Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Backwards Burma. Chiang Mai to Mandalay.

My last night in Chiang Mai I went to the cinema to watch Oceans 13 after standing for the Thai national anthem. I took a 12hr bus to Khon Kean and onto Kalisin in Isaan province. I de-husked my first coconut before having an all-you-can eat Thai buffet. I got very drunk in HiClass nightclub where live acts ranged from four-piece bands to lesbian shows! I like Isaan as you feel you're in real Thailand - and it has lesbian shows!


Next Bangkok where I stayed at the Clinic Guesthouse and was pleased to find they all remembered me. JoJo, the ladyboy saving for his/her various operations managed to get his dick surgically removed. He was still saving for breasts though. I went to a Thai disco with Naokou - a young Japanese lass with freckles! It felt good to be back in Bangkok.

Stone age

I left Rem the drunken Aussie at 0400 and headed to the airport for a flight to Yangon, Myanmar (previously Rangoon, Burma). An hour later I'd entered the stone age.

Yellow faces

Myanmar is an incredible place to visit. I love it. Isolated from the West you see fabulous traditions lingering on unabated. The first thing that strikes you is the men wearing skirts (longyis). I bought one and tried it for a day but felt rather silly. That yellow stuff on the women's faces I saw in Mae Sai is called thanaka. It's a wood-bark paste that protects the skin. Those women were obviously Burmese then!

Red teeth

People have red teeth from chewing betel nuts. I tried one and experienced a mild caffeine buzz. I was worried about my teeth going red too but you have to consume thousands of them over many years! Here, being obese is good - I was with a Finnish land-whale and the men kept complimenting her on how fat she looked! Buses are made of wood and women walk around carrying unbelievable loads on their heads. Incredible.


Chinese-built lorries and tractors belch incredibly noxious fumes from their exhausts. I saw a baby playing with a meat cleaver. Electricity is not supplied 24/7. Food is served cold after standing all day - I suffered two days of vomiting here for the first time in Asia. Many people are bare-foot. Maroon-robed monks are here in their thousands. The Internet should be renamed The Intermittent, and if it does work - very slowly - many sites are blocked. The heat is extreme - hotter than Thailand!!

Comfort zone

I've heard people say it's good to escape your comfort zone. I don't even know what my comfort zone is anymore. I think being out of my comfort zone is my comfort zone. Burma in 2007 is as far as you can be from comfort. I love it!

Illegal Immigrant

When I was in Rak Thai village, Thailand and I strayed illegally into Myanmar, I wasn't sure where I was, however, I've since discovered I was in the southwest of Shan province. An extremely dangerous area off-limits to foreigners due to a war between the Shan and the Burmese government. Drug production and trafficking exacerbate the risk. Talk about a lucky escape!


In Yangon I visited the beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda and Kandawkyi Lake with the impressive Karaweik Royal barge in the middle. I visited a strange bar where drinkers are entertained by sexily-dressed grim-faced ladies performing choreographed walking on a dance floor! I visited Sule Paya (a smaller version of Shwedagon), hectic Chinatown and had a beer in the lavishly opulent Strand Hotel which stands out like a sore thumb in the filth of this city.


Karaweik Royal barge
I took a wooden bus to Yangon's main bus station and caught another to Bago. I walked in the baking heat to the 114m Shwemawdaw Paya (another golden cone) which looked spectacular with sunlight glancing off the gold. I saw the massive Swethalyuang Buddha (55m x 16m) serenely reclining on his side.


I saw a lot of breastfeeding in Bago. Like most blokes I like to look at a woman's knockers but I've seen so many in Myanmar that I think I'm in danger of going off boobs! They're at it everywhere and you don't want to look but your eyes are inexplicably drawn. If you're caught it's very embarrassing!


The Strand
In this technologically floundering country, I had to smile while watching a program on ChannelNewsAsia about current online trends in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. Unbelievably, the electricity stayed on for a whole 30mins allowing us to watch it all on a communal TV. It was describing the latest gadgets available but I couldn't stop thinking how 99% of these people have never seen a phone. Was it some kind of government joke?


A 500km bus journey from Bago to Kalaw in western Shan State took 15 hours. I was bed-ridden for two days on antibiotics because of food poisining. I bought a Shan style shirt which I wore continuously gaining the nickname 'Albino Myanmar Man'. Kalaw sits at an elevation of 1400m, offering cool relief after Yangon/Bago. It's a good town to be sick in!


I embarked on a muddy four day trek to Inle Lake about 60km away. I went with Park (S Korea), Rene (US/Bali), Amit and Ohad (Israel) and Alex our local guide. Alex cooked great food and our accommodation was in the homes of villagers we passed. The final night we slept in a Monestary, woken by monks chanting at 5am! We passed Palaung, Dunu, Taung Gyo and Pao tribal villages. We saw barefoot ladies carrying ridiculous loads of produce miles to the markets. Water buffalo splodging through rice paddies with their basic wooden plows. We never saw a car or motorbike - great. This was what life would've been like a thousand years ago.

On one occasion, the Israelis and I arrived early as locals were returning from the fields at sunset. Most of them gawped at us wondering who we were. It got worse when we boiled water for tea on a gas stove! Very curious people looking on. One bloke invited us into his bamboo house offering food and tea while we waited for the rest to catch up - great! We ended up sleeping on a mat in his house for the night. We watched a guy building a bamboo house from scratch. Apparently it takes three days and requires no nails. It was an amazing four days that we'll never forget.


We took a boat 13km to Nuang Shwe at the Northern end of the lake where we washed our clothes and showered properly. It was here I discovered some bastard had stolen $100 from my wallet! Why they hadn't taken the whole $500 I'll never know. I suppose they had a certain degree of compassion as I would've been screwed! I got drunk after days of abstinence to commiserate. I suspected the Israelis.


I stayed three nights in Nuang Shwe before sitting on the roof of a truck with hundreds of locals to get to the bus stop for Mandalay. Needless to say the bus was late but the 260km journey only took 9 hours which is the speed of light by Myanmar standards. We reached Mandalay at 0330 and caught another packed roof-top ride to the center. It was 0400 and the place was buzzing - I have no idea when these people sleep.


Obviously, men are better than women. The Burmese know this and implement social customs to reinforce the concept. Accordingly, men must sit above women at all times. That's why I had to sit on the roof of the bus with all the other blokes. One example of where Asia leads Europe.


Mandalay Palace
I hired a bicycle and visited the Palace and Mandalay hill for superb views across the plain, the Ayerwaddy River and distant Shan Mountains. I cycled around the suburbs (I use that term in its loosest possible sense) sampling local fruits. I visited a crazy hive of activity known as the Jade Market where hundreds of men drink tea and play snooker. I've consumed copious amounts of chapatis and tea. Tea drinking's a huge pastime - suits me!


I visited Amarapura which has the longest teak bridge in the World at 1.2km stretching over a lake - very picturesque. I sat with my local friend, Mein Te, here drinking tea all day. We saw a man making amazing figurines out of candy for the local bairns - his skills were staggering. We ate La Hpeq Dlouq (tea salad) and coconut filled donuts. Here I bought the Longyi skirt that I wore one night to the rarest of Myanmar institutions - a bar.


After more tea and chapatis Mien Te and I headed to a bar that had the most disinterested girls singing local hits on a stage. At least try and look like you're enjoying yourself. We drank about 10 x 20p glasses of beer and I was hammered by the end. Obviously the show was interrupted twice for electrical failures and we drank by candlelight. Myanmar nightlife is almost non-existent, but any there is is surreal to say the least.


Today I met Mien Te's family for dinner on the outskirts of Mandalay. He's a 48yo Trishaw (a bicycle contraption that can take two passengers) driver and I've been hanging with him for three days in Mandalay. The meal was great and I met his wife, three sons and daughter. I visited his wife's workplace - a sweet factory where everything is done by hand - incredible in this day and age. His small bamboo house has a dirt floor, no electric and is home to seven people. He's a very nice bloke and I've promised to send him a copy of this blog. There aren't so many foreigners here so locals really appreciate the chance to mix.

Tomorrow I go down the Ayerwaddy River by slow boat to the Bagan temple complex. I leave at 0530 so I better go to bed early after last night's excesses.

Rene from Bali with Alex our trekking guide from Kalaw to Inle Lake.

An old woman in one of the villages we passed through.

What time is it? Bath time by the look of things. Canny bairns.

5-star accommodation for a couple of nights - loving it.

Preparing the fields for rice planting. No tractors here. No cars, motorbikes, roads or electricity either - wonderful!

Ming la ba (Hello)

Che zu be (Thankyou)

Ben lau le (How much)

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