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!