Monthly Archives: February 2008

Myanmar Day 8: Pindaya Caves

We left Mandalay early in the morning and flew to Heho.   Heho is kinda-sorta in the middle of nowhere in the Middle of Burma.  Which is perfect.  What I mean by this is, it’s rural and not close to any particular city.  Rural — non urban that is — usually comes closest to being relaxing, in my opinion.  Our favorite vacations are the ones that involve bicycling, snorkeling, being outside and away from the city.  This was the first, and only, part of our vacation that qualified as "relaxing"!  I was also looking forward to Inle, because my friend Joani had told me that Inle Lake was her favorite place in Myanmar.  (She was right, it was mine too.) 
We were met at the small airport by our guide, Koh Zan.  Yep, that’s "Zan".  Koh is a term of respect which means "elder person."  Koh Zan was the eldest of our guides.  He was born in 1954 and has three daughters.  Koh Zan is a member of the Ba-O Tribe.  His tribe has approximately 1 million people total.  They grow the outer leaf that is wrapped around locally made, Burmese cigars.  In his first career, he marketed these on behalf of his people.  One year, however, there was too much supply, and the price was so low the farmers could not sell the leaves.  This was a disaster.  Koh Zan ended up living in Singapore and in Thailand, where he worked. 
While living in Thailand, he learned English for the first time at the age of 44.  He was working in a shop that sold antiques to tourists who only spoke English.  He had to learn how to speak English in order to communicate with his customers.   Koh Zan’s English was truly remarkable, considering the manner in which he had learned the language.  In thinking about what to do with the rest of his life, after the enforced change, Koh Zan considered what his skills were, what he enjoyed, how he could be of benefit to his family and do something he enjoyed.  He had daughters in university, just as we do now.  After working overseas for two and a half years, he decided to study and take the exam to become a licensed tour guide.  This way he gets to earn an income, share his culture with others, and remain close to his people.  His wife works in a medical clinic in their local tribe.  One of his daughters just finished her master’s degree, one is in university, and the "baby of the family" is just now graduating from high school.  He is also a very devout Buddhist, just like most Myanmar citizens.   
When we stepped off the plane, the very tall, confident Koh Zan greeted us with twinkling eyes and a ready smile.  After we were in the car, he announced, "If you agree, now we will go to Pindaya Cave!"  I had expressly left it up to our local tour guides to choose what they thought would be the most interesting sites and things to do in each location.  My only mistake was in not being more explicit with them about our interests, likes, and dislikes ahead of time.  But they learned as we got to know each other. 
I had envisioned that upon arriving at Heho we would first go to our hotel and check in, but I knew that it was a drive of some distance from Heho to the place at Inle Lake where we would be staying.  I assumed that Pindaya Cave was a destination chosen because it happened to be along the way to Inle Lake.  (I was wrong.)  We agreed, and we all settled in for the ride.  Pindaya Cave was, he said, only 60 kilometers distance but a two and a half hour drive because of the condition of the road.  He turned around from the seat and told us that if there was anything we saw along the way which we wanted to photograph, simply to tell him and he would have the driver stop the car so that we could take a picture.  Well, there was plenty to see!   
Geographically, Heho is in Southern Shan State.  I found it very interesting that Southern Shan State is roughly the same population size as my state in the USA, and the capital city is roughy about the same size as the capital city of my state.  Interesting parallel, but more than this, before visiting there I had heard of neither the state nor the capital city.  I guess that’s a comment on my own geographic ignorance as well as the small size of my "home town"!  Southern Shan State has many different topographies.  It encompasses the Myanmar portion of the Golden Triangle, bordering with the mountainous Yunnan Province of China as well as Thailand at the Mekong River.  There tend to be two seasons:  (1) hot and wet, and (2) hot and dry.  But because the particular location of Heho is situated in a highland plateau, the area around Heho is much cooler and moderate in temperature. 
Along with Banyan and Orange trees, we saw many deciduous trees such as oaks and various kinds of pine trees.  It reminded me very much of my homeland in the USA.  Indeed, at one point we even saw an apple orchard!  I was a bit shocked.  Koh Zan said they had been planted as an experiment.  They didn’t look like they were doing particularly well — the trees looked a bit small and dry.  I asked how cold it gets there.  Koh Zan said it never gets extremely hot but that it also never gets any colder than about 4 degrees Celsius in the coldest part of the year.  If I’m not mistaken, apple trees (like pecans, peaches, and cherries) like a period of dormancy to do well.  I don’t think 4 degrees is cold enough for them. 
Anyway, the land we passed through was extraordinarily beautiful to our eyes.  It may be that it seemed beautiful to us because it reminded us so much of our homeland, with rolling hills, large deciduous trees, even red clay of the same consistency as our own home.  And just look at that sky!  The sky in Guangzhou is always grey and smoggy, hazy even on the best of days. 
The one lane, paved but potholed, road even reminded me of the roads of my childhood, before the days of interstate freeways in the USA.  It was very much like a "farm to market" road of post war years vintage.  And what I saw in the fields enabled me to envision in real life the stories I had been told by my mother and grandmother about their lives growing up. 
The fields were ripe with a harvest of wheat. 
Koh Zan told us they get two harvests per year.
The livestock were tended by herders rather than being fenced in.  
The water buffalo are sent to the fields for a rest during
the dry season.  During the wet season of rice cultivation,
Koh Zan told us, they work in other locations.
The work of harvesting the wheat was being done by teams of workers in the fields, using hand held sickles.  The scene made me think about how agriculture throughout the world is largely the same, for it also reminded of a description of harvest that I once read in a Tolstoy novel, which seems about as far removed from a rural area of the USA — and also as far removed from rural Myanmar — as one could imagine.   Some workers would cut the wheat and wrap it into small bundles.  They would then either leave it for the next team or carry it to a central location to be threshed. 
We saw the threshing being done two ways.  In one technique, people would take all the bundles to one spot and thresh it there, either by hand (by beating it) or by using a threshing machine.  In another technique, people would work in smaller clumps and the group of threshers would move from spot to spot.  We also saw women tossing the wheat grains using baskets to let the chaff blow away, using the broad, woven baskets that one finds over so much of Southeast Asia and which are also sold in the handicraft markets of my own state. 
At some point during the two and a half hour drive, I took it upon myself to read in my guide book about Pindaya Caves, our destination.  The Lonely Planet guidebook describes Pindaya Caves as a "strange and somewhat kitschy mix of the artificial and natural and the commercial and holy . . . ."  Being a semi-avid archaeology / anthropology buff, I toyed with the idea of asking our guide to switch and take us to the also-nearby Padah-Lin Caves, described by Lonely Planet as "the most important prehistoric site in Myanmar . . . ."  It says the inside of one of the Padah-Lin Caves is decorated with remains of paintings estimated to be 11,000 years old.  The only thing that put me off from this idea was the that the guidebook said it would be best to take a 4 wheel drive vehicle to reach the Padah-Lin caves.  I considered.  The road we were on was about as good as it gets in rural Myanmar.  We were not in a four wheel drive, and I was already concerned about potholes and one of my children’s latent car sickness tendencies.  Nevertheless, I decided I really would like to see this.  After conferring with David, I asked if we could revise our destination and go to Padah-Lin Caves instead.  Koh Zan was willing to go there (he said he had never been).  He conferred with the driver about the change of plan. 
The driver told him that the Padah-Lin Caves had been closed by the government.  A good idea, actually.  Prehistoric caves are best left alone, protected from lights and modern hands.  I was a bit relieved to have been disappointed in my briefly considered request. 
At about the halfway point, Koh Zan stopped the car at an orange grove.  Each of use went into the grove and picked one orange.  The girls had fun wandering about and picking out what they speculated would be the juiciest and best orange.  Unfortunately, they were both a tad disappointed, for we have become incredibly spoiled by the oranges of southern China — which must be the best in the world, especially as the little deliciously sweet, tangy, seedless Mandarins were still (just barely still) in season when we left Guangzhou.  (Even just this week, Song Ying came in with some of the sweetest, most delicious Navel oranges I’ve ever had, and today she brought in some of the sweetest kumquats I’ve ever tasted.)   But still, it was quite nice to be out in the country and to pick our own orange from the heart of a peaceful orange grove. 
After another hour or so of being jostled and bounced by bumpy roads, we neared our destination.   But first, it was lunchtime.  Out of nowhere, along this dusty, dirty, bumpy road in the primitive setting, appeared a beautiful restaurant, so beautiful and out of place it was like a mirage.  We thought it must have been designed and owned by Europeans, so different it was in character.  We walked up the beautiful teak steps, onto the beautiful outdoor terrace adorned with blooming orchids and overlooking a lake.  We ordered Chinese food (a better risk, we felt, and a good bit cheaper than the western food on the menu).  The air was quite cool from the high altitude, and there was a too chilly breeze, but my family opted to sit outside on the beautiful deck anyway. 
I asked Koh Zan about the restaurant, whether it was owned by Europeans.  No, he replied.  He told us that when Inle Lake was first being "discovered" as a tourist destination, there was one guy who owned a boat for hire, and he was the person you would go see when you wanted to go out in a boat.  Over time, this guy began buying more boats and hiring boat drivers.  Then, he began buying cars and supplying cars and drivers for hire.  Several years ago, that man had purchased the land near the Pindaya Cave, and then just last year he had built this nice, new restaurant.  Now, all the cars and tour buses that he rented out had drivers who would stop and bring their guests to this restaurant.  Clarissa missed part of the story, so I repeated it for her.  Then I added jokingly, "Including the driver who is driving you today!"  I glanced over at Koh Zan, and he did not contradict me.  But it was a decent lunch with good service in a nice setting.  
After lunch, we headed quickly to our destination.  Along the way, there were some huge banyan trees that reminded me of my childhood days.  In my elementary school, Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg, Florida, a giant banyan grew on our school playground.  It was a huge tree, with what seemed like hundreds of square feet of roots and many hiding places among them as well.  We children used to play a variation of tag where one had to always stay on or in the roots of the tree.  Driving toward the cave, we passed a row of similarly huge banyans.  I just knew Munchkin would enjoy the tree; I asked to stop and let her experience it.  Then we were quickly back on our way. 
The tree of my childhood memories had smaller limbs (all out of reach of children) and much more extensive roots!   
Then we arrived at our destination, Pindaya Caves.  The mouth of the cave complex is up high on a hill.  From that vantage point, one can see across the entire valley. 
With its phenomenal view from the entrance, I felt this cave must be at a very auspicious location. 


I thought to myself that, most likely, this cave also had a prehistory as long and complex as that of the Padal-Lin Caves, with one crucial difference.  Prehistory had become the present.  The Pindaya Caves are still in use, so vestiges of their prehistoric use are long gone. 

Koh Zan told us that he had first come here as a small child with his grandmother.  Unlike the present time, at that time there were no stairs or handrails inside, only the bare stone.  The local legend is that the cave was first used by a monk as a holy place for meditation and contemplation about 1,100 years ago.  You could never convince me that they weren’t used long before that time, as well. 



As a matter of fact, as I looked at the modern use of the cave, I considered that these modern art relics probably fill the same niche in human culture as the prehistoric art of other caves.  Besides the obvious utility of a cave for shelter, the deep, cool, quiet recesses of a cave provide a place for meditation, sanctification, religious rite, display of religious symbols and omens, and prayer.  Indeed, certain rooms within this cave have names indicating they are specifically set aside for contemplation in general, or places where specific persons meditated or had visions.  How is that different from what we conjure about the function of prehistoric cave art?

Regarding modern function and religious observance, it was here that I observed the closest to anything I’ve seen displayed as anger.  It happened because Munchkin was not behaving with proper reverence inside this holy place.  There is one spot where some of the more than 8,000 Buddha images are set into a formation called a "maze".  Like me, Munchkin took this at its literal meaning and began wandering the maze, but she became exhuberant and, though quiet, she began running through the passages.  In sharp contrast, many of the Buddhist worshippers who came to the place were walking through the entire cave — silently, slowly, and meditatively —  with hands in prayer position.  As Beatrix Potter put it in the Tale of Tom Kitten, Munchkin "destroyed the dignity and repose" of the atmosphere.  One woman in a group of worshippers, heretofore walking around with prayer hands, interrupted herself long enough to tap Munchkin and fuss at her.  Though I had no idea of the language, I’m sure the woman told Munchkin that her behavior was inappropriate and told her to stop running.  I relayed the message in English, telling Munchkin that this was a place of worship and not to run. 

a view from inside the maze


So, the question I pose is this:  How is the function of these religious symbols — in the cave as a set aside, holy place — any different from the function of prehistoric paintings on the walls of caves?  I propose that the reverent placement of these more than 8,000 Buddha images is is merely the modern manifestation of the same impulse that inspired the prehistoric wall paintings in this and other caves . . .




Spiritual Direction for those interested  


 Okay, well back to feet on the ground . . .
Koh Zan didn’t want to rush us too much, but we had ground to cover.  It turns out, the Pindaya Caves were not on the way to our hotel, not at all.  To return home, we had to go all the way back, past the airport, plus another hour on the other side.  Three and a half hours of that jostling again!  Koh Zan said we could sleep on the way. 
On the way back, he stopped at a roadside stand and purchased a local snack for us to try.  I mentioned that this country felt was almost like home:  the food was fried pork rind!  After we had eaten all we wanted, Koh San stopped the car as we passed by some people along the road.  All day long, people had smiled and waved at us as we passed by.  "Country folk," I thought to myself.  In my part of the world, country people also smile and wave.  The people where we stopped gladly accepted the extra bag of pork rind as a gift.  Just like country people everywhere.  Everything you read about Myanmar talks about how friendly the people are.  Well, I didn’t find the people in the cities extraordinarily friendly.  But the people in the countryside are just like country people everywhere.  City people just don’t know what that is! 
After our snack, we did nap a bit.  We also stopped at a place where a young couple had a roadside workshop.  They demonstrated how they made homemade mulberry paper and then made that into hand-crafted umbrellas.   The umbrellas were really beautiful.  But we were short on cash, as I already mentioned.  Mindful of our budget, and also not wanting to carry extra weight, I didn’t even ask the price.  Anyone who knows how messy I am, knows that I don’t have any place for any more "stuff" in my house, either.  I have enough as it is!  Koh San nevertheless bought one beautiful little umbrella and gave it to Munchkin as a gift.  It’s in her room right now, and I’m sure we’ll find a nice place for it, eventually. Someday I will find a way to incorporate it into her decor and display it nicely. 
Well, as if this weren’t enough, there was still more adventure awaiting us! 
We rode in the car to the northern part of Inle Lake, to a small town called Nyaungshwe.  Inle Lake is a large, shallow, inland lake fed by the watershed of mountains all around it.  Koh Zan told us that Inle Lake is at an elevation of 3,000 feet.  The mountains that surround it rise up another 2,000 feet, to a total of 5,000 feet.  During the dry season, which is while we were there, the lake is a maximum of about 3 meters.  During the wet season, the water level in the lake rises another meter.  The lake becomes much larger and the water becomes too choppy for safe boating.  

Inle Lake is inhabited mainly by the Intha people.  These people are distinct from the surrounding tribes and have made their home ON the water of the lake.  Their houses are raised on stilts, they fish, and they have developed a very interesting technique for growing vegetable and flower gardens on top of specially cultivated, floating pods of water grass. The pods are anchored to the bottom of the lake by cane poles.  
But we didn’t get to see much of this on our first day arriving at Inle Lake.  We were already a bit late arriving — we had to travel by boat another 1/2 hour down a canal and across open water to get to our hotel.  Dusk was fast approaching as we traveled down the canal toward our hotel, the Paradise Inle Resort.  It quickly turned dark during our ride. 


There are no shots of David because he was manning the camera

We hit open water just as darkness descended.  As it was Chinese New Year, there was no moon.  The dark, silhoutted bank the lake in the distance reminded me of times as a small child, when I would be out on the water in a boat at night with my parents.  We always lived near the water and had a boat.  Whether during the time when we lived on a lake or during the time when we would sail on Tampa Bay at night, there would always come a time, while we were navigating home at night, when I would look out into the darkness and wonder with some amazement how my parents could find their way home.  They would navigate by stars, by knowledge of general direction, and by shadows of bays and trees.  As we would get closer, the distant shadows would become more distinct and more familiar, with the mysterious, unknown slowly giving way to the recognizable and familiar. 

But here, there was nothing familiar to be seen.  It also became apparent that not very much of the lake, with its 100,000 surrounding inhabitants, had electricty at night.  David said to me, "Our hotel does have electricity, doesn’t it?"  I could hear real trepidation in his voice.  We were approaching a brightly lit, hotel, adorned with Christmas lights all around.  "Of course our hotel has electricity," I said with cheery confidence.  "That’s probably it right there!"  But we rode past that hotel, on into the darkness.  I didn’t dare voice my own lack of confidence.  Fortunately, another hotel appeared on the far horizon, also with lights, and it turns out that was, indeed, our destination.  It did have electricity, after all! 

Our hotel consisted of numerous small buildings, all built on stilts and connected by boardwalks.  As we entered the small harbor area formed by the surrounding buildings, a five piece percussion band struck up a cacauphonous chorus to greet us.  We had arrived.  Koh San got us checked in, then he set off quickly again in the boat.  He was staying somewhere else.  It was already quite dark and everyone needed to get in off the water. 

Each room consisted of a separate small hut that had its own bath and small indoor and outdoor sitting areas.  While we did need the supplied two blankets per bed, we didn’t need additional heat.  We also made use of the mosquito netting, as this is a country where malaria and dengue fever are endemic.  But our surroundings were lovely and quiet.  Very nice.   

After supper, we learned that there was only generator powered electricity after 8:00 PM, and no power whatsoever after 11:00 PM.  Enforced lights out!  Now, that’s a real vacation!  There was also no internet, and phone calls to the USA cost $7 per minute.  Well, I guess that means we won’t be calling in to the office.  Welcome relief! 

We all managed to have showers — hot showers even — prior to lights out at 11:00.  The only one issue problem with the lights out is that in the pitch blackness of a moonless night, it can be slightly problematic if one needs to find the loo!  Oh well, minor challenges, I thought.  We gave our only flashlight to our children, who were staying in a different hut, in case they needed it during the night. 

For the first time in months, we saw stars in a clear, moonless sky with no artificial light to mar the view.  It’s amazing the clarity with which one notices what one has been missing, when it suddenly reappears.  For us, the appearance of stars in the sky was a cause celebre!  We wanted to applaud.  We were truly on vacation. 



Filed under Travel

Myanmar Day 7: Mandalay Part V: Day 2

We began Day 7, our second day in Mandalay, with a brief foray into temptation.  We went to visit a gem shop, where I looked at and tried on rubies.  It’s not well known that everyone in my family, even right down to Munchkin, is a rock hound. We all have little collections of minerals, gems, and fossils.  I grew up vacationing in the mines of North Carolina.  So I could hardly pass up a view of lovely rubies and sapphires from the famed Burma.  I confess, we were tempted, but we did not buy.  When we returned home, David watched the movie Blood Diamond.  Although that movie is about diamond mining in South Africa, David said he could imagine similar conditions in Burma.  We were glad we had not succumbed to temptation.
This is the least expensive of what I looked at!
After this, we went to tour a factory where they make gold inlay.  The photos below show a strip of gold that is pressed in a presser as well as "annealed" (that’s what my husband says) in a hot fire.  They said this piece of gold we are handling in the photo is worth about $1,500.  Then, after it’s pressed as thin as they can make it, it is cut into tiny pieces about 3/4 of an inch square.  It’s placed between two flat pieces of leather, and then beaten with a sledge hammer for an hour.  It gets thinner and thinner.  You can see the guys with their sledge hammers.  I picked up one of the sledge hammers, and it felt like it was about ten pounds.  The four guys would make a rhythm.  I found the rhythm very musical.  When one of them would stop or slow down or get out of sync, the rhythm would change but they were clearly all listening and working together.  I’m sure the rhythm helped them keep the pace and probably (in the real world) alerts overseers if someone is slower.  I asked our tour guide what the men made per day.  This is when she told me they make 3,000 kyet per day.  In hindsight, I bet there may have been a language difficulty, I bet it was 30,000 kyet per day.  But I don’t know.  She did tell us that the work is so hard the guys can only work an hour at a time and then they must take a break. 
After the gold leaf has been hammered for one hour, it is already quite thin.  It’s cut again, changed over to a new leather patch, and then hammered for another three hours to make it very, very thin — thinner than a sheet of paper.  After this, it is cut and put onto small square sheets for sale.  I have a photo of the ladies doing this.  Devout Buddhists then purchase these and apply the leaf to Buddhas at the temples. 
We also toured an antique shop that had all kinds of things.  We were short on cash . . . did not shop at all . . . but I saw some really neat things.  I didn’t think to take a photo.  I really loved an intricate, hand sewn tapestry that had a jungle scene with elephants.  I think the asking price on that was $250.  There were antique guns and swords, dating from the colonial era.  There was pottery and statues of the Buddhah.  One of the oddest things I saw was lots of opium weights.  When you see all these little gram scales shaped like different animals that were used for weighing opium, and when you see opium pipes and various other things, it brings it home that the opium trade was (is?) real.  Scarey (and sad) thought!  I read that the British would cultivate opium in this area of the world and then sell it around the corner, so to speak, in China.  So much for any view of Britain as being a Christian society or colonialism as having arisen out of any sense of noblesse oblige.  Pure, bloody mercantilism is more like it.  Though, since law and order were also necessary for commerce, we can also thank them that their legal system followed the colonial path. 
Leaving there, we went to Shwendandaw Kyaung, which houses a large, golden Buddha. 
It also has some seriously amazing antiquities, including some things taken from Autthaya which in turn had been raided from Angkor Wat.  Since I’ve visited both these places, it was interesting mentally to follow the journey of these artifacts and to marvel at their age. 
At Shwendandaw Kyaung, women are not allowed to approach the Buddha.  Munchkin wanted to know why.  I told her it was because in the Buddhist faith, women are just above monkeys in their spiritual qualities.  I know that my personal beliefs are not going to change God’s reality or the order of the universe, but I am firmly convinced that any views placing women on a lower level from men, spiritually speaking, are human in origin.  For me, that is a good enough reason, sufficient in and of itself, not to be Buddhist.  More importantly, however, is my utter faith in a God who loves me in a personal, passionately engaged sense.  Only the God of Christians loves each of us with the same intensity and care that can only be analogized to the love that a parent has for a child.  Nevertheless, Buddhism has much about it that appeals, and in honesty I believe the more devout Buddhists may come closer to the Divine Truth than the heretical, fundamentalists of many faiths (including Christian) who try to limit God to their own views and needs.  I don’t think God fits neatly into a package prescribed and defined by humans, do you?  Even if I view it as an incomplete truth, Buddhism clearly points the way toward a vision of a way that is better than that offered by the World.  And the temples of Myanmar would put modern day Christians to shame.   As one of our tour guides pointed out, while we are human is our only opportunity to make offerings.  The devout of Myanmar make many of these offerings in the form of gold and jewels to create bedazzling temples.  This temple, like many others I saw this week, was no exception.  The golden Buddha is a sight to behold.  I spent a bit of time sitting in front of the Buddha image in the area reserved for women.  There were two areas, in fact.  I found a spot fairly close up at first, but then Clarissa came over and told me that I wasn’t supposed to sit there — it was reserved for wifes of the generals in the military junta.  I wonder what the Buddha would think about that? 
After leaving Shwendanaw Kyaung, we traveled on to Ava.  An ancient town that no longer exists except as ruins among rice paddies, Ava was the capital of Burma from 1364 to 1841.  There is no bridge to get to Ava.  First we took a ferry, then we had lunch, and then we rode by pony cart (two per cart) to the Bagaya Kyaung, a teak monastery that dates from 1834.  
Along the road, we passed some villages with people going about their ordinary business, and we passed by many nameless ruins. 

Like most teak monastaries in the area, the Bagaya Kyaung is built upon pillars that raise it up from the flooded plain during the rainy season.  It was very beautiful.  The inside was dark, cool, and inviting, as if it had been build to provide shade and coolness in the tropical environment.  Which, of course, is exactly right?!! 
Inside the monastery there is a school run by two monks for rural children who couldn’t otherwise afford to go to school.  I’ve read that they like for visitors to help the children learn English.  When we arrived, it was still the afternoon reading time for the children.  They were supposed to be quietly reading their lessons, while the two monk teachers rested.  Our presence was immediately disruptive.  The children gathered round Clarissa’s camera and wanted to see photos of themselves and photos of where we had been. 
I wondered how we could be helpful in a non-disruptive way.  A thought flashed through my mind.  I quickly engaged them in learning the song "Heads and shoulders, knees and toes," complete with motions, for an impromptu English lesson.  The youngsters, who seemed to be between the ages of four and seven, enjoyed it.  Then we left them to resume their readings. 
We all enjoyed the pony cart ride each way to return to the jetty.  At the Jetty, somehow the other three members of my family got ahead of me, and I was sacked by what seemed like hoardes of women trying to sell me jade necklaces.  The necklaces were carved jadeite and very inexpensive (about $3 U.S.).  I would have been willing to buy one, but I simply got overwhelmed.   Each of these women was holding up one or two items and desperately trying to get me to buy from her.  I got overwhelmed and didn’t buy anything at all.  David shot my photo as I was saying to him, "Don’t you take my picture!" 

 The women and children followed me to the car and continued to hound me after I was in the car.  Our driver, whom you can see in the photo, didn’t seem to know how to handle the situation.  Munchkin quickly defused things by handing each child a few pieces of candy.  It was a way to give them something without buying anything.  Munchkin has pretty good social intelligence! 
Leaving there, our next destination was Saigang Hill.  We drove to the parking area and then walked to the top because the elevator wasn’t working.  At the top there was a very nice view, a breeze, and  we could hear Buddhist prayers being chanted / sung over a loudspeaker.  It was very peaceful and pleasant, with a nice view of the Irawaddy River.  There were some artists at the top of the hill as well.  I think if we hadn’t been short on cash, we might have bought something.  But we didn’t. 
After this, we drove to catch the sunset at U Bien’s Bridge in another nearby ancient capital, Amarapura.  This bridge is the subject of many famous photographs.  It is the longest teak log bridge in the world.  It’s getting pretty weather worn, worse for the wear, but it’s a very pleasant place to go and mingle, if one can tolerate the touts.  Here is a photo from Clarissa’s camera: 
Here is a photo of what you think it is:  an owl.  People on the bridge were selling doves, finches, and owls.  One can purchase them and then earn merit by releasing them into the wild.  Hmm.  I wonder in the great scheme of merit, if the person who caught them in the first place got a demerit?  I wonder how the merits all balance out? 
From where we were on the bridge, as sunset approached, we saw many boats of rowers collecting people to watch the sunset from the boats.  David didn’t want to do this, but Clarissa, Munchkin, and I opted for it. 
A young boy had been following us.  His name was Michal, and he looked to be about twelve, maybe fourteen years old.  He was selling necklaces on commission.  His necklaces were many times higher than the price of the necklaces at the jetty.  I guess you have to add in for the location and the middle men. 
        Michal (not a good photo!)
Michal told me he comes every day after school and sells necklaces on commission.  His little brother was there selling post cards.  He said his father doesn’t have money to buy a boat, he simply works as a fisherman and sells the fish in the market.  He said his mother stays home and cooks.  Clarissa told me that Michal also told her that he has an older brother who does own a boat.  Michal acted as translator for us to find a boat and catch a view of the sunset from the water, while David stayed up on the bridge.  Unfortunately, the camera gave out of batteries right at sunset. 
While he was on the bridge, David struck up a conversation with a young girl who, like Michal, was selling things on commission.  They had a very nice conversation.  Neither of these two young people pestered us to buy anything, content to practice their English.  I asked Michal if he had email.  Of course he didn’t have a computer, but he might possibly have internet access to send email back and forth, which is a way he could improve his English.  He seemed delighted when I gave him my email address, and shocked and even more delighted when I gave him some kyet as well.  Likewise, David’s young friend gave him a jade ring and he gave her a small gift of cash as well.  Here are some photos.  We hope we may see or hear from these youngsters again some day! 
Just about sunset, our camera gave out. 
David’s young pal
When we left there, it was dark.  We were all tired.  We ate Indian food on the street at a Chaputi stall, total cost for five of us was 9,000 Kyet.  Then, after a very brief break in the room, David and Clarissa went to a traditional dance performance at the Mintha Theater ( ).  Munchkin and I stayed in the room.   I packed up for our flight to Heho airport the next morning while Munchkin crashed to sleep. 

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The Loquatious Taxi Driver

Tonight I felt myself fortunate to snag a cab during rush hour, just as someone else was getting out of it.  Before I hopped in the cab, I asked the driver if he would take me where I needed to go (for some reason shift change occurs at the height of rush hour).  He agreed, so I hopped in and off we went.  I told him the way I wanted to go and within two or three minutes ascertained that he was native to Guangzhou.  I typically do this to gauge how alert I need to be and to make sure I don’t get "driven around."  After seeing that we are going in the correct general direction, then I’m free to let my mind wander. 
But not this evening.  The taxi driver began telling me — in Cantonese which I don’t speak — about the problems associated with so many outsiders coming to live in Guangzhou.  They bring their bad habits, their bad ways, they drive up prices . . . to be honest most of it was beyond my language comprehension, especially as it was in Cantonese.  He got really animated.  I tried my best to listen, because it’s good practice to listen, but I was worried that the moment might come when I would have to express either agreement or disagreement or answer a question.  At some point my utter incomprehension would catch up with me, I was sure.  After some long sentence, I imagined the taxi driver asking me, "Do you agree?" and then what would I say, if I had understood nothing?  Especially if he felt adamantly about something, I wouldn’t want to risk answering the question in the wrong way!  
I found myself yearning for one of my daughters to be with me, since they act as my translators when I’m in a pinch.  When they’re around, I can retreat to mindless riding in the taxi and let them take over the translation responsibilities.  After all, it takes some mental effort.  But they weren’t there, and I had to listen. 
But the dreaded moment, the moment of reckoning when I would have to confess that I understood nothing, never came.  He never asked me if I understood.  He just talked a very long time.  Slowly, I realized that I actually understood most of what he was talking about.  Additionally, the times when I told him I didn’t follow, or attempted to clarify, then he slowed down his pronunciation and speech, simplified his vocabulary, so that I could understand.  When he felt I didn’t understand his Cantonese, he would switch and speak very slowly and plainly in Mandarin. 
He ascertained that I was from Meiguo (America).  He had opinions about everything!  He talked about how all the young Chinese are trying to move to the USA but it creates problems because, since each family is only allowed one child, it leaves the parents in China with no children to care for them.  I mentioned that yes, I knew someone in this situation.  I have a friend who has one child who lives in the USA, and my friend doesn’t necessarily want to go live in the USA when she reaches the age when an elderly person would expect to go live with their children.  The taxi driver asked me "why not?" and I replied that my friend doesn’t want to leave China.  My friend’s peer group is all here.  The taxi driver replied that if you don’t have money, it doesn’t matter, because nobody will be your friend anyway if you don’t have money.  He said that if you have money, you can make friends no matter where you are. At least, I think that’s what he said.   😉 
Then, he asked me about my own family.  How many children did I have, what ages, where did they go to school?  It turns out he has two daughters and one son, roughly the same ages as my three daughters.  Except, he felt really lucky to get a son.  In fact, he also gave me instructions on how to get a son.  To my amazement, he told me that I needed to eat a lot of Pi Dan, which is what did the trick for him and his wife.  Actually, I never go the courage to ask him if it was him or his wife who ate the Pi Dan.  For the unitiated, Pi Dan is also known as "Hundred Year Old Eggs," which are salted and pickled and left to ferment for some long period of time.  I happen to like them okay in small amounts, but one of my American friends told me that I’m the only foreigner she’s ever met who can tolerate them in even small amounts.  The taste is very strong.  If one chooses to eat them, she must also be careful not to eat Pi Dan in which the fermenting process has been speeded up by unsafe use of formaldeyde.  Not safe!  Anyway, if that’s really what he said, this kind of takes the cake on old wives tales about how to get a boy baby!  
He also asked me how old I was.  He said he thought I was 40, not 50.  I told him I would treat him to lunch, which is what one says when a person guesses one’s age much younger than it actually is.  As I looked at him, he was very thin.  Very thin.  I thought he must either be a heavy smoker or have cancer.  I thought he looked much older than myself in spite of his jet black hair, though I wasn’t going to tell him this.  I did tell him my hair color was fake.  He said it was very beautiful.  I wondered if he would have said that to a Chinese woman?  But in fact I had just come out of the hairdressers, and my hair did look much better than my normal self. 
Well, sooner or later I had to confess to my newfound friend that I didn’t really understand something he said.  That’s when he launched into a long discourse to tell me that I really ought to learn Cantonese while I live in Guangzhou since everyone here speaks Cantonese and, after all, that’s also what most Chinese in the USA speak (which is true, that’s what they do speak).  I replied that Cantonese was much too hard for me.  Aided by this invitation, he began coaching me in Cantonese.  How to say "Traffic jam," "Please move over," "right turn, left turn".  If my memory were any good, I could have learned a lot of Cantonese from him. 
I confess, he was the best Cantonese language coach I’ve ever had.  His pronunciation was very clear and he coached me very well on how to pronounce things.  He didn’t allow me to get flustered by the nine tones in Cantonese.  He simply said the words clearly and I was able to imitate. 
By this time we were only about halfway home.  (I was wondering, would it be possible to hop out and find a different cab?  But no, I thought to myself, the ride isn’t unpleasant and he’s actually trying to help me.) 
Actually, it really is too bad that my memory has gotten so bad, unable to remember these easy phrases easily.  Eventually, perhaps a bit like the issue with learning the dual words for "key," I could learn how to say "traffic jam" or "turn right" in both languages.  At the moment, I pretty much content myself with being able to count and speak numbers in the marketplace, say "please" and "thank you." To say "turn right" is probably about next on my list.  I practice counting in Cantonese every single time I buy anything at the market.  It still doesn’t come naturally, especially when the words are delivered fast and I’m listening to someone say "sam sap bat" and trying to decipher at lightning speed what that exactly means. 
My friend Mike would have loved this guy.  Mike already speaks Chinse so much better than me, and he could have used this launching off point because he’s now learning Cantonese, with some skill I might add.  I’m just not there yet.  I felt really surprised at how much of the conversation I had understood, yet overwhelmed and knowing that this guy thought I understood a lot more than I really had.  Mike is the kind of person who can learn a taxi driver’s entire life history from a few minutes conversation, if the guy is willing to talk.  This guy was obviously friendly, helpful, and willing to talk. 
I considered whether to ask the taxi driver for his phone number.  When a taxi driver is outstandingly great, I often ask for his personal phone number so I can call him later if I want to go somewhere at a certain day and time.  I considered.  He didn’t speak a single word of English, and that is one of my criteria.  It’s hard to learn a language "immersion style" when there is no common language by which to get a foothold.  It really helps when the other person has enough of a knowledge of English to at least get me onto the right planet.  So, I didn’t ask him for his phone number.  Maybe I should have.  Yah, I really should have. 
My taxi fare came to 25 RMB.  I gave him 30 RMB, and I told him I didn’t want the change.  The 5 RMB was my thanks for the language lesson.  He was totally surprised and utterly thrilled.  He beamed really big and said thank you about three times.  In Mandarin, I replied, "Zou hao," [go well] which is the equivalent phrase for, "Have a nice day."  If only my friend Mike had been there! 

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Burmese Days

I find it interesting — strange? — that once I visit a place, I find myself inpsired to continue learning more about it.  It’s as if everything I read ahead of time is meaningless — mere words on a page — until after I have some life experience that can serve as a framework to structure the information.  After I’ve been there, in a sense after the opportunity has passed, is when I can really read and learn more.  Of course I looked at travel guides ahead of our Burma trip, but none of them really made sense until after I was there.  All the locations seemed like just places on a map, jumbled together all in my mind. 
Once I’ve visited in person, met some people, seen some things, then I have a better idea of what those locations are like, what they are in relation to, what is near or far from them.  That’s when I want to learn more about the histories and people I’ve met, the culture I’ve seen.  I find myself inspired to learn more of the history so as to better understand the present day situation.  As such, I often buy books when I travel with the intent of reading them later.  I only just now finished about the fifth one of the books we purchased during our trip last year to Cambodia. 
While we were in Burma, I was short on cash, but nevertheless picked up a copy of George Orwell’s novel, Burmese Days (ISBN 978-0156148504 ).  My particular copy was purchased from a woman selling books in a temple compound.  She didn’t hound me to buy something, but she quietly explained to me that she needed to sell something so that she would have money to eat that night.  Tourists had been short that day, and she hadn’t yet sold anything.  Gee, I’m a softie, I think I gave her a bit more than she was asking for the book. 
I’m putting a link to the book, as well as some others, on the book list in my blog.  The novel makes quite an interesting read.  Worthwhile, I think, and it’s very cheap on Amazon.  Probably even cheaper than what I paid! 
Orwell was born in India, raised in England, and then returned to Burma as part of the British colonial force, where he lived from 1922 – 1927.  When Burmese Days was published in the mid 1930’s, there were fears of libel suits; names and locations had to be changed along with strong disclaimers in the preface that there was no resemblance to real persons.  But of course the characters are clearly based in reality.  I see them in people I know, too. 
As an expat living in a very different culture from my own, I recognize certain aspects of colonialism even in my present situation.  Of course now colonialsim is not so much political as economic.  We don’t admit to racism, overtly at least, but class distinctions and social climbers exist.  People overseas get by with putting on airs that would never be tolerated in their home cultures, enjoy a higher standard of living than they could manage at home, and persons of relatively lower class enjoy that privilege all the more among the "natives" who are likely unaware of just how base their resident Whites may be.  Expats still get lonely, still yearn for someone to speak their native idioms with, share native jokes or a beautiful sunset, sometimes tend to drown their lonliness in a glass of brandy.  And some of the expats still just really don’t "get it," when it comes to navigating in their host culture, will fail to appreciate any aspect of the host culture regardless of how long or how short of a time they’ve lived overseas.  In some ways, things have changed so very little. 
I recommend the book for anyone who would enjoy a descriptive read about life in Southeast Asia.  This book, and my travels in Burma, have inspired my interest also to read: 
Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyii (ISBN 978-0140264036 )
A River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U (ISBN 978-0374531164 )

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin (ISBN 1594200521)
Read the reviews on Amazon.  Especially in light of the current political situation there, you may find something you want to read, yourself. 

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Myanmar Day 6 Continued: Mandalay Part IV The Rest of our Day

After leaving the doctor’s office, we still had time to see something Susanna thought would be very interesting for us — the 1500 monks and novitiates at a large monastary lining up to receive their daily lunch, always donated.  We arrived at about the same time large hoardes of tourist buses were arriving.  We were able to walk around the monastary, which was very interesting.  Today’s lunch had already been cooked and prepared, but men were already at work preparing the next day’s meal.  The cooking fires were still hot. 
After we left the monastery, we went to a shop where women and men were weaving silk scarves and fabrics.  It was interesting to see hand non-electric and some old electric looms, the sort of looms that may have been used in the USA over 100 years ago. 
This was obviously a place designed for tourist consumption as well.  The even had a gift shop where all the shop attendants spoke English and the prices were marked in dollars.  When I inquired how much a scarf was, the price seemed to be about the same as I would pay in the USA.  Remembering the scarves I purchased in Chang Mai two years ago for a fraction of that price, I demurred.  When we left there, we went to lunch at a nice Thai restaurant.  A large European tour group joined us there, as well.  It seemed the town, like much of the tourist circuit in Myanmar, was overrun with groups of German (or Scandinavian language) speaking tourists. 
After lunch, we checked into our hotel for a much needed rest.  Susanna told us to be ready at 3:30 for our next stop, Shwenandaw Kyaung, followed by Kuthodaw Paya, and then sunset from Mandalay Hill. 
Shwendandaw Kyaung is just a small portion of what once was a royal palace.  In fact, I believe it is what remains of a royal bedroom which was dismantled and moved to another location and transformed into a monastery.  The remainder of the palace was lost to bombing during WW II.  My overal impression of the building, like many buildings in Myanmar, was that it had seen better days.  The intricately carved teak had once been painted in bright colors and gilded in gold, but little of that remained other than some faded stains.  Instead, the teak wood is no longer protected from the weather at all, is not oiled in any way, and thus is slowly being destroyed by sun and rain.  Too bad, it is really beautiful. 
After we left Shwenandaw Kyaung, we went almost around the corner to Kuthodaw Paya.  This Paya contains the entire 15 books of the Tripitaka, inscribed in the Pali language on stone slabs.  Each slab has its own small stupa.  According to my Lonely Planet book, it took a team of 2,400 Monks six months to read the whole book in a nonstop relay.  I don’t want to violate any copyright, but there’s a nice arial photo at . 
Here are some photos that we took: 
After wandering around here and telling dozens of people (who seemed to attach themselves to me like cleaner wrasse)  that no I did not want to buy this or that, I finally managed to extract myself and get back to the car.  From there, we ascended by road to the top of Mandalay hill.  The road was one lane, pot holed, and very steep with no guardrail.  I was glad that our driver seemed to be very careful.  We stayed at the top of the hill for sunset.  Then, tired, we were ready to grab something to eat and retire for the evening.  Also mindful of our budget, we asked Susanna just to take us by a grocery store so we could pick up some fruit and cheese and crackers to eat in our room that evening.
As we were driving toward the grocery store, however, we stopped the car to catch this shot of the sunset over the renovated Palace.  The Palace was occupied first by British and then by the Japanese during WW II.  It was destroyed by fire at the end of the war and then rebuilt during the 1990’s using slave labor.  It is presently occupied by the Army.  We felt no need to pay the tourist fee to go inside and pay homage to the military regime, but the photo of the outside was rather nice.  My Lonely Planet Guidebook says the fort is 3.2 Km long (4 square sides) with a moat 70 M wide and 8 M high walls. 
At the grocery store I was surprised to see many name brand items on the store shelf — Kraft, Colgate, Crest, Pepsi and Coke.  We purchased some fresh fruit and crackers, but cheese was not good quality and quite expensive so we left that off.  The watermelon, on the other hand, was some of the sweetest I’ve had in years.  That night in the room we rested and watched a movie that was a romantic comedy enjoyed by all.  I think lights were off by 10 for everyone. 

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Myanmar Day 6 continued: Mandalay Part III Our Medical Visit

Blog:  Myanmar Day 6:  Mandalay, Part III

Our Burmese Doctor


When we got off the plane, Susanna planned to take us to visit a monastery where we could tour the monastery and then see approximately 1,500 monks when they lined up to receive their daily lunch.  However, there was a slight glitch in this plan. 


Somewhere between Yangon and Bagan, Clarissa began complaining of a sore throat.  Remember, we were in a country where we were not expecting access to western medical care.  There is a Global Doctor clinic in Yangon, but by the time I suspected we might need such a clinic, we were far away from Yangon.  Fortunately, I had carried antibiotics in case they were needed, albeit just plain penicillin for adults and one pediatric round of Augmentin. 


When we arrived in Bagan, I gave Clarissa the penicillin and told her to start taking it.  Twenty four hours later, however, she had gotten slightly worse.  I told her to start the pediatric Augmentin and that we would try to find a western doctor in Mandalay.  To my alarm, when I looked in her throat I saw that her tonsils were beet red, swollen, and covered in large white patches.  Clarissa insisted she felt fine except her throat hurt too badly to eat. 


When we got off the plane I asked Susanna to arrange to take us to a doctor.  Susanna puzzled over where to take us.  I already had read that the only medical option in Mandalay was the hospital, and I had no idea what that would be like.  I told Susanna that a local doctor would do, as long as he had western training. 


Another issue running through my mind was money.  I had done something stupid:  I had estimated what I thought the trip would cost and had brought just that much money.  Our meals had already cost more than I had estimated, so there was nothing extra.  We already felt we were running low on cash.  Additionally, it is impossible to access an international bank account while in Myanmar.  One must carry in all the cash one expects to need.  If we had an emergency for cash, we would have had to do something extreme such as ask our travel agent to help us out.  This was a factor in my telling Susanna that a local doctor would do; but my mind was perplexed by the question, “Is this a big mistake?” 


I certainly didn’t want to make any mistakes that would harm my child’s health.  I had purchased medical evacuation insurance at the time I purchased our air fare.  As a family, we decided to try the local doctor as the first step.  If she didn’t get better quickly, we’d pursue other options if needed, including a medical evacuation. 


As we drove toward Mandalay, the road ran parallel to a canal which was on the right side, the same side as the traffic flow.  Beside the roadway, there was a row of shade trees and an occasional small shop, then the canal, and then rice paddies. 



On the left (opposite) side of the road, there were various kinds of shops and businesses in small, unpainted, wooden buildings that didn’t seem to have electricity.  It looked like shops selling things like soft drinks, vegetables, pots and pans.  Outside one of these buildings, there was a sign with a red cross:  a medical clinic. 



Susanna had the driver pull the car over onto the right shoulder.  She told us to wait in the car while she went inside to inquire about the doctor’s credentials and whether he’d be willing to see a foreigner.  It turns out, he spoke very good English, had a university diploma in medicine, and even had an Australian credential.  And he was willing to see Clarissa. 


I once read a N.Y. Times newspaper article which pointed out that one of the taboo subjects in discussions about the high cost of medical care in the United States is the issue of doctor compensation.  If I remember correctly, this article said that an average physician in the USA makes more than double ($150,000) the relative salary of an average doctor in Europe ($60,000).  In Europe, the average doctor lives about like an average, middle class person.  In the USA, the average doctor lives about like an average upper middle class person. 


The office of the local doctor in Mandalay was a striking example of a person who was earning a living roughly equivalent to the community which surrounded him.  He was not making $60,000 per year.  His office was a wooden building with a dirt floor and no screens on the windows.  His examining room consisted of a small room with a table and a desk.  There was no receptionist, no nurse.  He was dressed in ordinary clothes.  The doors and windows were all open and I didn’t see any electrical appliances or light bulbs.  He had been reading a book before we arrived, sitting in the back room.  I didn’t look closely in the back room, but it appeared to have a bed in it.  





The doctor quizzed Clarissa about her medical history and then he asked her to lie on his table so he could listen to her chest and heartbeat and take her blood pressure.  Then he looked in her ears and throat.  He said she had severe tonsillitis and needed a tonsillectomy.  We told him that we wanted to wait until we got back to China to do such a procedure.  He gave Clarissa more of the same antibiotic she was already taking, but he also added another antibiotic (cephalexin I think)) to the mix.  (If I’m not mistaken, this may be the same formulation which comprises augmentin?)  He tried to use a medical tool to remove some of the detritus but it was stubborn and wouldn’t budge.  Then, after he did the western medical thing, he said he’d also like to apply some traditional Ayurvedic medicine to her treatment, in which he had also been trained.  What could we say?  And, I thought, what harm could it do?  


He stood beside her as she sat on the table and lightly massaged her throat with his fingers.  He faced the wall, looking away from the rest of us, and closed his eyes to concentrate.  Then, still feeling her throat, he began to belch.  He interrupted himself to explain to us that he was not belching because he had indigestion, but rather to unblock whatever it was that was stopping up the energy channel (Chakra) in Clarissa’s throat.  He did this for several minutes, it seemed.  So I stood, in a wooden hut with a dirt floor, with a medicine man belching over my daughter, thinking to myself, “Have I made a terrible mistake?”  At that moment I was thinking in terms of medical evacuation and really glad I had purchased the insurance; but we did have the antibiotic, and Clarissa insisted that evacuation wasn’t necessary, at least not yet.  In fact, she insisted on continuing our tour rather than resting at the hotel as we offered to do.   


I decided at that moment that this story would not go into my blog until the ending were known!  There was a possibility that it could have been a dramatic ending to our vacation, routed to first world medical care in Bangkok.  Fortunately, there was instead a nondescript and happy ending. 


While I couldn’t judge about the Eastern portion of the medical care, the western portion was reasonable and appropriate.  When we asked the doctor what his fee was, he refused to state one.  He said we should only pay what we felt was fair.  Looking at our cash, and trying to figure this out, I pulled 20,000 Kyet out of my wallet (roughly $18).  Susanna saw the amount, I silently asked what she thought and she said it seemed about right (I knew that was about the amount Susanna was making for a full day’s work), and so that’s what I gave him.  Looking back on it, I think I probably should have added in more for the cost of the antibiotics.  The infection took several days to clear, but clear up it did.  By the time we returned to China there was no trace of the tonsillitis, and we didn’t even feel a need for a follow up visit to the doctor here.  And we have quite a memory to show for it! 



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Myanmar Day 6 continuted: Mandalay Part II, Our Guide Susanna


Myanmar (Burma) Day 6:  Mandalay Part II

Our Guide Susanna


When we arrived at the Mandalay Airport we were greeted by our guide Susanna.  We had left our daily itineraries up to the discretion of our guides.  This was both good and bad.  They are the experts in their local areas, and they knew the places that people are interested in generally.  They did not know our particular interests.  If we ever do a trip like this again, I will be sure to communicate more with the guide ahead of time about our general interests, which seem to focus on art, music, culture, learning how people live in their daily lives, technology, and archaeology.  Over time, and through observing and discussing our interests, each guide was able to begin to steer us to things we would find especially interesting. 


Our guide Susanna had an especially interesting background.  She had majored in Pali in college.  Pali is the ancient, almost extinct, language of the Buddhist scriptures.  Wikipedia is blocked from where I write, but here is a web page with a brief description of Pali: 


According to that web page, Pali was one of the Aryan dialects that moved into Southeast Asia (Sanskrit was another, distinct, dialect).  It was most likely the language of the Buddha, has the largest body of religious literature in the world, is specialized in vocabulary for Buddhism (unlike Sanskrit).  Pali was the Southeast Asian equivalent of Latin for about 1,000 years, and it continues to the the language of the modern Theraveda Buddhism (which is practiced in Myanmar).  Sure enough, we heard ancient Buddhist prayers chanted in Pali language at various temples in Myanmar. 


The Pali characters engraved in stone at many places (especially Kuthodaw Paya) look very similar to some that we saw on carvings at Angkor Wat, but I have no idea if there really is any similarity.  Susanna was from Mandalay.  I asked if she had studied archaeology as well, and she replied that yes, she had.  Of course, that would be linked to preservation of ancient literature. Susanna was extremely well versed in the history of the Burmese kingdom and the various ancient capitals that lay in the vicinity of Mandalay.  Susanna also speaks fluent Spanish and hopes to travel to Spain one day to hone her language skills further.  


I asked Susanna why she had majored in Pali.  She replied that she always was interested in the culture and heritage of her country.  Additionally, she knew she wanted to work with people in the field of educating them about her culture, for instance as a tour guide.  She saw Pali language as a means of doing that.  


“What a brilliant idea!” I thought to myself.  She had majored in something that was very specialized, where there will always be some demand for the knowledge, and where few people have training or expertise.  This was a very different strategy from majoring in something broad like history, as I had done.  When I finished college with a history degree, I had a broad education but no marketable skill or specialized expertise.  Susanna’s college major, in contrast, provided her with specialized education which got her foot in the door in an in the employment in the niche she hoped to work in.  Very interesting food for thought, in terms of choosing a college major, eh?

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Myanmar Day 6, Part I: On to Mandalay and my thoughts


Myanmar (Burma) Day 6:  Mandalay


On this day, we were pretty tired and would have preferred to sleep in a bit, but we had to be at the airport by 8:15 A.M. to catch our flight to Mandalay.  Fortunately, Bagan is one of those tiny airports where a few planes park out back and there are few formal procedures, so we could leave our hotel by 7:30 and still arrive in plenty of time.  To our surprise, when we arrived we learned that our flight had been canceled but we had been moved to an earlier flight on a different airline, so there was virtually no wait.  Go figure.  Our flight to Mandalay was short and noneventful, flying on a clear blue sky on a bright and sunny morning.  The clear, blue sky in Myanmar was nothing short of wonderful after China’s smog. 


Ah, what a wonderful contrast that was!  Freedom for a few days from smog!  When one considers the cost of development, pollution and long term health issues for a population ought to be one of those costs.  Sure, China has lots of development but at what cost to the humans who must swim in this smog?  I think of Sophie, who has lost both parents to cancer, I’ve heard of too many cases of throat cancer, and I’ve read of soaring rates of asthma and chronic respiratory illness.  One of my expat friends works for a company that has its own doctor on staff here for the employees.  That doctor told my friend that as long as the expat lives in China five years or less, they think the health effects will be “reversible”.  What about the people who are born here, live here, and die in this type of pollution?  


I’ve read that London smog was horrific during the height of the industrial boom there, and surely American cities also reached that apex as well, prior to enactment of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.  But why can’t countries just now developing learn from the mistakes of those who preceded them?  China’s attitude is, “You did it, so now it’s our turn.”  But why would one want a turn at choking smog, soaring cancer statistics, over reliance on oil energy, or highways clogged with gas guzzling private vehicles?   All it takes is the political and economic will to insist, “This $3 incremental cost for environmental control is going to built into the cost of our product.”  Why undercut the worldwide rate by 5 Euros if you can protect your environment and undercut the rate by just 2 Euros?  Because the difference, 3 Euros, is lining the pocket of someone rich at the expense of millions of people who must live in the filthy environment.  Someone is paying it, and the person paying is the ordinary person.  Similarly, China already has a phenomenal public transportation infrastructure.  Why not capitalize on that asset and expand it, rather than abandon that investment for private vehicles dependent upon foreign, Sudanese, oil? 


Well, I am not a policy maker and it seems the cycle of building progress on the backs of those who have no power will continue.  We learned during our trip that plenty of capital investment is pouring into Myanmar for factories and sweatshops.  I can say sweatshops because Myanmar is where Korean, Chinese, and other Asian countries are now investing to take advantage of cheap labor.  I didn’t personally see any horrific working conditions while I was in Myanmar, but given what I’ve heard and seen about Asian concern for their workers, I have no doubt that they exist.  And also, because I know “cheap” is relative. 


In Mandalay, we visited a factory where men worked all day hammering with 10 pound sledge hammers to make gold leaf.  I asked what they got paid per day.  The answer was $3,000 Kyet per day.  (The reason I take this place out of the category of places with horrid working conditions is that the men were allowed to rest when they got tired.)  The current exchange rate is about 1,200 kyet per dollar.  So these men were hammering with sledge hammers all day for less than $3 per day.  I’d say that’s cheap labor.  How much are those men paying for their food; what kind of housing do they live in?  I think I’d stick with life on the farm, myself.  Sure, it can be hard, but there’s usually enough to eat. 


And there’s also the rub.  How does one define what is a good life?  Enough food, clean water, and medical care to stay healthy, warm clothing, heat and hot water, opportunity for education, books to read?  Where does one draw the line?  Progress is a modern concept.  For most of history, a child has literally followed in the footsteps of the parent.  Change is not inevitable, and the values supporting a peasant life need not be rejected, if one has the basic necessities of whatever comprises “the good life.”  How would you, yourself, define “the good life”?   Surely part of that definition, however, has something to do with freedom and self determination.  One of the causes of instability and dissatisfaction in ancient Rome, according to one of my college history professors, was the fact that in an effort to curb inflation and “brain drain” to the cities, ancient Rome attempted to limit a son’s occupation to that of his father.  It didn’t go over so well. 


From my readings, I gather that both sides of the government in Myanmar are ostensibly committed to staving off development that interferes with the traditional lifestyle and culture of the country.  I can’t say if that’s true or not, and to verify this idea I’d have to do further research.  However, it seems to me that the development of the country is at a crucial stage where it still may be possible to retain an older, village lifestyle and yet launch the population into 21st Century quality of living where it comes to food, shelter, and health care.  An example of the type of development which is along these lines is the country of Bhutan, where the monarch gauges his success by a measure called “Gross National Happiness”.  It’s worth thinking about.  As we drove through Myanmar, I observed a lifestyle that was reminiscent of stories I’ve been told by my parents and grandparents about what it was like to live in the Deep South of the USA during the early part of the 20th Century – a lifestyle that has mostly disappeared in my own country as a result of governmental policy decisions that favor larger economic enterprises; a lifestyle which the French have chosen to preserve through the means of their farm subsidies to small, family farms.  For Myanmar, like France and Bhutan, it’s not too late to retain that traditional way of life. 

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We just arrived in Bangkok from Myanmar.  Had a nice trip, I will write more later. 

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Myanmar: Bagan (Days 4 and 5)

We had no internet access while in Myanmar.  I drafted this while we were there. 


Myanmar (Burma) Day 4:  Another Travel Day


This morning we got a late start and then left at 10:15 to get David from the airport.  He had to work until Tuesday night late, so we had to trash his airplane ticket and buy him a new one flying direct from Guangzhou.  Fortunately I was able to find a good deal for him on a direct flight.  In fact, if I had been able to find this deal earlier I probably would have booked all of us to fly directly. 


Anyway, after David’s plane arrived we went first to visit a glass factory and then to lunch at a nice restaurant before we all went back to the airport to catch our 3:15 flight to Bagan. 


Here are some pictures from the glass factory.  A couple of things struck me about the glass factory.  The owner said his grandparents had started the business about 80 years earlier.  In about 1985 or 1983 they switched to gas from coal fired furnaces.  This had been economical until August of 2007, when the price of gas had increased in one jump by a multiple of 30.  After that time, they couldn’t afford the gas and they were just doing tours and selling old inventory.  The "inventory" consisted of a pile of glass articles about three feet deep all around the compound.  He said when someone saw something they liked, the could fetch it and clean it up and sell it.  The silica sand comes from the beaches of Myanmar.  It was a pretty neat place and I only wish we had been able to see the craftsmen who worked the art.  They had some beautiful glass pieces but I’d never want to risk them getting broken in my suitcase.  Oh, and notice the old car.  We saw lots and lots of old cars on the road while we were in Myanmar.  People keep them running a very long time! 










Once we were in Bagan, we were met by our guide, who took us to our hotel.  After settling in, we went to dinner. The security guard / watchman at the gate offered to call a horse cart to take us to the restaurant we had chosen.  We opted instead to hire two trishaw drivers who agreed to ride us to the restaurant, wait for us, and then bring us back, for 300 Kyet apiece (this is a bit less than $3).  When we saw how far it was, we were very impressed.  The other thing one must remember is that we weigh significantly more than the average Burmese.  Somewhere around halfway there we decided we would pay the trishaw drivers more than they had bargained for.  







This was one of my favorite nights in Myanmar, for we went to a restaurant that had live marionnette and band in addition to pretty good Myanmar cuisine.  We shared the restaurant with two or three large parties of German tourists.  We were amazed that this seems to be the German or Scandinavian tourist destination. 


It was on this night that we decided to celebrate Munchkin’s 8th birthday.  There was no cake, but it was a very nice marionnette performance, she got to play drums in the band, and she got some nice presents from her family. 







Riding home in the trishaw, it was a clear, moonless night (it was the new moon, first night of the Chinese New Year).   Stars!  What a wonderful sight! 


Just intermittent electricity and apparently no hot water at our hotel.  That’s the situation with infrastructure.  Everyplace we went seemed to need its own generator if power were critical, and non-electric machines were still very much in use (see photo of sewing machine operator in Yangon, loom operators in Mandalay). 


We crashed in bed with plans to meet our guide at 7:15 the next morning. 


Myanmar (Burma) Day 5:  Monkey Muck and Sick Cowboy Jokes *


Today we started out early, about 7:15, and went to the top of a 14th Century Stupa from which to survey the plain full of stupas.  It was really something to see so many stupas scattered over the area.  






We were the only people there when we arrived, but a man followed us up, selling art.  He had various kinds of sand art.  So there we were, ourselves, our guide, and the guy selling sand art.  It was actually nice and we purchased three pieces.  Clarissa and I bargained, but afterwards our guide told us we only did so-so on the price.  We purchased it for the going rate of $10 U.S. per piece, haggled down from $15. 


Then we climbed down the very steep steps and went to an active temple.  At the temples, one must take off one’s shoes to keep from defiling the holy ground.  That wouldn’t be so bad, except the holy ground is rather dirty.  Good thing we already knew ahead of time that there would be a lot of on and off of shoes, and all but David had sandals.  He wore the best thing he had for taking on and off, which was his Docksiders. 





After seeing this temple, we headed out for Mt. Popa.  Our guidebook had described it as a nice place.  Nothing could be further from the truth, but getting there is half the adventure. 


On the way, we stopped at a roadside tourist trap where they had set up a demonstration area of the various industries engaged in by local villagers.  The area is too dry for a lot of productive cultivation.  In fact, they have only had 20 inches of rain in the entire last year.  It is also hot, semitropical but deforested. 


Along the way, we passed fields of trees with signs in front of them.  I asked our Guide what the signs said.  He said the signs said that these trees were part of a reforestation effort and that anyone caught cutting them for firewood would spend six months in jail. 


It’s a problem for people to find firewood, because that’s how they cook.  We saw many old women hunting around for dead wood.  We also saw many young women carrying big bundles of palm fronds or reeds on their heads.  I missed one picturesque shot of three women in a row carrying their bundles.  We also passed many men driving carts pulled by Brahma cattle.  Some of the carts were also piled high with the reeds.  I missed another picturesque shot of three cattle-pulled carts lined up, walking along the road.  


But the idea of agriculture brings me back to the tourist trap local agriculture demonstration area beside the road.  The first thing we saw was a young Brahma steer with a ring in his nose yoked to a large mortar and pestle.  He was grinding peanuts to make peanut oil.  They demonstrated for us how the oil was made.  A person sits on one end of the pestle to provide a cantilever.  We took pictures of our children doing this. 





Then, we were also shown some castor beans.  Castor bean oil is made the same way.  A palm tree was also nearby, and a young man demonstrated how palm sap is collected by climbing up the tree to collect the sap. 




Once the palm sap is collected, it’s cooked into palm syrup.  A lady was demonstrating the cooking process, using three progressively condensed liquids over three different fires.  



When cooked to solid form, this becomes candy.  I forget the name of it, but it’s the only thing a Monk can eat between noon and 6 AM the next morning, when they can go collect alms again.  A monk must make his living by charitable donations, and no money may pass through their hands.  Though one of our guides told me that some monks obey the no money rule and some don’t.  There are a few other ways to bend the rules, as well.  For instance, they may not kill an animal, but if they are offered meat they are not obliged to refuse it.  



Back to the demonstration of how to make things from palm sap, though.  The palm syrup can also be fermented and then distilled to make liquor.  Here is a photo of the still.  The pan of water on top is the condenser.  The condensed fluid drips down the spout into the waiting jar: 




The facility also had an outhouse.  It was the fanciest outhouse I’ve ever seen, in that the toilet had a plastic molded piece that functioned very similarly to plumbing. 


The little place concluded its demonstration by serving tea and a traditional Myanmar snack made with various dried and pickled nuts and  vegetables, such as peanut, sesame, and ginger.    


All this was gratis.  Many photo ops.  Followed by a free gift of the candy in a little straw container.  Of course we tipped, and then off we went again.  Actually, though I call it a “tourist trap,” I think it was a very nice service and insightful idea to collect all these things into one spot where they could be viewed.  Looking back on it, maybe we didn’t tip enough.



The rest of the ride was non eventful except we passed a place with a sign saying it was a Japanese – Myanmar friendship venture.  I asked our guide what this was.  He said the Japanese had dug a well for a village.  The well was over 600 feet deep.  Otherwise the local people wouldn’t be able to find water, and such a deep well was beyond the capacity of an ordinary citizen.  In fact, there was lots of evidence of Unicef projects as well as Japanese humanitarian aid.  Many people in the country that we talked to knew of Unicef.  At one point I was talking with one guide about sustainable development and he asked me, "Is it like Unicef?"  I replied, "yes, very similar." 


Along the way, we also passed many tombs and houses consructed for Nats, built right along the road.  A Nat is a lesser god who dwells in a certain place.  Because people in the north of Myanmar are animist and worship spirits, there are lots and lots of Nats and houses for them.  In fact, Mt. Popa was home to a famous Nat, we were told.  There are certain colors one ought not to wear on Mt. Popa for fear that the wrong colors might make the Nat angry and incur his wrath.  No one wants to have a Nat angry at them, do they? 


Our guide book says that it’s not really known why Bagan was suddenly abandoned but that it wasn’t significantly reinhabited until the advent of colonial times.  At one time it was considered to be infested with too many ghosts and spirits to be hospitable for humans.  I guess it could be reinhabited after the British cleared out the Nats?  This tale reminded me of a story I heard about why the Saxons refused to inhabit the abandoned Roman walled towns in England.  Even though occupying prime land, they were thought to harbor too many spooky spirits.  It wasn’t until driven there for refuge by Norse invasion that the areas were reclaimed.  A part of me wondered what the real reason was for the abandonment of Bagan and belief that it was dangerous to live there:  deep in the annals of unrecorded history, was this the site of an earlier version of modern day’s "bird flu" or some other pandemic? 


In addition to being heavily infested with supernatural beings, this land is very dry.  It reminded me of the scrub palm areas of central Florida.  I asked our Guide about snakes, because I’ve read that they are plentiful and dangerous in Myanmar.  He said that in the rainy season they were indeed a big concern but now, during the dry season, we need not worry about them.  


The air was quite clear and Mt. Popa is at the edge of this dry plain.  We could see Mt. Popa from a distance of several kilometers.  I could make out a small castle-like building on the top.  As we got closer, we could get a photo op of it.  From that distance of only about one kilometer, I could tell that the top of Mt. Popa seemed to be covered by a monstrosity made out of concrete blocks and painted lime green.  Nevertheless, we were fated to climb to the top in order to get a view of the plain below.  Before climbing, however, we stopped at a restaurant beside the road where there were rest rooms.  I thought it a bit odd that we were stopping at the restaurant and not expected to buy anything, but given the fact that a few of us used the facilities, I didn’t ask too much at the time.  Then, we resumed our pilgrimage. 



Fortunately, Mt. Popa wasn’t a huge mountain.  If we started from the street in Popa village, it was only 777 steps from the bottom to the top.  I thought I could manage that. 


Unfortunately, since Mt. Popa is a Buddhist holy place, one’s ascent of Mt. Popa must be done barefoot.  And also unfortunately, it is inhabited by Monkeys.  We had to walk barefoot up 777 steps dodging various forms of monkey excrement.  The small ones were very cute, but we resisted any temptation to be friendly.  Monkey bites can be quite nasty.  I knew that if we were to show any attention to one of the small, harmless looking ones, the big, aggressive ones would quickly interfere.  Additionally, I know from prior observation that monkeys who think they are getting a treat but who don’t will express their disappointment in very socially unacceptable ways, with good aim.  


So, most of my spiritual meditation during the ascent consisted of fending off monkeys, fending off requests from locals for donations for cleaning excrement off of the steps (which didn’t seem very clean) and dwelling on the spiritual significance of removing one’s shoes to keep from defiling a sacred place while the act of doing so forces one to walk in Monkey Muck. 



Perhaps these meditations set the tone for my experience of the summit.  There were many Buddhas at the top, and a few Nats as well, along with one old man in particular telling people something.  I asked our Guide what he was saying.  Our guide told us that he was exhorting people that they should worship at his Buddha’s image because if they put money there they would become prosperous.  It looked like a lot of devout practitioners were parting with their money in that spot.  During our trip I inquired about what happens to the food which is left at Buddha statues as offerings:  it is thrown away.  I wonder what that man does with the money left for the prosperity offerings.  


I wasn’t particularly impressed with the view from Mt. Popa.  It was a long view of dry, brown scrub land!   




While we were resting near the top, our guide also used numerology to figure out that he and Clarissa both had the same number wheel under Buddhist numerology which is popular in his area.  Our guide was a youngish, single fellow.  As he explained how their numbers were nearly identically matched, I was just waiting for him to announce that they were supposed to get married or something, but he didn’t.  Instead, he said that it was her fate not to marry.  He predicted Clarissa would remain single, just as he had.  He told us that he was very happy as a single man.  Age 35, he was the youngest of seven brothers and sisters and not one of them married.  I asked him how old his mother was, and he said 57.  I didn’t tell him that I was almost as old as his mother. 


On the way down, David and I purchased a few small items we saw.  Here is a photo of David with one of the vendors we purchased something from.  Notice her long beautiful hair:  a lot of the women wear their hair this way.  I imagine she is very proud of her shop, which puts her solidly into the middle class. 




Then we went to lunch. 


Since we’d had pretty good luck the night before with Myanmar food at the Marionette Dinner Theater, we decided to go for the same thing again.  Our guide ordered for us.  I’m pretty easy going, gastronomically.  I feel like I’ve overcome most of the challenges of eating in Asia.  For example, shattered bones in food and shrimp shells don’t phase me (too much).  But even I found the food inedible at lunch.  We had ordered a chicken curry, and I was hard pressed to find any piece that one could say had meat on it.  This poor little chicken had been all gristle, skin, and bones, by the looks of it.  It also wasn’t very appetizing to look at, either. 


Peering at it, I was reminded of a Garrison Keillor joke about the cowboy who ordered chili.  I mentioned that the food reminded me of that joke, and Clarissa shouts, “Mom!  I’m trying to EAT!”  So, I quit.  That’s when David came to the rescue and ordered a few Chinese dishes.  We ended up paying double for our meal, at an expensive little lousy place in the middle of nowhere.  Of course it was the same place where we had stopped to use the restroom earlier. 


After lunch and the two hour drive back to our hotel, we went back to our hotel room for a much needed nap.  To my surprise, I fell fast asleep.  When I woke up, we went to visit two more temples, then to a stupa to watch the sunset. 




One of the temples housed an 11th Century standing Buddha.  It really was an extraordinary work of art.  Probably my favorite work of art so far.  The interior of the temple was remarkably designed as well. 





At the temple where we went to watch the sunset, there were hoardes of tourists and hawkers.  Each hawker has a specific platform to sell at, assigned to him by the Ministry of Archaeology.  Then there were the little school girls so obviously  coached by their mothers in how to sell postcards for $1.  We didn’t buy.  But they thought they would, and they were very persistent.  They didn’t go away until I said “I am not going to buy any from you,” in a very firm voice.  Then, they went and pestered David instead.  All this pestering greatly interfered with any enjoyment I might have had of the sunset experience. 








After leaving, we were heading back to our hotel when we passed a market.  The market comes just four times per year for a week.  It was a dusty hustle and bustle for the local people, with vendors buying and selling anything from cassette tapes to machetes and cooking pots.  Here is a photo of a "restaurant" at the market (no we were not tempted to eat there) along with some photos we enjoyed taking of the temple juxtaposed with the modern scene. 




After our venture to the market, we went to an Indian restaurant which Lonely Planet thinks is good.  I beg to differ!  Perhaps I was allergic to something in the food, but I immediately got tummy upset after eating food there.  After dinner, we went home and crashed again, ready to go to Mandalay in the morning. 

*I’ll retell the cowboy joke soon.  If you don’t know it, then you need to listen to Prarie Home Companion more often! 

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