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I'm not gonna lie to you. Getting around in Burma is quite literally a pain in the ass. What with my trip involving so many long haul voyages in so little time, I was verily spanked into submission by a variety of seats, chairs, benches, and stools, reducing me to standing for dinner by the end of the trip.
Arguably, the brunt of the damage was done on the first trip, an 18 hour bus ride from Yangon to Inle Lake. I was the only Pinkie on the bus (indeed, the only Pinkie in the bus station), which left at noon in 104 degree heat.
It was supposed to be an air conditioned bus, and it did indeed have air-con, but the air flow was at such a pathetic trickle that you couldn't actually feel cool air unless you put your hand directly on the vent. Moreover, when the bus was moving the air flow all but ceased, as if the bus was outrunning the air oozing through the shafts before it could reach the overhead vents, except up front directly next to the driver where sweet, cool air blasted out at gale force.
The bus was packed. Every seat was taken, including the fold-down, death seats in the aisle that virtually guaranteed a trampling-related injury if anything more serious than an urgent bathroom episode arose.
Though I suffered greatly (and wrote about it at a length that would eventually cause others to suffer equally) it was on this trip that I saw something that made me (briefly) forget my discomfort. Not long after leaving Yangon, we passed a bus that had been altered into a double-decker without adding any ceiling space. A slap-dash infrastructure had been welded together, splitting it into two tiny, cramped levels. The bus was full to bursting. People were folded up and jammed in like cookies with only enough space to sit on the floor in a permanent squat. If we hadn't been passing it at 80 KPH, I would have taken a picture for evidence to send to human rights groups.
The local buses in Yangon have to be personally experienced to truly be appreciated. This singular ordeal is a grand departure from the otherwise laidback way the Burmese conduct themselves.
Bus drivers careen around town with one foot on the gas and the other foot, seemingly, on the horn. One gets the sense that these men are drafted directly from the outpatient program at the local suicide prevention center and paid with bags of betel chews.
The driver's sidekick, an only slightly less sadistic announcer/conductor, hangs out one of the "doors" (frequently the actual door has been detached), screaming the bus line number and direction to the people standing at the bus stops as the bus pulls up. He then hastily pulls people on the bus, while simultaneously shoving others off. Age, gender and physical disabilities have no bearing on how one is treated. Often the bus never actually stops rolling.
My guide in Yangon insisted on giving me a lengthy Burmese most-often-used phrases lesson at dinner one night. This turned out to be pure gold for me during the remainder of my stay.
I wrote down and later memorized such phrases as "thank you," "delicious!" "it is very hot!" (referring to the weather), "hello, how are you?" "I'm fine," "what is your name?" "how old are you?" "You are very beautiful," "I am ## years old," "how much?" "too expensive!" "I already bought that" (to be used on the kids selling postcards), and "Discount! I am Burmese!" (this line brought the house down every time). I also memorized the numbers and the refreshingly easy large number counting conventions.
This small arsenal of language drove my already skyrocketing popularity through the stratosphere. Seeing a Pinkie speak Burmese was the funniest thing in the history of the universe for most people. I added to the list of phrases as my trip progressed. Eventually I could ask directions, bargain with hawkers, flirt with girls and order food (I usually had no idea what kind of food I was ordering, but the point was that I wasn't starving to death).
While in Burma I would eventually see more payas (temples) in 10 days than most people see in two lifetimes, including most Burmese, but none of them could hold a candle to the monstrous Shwedagon Paya in Yangon.
Aside from the towering main stupa (A.K.A. "pagoda" – a solid dome, often gold, sometimes white washed, that usually tapers into a weathervane-like spire at the top), there are 82 other buildings in the complex, including simple zayats (small rest houses) with a single modest Buddha and numerous pathos (temples) that are exceptional in their own right.
The main stupa is over 1,000 years old according to archeologists, though Burmese will testify that it's closer to 2,500 years old. With various royalty and Burma's rich and famous donating their own weight in gold leaf to cover the stupa over the centuries, it was estimated in 1995 that there was 53 metric tons of gold covering the thing with only the security of a bunch of monks watching over it. Very telling of the Buddhist mindset, eh? A similarly rich and unprotected fortune like that wouldn't last seven seconds in any major city in the US.
We walked around Shwedagon for hours, during which time I rarely shut off my camera. Every structure, every Buddha, every angle was stunning, unique and seemingly going to be the greatest picture ever. One building had a photo exhibit of the paya, including close ups of the staggering amount of gold, silver, jade and jewels hanging off the top of the main stupa (allegedly over 5,000 diamonds and 2,000 other rubies/emeralds).
There's just so much to process for a new arrival in Burma that often anything short of basic survival (money, food, clean water) has to take a backseat until reasonable acclimation has been satisfied. I reached this stage after several coffees on day two.
Once I'd solved the riddle of the gum disease epidemic, I moved on to crack the Mystery of the Smudged Faces. The majority of women in Burma walk around with gold/yellow powder smeared on themselves. Usually just the cheeks are covered, but some, children in particular, often have it on their foreheads, noses and even their arms.
I tapped the encyclopedic knowledge of my guide in Yangon for enlightenment. Conveniently, we were in a market - where I'd just concluded a triumphant meet-and-greet with a gaggle of rotund, amorous ladies at the shredded fish booth – so he led me to the stall where they were selling lengths of sand wood. My guide explained that, once ground down to a powder, the sand wood is believed to protect the wearer from sun exposure, while being generally good for the skin. Furthermore, when prudently applied, sand wood powder performs the same vanity functions as make-up does for Western women.
That explained that. I certainly understood the need for relief, after all it was April, the height of the hot season and the sun was searing. Oh hey, I burn easily. Should I put some on my arms?
Oh no. Sand wood is only meant for women and children [pause] "and sometimes men, if they are the gay".
Initially, I was convinced that there was a nationwide dental crisis in Burma. People everywhere, men and women, had deeply stained reddish-brown teeth with gums so ostensibly diseased that even the lips and chin suffered discoloration. Unable to ignore this any longer, I inquired about the epidemic and was subsequently school on the revolting art of chewing betel nut.
Betel nut chewing is a wildly popular Burmese habit, with all the outward appeal of chewing tobacco (but messier), having the general effect of a cup of coffee. The exact origins of this appetite killing habit are in question, but in places like India, it's been nauseating visitors for thousands of years. I located one vague mention of betel nut in a Burmese book indicating that it's been in vogue locally from royalty on down for at least 150 years.
My first day in Yangon was draining. Interminable walking in dusty 102 degree heat and humoring enthusiastic English speakers every few minutes can sap the most tolerant of Beckham look-a-likes. By nightfall, I longed for my guesthouse bed and sweet, sweet air-con.
As I made my way to my guesthouse, it became clear that parts of Yangon were suffering from a blackout. Street and traffic lights were out and all buildings were dark. The only light available came from passing cars, candles at food stalls and the occasional generator powered light in front of a shop or home. I was forced to slow my pace so I could cautiously judge whether or not I was about to step in an open ditch or on the tail of a stray animal.
Visibility briefly improved outside an unmarked, walled and barb-wired compound. Strangely, the street lights here were working. I stepped around a huge barrier on the corner of the block and up onto an abnormally pristine sidewalk. I marched along with the whole sidewalk to myself for almost half a block before a woman pleaded for me to step back down into the street. It turned out I was walking past the ministry's compound and they do not allow people to walk on the sidewalk outside the walls. Yangon's best maintained sidewalk is off-limits to pedestrians. That's just so military junta, isn't it?
I smiled and waved. I was a star. Really, the only thing you need to do to be the most popular guy in any Burmese city is to simply be from somewhere else. I had the added advantage of having a passing resemblance to David Beckham, in that we are both Caucasian, with short, blond, fuzzy hair and devilishly good looking.
I was continually accosted by 'fans' just wanting to shoot the proverbial shit. However, limited feces can be discharged when you and your new acquaintance only share a handful of common words and phrases. For the entirety of my time in Myanmar, I had the following verbatim conversation about 137 times a day:
Local: "Where you come from?"
Local: "Ah! Very good country! Goodbye!"
The people who had a larger command of English nearly always inquired and then showed great concern upon hearing that I wasn't married at my age. Usually the language barrier prevented me from explaining that I had already been to that particular ring of Hell and back and could only recently talk about it without my eye twitching, my jaw clenching and my wallet bursting into flames.
After weeks of sweating the complexities of money in Burma, it turned out to be pretty straightforward. Formerly, travelers had to juggle three currencies to get by.
To start, one needed kyat (pronounced 'chat'), Burma's everyday currency, to buy food, pay for some, but not all, transportation and to purchase souvenirs. One must be judicious when acquiring kyat. With Myanmar's position as a naughty sanctioned nation, the rest of the world does not recognize this currency, so if you don't spend it, it becomes a worthless souvenir as soon as you leave the country.
One also needed a stack of US dollars which served as a general fall-back currency, used to pay for hotel rooms, domestic plane tickets and industrious tourist touts.
Finally, there were FECs (Foreign Exchange Certificates), a kind of pretend currency invented by the government for the sole purpose of padding their pockets with tourist cash without actually having to do anything.
Bringing up travel in Burma (Myanmar) in certain social circles has ruined many perfectly good cocktail parties. I'm talking raised voices, spilled drinks, mangled Twister mats, and even fisticuffs with multiple players. (At what stage can you call it a 'melee'? Cuz I live to use that word in casual conversation. Melee. Heh.)
The recent uprising, the strongest anti-government demonstrations since 1988, briefly sparked new hope that Burma's hateful leaders would finally be bounced out of power. After a stirring week of unthinkable marches and defiance, the government finally broke its silence and retorted with beatings, arrests and killings.
At the time of writing, the protests were stamped out, reducing the nation to its usual simmering discontent. The ensuing political condemnation from around the world has forced the military junta to concede to 'conditional talks' with Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, though this agreement is widely thought to be a delaying tactic that will be annulled as soon as the international microscope moves its focus elsewhere.
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