Myanmar Story 2016
“On the road to Mandalay where the flying fishes play,
And the dawn came up like thunder out of China cross the bay”
A certain terror and joy jolts me when remembering the moments I moved glass slides into a projector so that several hundred Horace Mann students could sing in unison as Mr. Alison jumped across the stage, gesticulating wildly and leading us in a roaring baritone voice. On occasion the slides slipped in upside down and the wrath of Mr. Alison would be directed up to the heavens where we stood shaking in our booth.
But I never could get that song out of my head and often joyfully reenacted the classic moves of Mr. Alison. Only learning later that the lyrics made no sense and that perhaps Rudyard Kipling had no idea which way was up as the poem came to his imagination. And learning later that pedophilia was lurking in dark recesses of that school.
When I chose to travel around the world for two years after college in 1972, the lure of Burma was strong but access was limited. A military junta was in control, and tourists were restricted to just seven-day visits. With a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label Whiskey and a carton of Dunhill cigarettes, I took a flight from Bangkok and landed in Rangoon. As expected, I was met outside the airport by several guys offering to give me cash for my goods…and thus I had funds to cover most expenses in country.
Rangoon at the time was empty of cars. Nights were dark in the streets, gas lanterns lighting street theater performances with vendors selling all sorts of items including cheroots. But the temples/pagodas were impressive, gleaming gold as bulbous phallic projections into the sky. I never made it to the most spectacular site of Bagan and I planned someday to correct that tour error. Too bad since at the time of 1973, there were 5000 pagodas/temples in Bagan, but two years later after an earthquake only 3000 were left.
An earthquake hit the area of Bagan once again in August 2016 just before my wife Michele and I were to take a cruise up the Ayeyarwady River from Yangon to Mandalay. Not only that, but massive flooding had just swept through the river delta dislocating thousands of farmers and inundating hundreds of villages. Reservations were made and it was our intent to make the most of it. We were going to see the dawn come up across the river at least and hoped that on the road to Mandalay we might gain some insight into the transformation being undertaken by the country under the direction of Aung San Suu Kyi.
This would be my first cruise. I had been to sea on a freighter in the South Pacific so this was not to be my first time onboard a ship. But the idea of cruises had always given me pause. Well actually, I hated the idea. Aren’t most cruise passengers old and grey? Isn’t being waited on, provided for and shuffled around tourist sites for the geriatric crowd. By buying into this tour, wasn’t I giving up on a level of excitement and risk that made my past World Traveling so invigorating and enlightening. Taking chances and traveling with mindful spontaneity offered so many opportunities to fall into new and unusual circumstances. [And these were my concerns prior to COVID-19!]
But tour brochures were flooding our mailbox and I finally turned a page and found the trip to Myanmar that could still ignite a passion and have a touch of romantic allure. Only three years ago my wife and I had traveled overland through SE Asia for six weeks on our own…thanks to extraordinary planning and booking by Michele. And in June we had traveled for almost three weeks across Cuba, again by Michele designing our own tour. So by booking the cruise we were not accepting new limitations on our imagination, we were just taking precautions when health could be a concern and going to an “exotic” location where regular travel is still a challenge. We had watched Bourdain taking the train from Yangon to Mandalay and it looked excruciating. I had taken that route in 1973 and it certainly had deteriorated. We could search for epicurean delights without dislocating our spine.
A river trip looked decidedly easier on my physical frame and our frame of mind. I had worked for a barge line in Alaska traveling down the Nenana and Yukon delivering supplies to small villages one summer, so I had known the beauty of a river system even as a lowly deckhand. I was anticipating the shared experience with Michele to be remarkable for both of us. We made a great team on the road mostly because her planning made the passage easier no matter which direction we chose.
After one evening back in our favorite spot in Bangkok (Loy La Long Hotel, 1620/2 Songwat Road, Sampanthawong District, Bangkok 10100. Phone: (662) 639-1390, email: firstname.lastname@example.org , website: loylalong.com) , we flew into Yangon with minor trepidation on my part as I watched us giving wide berth to a thunderhead near the airport. We had chosen to travel at the end of the rainy season so weather was going to be a factor, I just did not want it to factor into a “heart in your throat” approach.
We had two days before departure on the cruise and Michele had found us a base camp. The Governor’s Residence was a bit more than a base camp. Just a lot more. A place that no self-respecting WT (World Traveler) would be caught dead in. Why? Because this little bit of paradise buffered the guest from all the relevant issues of the day. It’s pond and pool forming a moat, spacious bathrooms with telephone in the toilet closet ( I ask you who calls for room service while on the throne?), even mosquito netting around the queen size bed protected the traveler from the exigencies all around. The lunch menu offered Wygu beef from Idaho. A hamburger was $42. Not my first choice for a quick bite. I could order at least sixteen Dick’s burgers in Seattle for that price…though Dick’s most likely would not have Wygu beef ground into a patty any time soon.
And this restaurant offered Taco night. Asking about the sauce brought out the chef who very kindly explained that this was not a tomatillo based sauce so Michele could partake without any allergic reaction. A chef from Mexico, he was trying to develop reliable suppliers in country while training his crew on good hygiene. For an epicurean exposure to authentic Burmese cuisine, the second restaurant at the hotel offered eight different Burmese curries, along with cigar or cheroot to add to the heat just in case you had not already burnt your mouth out with the sampling or were not sweating profusely from the spice and the humidity.
Belmond Governor’s Residence, 35 Taw Win Road, Dagon Township, Yangon. Tel: (95-1) 230 2092, email: email@example.com
I did love the experience as a quiet retreat from all that had been happening in our lives. We were here to recharge, and place ourselves as far removed from stress as possible. It was critical to orient ourselves in a new environment, eliminate at the outset of our journey any troubling factors that we could control. We had to be as healthy as possible for the start of our journey upriver. So the two day retreat, though an indulgence, allowed us to run through the check lists of our mental state, physical state and logistical state. We were paying up the wazoo to immerse ourselves as gently as possible into upcoming Burmese moments.
Besides we wouldn’t see the Visa bill until the next month. Eat, Drink and be Merry for tomorrow we suck our bank account dry. We had our fingers crossed that we can afford many more expeditions in the future.
The hectic streets of Yangon were a bit of a shock. The roads are packed with cars…mostly taxis but no motorcycles, or mopeds. They have been banned from Yangon. Rumor has it that a General was not pleased when two motorcycles approached his car and the riders used their hands as mock pistols pointing the lethal digit and dropping the thumb hammer in his direction. Peripatetic mimes need to show more restraint.
The National Museum Yangon’s prime attraction was the sole remaining Lion Throne (8 were destroyed in WWII) constructed 150 years ago. Every square centimeter is covered in gold gild.
The Museum was practically empty, so we had plenty of time to ponder the elaborate design. There were also palanquins, and ox carts, a glass screen, 40 million-year old primate fossils, and musical instruments including an iron xylophone, Buddha statues and a room full of Buddha paintings. Eclectic collection for sure.
National Museum Yangon, 66/74 Pyay Road, Yangon, Myanmar. Phone: 95 1 371540,
Old British colonial architecture remains standing a few blocks from the Ayeyarwady. Large 4-5 story buildings line up along a classic town grid boldly holding onto a bygone era as they weather in the monsoons. Faded paint, rusted metalwork, chipped stone facades are evidence of exposure and neglect but at least they had not been demolished. By default, the buildings are becoming vernacular architecture through repair and adaptations. Squatters clothes could be seen through open window casings. Unlike Cuba, the government has not realized the tremendous benefits of restoration in helping with the balance of payments. The Myanmar Historic Preservation Association was offering tours with fees helping to support the restoration program. We searched for the office, asking in the vicinity but no recognition. We continued a perimeter search figuring that a random encounter would bring us to our destination…sort of a Ouiji board strategy letting our feet take us to a meaningful spot by miraculous divination. Two blocks later a man who had not known what we were talking about when we first asked, came up to us and lead us to the right door up a flight of stairs. (We had been using the wrong name for the organization.) Unfortunately, the guide book was in error and the Historic Trust was closed. But another set of stairs a few blocks away, lead to a student art gallery. The wide metal staircase indicated a hidden past of grander ambitions for the space. An architectural element tarnished by time and relegated to pure function like a dorm staircase. Its background of faded paint walls failing to highlight its elegant form.
Street vendors line the sidewalks selling food under makeshift shelters of blue plastic tarps. Tropical downpours limited the available space for dining while avoiding getting drenched. Tiny plastic chairs and wooden stools crammed under the tarps offered semi dry places to eat. Though tempted to try the fragrant morsels, we had read that a high percentage of the food offered carried traces of bacterial contamination. An “Anthony Bourdain” sampling of the various menu items was not on the itinerary. Maneuvering past this stalls that at times occupied both sides of sidewalks, I moved through the air space at altitudes of 75” or so dodging both spokes of passing Burmese umbrellas and stall structures that jutted out at unexpected angles. Michele followed in my slip stream finding less turbulent space.
The midtown park was soggy but set for an evening of entertainment with a large blow up TV screen ready to broadcast a major soccer match with Myanmar vs. Thailand. A 21st century version of the 20th century street theater that I observed years ago.
Entering an old St John the Baptist Armenia Church we learned of the vital role the Armenian community had played in the construction of major Yangon architecture. These families suffered from the Japanese invasion with many dying from the trek east into India as they escaped the brutal occupation. The silent sanctuary could barely elicit these references to past terror. Names etched in stone set high on a breezeway wall scarcely draw your notice. On recognizing their sacrifice, the place was suffused with an unbearable quiet. This was not going to be the last time the horrendous past was to intrude on the pleasant present.
A brief stop to check on our tour company brought us to the imposing Shangri-La Hotel, a modern 4 Star high rise. The metal detector at the front door was even more imposing. All is not well in Shangri La paradise. Entering is to find a sterile, chilly lobby with a restaurant devoid of character. The bake shop had one item going for it, a Minion cake under glass. Three cheers for the working guy…who probably can’t afford to eat cake.
The Governor’s residence offered a free tour of a few art galleries and an antique shop. Most of the art was realist in style, displaying intense colors with serene landscapes, lush vegetation or pastoral life with earnest yet beatific villagers. Art that could comfortably decorate a plutocrat’s wall without upsetting anyone’s appetite and maybe it was simply entry level work. Work that did not challenge good taste or stretch the imagination much beyond the cultural norms and market for tourist dollars. We did find some exceptions and especially in the work of a young artist who has already shown at Art Basel in Florida. His recent work of the crowds of workers and vendors who cross the river each morning and evening was haunting.
Khin Zaw Latt, KZL Art Studio and Gallery, No. 184/84(A), Golden Road, Shwe Taung Gone, Golden Valley Ward (2), Bahan Tsp., Yangon, Myanmar. Phone: 09 5333518, email:firstname.lastname@example.org , www.kslartgallerymyanmar.com
The next day when we settled into our cabin on the cruise ship that was docked right next to one of the main crossings for these commuters. Yangon’s housing costs are forcing people to make this commute, living in less costly places miles away from the heart of the city. One after another these small motorboats packed with exhausted, silent commuters headed west pushing against the Ayeyarwaddy’s downstream current.
Thanks to a Seattle friend’s note of introduction, we met staff members of the Partners Asia who are intent on community building in Myanmar. They were frank about the challenges for the country in light of the past military control when power was concentrated and money accumulated with a few corrupt plutocrats. As teak wood, rubies and gold were smuggled out of the county, payments came into the pockets of those in control. China armed tribal groups to facilitate trade across the borders. Factional fighting has been ongoing for generations. Moslem Rohinga refugees seek autonomy but are still penned into camps, and predominantly Christian Rakine are still in a civil war with the government that has lasted 60 years. And The Lady has been given the task of reconciliation among the tribes and factions while the military “steps back”. [post-script: not so much stepping back by the military as they terrorized the Rohinga and pushed them out of the country since we visited…and The Lady has lost her grace in the eyes of the world.]
Partners Asia, Room (061), 7th Floor, Bayint Naung Tower 1/A, Bayint Raung Road, Kamayut Township, Yangon. Phone: 01 536222, http://www.partnersasia.org
Heading for the docks, visitors and commuters passed the pagoda that housed the Buddha’s hair. Golden coconuts were clearly the sacred item for purchase by devotees. Down an ally I found the source. The golden nuts were flying out a second story window, caught like a football and loaded on a cart to be rolled around the neighborhood and displayed in stalls for those devoted followers to purchase and cherish.
Moving from shore to our ship, Amapura, staff greeted us with umbrellas and handled our luggage. We were early but not early enough to see the dead white person’s body that floated by the boat according to early arrivals. We settled into our cabin with French balcony just one door down from the expansive suite.
(We snuck in later to size it up and it had a jacuzzi tub, huge bed and windows facing to both starboard and aft. They did not bump us up to the unoccupied luxurious space. But all for the better since this trip was going to be a challenge anyway, slipping upstream in a style that 99.9% of the population would never be accustomed.)
Our full first day with the AMA Waterways tour, we made a land excursion that bussed us past the old colonial heart of Yangon to the Shwedagon Paya pagoda. Prior to arriving we were told what zodiac animals were associated with our birthday and told to pay attention to the planetary posts associated with those astrological creatures. Michele was born on the day of the week associated with the lion, others with a variety of strong animals such as elephant, garuda, tiger and then they got to my birthday…I had waited for everyone to be assigned a significant alter ego and ..wait for it, wait for it….I got the guinea pig. My first public humiliation with our tour group. I smiled gamely, and quietly slunk down in my bus seat seeking comfort in memories of one of my first pets, Herman Horatio Hamster, and all that that tiny little rodent had meant to me. I had cherished many hours with HHH as he wandered around inside my shirt, making me appear as if I was about to birth an alien. But hey, supposedly those with the Guinea Pig as a Zodiac animal were creative, artistic, loving, kind, and sympathetic…but unlike the Elephant I did not have a taste for danger, nor the Lion’s instincts for natural leadership and noble character. It was hard to cover the sound of my western ego deflating.
With shoes and socks off, we headed up an elevator into a vast sacred space. Seemed a bit like cheating to use the lift when locals climbed up, sweating on the stairway to heaven; like helicoptering into a mountain peak instead of prolonged hiking in stages and acclimatizing to the dizzying heights. Crossing a cattle shoot like bridge, we are suddenly blinded by the gold radiance as the pagoda appeared. All around devotees sat quietly, prayed, and walked clockwise meditating mindfully, stopping to honor personal weekday shrines around the perimeter of the grand Schwedagon. My Guinea Pig was nowhere to be seen. Maybe it would squeak to me when we closed in on the shrine.
Given the torrential monsoon rains of the past days, most visitors walked on the “astro turf” but in bare feet this surface felt like a pathway of tacks. We opted not to use this as a test of faith or endurance. Walking on the smooth stone plaza was cooler and a lovely on the sole until Michele promptly found one of the few water spots and slipped. The horrified tour guide and helpers couldn’t get to her to break the fall. Once she recovered from the shock…she realized in that moment that her recovered health had made her stronger. This was a trial of faith, faith in herself and she persevered. Miracles may happen in the oddest of places.
The blinding surface of Schwedagon impressed us with the enormous amount of gold leaf needed to refurbish this holy icon. What sacrifices do impoverished followers make just for the upkeep?
Having ear buds to stay in touch with our guide also complicated any reverence one might feel. One could drift away from the proximity of our guide, but never the voice. The whole tour group stopped for a photo-op…yet we lacked the bonding that might come from traveling together, so we stood awkwardly, uncertain of cruise alliances to come and trying to avoid contaminating future liaisons by committing etiquette transgressions.
Back on board, we lunched with Swan, our tour guide, and Mojo. Mojo is from the Chan State and works for AMA 8 months straight with four months off to visit family. His time away impacts his family life, he jokes that his two daughters and wife exclude him from family discussions. The US at some time in the past introduced integrated crops to farmers to move them away from poppy cultivation. At the window boys are playing soccer in the shallows and one shows off to the passing tourists by doing a back flip.
As we pulled away from the docks, we looked down on a few young couples hanging out seeking private planks, four Buddhist monks squatted on the edge drinking soda while gazing upstream and an old man leaned back against the metal bridgeway staring up right through my lens as I attempted to capture his composed nature. Two professional Japanese photographers with massive telephoto lenses made it hard to capture any still moments as they paced the dock grabbing in-your-face shots, checking images and grabbing more shots without respecting anyone’s personal space. I think even though I was on a massive cruise ship, our presence was less intrusive than theirs. But perhaps I was just showing my lens envy and was jealous they had the time to linger on the dock, shoot, check and review, reshoot until they achieved the perfect National Geographic pic. After all, their lenses were bigger than mine.
Our ship was finally moving up river as Yangon’s old crumbling colonial structures, golden stupas, warehouses and eastern-block style high rise faded into a two-dimensional backdrop. The population vanished behind the scenes, and the cacophonous city noise dissipated as the boat throttled up.
We sat down to dinner with Jeff, Jennifer, Steve and Karen. All American. Jeff has toured with Viking in China along the Yangtze River. Steve used to play with the White Sox but got released due to injury after the 1973 season. The question of the night, “What’s more important speed or strikes?” “Strikes!” he insisted.
Danu Phyu Town
Our first land expedition of the day and we each got to ride in a bicycle sidecar. The one gear wonder with teak pedals and the jury-rigged seat barely could accommodate my butt. Our British compatriot John, petitioned (groaned) for extra cushioning as we anticipated a bumpy ride. We made up a long caravan of whites in trikes, provoking many stares but few waves. The local truck stop showcased a Rube Goldberg assembly of engines and undercarriage frames. Mad Max would have valued their ingenuity.
Our destination, a monastery deep in the woods was desperately attempting to fend off the jungle and the weathering of the buildings. Eaves of rusting corrugated metal overhang newly painted blue shutters.
Chanting led us to the school where an instructor pointed to a chalk board, leading the youth in a call and response learning chant. Sprawled across the floor, the boys raised unified voices and, then shaved heads bent over note books, scribbled down the words.
A two-story ornate colonial building complete with faux Corinthian columns and arched fenestrations stands restored, an earnest recognition of the value in empire building retreads. Inside the painted edifice, the head monk, wrapped in red robes, greets his audience in a Zero Gravity chair. It is hard to maintain a serious demeaner when watching devotees bowing and presenting gifts to a venerated elder who reclines in a Zero Gravity chair. A Zero Gravity chair resembles a lawn chair in mid-century America, that one might expect to see behind a ranch style home, on the back patio next to the outdoor grill. If you have seen a person moving into the zero gravity position, it appears as though they should be exclaiming, “To Infinity and beyond!” prior to launch from Moon Base Zappa. Perhaps the floating sensation achieved in the fully extended position helps one achieve blissful meditation and one can really see the infinite. I was simply fixated on the mundane, and not the sacred. I mean, I had a heck of time finding one when my wife had a bad back, so how did the monk’s chair manage to make it to the Ayeyarwaddy Delta.
Trying to stay in the moment since this audience had been arranged especially for our group, I asked, “How can the Buddhists and Muslims find a common path to the future?”. Our guide Swan decided to skip the translation…and move us right along. Perhaps there never has been and never will be an answer, but I did not think it was out of order…just a tad indiscrete I guess as my wife gave me the snake eye. The monk did leave us with one consideration, that we were all old friends that through cause and effect had met on this auspicious day.
Back to more profane industry, the cheroot production line showed a different form of concentration: piece work @ 300 cheroots for $4 bucks a day. None of the ladies stopped for one moment as we watched the rapid creation of orange cheroots resembling giant hybrid carrots. Any pause cost money to the laborer. The three women’s workspace was the floor of an open shop, covered in linoleum and mats as they sat surrounding by bales of corn husks- rolling, stuffing, coating, packing some more, twisting off, rolling, stuffing, brushing on the coating, packing and packing on and on.
Left to our own devices in the flower market Michele bargained for some gladiolas, as an elder couple fixated on this red headed tourist. Given their stares, I wondered if they had ever seen a white woman in the flesh. He sported a goatee and brimmed hat, she a yellow and black fabric wrapped on the back of her head. She moved through the market as his shadow, a step behind.
After returning across the gang plank, checking in our radios and water bottles, and getting our daily dose of hand sanitizer (our on board hotel manager was not going to let a viral stowaway start a plague on board), and swapping out our soiled shoes for buffed sandals, the flowers were whisked away and returned to our cabin door in a vase.
Our lunch table mates were Morris and Caroline who had traveled to Cuba, and were glad Che was “picked off” since Che wanted to spread revolution across the globe. Morris was retired and had to delay their trip to China first for a pacemaker and then eye surgery. (Oh god damn, we are in a geriatric ward. No bite my tongue and listen to their stories.)
Moving into the delta and river channel, our boat passed a river raft of logs, a mini island with a pair of woven thatched walled houses. Their roofs secured under blue plastic tarps lashed down to the “deck”. Monsoon clouds piled up over the horizon, their lower edges bleeding moisture with the horizon awash in blue brush strokes of rain.
Along the shore, dip nets stood idle yet the bending bamboo frame resembled some Picasso sketch of a giant giraffe seeking water by the bank, legs spread and neck arched. The only live mammals along the banks were pigs, tethered or free roaming, snuffling around for choice tidbits of refuse.
We waved at a crowd playing soccer on a sand bar. We jumped up and down and so did they. It was not quite the Wave but it was enthusiastic.
The Captain pulled the ship up to shore and the crew secured bow and stern lines to nearby trees. John and his regular travel companion Cynthia shared dinner. John was a frequent traveler and talked of trips to Antarctica and Colombia. Meanwhile frequent AMA Waterways travelers had a separate dinner with officers. The only difference seemed to be they had custom-made peanut butter cheese cake. We did not feel slighted.
Our ship navigated around sand bars. Butterflies and dragonflies passed outside our balcony. We were a floating island habitat. Swan lectured on the first Burmese war.
Landing at Myan Aung, we trekked along a dyke and through a neglected park with planters made from painted truck tires. We stopped at a local Catholic church where a nun described the orphanage for children up to 4 ½ years. But where do they go from here?
Three police and 2 handcuffed culprits passed us on the way to a Stupa and an Islamic Mosque. Swan was intent on demonstrating how everyone in the village lives together no matter their faith. [In reflection, how naïve was his perspective or perhaps he was simply delivering the government line of a peaceable kingdom.]
At dinner, Jeff (an Eye, Ear and Nose doctor) and Jennifer (stock trader) sat with Malcolm and Loretta from New Zealand, and we joined them. Malcolm and Loretta’s son had his house knocked off its foundation during the Christchurch quake. Jeff firmly believes that Obama Care is a disaster. (Remember Bite Tongue and enjoy the meal…we are stuck with these comrades for two weeks.)
Captain brought us close to Akauk Taung Hill with its steep cliffs etched by precarious steps leading to a stupa. Cut into the cliff are at three reclining Buddhas as well as multiple other images of the Buddha. These Buddhas may not have the enormity of the Bamiyan Buddha of Afghanistan before the Taliban obliterated it, but they hold you in their gaze with their stillness. Why this gallery of cliff dwelling Buddhas in this sacred space? A riverside attraction for wayward souls floating aimlessly on the currents of life and the Ayeyarwady.
A bus ride brought us to Shwesan Daw Pagoda, and three elevators carried tourists to the Pagoda. A ten story Buddha is in sight with another pagoda beyond (Wun Chatuang Paya or Apology Mountain Pagoda) where one can make your apologies for past misdeeds. Local visitors ask to take a picture with us. Fair enough, we are constantly grabbing photos often without permission, so why not? Where will that photo end up and what tale will be attributed to the captured moment when we crossed paths?
Since the rain had started, we made a brief circle around the massive Stupa and asked for forgiveness for given the shrine such short shift.
The market in Payay was spilling over with fresh produce, river fish and chickens (with a few flies tossed in), flower and some toys.
Back on the boat, an amazing rainbow crossed the river. The crew brought a cake out with candles to celebrate Karen and Steve’s birthday. Are we that close enough in our journey to care? Who is to complain about cake and ice cream so celebrate the sugar rush.
A morning tuk-tuk ride brought us into a village and the local fish market. Flies were definitely getting the upper hand. Thanaka wood was sold at another stall. They make the paste from Thanaka wood for skin protection. I remember the paste on women’s and children’s faces when I visited in 1973 and finally I had found the origin. The market was bounded by two large banyon trees, each with a small shrine attached to the trunk. In their shade was the motorbike parking lot. Most of the bikes according to Swan have been smuggled in. They cost $400 but registration costs $1000 with an accompanying fine on the smuggled product, so no one registers.
Jewelry stalls offered gold earrings but Swan said better deals were in Pagan and better longies (the male sarong I was looking for) could be found in Mandalay at the silk factory.
Wandering through the market, short haired scrawny dogs scrounged for edible refuse. A mother at her stall swung her baby back and forth into the passage way. We dodged the baby metronome.
Next up a visit to the oldest golf course in Myanmar, Thayet, built in 1887. Drivers and balls were provided and only the men stepped up to prove themselves. I at least did not miss the ball with a wood. Steve and Jeff clobbered their balls. Each ball had been carefully placed on the tee by a Burmese woman. I would bet she also retrieves the balls given the cost of wasted shots. Then we did a little putting on the side. Golf has always been a bit of a mystery to me. I used to play a little as a teen, enjoying the walk through the manicured spaces more than the intrigue of scoring. This experience was a bit too colonial in spirit with the ghosts of English Officers of the 11th Bengali Infantry treading heavily across the greens.
An old teak building housed the post office. Up the balcony steps and just inside was a classic clerk window. We purchased stamps and dropped the post cards in an old English style post box on the grounds.
What messages had gone from here back to jolly old England in the day? “Had a marvelous day on the front nine my sweet dumpling though the heat was a bit much. It is a far, far better score than I have every done before. You are the jewel in this crowning achievement since all my indulgences are thanks to you. Just wish the locals appreciated our presence a little more. For God and Country, Yours truly.”
No trees in sight for landing tonight, so we pulled into a sand bank and the crew pounded stakes that secured the lines.
Minhla and Magwe
Next morning in Minhla, we ascended a steep staircase, and our crew stormed the battlements…or rather walked into a Fort designed by an Italian for the Second Burmese War in 1860. It stood above the river to block enemy naval encroachment. Not a successful decision since the British attacked by land.
The Captain assisted us in buying longies for the dinner attire. He offered to pick up the Michele’s hemmed sarong once completed. He is a very unusual Captain.
Among the oddities in the market, the Minion toys were for sale. A young boy had a cardboard camera. He and I exchanged poses for camera shots. That set him and others around laughing.
Swan pointed out all the productive trees in the village: banyon, teak, thanaka, papaya among others.
After lunch we rode a bus reeking of mothballs. Janet almost vomits from the stench. I piled on a blanket to avoid the air-conditioning chill and downgrade a cold. Reaching a playground, we circulated around a gold statue of General Aung San (father of The Lady) and an obelisk that marks the independence movement. [Aung Sun in seeking Burmese independence from Britain, initially sided with the Japanese in WWII, training with a cadre of Burmese in Japan on guerilla tactics, and then he switched sides when Japan exhibited a ruthless side.] A flock of children slid down the balustrade below the statue, swarmed the exercise equipment, twirled on the merry-go-round and then climbed the park trees. Each movement paralleled ours. I could not resist and climbed the tree with them.
Climbing a narrow road, we passed oil/gas pipes ready for future energy extraction. (Funding seems to be the problem.) At the Dragon Mud Pit where cool mud bubbles up breaking the surface with infrequent plops, Swan told the Dragon story of the man who would be King. This man slayed the Dragon by tricking it into thinking he was in bed with the Queen when actually he had slipped a banana stalk under the sheets to fake out the Dragon. On the way up to the pit, we passed several prayer sites with dragon sculptures. A supplicant can either pour milk or throw water over the dragon image. Up at the pit which needed some tender loving care, I stuck my hand in the bubbly muck…and it came out looking marvelous.
Our last stop of the day at the Myathalon Pagoda presented an odd spot, a room with three reclining Buddhas – small, medium and large. Around the Buddhas were sculpted representations of humans in distress that Buddha encountered and that steered him towards a sacred life: a corpse and zombie like character, and a woman with a machete cutting up a deer. It was a Stephen King storyline but I still missed something in the translation.
We slept with our sliding glass door open, and screen shut. The ship’s glow lighting up the grasses on the bank. Insect sounds filled the night air as waves lapped the shore. This was as close to glam river rafting as I had experienced.
We shared our table with Eric at breakfast. Eric owned a coaxial cable company that he expanded from Germany to America. After buying a Texas company, young leaders took up the reigns and his partners bought him out.
Swan continued his on-board lectures, expounding on Bagan history. Of the multiple Kings, three stand out: The Creator, The Preserver and The Destroyer. During the presentation, the Amapura takes a sharp turn to avoid a barge heading downstream. Thanks to the Preserver for looking out for us.
At lunch we hear about Cynthia’s growing up during WWII. Her dad was a coffee/tea taster and would bring a cake home on special occasions. With rationing, their house was very popular with the neighbor kids. She remembers the Doodle Bombs, counting to 10 and if you were still alive, it had missed you. They had a Victory Garden and chickens though her dad could not handle wringing a chicken‘s neck. He would chloroform the chicken first so it would not be frantically flapping as it met its demise.
Our afternoon walk led us through Salay to visit the Teak Wood Monastery (Yokesonkyaung), the Mann Pagoda with the lacquer ware Buddha and a stroll through town.
Settling in for the evening in our cabin, sounds of splashing water brought out on our narrow balcony. A couple are washing clothes along the bank, slapping the shirts and pants against the broad flat rocks. Gradually the other villagers joined in like some washing flashmob. Metal bowls were clanging, while children and adults talked across the sudsy water.
From our balcony, we seemed to have come out of warp drive like a crew of the starship Enterprise to find a peaceful community that according to the prime directive we may not disturb. But we were not traveling in different universes, and the juxtaposition of our cruise ship adjacent to their ablution spot highlighted the stark contrast between our privilege and their poverty. At another spot, kids had been waving and calling out, seeming to wave across centuries of time…and then a couple of kids pull out cell phones and take a photo of us…and the gap vanishes.
Even on board, we had Downton Abbey moments. With 14 guests and 32 staff, we were overwhelmed with attention that is uncomfortable for some. Steve could not handle staff helping him into his boat shoes.
We retreated to the deck at night to watch the Milky Way pass overhead and be in awe of the vastness of experiences in the universe and the remarkable odds of this lot in life.
Tuesday September 6
Tant Kyi Hill and Bagan
Before heading up to Tant Kyi Hill, we sat for an elephant dance accompanied by a live orchestra. Two men operated inside the elephant costume. The “elephant” danced on a platform, then on a revolving seat as in a circus routine with head swirling and body swaying with the drapped costume regalia creating waves of color.
The route up to Tant Kyi Taung Pagoda runs through dry scrub with yucca and cactus. And right along the road, without any protection from trucks or buses, lies a gas pipeline. Avoid the soft shoulder at all costs…otherwise Boom!
Up one more long set of stairs and a white elephant guides the way. Views extend across a valley including a set of gas tanks on a ridge. The river bends and braids from the north and the direction of Bagan, our next port of call.
Before the sunset tour of Bagan, we wandered and wondered at the marvel of the Ananda Temple, one of the oldest (1090-1105) temples in Bagan. Though the renowned tower was hidden from sight with scaffolding, the interior was breathtaking. Quite literally for the architects who were, according to legend, executed by the King so that nothing like it could be built ever again.
The Watchtower”, a 13-floor monstrosity sticking out of the Bagan plain. The owner has a sordid backtory and has been blacklisted by Washington DC. New zoning would not allow such an edifice now but when constructed the owner had contacts in the military junta. And the red tape got cut. Our AMA group is offered beer and canapes as the golden light of the setting sun is diffused across the plain, each temple radiating the glow. Drown your scruples with another beer, why don’t yah!
Battery driven candles flicker on old temple walls as we arrived for a Buddhist blessing. As a group we chanted “Sudra, Sudra, Sudra” and take turns delivering offerings (paid by AMA) under the sliver of a new moon. Artificial perhaps…but with just enough magic to give you chills.
Wednesday September 7
Come morning our stern line had some hangers-on.
Our AMA tourist tribe is given two options for the day: Mt Popa or Bagan. An easy choice for us since we had heard the steps up the Mt Popa were covered with monkey shit. And you must walk barefoot. Plus there is some suspicion that locals are in cahoots with the monkeys: monkeys steal your glasses and locals offer to get them back for a tip. So we chose the all day, all Bagan expedition.
Htilo Minlo (AD 1211)
The Mt Popa group were taking in this sight before heading to Mt Poop. Shopping stalls surround the temple. The temple hosts four Buddhas on the ground floor and four more upstairs but off limits. The top cupula has fallen due to the earthquake.
Wet Kyinn gu Byauk Kyi (circa 13th century)
Fine dry frescoes remain though several were removed by a German collector. His cut marks are still visible. He only got what was easily within reach. Artists were selling sand painting recreations of temple artwork. Given the unfortunate drop in tourism after the flooding and earthquake, the artists are willing to bargain.
Shwe Zi Gon (circa 11th century)
This site is covered by a bamboo structure for renovations as they redo the gold leaf. A rat painting reminds me of a Maurice Sendak character.
Dhamma Yan Gyi (AD 1163)
According to Lonely Planet, the workers constructing this temple had their arms amputated if the bricks they laid were not tight enough. Tough gig. Our headlamps spotlighted the bats that clung high up in the barrel vault ceiling.
Ma Nu Ha (circa early 11th century)
This Buddha resembled Alice in Wonderland when she grew to enormous proportions. We had to squeeze by the crossed legs of Buddha since he barely fit in the room.
Nan Pha Ya (circa early 11th Century)
We were unable to go inside but could make out the ornate sandstone carvings through the perforated window openings.
After lunch, we took a tour of a lacquer factory. Only Burma continues to produce these hand-crafted pieces. This is such a labor-intensive process, that both China and Vietnam of gotten out of the business.
Much as I would have loved to invest in a complete tea set, I settle for one cup without breaking the bank.
U Ba Nyein Laquerware Workshop, Main Road Bagan Myanmar. Phone: 061-65212, email: email@example.com
In Nandamanya, we found a woman making her own lacquer ware. And so we added a couple of tiny containers to the collection.
I reached out to a brahman calf and he kept extending his head towards me as I scratched his ears. Who were you in a previous life to appreciate the human touch?
Phaya Thone Zu
Though we were disappointed when our next stop was closed, we walked to Phaya Thone Zu just as a state inspector rushed in to check on the temple’s stability. Within moments, he came out and gave permission to enter. (I was a bit concerned about his cursory inspection but the art was supposed to be sublime so what the hell.) The art sellers outside seemed desperate since tourists had not been visiting.
Then by a miracle of good timing, the previous closed temple was unlocked and this place was remarkable for exquisite painting. Inside were detailed painting of Buddha’s life journey with depictions of crocodiles, garudas, four-headed incarnations of Buddha. Multiple cells were of a sitting Buddha.
We waited for sunset as Swan said, to see the “real Bagan”. A heard of cattle passed down the dusty road…and then a herd of goats all tinged by the golden light. Every blade of grass was defined by the moment before sunset. Listening to the herds moving past, it was not difficult to imagine what this place was like before the population was relocated. Villages clustered around temples with cows and goats moving slowly across the landscape.
On the bus ride looking west, stupa silhouettes were cast against a magnificent sky.
Villages were removed to New Bagan at some point to make way for the tourists. You don’t want tourists riding in balloons to land on a hut. Too inconvenient. The ironic aspect is that now, given the new rules regarding the height of new buildings, new hotels need land to spread out their two story structures and accommodate multiple rooms…so land in New Bagan has become very dear and even small parcels can sell for very high prices.
We rose early as we left Bagan. The dawn infused warm colors along the sand cliffs and washed across the villages and temples.
At Yandabo, we nearly took out a village tree so the ship drifted back to a more suitable spot. Swedish pancakes were served on the upper deck with a choice of ice cream, various sweet syrups, sprinkles and whipped cream.
Fully saturated with sugar, we walked through the town of potters. Two weeks before the place had been flooded so we were lucky to be able to visit. Streets were dirt pathways, some still wet and flooded. Only a few motorcycles managed to pass by. We wandered through several compounds where pots are made on wheels, shaped by hand, spanked with patterns inscribe on wooden mallets and then baked in mounds of hay and ash, carefully polished over their surface to store in sheds, and finally stacked below the homes on stilts waiting for the next boat to dock. On average women make 40 pots for $12 per day. Janet wanted to know why they didn’t up the asking price given that they have a corner on the market. As the straw hill smokes with pots curing inside, women arrive with seven pots on their heads for the next pile.
Before dinner we were asked to write down our wishes for the world and then hand our scripts to Swan. After the meal we climbed up to the upper deck and watched as 100 floating lanterns slowly drifted around the bend in the river , a Buddhist gesture joining fire and water. The lanterns floated with the current past Amapura downstream as constellations were reflected in the Ayerwaddy. Slowly the flames dwindled in size as they drifted around the next bend. Someone in the village directed a flashlight at the procession for that low tech Son et Lumiere effect.
After dinner entertainment, the Captain joined musicians playing a recorder as they accompanied three dancers.
Innwa and Amarapura
Swan’s briefing today was on Burmese politics. It turns out President Johnson supported U Ney Wyn in the 1962 military takeover and then U Ney Wyn became President of the Socialist Republic.
We landed early right alongside a dredger that is unloading sand. Guys hand shoveled the sand into a pick- up truck since the front-loader was not working.
Female vendors arrived early to pursue us as we headed for the horsecarts to the Bagaya Kyaung Monastery and all its 200 pillars. Our choice is a yellow cart with wheel splash guards and tassels on the horse’s head. And we are off…with the vendors on bikes trailing us like remora fish around sharks. Bells on the carts were ringing to the clip-clop of the hoofs.
At U-Bein Bridge (the world’s longest teak wood bridge) each tour couple jumped in a boat guided by their own ferryman. As we floated and waited for sunset, the Amapura staff rowed out, came alongside each boat, and served champagne plus hors d’oeuvres. Though decadent, it made up for the less than spectacular sunset and missed opportunities to capture cliché shots of monk silhouettes on the rickety bridge. As we floated under the bridge and noted the bridge had no handrails, we wondered how many people ended up swimming to shore following a plunge. This structure was definitely not up to code.
Later that night after everyone had settled into their cabins and all was quiet on deck, I walked to a local pagoda. Dogs, having also settled for the night along the road, quietly but cautiously watched me. No one was visiting the temple.
I gazed on the blinking lights around buddha niches. A couple of temple dogs barked. Four puppies were huddled in the middle of temple plaza squeezing under each other to get the warmest spot. This was the first time I think I had been alone on the entire trip and the moments reminded me of evening walks in Burma when I traveled through in the early 70’s, a stranger in a strange land.
Off the bow in the morning, women splash a horse to keep it away from their washing.
A Burmese tourist boat passes and we become the center of attention and multiple camera shots.
Bright and early the crew and guests were on shore lined up along the road (no shoes) to participate in alms food distribution to a line of monks who had piled out of small pick up trucks. The ritual was quite methodical in it routine.
Entering a Buddhist nunnery felt a bit like we were trespassing. Some women were still finishing up their ablutions wrapped in cloth. A group led a blessing with us…their eyes flitting around checking out the foreigners.
At a local school (Aung Myay 00 No.23 Monastic Educational Middle School) students were identifying letters of the alphabet, and in another room hosted a spelling bee where penalties seemed to be ear tweaking of those incorrigibles who misspelled. Some very young children played in a circle in the courtyard…though one child was sadly detached. I was told he only recently had arrived and had been abandoned.
Across the river an enormous stupa, Mingun Pagoda satisfied the ego of an early King who like Trump did everything on a huge scale. Started in 1790, the project was abandoned in 1813 after draining the kingdom of funds. The vast stupa shows gigantic cracks down its façade (from an earthquake in 1838), evidence that no matter how grand the ambition, man is no match for mother nature. Guarding the edifice were two enormous lion statues with their big butts facing the river.
A short walk and we climbed up the white Myatheindan Pagoda. Dogs slept in niches along the staircase unperturbed by our ascent. Perhaps they were more reincarnated monks acting as guardians of the mount. Apparently the pagoda was painted white to represent the mythological Buddhist mountain, Mount Meru. The pagoda looked like a wedding cake slowly dissolving in the torpid heat.
From the deck that evening, we heard video games being played in the village nearby. Dinging and ringing marked heroic successes and failures as players sought virtual adventures into the night.
Morning rain and humidity left our dining room windows misty and our waiter squeegeed ours to give us a view on the world. Dragon flies hovered near the ship when we were moving and they appeared again near our Mandalay wharf.
Before we headed out, the Captain was out of uniform and on a motorbike headed to his house in town.
We were off to see the world’s largest book. Multiple stone tablets sit in separate small bell shaped stupas neatly aligned in rows. We decided to skip ahead to the ending.
On a jeepney ride up Mandalay hill, the driver took the curves as if he was training for the Monaco Grand Prix. Views were spectacular yet the remnants of the recent extensive flooding could still be seen to the north.
Gold leaf production was very low tech. The store was not Fort Knox. The thousands upon thousands of gold leaf squares are purchased by devotees who then stick them on their favorited pagoda or buddha. They are investing in the next life and beyond with their faithful contributions but perhaps shortchanging themselves on improving their present existence.
The wood working shop smelled of teak. Hammering was constantly in the background. All ages seemed to be intently engaged in the craft, though seating arrangements seemed less that accommodating.
Our final evening on board, the whole crew dressed up and said farewell in style.
Mandalay to Pyan Oo Lwin
We shared an early morning breakfast with our shipmates, and exchanged a few emails before departing the Amapura.
Chatting with the Captain, he pointed at five different ships that he had commanded. They were all around us, tied up rafting style to each other. They were of various vintages, some built in 1947 but well-built, unlike the more recent boats that are “quick to build and quick to fail.” Captain was offered a job in Holland at $10,000 a month but he feels he is too old and his family is in Mandalay. Now he makes $500 a month.
Our car was ready for the ride to Pyin Oo Lwin and so we waved goodbye and headed for the hills. Our driver had tales to tell. A previous 90-year old passenger had returned with her daughter to Pyin Oo Lwin after having escaped during WWII, traveling through jungle to India. She wept when she saw her old house. He has also carried several Japanese tourists who return with families to locate crash sites of fathers somewhere along the Indo-Burma border.
Our hotel sits near the botanical garden I visited in 1973. A golf cart delivered us to our cabin 16A on a hill.
Hotel Pyin Oo Lwin, No.9, Nanda Street, Pyin Oo Lwin. Phone: 085 28215, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
After lunch and Ma Myo coffee, we toured the National Kandawgyi Garden. I could swear I heard gibbons as we approached the swamp walk. In an enclosed bird sanctuary, some toucans decided to attack some local tourists. One guy grabbed my arm to get behind me as two toucans went after something his two female companions were carrying. Turns out it was not the red flowers one girl was carrying but the food container that sparked the toucan frenzy. The women sacrificed their precious waffles to distract the bold birds. Both “camp robbers” tried swallowing the waffles whole…not such an easy maneuver.
The butterfly collection was impressive if you enjoy them pierced and arranged in colorful wall displays.
Nationalo Kandawgyi Garden, Nandar Road, Pyin Oo Lwin, Phone: 085 22497, email: email@example.com
We hired a classic Pyin Oo Lwin carriage to take us to another old hotel. Purchased in 2013 and under renovation it was to be finished soon…but locals claim it is haunted. The abandoned tennis court looks desolate and feral dogs were fighting in the yard.
An East Indian parishioner greeted us at St Mary’s Church. Before too long, he was telling us that he liked Trump and that Obama had been too soft a leader. Given the money and power in this town, it was best to not challenge the locals.
Before dinner we sat on our cabin steps watching cumulonimbus clouds swell to the west over Mandalay. Crows and a cow were doing a call and response chorus outside the hotel grounds, and a bamboo forest added a percussive creaking to the symphony.
We had the hotel dining room to ourselves so we chatted with the chef over our special “no tomato” order and miscellaneous allergies. Desert was deep fried bananas with honey. Oh so fine! The high cathedral ceiling and central stone fireplace with chimney reaching up to the rafters reminded us of the Firestone Inn at Mazama Washington. Quite an odd parallel in far off Burma.
But after dinner late night arrivals from Mandalay disturbed our peace. This was the EID Moslem celebration weekend. Sounds did eventually die down and the night was ours once again.
Tuesday September 13
Pyin Oo Lwin back to Mandalay
Breakfast was out doors adjacent to the dining room. Our destination was the Governor’s House, a fifteen-minute walk according to the front desk. We found it an hour later. But the extended tour was not wasted. The walk along the lake was lovely even while recognizing that Turkish prisoners during WWI built it. We passed a golf club and nine-hole course, the Feel Coffee Shop, multiple newer homes and more under construction. This was evidence, according to our driver on arrival, of New Money Burmese investing in this highland retreat much as the British did years ago. [I have since learned that Pyin Oo Lwin is not far from one of the biggest illegal drug production centers, so new money may be either from corrupt military or drug entrepreneurs.]
A passing monk told us we were headed the wrong way. Not according to the tourist map I had in my hand. What to believe? Maybe trust the monk. The map led us to a closed back entrance. We made a course correction and eventually arrived, walking past a grape vineyard to the reconstructed Governor’s House.
No one seemed to be around and this made a little spooky. Wax figures greet guests in the lobby.
No one seemed to be around and this made a little spooky. Wax figures greet guests in the lobby.
Finally we found someone to take our entrance fee. One can rent the whole place for $2500 and it comes with an indoor pool.
In the building next door, more wax figures and these were even more bizarre. Two Ang Sung figures stand side by side, one in Japanese uniform and one in British uniform. An adjacent room has British and American wax figures crouched for battle in a jungle scene. All in space once frequented by British dignitaries enjoying high tea.
With that thought, we took advantage of their shop for tea on the porch overlooking the vineyard.
A tuk-tuk brought us back to our hotel. I did not trust my map reading.
Heading out back to Mandalay, the same car (though different driver) picked us up. We stopped at the View, a hotel not yet completed but set on a precipice overlooking a magnificent waterfall. The owner has been blacklisted due to his military connections and some illicit cronyism. This is the same guy who built the towers in Bagan and in the Botanical Garden. After our stay we found out he is owner of the hotel we stayed in.
Our last night in Burma was in an amazing hotel in Mandalay.
Not wanting to extend ourselves too much, we hung around the pool until evening when we arranged for a car to take us to a comedy show, The Moustache Brothers. We were late but they had waited for us. A guy out front got up from this chair to greet me and beckon us in …and then we realized he was one of the brothers, Lu Zaw. Glad I was respectful and extended my hand in greeting rather than assuming this guy was some odd hanger-on trying to sell something to the tourista. The crowd was made up of ten people sitting in metal folding chairs in what appeared to be someone’s living room. Two brothers survive to perform with family members in a vaudevillian style theater. They love to poke fun at the government with word play, often holding up the English word on a card to carry the point just in case we do not comprehend his pronunciation. Musical bits and dance numbers are interspersed with comedy routines. The one brother who passed away was imprisoned for the comedy routines. The T-Shirt says, “If you have not seen our dancing, you cannot say you have been to Mandalay.”
Moustache Brothers A-Nyeint Troupe, No.23/1, 39th St, Between 80th and 81st Sts., Maha Aung Myae Township, Mandalay, Myanmar. Phone: 09 402579799, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
We really hated to leave our Hotel by the Red Canal retreat but in the morning, we were driven out to the small but well-designed airport for our flight to Bangkok.
We stayed at a new hotel (for us) in Bangkok, Inn A Day. Down a dark alley, you find this converted industrial space transformed into boutique rooms. Up a couple of flights on a narrow staircase and we collapsed on the bed in the 4 p.m. room. (The place was divided into zones of Dawn, Day and Dusk.) The wooden hot tub sat right in front of the glass window so that the evening soak allowed us to look out at a pagoda on the other bank lit by multi-colored lights, and listen to the amplified singing on the dinner cruise boats. Lovely…yet the place seemed like a fire trap, even with cement walls. We slept soundly anyway. We did have a balcony for escape if necessary. And their restaurant was serving remarkable thai selections. So compromise and take the risk, enjoy the cool atmosphere.
Inn A Day, 57-61 Maharat Road, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok 10200. Phone: +66 2 – 221-0577. Email: email@example.com
The National Museum of Bangkok was full of wonder: Royal Funeral Chariots, a Royal Throne, sculptures of Ganesh and Bodhisattva and Buddha. Not enough time and so much to take in. I envied the class of youngsters who had the luxury of stillness to sketch in one gallery.