Return To Myanmar
Trip Start Jan 15, 2009
2Trip End Jan 30, 2009
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Have any of you men out there ever had to go on holiday with not just one, and not just two, but THREE women at one time? Now at first glance this might sound like a lot of fun. Go back to your college days and run that fantasy through your little head. Fast forward thirty plus years and think again. Well, so much for dreaming.
We set off, along with two of our best traveling companions Jodie and Silvia, for our latest adventure to Myanmar. The country is one of the worlds worst military junta's, but filled with some of the great sites in Asia. It also has some of Asia’s warmest, brightest and friendliest people, all kept firmly pressed down under the thumbs of the generals who run the country
I have to tell you that the four of us have traveled together on other occasions including a bicycle trip around the Greek island of Crete and a bike tour through the Greek Peloponnesus. So it wasn’t like I didn’t know what I was getting into.
After landing in Yangon, the former capital we headed north to Bagan, one of the great wonders of Southeast Asia. Its civilization flourished for almost six hundred years moving from Hindu to Buddhist before finally being destroyed by Kublai Khan’s army in the 14th Century I believe. During nearly six hundred years they filled their valley along the Irrawady River with nearly ten thousand temples in attempts to make merit with the gods. Nearly two thousand still remain today.
While one of the goals is to try to visit every single one of them, we tend for a more eclectic view of the area. Our first morning out walking took us to a festival which would go on for at least a month. The festival, of course, included a huge market scene in the alley ways leading up to the grandest temple in the valley, The Ananda Pagoda.
"Hey mister. You want guide? You want hashish? You want young girl?" a little voice asked. I looked down to see a nicely dressed young man followed by a little line of curious kids.
“What makes you think I need more women around?” I said only half jokingly
“OOOOH. You must be very rich man to have three wives. Maybe you would like to meet my sister. She is 17 and very beautiful. She is looking for husband but we are very poor. Maybe you will take her with you to your country. What country do you come from? ”
“America, and I only have one wife. You can only have one wife in America…unless you live in Utah.”
“Where is Utah? Is it near California?” he inquired.
“Kind of. Maybe you could take your sister there. She’d fetch a handsome price.”
“Do you think it would be enough to buy a horse cart and horse so I could drive the foreign tourists around?”
“You never know,” I said
ON THE ROAD IN MANDALAY
Our next stop was Mandalay, a sprawling, dirty, dusty muddle of crumbling tenements and bamboo hut ghettos with a romantic sounding name. Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour would probably not recognize the place today.
One reason we returned to Mandalay on this trip was to visit a young woman named Ronda who we had met on our last trip two years ago. She is one of five children from a very poor family. She was also the one chosen by her family to receive a full education. It also turns out that she and her friends are part of a huge network of young people who work tirelessly to educate young children in English language and computer skills. They are hoping for change in their very poor country.
At exactly 11:00am Ronda and her girlfriend Thazin (oops, two more women added to the flock) showed up at our hotel. Before setting off we decided to have a bite to eat. Marjorie and I ordered Burmese curries. Ronda ordered a pizza and Thazin a club sandwich
After the requisite stop at the famous Mahamuni Pagoda where two years ago we had watched a monk ordination ceremony, they took us to their “education center”. It turns out that the center had been started by their teacher, friend and monk. The State authorities had banned any teaching at the center following the crackdown that ensued. However, their “library” was still open and a back room had three working computers that Marjorie determined had been rigged together by someone who had collected odd parts over time.
One of the characters we met there was a young cycle rickshaw driver named Soe-Soe. He was a father of four and lived in a bamboo hut nearby. He had obtained an old computer keyboard and was teaching his young children how to use it even though it was not connected to a computer or a screen. He had expanded his fleet to two recently and could arrange transportation by rickshaw, blue truck taxi or Toyota van. He had a deal with his wife; if he made five dollars or more in fares for the day she would give him a massage that night
Early the next morningRonda, Soe Soe and a van with a driver showed up at our hotel. I asked Soe-Soe if he had gotten a massage the night before or did he have to give one. “OOOOhh yes! My wife was VERY happy last night because I hit the motherload yesterday” he exclaimed. I guess we were the mother load.
Our goal for the day was to visit a nunnery in one of the suberbs of Mandalay. The nunnery took in many girls who were orphaned and had nowhere to go and taught them English language, math and history. We also took along one of Ronda’s friends, a monk from the learning center. Of course, in keeping with Buddhist tradition, monks are not supposed to eat after noon in order to practice discipline. Thus we had to rush to a local restaurant to eat before the clock struck twelve.
Each person was served seven or eight small bowls filled with curries, vegetables and rice. I was loving it. However, as much as I like to eat, I was no match for our monk friend who was hoovering down the food like it might be his last meal
In an outdoor, covered classroom were about fifteen girls (more women!), all dressed in the traditional Burmese pink nun costumes with heads shaved. They were all focused on a chalk board covered with math equations. The teacher was a nun of about 25. When we arrived they immediately stopped and uncovered several bowls of sliced fruit for us. They circled around us as we ate and we talked with the teacher who told us a bit about the school.
Then we took turns going to the chalkboard and teaching the class. We did math quizzes and geography quizzes and English language quizzes. These kids were so inquisitive and didn’t want to stop. However, the most poignant moment came as I was watching a group of young laborers who earned about $2.00 a day sweating endlessly in the hot sun. They were hand mixing concrete, hauling it to a nearby building site in small buckets on their heads and dropping it off for the bricklayer who was constructing a new building for the school. As the lessons went on they became more and more interested in what was going on inside the classroom. They would stop between loads, wet concrete dripping from their head raps, and stand transfixed watching the blackboard and what was being written on it
After a question and answer period, which included many questions about our families, we got up to leave. The young girls all wanted their photos taken with the women in the group. They clamped their hands onto the arms of the woman, sometimes two or three girls to an arm. They did not want to let go. We were told that in some cases it was one of the few physical contacts they had ever had with mother figures in their lives.
That night we were invited to have dinner at Ronda’s uncle’s house. His house was much larger than her parents house we were told. After a bumpy ride down a rutted, dark track we came to their house. It was a two room bamboo structure built on stilts. We walked into the main room where there were ten women and children huddled together on the floor. On a low table in the middle were four place settings. Bowls of curries with pork, chicken, and vegetable quickly appeared on the table. We were directed to sit and eat.
It was a feast
When we were finished they dragged out a little girl (against her will) who was attending a Roman Catholic sponsored school (the family is all Buddhist of course), to sing a Christmas song she had performed at her school holiday program. We reciprocated with a rousing version of Row-Row-Row Your Boat, the best we could come up with-sorry. The fans loved it and gave us an ovation. At 8:00pm we loaded up into the back of the tiny blue pickup truck with benches that served as a Mandalay taxi. Ronda jumped on the back of her uncle’s motorbike and disappeared into the black night (there is no public electricity in this part of the city at night), headed to her twelve hour shift as a night clerk in a hotel where she worked six nights a week
INLE LAKE, MYANMAR
Twenty-two mile long Inle Lake sits in a valley between two ridges of mountains about a seven hour bus ride south of Mandalay on bad roads…or a twenty five minute flight and an hour taxi ride. We opted for the flight as you might have guessed.
Inle Lake is home to the Intha tribal group and located in Shan State, one of those regions wanting autonomy from the military junta. Of course they aren’t getting any so they take up various subversive activities which winds many of them up in jail. Indications are that more men mysteriously disappear here than from any State in Myanmar.
There are numerous floating villages along the shores and the lake is home to the famous one-legged rowers who fish the shallow waters in their long and narrow dugout canoes.
The girls were loving the pastoral mountain scenery and boat trips and didn’t complain too much about our accommodation, which was a resort of sorts built on stilts out on the lake
This place was so quiet that there were no jet trails at night, nor during the day. There were no telephones ringing. Internet connections were sporadic at best. However, the “resort” had a satellite and received CNN and BBC on it’s one tele in the outdoor lobby. Silvia and two other American couples arranged to get the TV tuned it at about 11:00pm to watch. Can you imagine watching this event on TV from half a world away, while enjoying the still darkness of total isolation in a country that is being economically boycotted by the US. It was an historic and memorable evening.
The people around here get most of their news from short wave radio broadcasts from Voice of America and the BBC. The government has been known to confiscate short-wave radios. While they try to stifle information from the outside world the people are obsessed with getting it. Surprisingly, they keep up with things.
One afternoon as we were cruising back to our hotel a large boatload of nearly twenty locals came cruising by on their way home after a long day of work
A DAY AT THE BEACH
Ngapali Beach, Myanmar
After rooting around in the back country the girls were getting itchy for a little R and R at the beach and believe it or not, Myanmar has some beautiful coastline on the Bay of Bengal.
“Paul, when are we going to the beach? What will our hotel be like? Is it on the beach? Who will pick us up at the airport? What will the food be like?” And on and on. It was time to get them out of the wilds.
One morning while walking along the beach I ran into a nice young (22 or 23 years old) fellow named Za-Za who told me all about his family and how he had almost finished a university degree
“How is it that you have three women with you?” he suddenly asked.
“How did you know that,” I responded.
“I see you with them on the beach and at the restaurant.”
“We’ll. They’re not all mine if you want to know the truth,” I said.
“Tell me then, how to pick up foreign women,” he implored.
I was a little stunned by his request and tried to fend it off with a few odd comments that I thought he wouldn’t understand, hoping he would drop the subject
“Because they have very light skin. Burmese women have dark skin,” he said.
“Western men often like tan looking women,” I told him hoping he might give this up.
“”Dark skinned women look…dirty,” he blurted out. Well, this was a different view of things I thought. Nonetheless, he kept after me.
Finally I said, “Here’s what you do if you want to pick up a western woman. First you chat them up a little and make them feel important. Let them talk about themselves and how great they are. Agree with everything they say. You don’t have to believe it, just agree with it. Then offer to buy them a drink. If they like that, buy them another one. Then maybe a little dinner and then…who knows what will happen. It’s really pretty simple. No problem.”
“OK, I will try this,” he thoughtfully replied as he took mental notes on what I had said
“By the way,” I said, “two of the women in our group want to go snorkeling. Can you arrange that?”
His eyes lit up and without hesitation he blurted, “Yes, no problem. I will go get my friend who owns this boat out here,” pointing to a little skiff with a small bimini for shade.
I went and got Jodi and Silvia, arrangements were made, and the trip was arranged. By noon they were getting ready to take off into the deep blue sea. Unfortunately the tide had been going out and the little skiff (let’s call it the Minnow from Gilligan’s Island) was grounded. Now, how a sailor who knows the local waters can let his own boat become grounded was beyond me, but there it was dead in the water.
Za-Za and his captain tried in vane to free the little ship as Jodi sat inside the boat and Silvia stood outside waiting to see if this was going to work. Seeing what was going on Jodi jumped out and started pushing and pulling. Then two waiters from the hotel restaurant ran out into the water and lent a hand
Later that afternoon the Minnow miraculously returned with Jodi and Silvia. They tromped in through the surf, safely back on land. When I asked how the trip had gone Silvia replied, “I don’t think we saw ten fish. It was the worst snorkeling I’ve ever seen. I think they only took us out there to see if they could pick us up.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, they kept telling us how much they liked western women and they wanted to know if we wanted to go for drinks after we got back to land. They said they would take us to dinner. What a joke. What, do they think we’re idiots? They spent more time talking about that then looking for fish. I don’t think they even KNEW where there was good snorkeling. It was just really weird,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “What time do you guys want to go to dinner?”