Memories of Myanmar Part 4

February 2018

Floating in the middle of Inle Lake on a long and narrow teak wooden boat, two Burmese locals and myself wait for the sun to rise over the eastern mountains. Nearby, a fisherman creeps by as he propels his boat forward with a unique leg rowing style that is both an ancient practice as well as an efficient method for collecting his fish traps. He manages to balance on the front of his boat with one leg, row with the other as it straddles a paddle, follows his set of lines by hand and retrieves the fish traps while staying in a constant motion. What a sight to see…

Water gently slaps against the sides of our slim boat and not a word is spoken between us three. What a sound to hear…

I polish off a premade breakfast sandwich that one of the hostel workers had passed to me like a football hand off move as if I was going toward an endzone while I scurried out the front door towards the boat landing about 25 minutes ago.

I feel content, thankful and full of gratitude just as the thought of how random of an experience this is! Seriously, what are the chances of me being in the middle of a remote lake with absolute strangers in a handmade wooden boat on the other side of the globe in a completely foreign land? Was I asleep and dreaming?!

I pinch my left arm to make sure. As the sting wears off, the sun pokes out from behind the mountain peak…The beauty momentarily takes away my breathe as it begins to warm my skin. God am I lucky

A new dawn on this land as there is a new dusk on the land back home

As the sun warms my surroundings and the mist evaporates, I reflect on my short visit through this country.

About 12 days ago, I had crossed the border from neighboring Thailand. There, I traveled for about 9 hours on a local bus as it passed through lands that looked like Africa and other lands of my dreams. I then spent a few days in a bustling tropical city where modernity is taking over the old ways of thinking and living. Then, I ventured through the ancient land of Pagodas and Temples along the Irrawaddy River in Bagan. Old ways of living seem to prevail amidst the new influx of tourism there. And here I was in the middle of Inle Lake, the location of the Intha ethnic group who have called this area home for thousands of years.

Check out part 1, part 2, or part 3 to see where I explored.

I experienced a few epiphanies travelling through this ancient land. I witnessed happy people, sad people, healthy people, sick people, lively people, dying people, greedy people, content people…those with more then enough, those with enough, and those with not enough…

What floods my mind this particular moment as we enjoy seeing the entire sky light up and turn blue is this concept of ‘enough.’

Days ago I had began looking inward and was really starting to ponder my mindset (previously not even realized) of consumption, gain, ambition, competition, desire for more, wanting the ‘latest and greatest’ version of any product or service, wanting the best, wanting to always win and get to the top of something that was somewhere within my future.

Personally, having that mindset takes me away from the present and often leads to some sort of pain or suffering either directly or indirectly. This mindset can help me get ahead in certain society’s. But in others, not so much.

All in all, all I really need is ‘enough.’ From my experience, it was now becoming important to me to live in the present moment. After all, that is all I have. Tomorrow is not even guaranteed. And this moment, and this day…I was going to enjoy.

My guide then cranks the engine and hits the throttle which snaps me out of my reverie. We glide over the calm waters of Inle Lake towards shore to visit a hectic morning market that surrounds a huge golden Buddhist temple.

I hope you enjoy these pics.

A photo with the wonderful staff @ the hostel b4 leaving

Memories of Myanmar Part 3

February 2018

It took me a solid 8-10 minutes of focus to maneuver the rented electric bike out of tan colored silt-like sand. The sand covered my shoes and ankles, making my newly purchased knock-off Nike runners completely hidden from view. This was the first time I’ve experienced a material beneath my feet that resembled quicksand!

I had chosen a random side path for a bit of an off-road adventure to get some adrenaline pumping through my veins. As a result, the bike now hesitated as I twisted the throttle and my senses were alert – perfect to take in my surroundings…

400 or so miles upcountry from Yangon, (read my previous post) I was now deep in the UNESCO World Heritage Site in old Bagan. The landmass is considered sacred by many and contains more then 3500 Buddhist monuments in about a 13×8 kilometer (8×5 mile) area.

Honestly, I had no clue where I was within the grounds of the amazing site and didn’t care to look at any map. My only mission was to go deep and explore.

The truth is, is that I needed this electric bike’s 60 volt battery to last. Otherwise I’d be loading it onto an ox cart of a local farmer passing by and both it and I would have to endure a bumpy ride back into town. Actually, that wouldn’t be such a bad experience I thought as I continued along some random dusty road…

Would I be able to fit the e-bike in the back?
Maybe on this one…

Being lost in a once thriving ancient kingdom surrounded by pagodas, temples, stupas, thin short trees, random palm trees, shrubbery, random plots of land that farmers cultivated, flowers of different shades of purple, pink and red…and a seemingly random outlay of dirt roads and paths to choose from felt exciting. I had the whole day to explore, provided the battery would last. An ‘out of this world’ feeling overwhelmed my senses as I ventured deep into this magical land. Time didn’t exist for me that whole day…

Around 5:00 the next morning, after charging the e-bikes’ battery all night, a friend and I drove out onto a different area of the ancient land of the archeological site. We were on a mission.

Arriving on the grounds of one particular ancient site surrounded by pagoda temples, we attempt to locate the perfect temple to view sunrise.

We relied on GPS coordinates that we found online that stated we could indeed climb a specific pagoda and get a nice view of the rising sun while on top. Our cellphone flashlights guided our every step under the moonless sky as we searched…

Without my phone, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. The only way to see a temple at this hour was if we literally walked right up to one with our lights illuminating the off red brick layers of the outer walls.

The temples in the area did not seem to have steps and were not ‘climber friendly’. Even though I didn’t want to break the dead silence, I recommended that we drive out to our ‘plan B’ site – only after a moment of soaking in the eerie dead silence…

This spot felt ancient, sacred and even of a different dimension. We had no clue of the exact date this particular pagoda was built. We just knew that most in the general area were constructed between the 11th-13th centuries.

I let my imagination wonder and attempted to imagine what life was like during that period in time on this magical land. At this same time of day before sunrise about 900 years ago, maybe a monk would have been arriving to this very pagoda we stood next to for an early morning meditation. I’m sure he would have entered the temple by walking on the same uneven brick path we stood on. I wondered if even the tiny seeds that had created the nearby trees which hovered over this path had even sprouted back then…

I imagined an orange robed shoe-less monk passing us as the breeze picked up and swayed the silhouetted tree branches above us. The sound of Buddhist monks chanting together came to mind.

We finally left the location to find the other temple to view the fast approaching sunrise. Our hope was that it would have solid steps that led to the highest point of the structure so we wouldn’t have to climb the structure like ninjas. We had about 45 minutes to get there…

Back on the dark narrow dirt path we see two sets of electric bike headlights approaching us. I approached them cautiously… the drivers finally become visible from my electric bike’s weak headlight. All of us stopped side by side and studied each other momentarily. One Burmese, three Chinese and an American on a random dark path in the middle of nowhere…

On one bike there were two Chinese tourists and on the other was a Burmese local. My friend (who was also Chinese) soon discovered they were following the local guy along the maze of dirt paths to the same temple that we were looking for! All the local guy asked for was that we would be careful climbing the structure (which he assured had steps) and that we give him pocket money for his assistance. Agreed, we followed along to view one of the most memorable sunrises of my life.

A few more photos…

Local Burmese style breakfast
Chicken, carrots and greens with a tasty Burmese style sauce
Orange chicken with rice

Memories of Myanmar Part 2

February 2018

I paused to gaze into the window of a 5 star restaurant in the downtown district of Yangon. I studied the inside environment through the gaps of the white blinds like a stalker.

The beautiful people dined on white clothed tables in a large dimly lite room. A few patrons enjoyed cocktails that were being whipped up by a friendly looking bartender with an impressive handlebar mustache behind the highly varnished western saloon style bar counter.

The clientele were nicely dressed and had a healthy glow about their presence. After completing a days work and efforts, what better way to spend an evening? The cheerfulness rubbed off on me a little and I began to miss loved ones back home…

Deep sounding growls of a pair of hoodlum dogs startled me as they tumbled in an aggressive squabble across the street. They get up and take bites at each others necks as they begin to walk forward in a brisk pace.

They lead me northward along this downtown street. Them on one side of the street and I on the other…

In sync, they take a sharp right turn into a space between abandoned khaki colored 5 story tall apartment buildings. Three adolescent heads emerge from the black dumpster that seems to guard the tight spaced entrance of the alleyway.

The trio of scavengers are dirty, skinny and hungry. I ponder the scene I witnessed a few moments ago of the beautiful people dining…The contrast is too much to take. The curb is the closest thing to sit on.

Looking further down into the dark alley, I realize there are many more people further in. A small fire from a street vendor cooking food on a grill illuminates the darkness somewhat. I see lean-to make shift homes made of battered blue tarp, rusty tin and card board boxes further inward.

Two of the dark skinned guys of the group standing around the food vendor look directly at me sitting across the street. I’m peering into their domain… They don’t cease their hard stare for what feels like eternity. Through their eyes, they communicate that I am not welcome to look, enter or even feel sorry for their living condition.

I get up to carry on toward my hostel. The experience burned into my brain and bothers me long into the night.

I walked down the tourist district the following morning and met a valiant 16 year old who was able to speak Burmese, English (in a British accent), Chinese and French. His language skills allowed him to sell post cards to tourists. The money earned provided food and shelter for his three younger siblings and widowed mother. The family live a ‘hand to mouth’ existence across the Yangon River in the slums since the land his family once owned had been taken away for economic development reasons.

For some reason I heard: “The hard work and struggle they currently face will give them incentive to learn more skills, thus allow them to rise out of poverty” inside my head…A lesson that I had somehow retained from a past economics lecture years ago.

That may have been his deceased fathers mindset at one point in time…Now he possesses that same mindset..and I’m sure some people who live out in the alley I witnessed the night before also possess it.

I can’t blame them. The reality is that the average person needs money to enjoy a comfortable, healthy and modern lifestyle in this day and age.

The things that I couldn’t help to ponder were the transitions some of these people were going through. Not everyone benefits from economic growth-especially those living in a city in a developing country.

City life demands modern skill sets and a complete shift in mindset for the newly arrived country folks (and preexisting folks already on the land that is targeted for developed) who seek a modern lifestyle. What were skills out in the farmland serve little purpose in the city for a person who desires (or has no other choice) to join the game of economic hustle – making money, spending it and making more. I couldn’t help but wonder if life out in the farmland could be a better lived life (for those who may have that option)…

In general, the people with low skills usually end up doing the grit work that economic growth entails. The low wages obtained and high cost of living in the city make saving their earnings tough. There is a slim chance that there would be enough money left over for further education to sharpen one’s thinking capability or gain qualifications for specialized skills that will lead to higher earnings. It seems they only just get a chance to sustain a minimal quality of life for them and their loved ones at best.

My western trained mindset that economic growth was great for everyone involved was being challenged for the first time. I now pondered the dynamics of economic growth for a developing country – particularly its effects on the society. Its a complex matter…

Hours later, encapsulated by a magical twilight that is only produced by a tropical atmosphere, I stood against a black iron lamp post on some lonely sidewalk.

A tug on my shirt sleeve startled me. I look down and hunched over is an extremely impoverished pregnant woman and her young child in rags. They look up at me with bulging malnourished eyes as the mother slowly raises and opens her wrinkled right hand which is aged beyond her years.

Immediately, I dig through my pockets to empty out the contents, placing a handful of thousand kyat bank notes into her frail trembling hand. Her eyes give a hint of thankfulness and slight amazement at the unexpected generosity. Dismayed, I looked into her weary eyes momentarily before they shuffled ahead and vanished into a nearby dark alley.

A few days later, I find myself in a crowded bus terminal standing in line to board another bus on yet another early morning. This one would take me north to the ancient city of Bagan. I would be fortunate enough to be given the option of pre-selecting a window seat and would not have to pester another person for that prized seat as I did in Part 1

Subscribe and follow along for part 3…

Loading produce onto the train quickly to sell at the market
A university student that I met on the train takes me on a unique tour of a local market
Local women selling produce from their garden
This guy was running with a sack on his back!
I think the leaves of the cauliflower on the ground added extra grip…
Content with her purchases and presumably going home to cook for her family. The balancing act takes skill
Workers doing hard labor
A side street with food vendors
A narrow road leading into a Burmese style neighborhood
Burmese style
The early morning rush at Aung Mingalar bus terminal

Memories of Myanmar Part 1

February 2018

Once upon a time I boarded a cold and dark bus in the border town of Myawaddy on an early February morning. This bus would take me further into the interior of an ancient land. A land with a recorded history that dates back to 700 B.C.

A few years ago, I read that ancient ways of living are giving way to modern ways of life throughout this country as it is undergoing a rapid economic transition. I wanted to get a sense of this ‘unspoiled’ land, culture, and people before the country fully transitioned to a developed country.

So, here I was. In a bus that the common people use to take journeys around their country. Another words, it wasn’t some sort of luxury charter type bus you see in places like Europe for instance. Just the way I like it…

As I walked down the aisle to seat number 18, curious eyes of seated passengers gazed up toward me. They studied my choice of clothing and my foreign physical features.

The morning prayer chants blared through the overhead speakers that hurt my ears as I passed each individual one. Passengers placed bags below their seats and also above in the overhead compartments then sat down to get comfortable and adjusted their seats accordingly.

‘Damn assigned seats’ I mumbled to myself when I approached my spot. I had hoped for a window seat…

Once comfortable and buckled in, I studied my surroundings. In addition to the closed cornflower blue curtains, small sized pleated half-circle curtains hung over the top portion. White tassels dangled around the outer edges of these half circles. Just above these decorative curtains, blue rope lights extended the length of the bus and illuminated the tight space between the roof and curtain covered windows – a nice touch from the interior designers.

I returned the gazes of people who passed down the aisle and seated passengers who turned to catch a glance at the strange foreigner aboard. I noticed that the word was spreading towards the front of the bus as heads turned in succession row after row to catch a glimpse of me.

The morning prayers were loud yet some how put me at ease due to the hypnotic rhythm of the chant the monk recited.

Once we took off, the curiosity settled and I now desired to crack the curtain open (which required that I reach across the teenager who occupied the window seat). I wanted to see the land and all the geologic features of the area – the main reason why I enjoy bus travel. Would reaching my arm over his personal space be disrespectful? Would he find this offensive? What is the proper way to say “Excuse me, would you mind if I opened the curtain just a tad?” in Burmese?

Shit. Speaking of that, I had to learn a whole slew of new words since I was yet again in a new country. How to say hello, thanks, bye, numbers 1 through 10 at least – you know, basic things…

Before I pondered what mental effort I would have to muster up just to learn these basics, a person a few rows in front of me made the move – and engulfed the area around him in a bright haze of glorious sunshine. A few people squinted their eyes… That was my cue – I also wanted some of that vitamin D and a view of the outside world!

Literally two minutes after I flooded the vicinity with sun light, the teenager offered to exchange seats. Maybe he became uneasy while I stared past him to gaze out the window.

Note to self: Next time I want someone’s window seat, lean over ever so slightly (just enough to make them aware of my intruding gaze) and look past them out the window for two minutes straight…

mmmm…the scenery…curvy mountain roads, random shacks between the road we drove on and the mountain ledge, lush mountain sides filled with a deep greenery, random palms trees in the mix… Passing through small townships and settlements I get a general sense of the local ways of dress, general ways of behavior in regards to working, relaxing and carrying on through the day.

Enjoying the curvy roads…wishing I was driving a motorcycle…
Catching shots through a bus window is tough
Riding through a valley
Unique looking mountains in the distance

These small townships made me feel like I was in India (from what I’ve seen in movies, magazines and online). There was a lot of dirt, some areas with trash, chickens, cows and donkeys. For the most part the animals were kept off the road, since the bus driver mashed the horn like a crazy person as we strolled through.

Passing a cool looking truck in a small town along our route

For entertainment, us passengers watched a Burmese comedy on the small TV’s that dropped down from the roof above the center aisle. Nearly every passenger laughed at the mishaps of the main characters of the show as we chugged along toward Yangon.

Enjoying an authentic Burmese meal while taking a break from the bus ride. Real country chicken curry (tough but really tasty), a variety of vegetables (some pickled) along with rice

Yangon…you get the sense that hundreds of years ago this city was once a thriving jungle. The oppressive heat made the air dank due to the sub tropical humidity and polluted quality.

A variety of different ethnicity’s of Indians, Burmese, Chinese/Burmese and other South East Asians live, work and do business in this bustling city. If you are shopping for ingredients to cook, accessories for your phone, tools, clothes, jewelry, car parts, shoes, keys, books, movies, etc. chances are you will find it. There are side walk vendors, markets, businesses and a few people with a blanket spread out on a walking path with random items up for sale.

Taking a stroll through Chinatown
Making a sugar cane drink using an antique machine

Exploring the markets, streets, modern shopping malls and land marks of Kyauktada Township (the main area of downtown) – I get the feeling of… like I was in a very ancient place, with modernity creeping in…vibrant…a new emerging energy…with lots of different people from Indian and Asian speaking countries. People of different faiths – Christian, Muslim, and Hindu (and many other sects of Hinduism) being the dominant religions. All this created a whirl wind of exoticness for a western traveler like myself.

Lucky me. I had a few days to roam and wander around the city…to get a feel for things and to chat with a few locals who knew English.

More to come in part 2…

Myanmar currency
A beautiful British colonial building
A really tasty piece of fish
Passing a a British colonial building while on a local train
When out and about in the world I enjoy taking screen shots of my location from time to time
Out on a train ride…
One of the many Buddhist Temples in the city
This woman has skills. When she gets off the train, she uses the ‘no hands’ method
A typical scene out in market
I’d have to say this is the craziest bus station that I’ve ever been in