Burma

Trip Start Nov 19, 2006
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Trip End Apr 15, 2007


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Wednesday, January 3, 2007

MANDALAY

We had dinner last night with Bob and Judy, a retired couple in their early sixties, from Miami. We met them on the flight back to Chiang Mai from Yangon. They had been bumming around the dusty, back roads of Myanmar for the past four weeks and were on there way to Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, where they will make their way over to Laos and take boats down along the Mekong River, stopping in Luang Prabang and ending up in Vientiane. Sounds rather adventurous to us.

We compared adventures in Myanmar and I was also really interested in hearing about how they had purchased a VW camper van in the mid 1970's and traveled around Europe, North Africa (driving the camper all the way to Timbuctoo and back), and then on to Asia for three years. This was my generation and these were my kind of people!

Bob said, "I had a degree in economics and an MBA from Harvard, but the truth of the matter was that I really didn't want to work. Don't get me wrong, I always loved the jobs I had, but really they were just ways to make money to go traveling. So, Judy and I saved $10,000, quit our jobs and flew off to Europe. We intended to stay for one year, but we stretched it into three and ended up in southeast Asia. We've always loved Asia and we decided this time to spend a little time in Myanmar, which you couldn't really visit in those days."

Marjorie, Silvia and I did it last week. Mandalay was our first stop. There we had a chance to visit with several Buddhist monks who were very strident in their criticism of the government. It reminded me of the situation in Tibet where the monks lead the resistance to the Chinese government there. The monks explained that they encouraged the economic boycott by the west, and especially the pressure being applied by the Bush administration. They also wanted to encourage foreigners to visit so that the people there could have contact with the outside world and let everyone know about what was going on inside their country. They also related a story of how one of their friends had been talking with a journalist and the journalist took a few photographs of him and later quoted him in an article. Soon after, the monk was arrested and has been in prison for the past three years. Talking with foreigners was not without its risks.

We also got to see an ordination ceremony for several young girls at the big temple in Mandalay. These kids definitely came from a rich (re; military) family. They dress these kids up in their little ordination costumes, bring them into the temple for prayers and blessings, and then take them outside and march them up and down the streets on elephants and pony carts. This particular family had a film crew with lighting and gold reflectors, which I was able to use to my advantage as regards lighting.

We traveled on to Bagan, the plain of ten thousand temples and one of the most incredible sights in all of southeast Asia. The temples were built by Buddhist kings, to make merit, between 850 and 1,300 AD and later, gradually abandoned. Of course, with that many temples there are nearly that many souvenir hawkers and young kids trying to extort baksheesh from you in some nefarious way. The charming aspect about these kids though is how really bright they are. We asked one young boy (probably fourteen years old, I would guess) how he had learned so much English.

"In school. They teach us English in school", he replied.
"And what other languages do you speak?" I asked.
"I speak a little French and a little German."
"Do they teach that in the schools too?"
"No. We follow the tour groups around and learn some from the tour guides and the tourists from these countries", he said.
Remarkable, I thought.

"And do you learn any Chinese in school," thinking that China was an emerging force not only in Asia, but in the world economic arena, and borders on northern Myanmar?
"No, they do not teach us Chinese in school and we don't really care about it anyway."
I was taken aback.

* * * * *
BAGAN

While in Bagan, Marjorie, Silvia and I hired two pony carts with drivers to haul us around the dirt tracks that led to the various temples. Soe-Soe, was twenty-one years old, and ran the operation. He spoke quite a bit of English. His right hand man was Zoe-Zoe, who spoke no English at all. One day Silvia, who always has lots of interesting questions for our drivers, was riding with Zoe-Zoe. At our next stop she commented that she wasn't getting much in the way of English language commentary from old Zoe-Zoe.

Oh, so, what you're saying is that, "Zoe-Zoe is only so-so compared to Soe-Soe?"
"Exactly."

Soe-Soe told us that he did not own the cart and pony but he was trying to save enough money to buy one someday. "It is $250 for the cart, $250 for the horse and $200 for the license. It is very difficult, but I think I can save the money in two more years. I have been very lucky lately."

He went on to explain that parking outside our hotel had been very lucky for him recently (more an astute business move, parking in front of one of the more expensive hotels in town, than luck, I would say) and he was making good money right now since it was the busy tourist season. His lucky number was 7 and his cart number was 77 and we had been his seventh customers in the past seven days.

This kind of thinking is not unusual in a country that moved its capitol from Yangon to the back water town of Pyanmana, last year, because of an astrologer's assessment and then proclaimed the exact date and time when the move would begin, again because of advise from an astrologer.

Soe-Soe was also a "horse whisperer". This guy was constantly making all sorts of little noises that the horse seemed to be responding to. They were very quiet...almost imperceptible promptings at times. Try to imagine these sounds in a whispering, sing-songy kind of voice.
Ooooooo-HA.
HAAaaaaa-oh, ah!

Finally, one day, I asked him if he was talking to his horse. He looked at me with a funny little grin and said, "Yes."

"Does he understand you?" I asked.
"Yes, of course."
"What did you just say to him?"
"I told him he was very lazy and he needed to go faster."

All that in a few, short humming sounds. Amazing! And, the horse went faster!

We went to one of the temples near sunset, one afternoon only to find it closed with a sign saying that it had been shut down to visitors to protect the archeological artifacts inside. We had gone there because one particular guidebook indicated that it was one of the few temples left that you could climb up to get a better view of the surrounding plain and temples at sunrise or sunset.

There were two hawkers selling knick-knacks (strange for a place that was fenced off and closed, I thought). One of the hawkers said that the closure was a joke that had been perpetrated by the government, which he obviously had no respect for. "It is a joke, a very bad joke, by the government. The government built that big tower over there (pointing to a huge concrete structure sitting out in the middle of the plain) and they charge the foreigners $10 to go up there to watch the sunset. That is why they have closed the temple," he explained. The people's contempt for their government came up everywhere.

On our final morning in Bagan, Soe-Soe took us out for sunrise and off to the Golden Temple of Bagan, on the banks of the Irrawaddy River. Finally, he dropped us off at our hotel and asked if we wanted anything else that day. We told him no and encouraged him to snag a couple more falangs and make some more money. He replied, "I think I will take the rest of the day off and give my horse a rest. He is not a fast horse. I will go back to my village now." With that, we bid him adieu. Later that afternoon Marjorie found him in town playing Sepak Takraw (a kind of volleyball where the players KICK a ball made of bamboo strips, over a net. Very popular in Southeast Asia).

INLE LAKE

NOTE! The military junta is Burma is one of the most oppressive in the world while its people are some of the warmest and friendliest you will meet anywhere. Anyone interested in reading more on the situation in Burma can go to www.irrawaddy.org.

A few days later, we were at Inle Lake, which sits at over three thousand feet, in a valley surrounded by mountains on both sides. Most of its inhabitants live in floating villages or in houses built on stilts, ON the lake, and not on the land surrounding the lake. They carry on all daily functions on, in, and above the water. Their markets are on the water, they bathe in the water, they brush their teeth in the water, and all of their waste ends up...in the water!

One morning we were treated to one of the most stupendous sights I have ever seen anywhere in the world and this was just totally by chance that we were there at this time. Fifteen-hundred novice monks were to be initiated for a one week program, which is quite typical in Buddhist countries throughout southeast Asia. The difference though was that this initiation was to take place...on the water.

The procession began at 7:00am and the first vessal in line was a forty foot long golden dragon barge with Buddhist prayer alters inside. Next came two long boats with young girls dressed in traditional costumes, dancing and rowing to amplified Shan music. Following this intro were the initiates accompanied by the regular, full-time adult monks in a procession of several hundred flat bottomed boats. The locals came out in their own boats, to make merit by serving up donations of rice and noodles for the week ahead. In the background of this seen was the local, golden temple standing watch over the entire scene. Within half an hour the procession spread out over nearly two miles as the boats ferrying the monks circled around out into the lake and then headed back towards the temple and monastery to begin their week-long retreat. The whole thing lasted about an hour ... and then it was gone.

Amazingly we were one of the few "falang", or foreign occupied vessals on the lake that morning. And just as amazingly, souvenir vendors drew a bead on us and jockeyed for position to bring their trinket laden boats up alongside ours in an effort to sell us something...anything.

"You want to buy carved elee-phant, mister? Maybe you like post card. These very different post card." (They were, of course, the same ones we had seen everywhere else). They had silk scarves, shirts, jackets, hats, ancient Buddhist texts, tattoo kits, noodles, fruits and vegetables, and they wanted to make a deal. We had everything we could do to beat them back with our oars and paddles. If we'd had a cannon on board we would have fired off a few rounds, over their bows.

We arrived in Yangon a few days later and had just enough time for a whirlwind tour of the incredible Shwe Dagon Pagoda at sunrise. The main stupa stands nearly 100 meters high, was estimated to be covered in 53 metric tons of gold (1995 estimate) and is topped by a 76 carrot diamond! These are just the major details.

The place is mind boggling as it's a series of numerous temples and shrines. Poe-Poe, our astrologer and guide, showed all of us where our astrological sign temples and alters were. He politely noted that mine was the "mouse". Marjorie later informed me that it was not really a mouse, that Poe-Poe was just trying to be nice, and that mine was actually a RAT!

Her sign was the Garuda, half man-half beast. I pointed out to her that the Garuda was known as an "OGRE, or ogress, in her case"! So there! She wasn't having any of that though and said that Poe-Poe had told her that the female Garuda was a nice ogre and that the male Garuda was a mean ogre. These guys will tell you anything for a few Chat (the local currency).

Anyway, back in Chiang Mai, I asked Bob and Judy how long they had been retired, since their girls were both now finished with college. They told us five years.

I asked them what kind of work they had done. Judy had been a buyer for Target stores in the Minneapolis area.

Bob answered, "I was the Chief Financial Officer for one of Target's subsidiairies, Marshall Fields. I don't know if you've ever heard of them? A few years ago they were restructuring and offered me a golden parachute to retire...so I did. I'd rather be traveling than working anyway."

"Oh!......"
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