Monday, 16 July 2007

Myanmar marvels - Bagan the land of a million stupas.

Myanmar gained independence in 1948 from????.......... yes, the English. Since then it's been isolated from pervasive Western culture while an undemocratic military junta has enjoyed uncontested political power. A consequence of this cultural isolation is a refreshing lack of ubiquitous corporate bullshit here. I've not seen any icons of Western commercialism (McDonald's, Coca Cola etc).

However, all's not perfect. I've personally seen thousands of felled teak trees headed for China. This is disappointing and will undoubtedly cause environmental problems if mismanaged. I wonder if the leaders have any long term sustainability strategies or are they merely thinking of short term gain?

Freedom of speech and press is restricted. One merely needs to flick through a newspaper (not exactly unbiased) or attempt to visit  a 'contentious' website to see this. Reminds me of China. Why are undemocratic governments so afraid of this?

Many people have very little. They seem to survive on the absolute minimum necessary for daily needs. However, I've not seen anyone actually hungry or sick. I've seen hardly any Army or Police in my four week visit which was unexpected.

On a positive note the people here are extremely friendly and hospitable despite their country's predicaments. A truly wonderful place to visit (hurry before it invariably develops). Myanmar should claim the The land of smiles title from Thailand - it's a no contest!

A couple of cultural observations:

If a man has a mole on his face he'll let the hair grow from it! Six inches of black hair jutting out of a facial mole looks odd. At home we would try to detract attention from it while here they're attracting attention to it?? It looks even more bizarre as Asian men have less facial hair than their Euro cousins. George Best sideburns are impossible here.

In Myanmar they drive on the right. However, they used to drive on the left during colonial times. Now, we're in the position where most cars are old (very old) right hand drive models that drive on the right. This makes overtaking a really fun activity. Sometimes you have to question the sense of such madness. Asia can be a bewildering place at times.

People drink cola, coffee, tea etc. out of small clear plastic bags. I don't know if I've mentioned this before but they do it everywhere in Asia. I'm used to it now but was surprised the first few times.

I'm currently reading about Lenin and the Bolsheviks - I felt it appropriate for this country. It was written in the 60's and looks at his role in the 1917 Russian revolution. It's a good read but, like most academic writing, I'm sure the author has made up some of the words.

Boats

Anyway, enough of these ramblings. The slowboat from Mandalay to Bagan took 15hrs. I had a bit of crack with the skipper as he noticed me studying the engines. I asked him where his radar system was and he pointed to his eyes. I asked him about GPS and he pointed to his head...hehe..made me laugh. I don't think the RN will be commissioning ships like this any time soon. I told him I was a Submariner many moons ago and he invited me to the 'bridge' which consisted of a steering wheel and........well just a steering wheel. It didn't even have glass in the window.

Bagan

We reached Bagan and I negotiated the dirt tracks and torturous heat of this magnificent site by bicycle. There are 4000 temples scattered over 40 square km. It feels a little like Angkor Wat in Cambodia although the individual structures aren't as big it's the sheer volume of them that leaves an impression.

I visited most of the larger temples and crawled through their dark narrow passageways and meditation chambers to reach viewing platforms revealing thousands of stupas scattered across the Ayerwaddy flood planes. Spectacular!

Mt Popa can be seen in the hazy distance. It's a curious thing to be staring at myriads of temples built a thousand years ago. You ponder Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, the Pyramids and wonder who? how? why? We could do impressive stuff back then.

Yangon

I took another 16hr 630km night bus from Bagan back to Yangon. It was like sitting inside a washing machine. I can't believe people manage to sleep on these journeys - I can't. The young shaven-headed monk sitting next to me used my shoulder as a pillow - lucky guy - there may well be something in this Buddhism after all? Perhaps he was contemplating Nirvana, oblivious to the roller coaster forces we were experiencing.

I shared a taxi and found a hotel for £3/night - luxury. I'm on the roof with peace and quiet. Tonight I'm going to the Sakura Tower - the tallest buiding in Yangon. I'm taking a local lass to the restaurant at the top for a drink and night time views of the city which should be good if the electricity holds out!

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Cruising down the Ayerwaddy river from Mandalay to Bagan. Can you see the golden stupas? They are everywhere in Burma.

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A young lad wearing the thanaka paste on his face on the packed boat.

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The kitchen is at the end but how to get there?

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A welcoming committee at one of dozens of stops. Note the head baskets!

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Using cattle to bring goods from the village to the boat. These loading/unloading operations take quite a while. It's best not to be in a rush!

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The boat kitchen.

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Unloading a motorbike style tractor. Where are the dockyard cranes I hear you ask? This is Asia's third biggest port after Shanghai and Singapore.

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The Pakkoku ferry terminal.

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Bagan - breathtaking.

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More Bagan.

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Bagan.

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Bagan again.

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A young lad with thanaka paste smeared all over his boat-race!

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Hawking George Orwell's Burma Days. Aren't those smiles wonderful?

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In traditional garb. Burma rocks man. I loved it there.

Laad dea (beautiful)

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