Here are some observations, opinions, recollections, and comments, culled from notes I took during my recent trip to Myanmar:
It rained a lot during the trip, which isn’t a shock because it was indeed rainy season. One taxi driver in Yangon did not have working windshield wipers, but he did keep one stray wiper on the dashboard of his vehicle, and when it rained he grabbed the blade, stuck his right arm out of the open window and wiped off the windshield that way. Hey, whatever works!
Many locals that I talked to are not fully convinced that tourist arrivals have increased as much as has been claimed. At the very least the money from those hordes of tourists has not trickled down to them. In the case of package tour groups, many of them come on pre-paid deals and don’t spend much once they are in the country. Other high-end tourists often cocoon themselves in their swank hotels and never venture out into the dusty streets of the cities and towns of Myanmar, thus depriving local merchants of extra income. And then there are the backpackers, a notoriously stingy lot who insist on bargaining for the cheapest deals or just plain don’t spend any more money than absolutely necessary … except when it comes to beer.
The Inwa bookshop in Yangon — the one that used to be located across the street from the Traders Hotel — has moved to Pansodan Road. It was at Inwa where I finally — after checking a dozen shops in Mandalay and several more in Yangon — found a Burmese language edition of “Organic Farming” by Cho Han Kyu that a friend had asked me to buy for Daw Tin Tin Nu at the Maing Thauk Orphange. At first, the clerks at Inwa denied having the book until I told them that a friend in Taunggyi, May Hnin Kyaw, had bought a copy at this same store the previous month. With the help of my Yangon buddy Aung Zay, we located the book and then Aung Zay arranged to have it sent to Daw Tin Tin Nu. Adventures in book buying!
In Nyaungshwe I saw two boys walking down a road riddled with mud puddles, arms around one another, huddled close together … so they could both share the same set of ear buds and listen to music.
Wandering through an atmospheric grove of old stupas and temple ruins on the outskirts of Nyaungshwe that I had stumbled upon last year, I was saddened to see that a head had been decapitated from one particularly lovely statue. Reminds me of the depressing temple vandalism that’s robbed Angkor of some of its precious artifacts.
I re-stocked the first aid kits at two schools in Nyaungshwe, and also brought more medicine for the novice monks at Shwe Yan Pyay monastery. The most “popular” medicine was anti-fungal cream used to treat head lice and other skin problems. There was such a demand from the monks, both at the school and at the monastery, that I had to go to two more pharmacies to buy enough for everyone.
One of the things I like best about Mandalay is the variety of teashops all over town. But these are not places you go just to sip a cup of tea. Teashops are where many locals go for breakfast and lunch, or just to shoot the bull with friends over a cup of tea … or juice or even coffee. There are plenty of big, shiny teashops where the waiters all wear uniforms and the menus are extensive, but there are also some smaller and funkier joints too. One of the little teashops I like to visit is near the railway station. It’s open 24 hours, looks a bit grimy, and the waiters are a rag-tag bunch of kids who aren’t lucky enough to have uniforms. But they have very tasty monhinga and every time I leave them a tip the waiters take turns shaking my hand. Politeness and appreciation are rampant over here. I like it.
One time at Minthiha, one of the “big and shiny” Mandalay teashops, I was asking Yan Naing Soe, one of the waiters, to help me pronounce a word in my Burmese dictionary. Another customer, walking by my table, stopped and asked if he could help me. No, but thank you anyway, I replied. These people are just so nice.
As much as I love the noodle dishes and other food at teashops in Mandalay, my favorite food is in Nyaungshwe. The Unique Superb Food House was excellent as always, but the best meals I had were at the homes of friends like Htein Linn and Ma Pu Su. Fabulous soups, salads, and curry dishes. And the vegetarian feast that we were served at the school ceremony at Tat Ein village was the best of them all.
In Mandalay I had to diplomatically juggle trishaw drivers, even though I didn’t really need their services very often because I had a bicycle. But when you hear tales of woe such as “I haven’t had any customers in 4 days,” you feel like you need to throw a little business their way. The guy that normally hangs outside my hotel, Maung Lwin, wasn’t around the night I arrived, so I used Hashim, a fellow I met about six years ago, to take me to Aye Myit Tar for dinner. I used him once more before Maung Lwin turned up again. He’s been meditating. I also bumped into two more guys I’ve used many times in the past: Myint Shin and Mr. Htoo. Myint Shin excitedly told me about the trip he’d taken two months previously: a Canadian couple hired him to travel with them around the country for three weeks. Not only was he paid well, Myint Shin got to experience air travel for the first time. And here I thought that giving monks a ride in an elevator was something special!
When I took the kids from 90th Street in Mandalay on the trip to Yankin Hill, they all brought along individual supplies of candy and gum, which they were more than willing to share with me. One of their favorite treats was packets of drink mix; the sort of instant sugary crap like Tang and Ovaltine that you mix with water. But these kids cut to the chase and just dumped the stuff into the palm of their hands and ate it that way. They also gave some to the monkeys at Yankin Hill.
In Bagan, I cycled to an isolated old pagoda to watch the sunset one day, accompanied by the young “Maung Maung Brothers” (Zin Maung Maung and Phyo Maung Maung) from New Bagan. They practiced their English with me in the form of a restaurant role play. I was the customer and they were the waiters. I would place orders such as; 2 plates of beef curry, 1 plate of tomato salad, and 2 bowls of vegetable soup. When I asked for 6 bottles of beer and 10 mangoes, they thought that was hilarious.
While in Nyaungshwe I went to the nearby village of Maing Thauk one day to visit the girls’ orphanage. A friend of mine from Hawaii had spent time last year at that orphanage, where she taught English classes and helped them start an organic farming project. When I told her I was going to visit, she sent me some DVDs and music CDs to take to the girls. The girls were positively thrilled with the gifts, but they also asked about my friend and wanted me to send their best wishes to her. It was obvious they missed her very much, and it was very heartwarming to see such gratitude and adoration from the kids. If my friend didn’t realize how much she is missed and cherished, she should by now!
At the airport in Bangkok I was struck by the hordes of badly dressed tourists parading around the terminal, some of them dressed more like they were taking a stroll on the beach rather than about to board an international flight. And of course there were a few of those befuddled “socks and sandals” characters in short-shorts wobbling around too.
This was a much more expensive trip than I had envisioned. Sure, there were unplanned expenses like buying all the school uniforms in Mandalay, but there were other complications too. The falling exchange rate was the biggest factor. Two years ago you got 1,200 kyat for one US dollar. Last year the rate had dropped into the 900s. This year the highest rate I got was 820 kyat in Yangon, and the lowest 750 kyat in Nyaungshwe. Rumors are that it may drop even further this year. At all hotels and guesthouses tourists must pay in US dollars, and those rates have also risen. Last year’s $20 hotel is now $25, for example. So much for bargain travel!
In between power cuts in Mandalay, I occasionally turned on the TV to catch up with world events on BBC. One day they had a feature on the “Digital Divide” and how various organizations are keen to give students in poorer countries free laptop computers, as well as trying to give them widespread online access, introduce them to cloud computing, and so on. Those sound like noble goals, but are they practical? I travel around some very poor regions in Southeast Asia and I see many towns and villages with not only no internet access, but no electricity, Free laptops for students? That will just give the kids another option for playing games. Honestly, people in the “developed” world are so obsessed with technology and gadgets, that they forgot that millions of other people around the world don’t have the luxury of playing with all these iThings, and quite frankly they don’t NEED all that crap. Before they start tackling the digital divide, perhaps these techno types might focus on more pressing issues in the third world: safe communities where children can play without stepping on landmines or being shot; roofs that don’t leak; schools with well-paid and properly trained teachers; dependable sources of healthy food and clean water. And keep your poisonous religion mumbo-jumbo out of the mix while you’re at it!
On my last night in the country I was in Yangon, and as I usually do, I had dinner alone at the Traders Hotel. Their dinner buffet is one of the best value-for-the-money meals in Asia. Not the most sumptuous of spreads, but more than good enough to justify the price. It used to be $16, but now it’s gone up to $20, which is still a very good deal. As I was dining, a middle-aged Burmese man approached my table and introduced himself: U Myint. He asked if I was enjoying my stay in Myanmar and of course I replied that indeed I was. Like so many locals that I’ve met here over the years, U Myint was sincerely happy that I was visiting his country, and expressed his appreciation for my visit.
The tax man is back! As of June 1, there is now a domestic departure tax at airports around the country. I discovered this new surcharge when taking a flight from Mandalay to Heho. I didn’t mind paying the 1,000 kyat (about US$1) tax so much, but the totally unorganized “system” they are using to pay the tax made me quite angry. In Mandalay, there is a tiny circular booth stuck in one corner of the terminal, staffed by three people who examine your ticket, take your money and painstakingly write out a receipt. This muddy process is slowed down even further by the fact that there is no queue system in place at this booth. It’s a total free-for-all; people pushing and jostling to slap down tickets and money on the counter, urging the overworked staffers to process them as quickly as possible. Chaotic? It’s beyond insane. This is the first time I’ve ever lost my temper in Myanmar. Really, I got so frustrated I started shouting. And then a funny thing happened after I started my crazy act; my ticket and tax were processed rather quickly.