I spent the first four days outside Yangon, couchsurfing with a young married guy named Thia, who had a three-year old kid. Since I met him through the couchsurfing website, I sort of assumed he would have a couch, or some sort of padded surface on which I could sleep, which was not the case. What I got was a wooden palette with a blanket laid over top of it and, thank god, a mosquito net that hung about eight inches from my face. It wasn’t big enough for me to stretch out fully, or even roll over, but at least the malaria risk was minimal. When we were writing online, he’d neglected to mention that he had a family, and that they all lived in a one-room house, if the word house can really be applied to what was essentially just a cement compartment in a long line of identical compartments for the storage of people. The three of them all shared a mattress on the ground, which was separated from the main living area by a pink Minnie Mouse bedsheet tacked to a rafter of the cut timber mezannine, which, as far as I could tell, was only used to hold a shrine to the Buddha, encircled by blinking, colored Christmas lights. Add a couple chairs and a loveseat upholstered in vinyl, a vinyl laminate black-and-white checkerboard pattern for the floor, and big posters of tigers in front of a river, and eagles in front of a mountain (two of each), plus a big-screen TV that wouldn’t have been out of place in an average American house, that you pretty much get the picture. As Thai put it – we’re not rich, but we’re not poor, either. I take it the latter statement was in reference to the television. There was no kitchen, but they had a crock pot and a rice cooker in a cinderblock washroom (so, I guess, technically there were three rooms, if you include that and the bathroom, which was a cement cell not tall enough to stand up in). There was a plastic drum of diptheria-colored water for showering, and this washroom backed up against a marsh – not a paddy, just a regular old swampy field – so when it rained, the drains in the washroom floor drained in reverse, and to get to the bathroom you had to wade through shin-deep, boggy water, up the two steps into the cinderblock compartment with the hole in the floor and, since presumably their burrows had been flooded, maybe, say, twenty to twenty-five very large cockroaches clinging to the walls and ceiling.
Also not mentioned online was that I would have to pay $10 a day in bribes to the local military intelligence official (it’s still illegal for citizens to host foreigners). Nor did he mention that he was about 40 minutes by train outside of Yangon. So I only made it into the city for one day on the front end, and most of that time was spent trying to convince him that I really did want to see the things I wanted to see (“The Strand Hotel? Never heard of it. Famous writers stayed there? Never heard of them, either. You don’t want to go there. A book market? There are a lot of markets, but there’s no book market. The largest open-air book market in Asia? Never heard of it. Colonial architecture? You mean buildings? You want to look at them? That’s it, just look? You won’t like that – the buildings in Yangon are all old.”). I did, however, get to see Shwedagon Pagoda around sunset. There aren’t many man-made places that live up to the hype – the pyramids, Vatican City, Versailles have all left me unmoved – which puts Shwedagon on a short list with, I guess Macchu Picchu, Mecca, and Petra. Nowhere else comes to mind. The Alhambra. In general, I find Buddhist pagodas kind of garish and tacky, but this place had some magic, especially in the half-light.
In recompense for everything I didn’t see, I suppose, I did get to see some of what people might call the “real” Myanmar, I spent half a day watching Burmese soap operas with his wife (who spoke no English) while he slept off a hangover, a couple hours watching a German zombie B-film while his aunt and uncle had lunch with their children. I ate with him at a few local teahouses that had clearly never seen a tourist before (foodwise, most of the curries are greasy, but the fish and noodle soups are good, as are the salads, especially tea leaf salad). I also taught a couple English classes at the monastery in his neighborhood, which I didn’t expect to enjoy, since I’ve already spent a good amount of time teaching English in Southeast Asia (for money), but the kids were sharp, and very keen to learn from a native speaker, so we got along pretty well, and I’ve kept up with some of the young monks on facebook.
After four pretty rugged days, an overnight bus to Mawlamyine (in the south) felt luxurious. Air conditioning, a padded seat – until the driver started blasting the television (ultra-violent Chinese films, which looked exactly like ultra-violent American films), and the air conditioning got down to 16, according to the digital display. I don’t know what that is in Fahrenheit, but it’s f*ing cold. Then there’s the fact that Burmese people just love to burp and spit and fart, as loudly as possible. The guy next to me spent the 8 hour ride burping so loud I could hear it through my headphones, which I had cranked up as far as they’d go to drown out the sound of the brutal murders taking place just above my head.
Mawlamyine is the setting for the Orwell essay “Shooting an Elephant” and the start of the Kipling poem “Mandalay” (though Kipling never actually made it to Mandalay, and only spent one day in Moulmein, as it was called then). Odd reasons to want to go there, I guess, but with that being the case I was one of very few tourists there, which was a plus. I meant to spend two days, but ended up there for five, ostensibly waiting to catch a boat up to Hpa-An, because I’d heard that the stretch of the Thanlywin river between the two towns was some of the nicest boat travel in the country (it was), but mainly because I was comfortable in my hotel, and enjoying wallowing in my own laziness. There’s not a lot to say about the town – it’s a quiet delta town where two major rivers drain into the Andaman Sea, though, despite what Kipling said, you can’t actually see the sea from Mawlamyine – the rivers are full of islands, which block the view. In the Raj era it was the British capital, used to ship teak – and various other natural resources – back to England, but it’s been in decline since then, and was hit particularly hard during the Japanese invasion and after the 1962 military coup. The majority of the people are Mon (there are something like 130 ethnicities in Myanmar, which partially explains the constant state of civil war since independence in 1948), plus a lot of Indians (who the British imported, and used as local administrators). So, the food is pretty good. It’s also just about the sweatiest place on Earth. Highlight of the trip was renting a motorbike and driving out to Nwe-lo-bo Pagoda – or, more precisely, to the foot of the mountain where the pagoda is situated. Usually there’s a truck that runs people up and down the mountain – it’s a major pilgrimage site for people in Mon State – but it wasn’t running that day, which suited me just fine, since I was planning on walking it anyway, and it meant I had the mountain to myself. It was two hours to the top, and by the time I got there, literally the only dry patch of clothing on me were the pockets of my cargo shorts. I was actually soaked to the knees. As far as pilgrimage sites go, it’s no more bizarre or asinine than any other – three smallish boulders stacked on top of each other with a stupa on top and the whole thing coated in gold leaf (people of all religions seem to agree than it’s a good idea to pray to rocks). I was less interested in the pagoda than in the view, looking south over the river, west to a giant marsh (possibly a rainy season phenomenon), and the brilliant green paddies in every direction. Even from there, though, you still can’t see the sea (Kipling, you’re so full of it).
Hpa-An was a grotty little provincial capital where I climbed another mountain. Lots of massive limestone formations, which is what made the boat ride so appealing. It was 4 hours upstream in a longboat furnished with padded seats pulled from a minivan, with an elderly French couple who paid 75% of the fare, and who spoke enough Spanish to present themselves in that charmingly racist way that older people, particularly older French people, can have. Apparently the fact that the Burmese were colonized for a century while the Vietnamese were not is entirely down to the intrinsic laziness of the Burmese people. The possibility that the British were more effective oppressors than the French, or that five centuries under a succession of extremely bloody series of monarchies might have taught the people of Burma something of the futility of fighting against a government, were apparently not factors worth entertaining. But one of them was a film professor, and she recommended me some good ones – the Burmese Harp and Operation, Burma! (with Errol Flynn). Best one I found on my own, though: Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, by Anders Østergaard. About the dissident journalists working for the Democratic Voice of Burma during the 1988 uprising. Well worth a watch
Overnight bus to Mandalay – all the buses are overnight, and they all drop off somewhere between 3 and 5 am. Apparently the blasting televisions and air conditioning are meant to keep the driver awake. It works equally well for the passengers – or at least the European/North American/Antipodean ones. By that point I had learned to pack a hoodie and a pair of earplugs, though there’s only so much you can do. Got into Mandalay at 7, and since I’d heard it was nothing but a transportation hub, I booked a train out at 4 the next morning, and went for a walk around the palace walls (two and a half hours), and up hookworm hill (Mandalay hill). There’s one big hill in the middle of the plain, and the whole thing is a pagoda, so you have to take your shoes off. Which, evidently, in no way encourages the various business owners there to clean up after the dogs, cats, birds, whatever, who’re shitting and pissing all over the place. Nothing too exciting going on at either place, but walking down to the river, I got into some side streets with some old teak and woven bamboo houses, dilapidated colonial mansions, and a local guy eager to practice his English, who drove me down to the river, where I had to beg him to drop me off, rather than driving me all the way to my hotel – something about the fact that I’d been walking all day seemed to really upset him. But he did drop me there, with the admonition to watch myself, since the riverside is populated by “black” (undocumented) workers. I never did find out where they’re all from, though I know the majority of the Rohingya people are not issued government identifications, and are officially considered Bangladeshi, despite the fact that they’ve been in Burma for centuries. Whoever they were, they were all hard at work – sawing, hauling and shipping timber, the women cooking puff pastries to sell on the street – and all living in the most abject sort of poverty. They had extended the banks of the river with floating bamboo islands – which is something I’ve seen before, on Titicaca, where people do it because, by not living on Peruvian soil, they’re not subject to Peruvian law or taxes. I’m not sure if it’s the same thing in Mandalay, but it wouldn’t have surprised me. People were bathing, swimming and shitting in the river, pigs and goats were foraging on the shore, boats constantly coming and going. It was all very poor, and very full of life.
That 4 am train to Hsipaw climbed 3,000 meters worth of switchbacks just after dawn, then crossed the highland plateau for about 8 more hours. So much corn it made me homesick. And, fun fact, corn was only introduced to Myanmar in 2005. Since then, it has taken over the mountain regions, and all the land they’ve cleared in order to plant it has caused landslides, massive soil run-off, and the steady loss of some of their largest lakes, Inle Lake in particular, due to the increased sedimentation. The train crossed the Got Tiek bridge, which was the world’s highest when it was built by the Pennsylvania Steel Company in 1901. I didn’t share with the other passengers the fact that Pennsylvania has had a couple of bridges from that time period collapse in the last few years. Fortunately, it seems as if the Myanmar government has put more money into infrastructure than the government of Pennsylvania – or enough, at least, to keep that particularly train load of tourists from plummeting the 1,000 or so meters into the gorge.
Hsipaw is a sleepy riverside town, if you want to get all Lonely Planet about it, which translates to beat-up and boring in proper American English. But it was a good base for some trekking (in the rain), and a trip or two up the river (in the rain), and a good bit of drinking (in the rain), with a Kiwi group I spent the next week tagging along with. Upside: it has just enough tourist infrastructure (e.g. an espresso machine) to be comfortable for the kind of person who doesn’t like tourists (i.e. me).
Inle Lake was the first time I ran into the fact that Myanmar seems to have completed its journey from brutal military dictatorship to total f*ing tourist trap in something under 5 years. The bus ride down was entirely Europeans/Aussies/Kiwis (and me), and as soon as you get off the bus, a kid comes around to collect ten bucks a head just to enter the region. That money goes straight to the government, which spends more per year on the military (23%) than on education (11%) and social services (0.3%) combined. The silver lining here, I guess, is that corrupt officials siphon off a good bit of that for their mansions and fancy cars before it ever gets turned into tanks and guns. So I can feel good about that.
The lake was, at least, worth the price of admission (though I suppose that’s a matter of perspective, depending on whether you’re the one giving or receiving the bullets). Everything is pretty peaceful around Inle, which is the case in all of the places tourists are allowed to visit. It’s the mountainous, border regions where the individual ethnic armies are still fighting, so the only real sense you can get of the conflict is the fact that, the closer you get to the border, the more likely you are to see signs saying “car and motobike rental for tourists not allowed.” Which means that if you drive half an hour in one direction or another, you’re likely to find rebel army camps, or villages occupied by government soldiers. Which, evidently, some people do.
But, yeah, nice lake, surrounded by picturesque villages, most of them on stilts, with people growing hydroponic tomatoes, which they pick from their canoes, or gathering watercress, or lotus stems, which they use to weave fibers. Lot of silversmiths, lot of people selling overpriced trinkets. The kiwis I was with bought a “handmade” Buddhist calendar for $50 (bargained down from $80). While trying to extricate myself from that particular market, I had a guy following me trying to sell the same thing, and he got down to $5. I didn’t mention that to my travel mates.
Tourism-wise, Bagan is pretty much the highlight of the country (along with Inle), and so is even more of a hell than other places. There are 2,600+ pagodas/stupas/temples scattered over an area of about 40 km2, and each of these, no matter how insignificant it may seem, has its own tout, looking to sell you postcards, or bead necklaces, or one of their kids, or just an arm, or whatever. Fortunately, each of these temples also has a young French family taking endless photographs, and with a bit of cunning you can use one to distract the other, and find yourself a solitary view. I’m told the heat during the high season is pretty intense – but so is the rain during the low season. The thing to do in Bagan is to climb a temple to see the sun setting over the temples, but in the six days I spent there, there were exactly 0 sunsets. The last four days, in fact, it rained cats, dogs, monkeys and snakes, so I pretty much sat around in cafes, writing. Which was fine. Seen one temple, seen twenty-six hundred of them.
In summary, if you’re into stunning natural beauty and staggering poverty, try Laos. If you want sprawling complexes of Buddhists temples and swarms of tourists, try Angkor Wat. And if you just want to see what 60+ years of brutal military oppression will do to people, and to an entire country, you should see a psychologist, maybe in Haiti or Sierra Leone. As for Myanmar, it needs some time for the infrastructure to catch up with the swarms of hipsters (and young French families) out looking for an “authentic” experience. A $50 hotel room in Yangon is $10 anywhere else in Southeast Asia, and for every $50 overpriced room you take, ten percent of that goes straight into the government meat grinder. I pay my US taxes, so I’m culpable enough for that sort of shit already.
I’m serious about the hipsters, too – flying out of Yangon, it was nothing but big beards and dyed armpit hair jockeying for lattes at the one little caffeine dispensary. I hope their coffee was bitter enough to seem authentic.