thanakha.  This is the traditional face painting of children and women and is primarily used as a sunscreen and a way to keep the skin cool.  You'll see from the pictures further up this blog post of children with it painted on their skin.  It's created by the bark and roots of trees which after being soaked in water are grounded together to produce a fragrant paste.  You can buy this stuff in shops all over Myanmar, just like in the West you can get the latest Max Factor, or some other stuff (I'm pretending I don't know the brands!).

So, what can I say about Myanmar overall.  You should visit the place.  For all the democratic problems the country faces, it needs us, tourists, to go and visit. To learn about their conditions, to help their incredibly poor local economy and to help spread the word about how lovely the people are, how beautiful their country is and how all they want is what we have taken for granted in our country; the right to have a proper democracy.






6 comments:

  1. Phew! What an essay! Hope you're well x

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've got a tattoo of Barack Obama on my bum. Kiwi

    ReplyDelete
  3. Rachel Darling31 July 2011 at 21:09

    This is the first time I've visited your blog spot but it won't be the last! Though a little green with envy, I'm really glad you're enjoying it. Thanks for opening my eyes to a piece of the world I never knew existed... plans for my 40th have started!!! X

    ReplyDelete
  4. You should definitely learn Spanish! I'm taking a Spanish GCSE course at college and with the help of my friend, I'm already learning it, I love it.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Loving it Dave... sounds magical x

    ReplyDelete
  6. well Dave you've certainly seen a lot since you left good old RM.
    bet that seems a lift time away now.
    Great to see that you are living your dream
    take care
    x
    Dawn Potter

    ReplyDelete

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