Thursday, September 27, 2007

Myanmar, Part IV

Before I get back to Myanmar, a digression: How did Dunkin' Donuts become so ubiquitous everywhere in the world but the West Coast? I ran into them all over the place in Bangkok, and they have "Dunkin' Coffee" here in Barcelona. Of course, they don't have any locations in Myanmar; instead, Yangon had "J' Donuts," which was definitely a Dunkin' Donuts ripoff. It seemed to be the cool hangout for kids with money in Yangon.

Other than the lack of international brands, the most obvious difference between Thailand and Myanmar to me was in the vehicles that you'd see on the streets. In Bangkok, for instance, the taxis tend to be fairly new cars. By contrast, here's a couple of pictures of a pickup taxi that we used in Mandalay:

In addition to being a heap of junk that's about to fall apart, this truck has a subtle problem: the driver sits on the right-hand side. It's hard to tell from these photos, but they drive on the right in Myanmar. Practically every vehicle in the country has the same problem. So, for instance, the doors on every bus open out into the middle of the street, instead of onto the sidewalk. Also, most buses have to carry a "co-pilot" to help the driver pass other vehicles.

Why are all the vehicles backwards? It's the government's fault, of course! They used to drive on the left in Myanmar, but then in 1970 the government decreed that everyone would switch, so now they have a bunch of backwards vehicles.

Another factor is that Myanmar gets most of its vehicles from Japan and Thailand, where people drive on the left. Often, they don't even bother repainting the vehicles after importing them---I think that every bus we rode in had Japanese writing all over it, inside and out. Sometimes you could identify exactly where the bus came from---one bus that I saw said "Holiday Inn Narita" on the side.

Okay, on to more sights. This looks like a fairly typical village scene in Myanmar, right?

Well, sure. Except for all the macaques hanging out on the left-hand side... This is the base of Mount Popa, which is a shrine to nats, or animistic spirits. It's about 777 steps to the top of the mountain; along the way, these macaques try every trick they can think of in order to steal food from you. One jumped on the back of one of our group members; another grabbed onto a girl's skirt and wouldn't let go. It's pretty funny, as long as you're not the target!

After Mount Popa, we headed on to Kalaw, where it only took about a 10-minute walk to get out of town and into the countryside:

Then we went on to Pindaya Cave, which houses more than 8000 Buddha images. Whoever designed the cave floor should be fired; they didn't think very hard about the fact that tile is a really bad idea in caves, where it's usually wet and slippery. This picture shows a few of the Buddhas:

The Buddhas get kind of repetitive after a while, but there's a "meditation cave," which was pretty cool. You have to crawl through a small tunnel to get to it, but it is very peaceful. Here's Daina and Kathy in there:

Closing thought for this post: You've got to love it when a government tries to censor the internet; they never realize just how hard it is to plug every hole. Right now in Myanmar, Gmail is blocked, but in a really stupid way. If you go to, you get an error message. But if you use https instead of http, it works fine! Morons.

Myanmar, Part III

After Mandalay, we took a boat down the Ayeyarwady River to Bagan. For me, Bagan was definitely the highlight of the trip. The area around Bagan is littered with temples---more than 3000 of them in 16 square miles. You can climb up on top of many of these temples, and when you look out over the plain, you see hundreds of temples in every direction.

Here's Jake looking out over the temples:

Mary and Anne, on top of the same temple:

This is a fairly typical temple in Bagan. Like most of the temples in Bagan, it's not covered in gold:

Shwezigon Pagoda is covered in gold, but the way that the gold is peeling off on the lower levels makes it look pretty cool:

We had our first experience with flooding in Bagan. Over the course of the three days that we were there, the river slowly rose until it flooded the main road through town:

It wasn't too deep, so people could still get through it---but there were a bunch of houses between the road and the river that were flooded, too. Of course, they build their houses on stilts to deal with this, but I'm sure it's annoying to have to wade through the river to get to your house.

The flooding also gave us an adventure one night on the way to dinner. We wanted to go to a riverfront restaurant in Bagan called The Beach, but we couldn't get to it since the surrounding streets were flooded. So the restaurant sent motorcycles to come pick us up and drive us through the water, two at a time! We took a boat to get back, which was also pretty cool, although we still had to wade through a few feet of water at the end.

I'll end with a few random pictures from Bagan:

Myanmar, Part II

After seeing Kyaiktiyo, we went back to Yangon, then caught a 15-hour train up to Mandalay, arriving at 4am. In Mandalay, we had some our most amazing meals. At one Burmese restaurant, when we sat down, 10 waiters immediately swarmed around our table, dropping off about 15 bowls of condiments. We got rice before we even had a chance to order, and when we did order, our curries came out in just a few minutes. As we ate, anything that ran out was immediately refilled---if there was a limit, we certainly didn't run into it! And at the end, the food cost just 2000 kyat each, or about $1.50. Completely amazing.

Mandalay is also home to "chapati corner," where three of us went one night for a dinner of chapati and curries. And then one morning, eight of us skipped our western hotel breakfast and went out for roti. These meals were delicious, and each one cost less than $2. Total. For everyone at the table!

In Mandalay, we went into a marionette store that made for a nice photo:

Near Mandalay, in the British hill station of Pyin U Lwin, we visited the Kandawgyi Botanic Gardens, which was created by the British and was apparently modelled after Kew Gardens. It's been maintained surprisingly well since the British left. Some readers might be excited to note that they claim to have slow lorises (although I never saw any):

Also, they have an elephant, which Daina rode with the two Austrian girls in our group (Irene and Julia):

Near Mandalay, we also visited U Bein, the longest teak bridge in the world, where Daina was accosted by vendors:

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Myanmar, Part I

Well, Daina and I made it out of Myanmar with no problems, and now I'm in Barcelona. It certainly looks like we chose the right time to go to Myanmar! I don't think that the protests by themselves would be much of a problem (there were protests going on while we were there, but we never saw them), but the nighttime curfew in Yangon and Mandalay would certainly have been annoying.

Anyway, we were traveling on a group tour (Burma Adventure, run by G.A.P Adventures), and it was definitely the best group tour that I've been on. The group was a good size (10 people) and we all got along well.

One of the first things that you notice about Myanmar is that everyone seems to be in the money changing business. Our taxi driver exchanged some money for us, our hotels were able to exchange money, and whenever we walked through a market, we had people come up to us asking if we wanted to exchange money.

The currency in Myanmar is the kyat (pronounced "chat"). There are no coins, only bills. The simultaneously great and terrible thing about the currency is that the largest bill is 1000 kyat, or about 74 cents. It means that everyone has correct change when paying the bill at dinner, but on the other hand, when you change $100, you get a huge stack like this:

Another thing that you quickly notice about Myanmar is that many propaganda signs are helpfully color-coded in a very friendly white-on-red. Here's a sign in Yangon about the "People's Will":

Don't worry, if you ever forgot what the "People's Will" was, and you couldn't find the nearest gigantic red sign, the government helpfully publishes these slogans in the newspaper every day. Here's another sign that we saw, this one in Mandalay (the Tatmadaw is the name for the Myanmar military):

Okay, on to some stories. The day after we arrived in Yangon, we left for Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, which is on top of a mountain near Yangon. It was pretty much an all-day trip to get there. First, we spent 5 hours on a bus which took us to the base of the mountain. Then we bounced up a twisty mountain road for 45 minutes in the back of a pickup truck that had 4x4 wood beams for seats. (For added fun, it rained on us for the first 20 minutes of this part!) Finally, we had a 45 minute hike up the mountain into the fog to get to our hotel, which was just a few minutes' walk from the pagoda.

The pagoda is built around a golden boulder perched precariously on the edge of a cliff. (Another thing that you quickly notice in Myanmar: they love coating religious objects in gold!) In the fog and mist, the pagoda was pretty awesome:

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Yangon, Myanmar

We're in Yangon now, and everything has been going smoothly so far.
Yangon is much more laid back than Bangkok, which is really nice.
There's a number of reasons for that; for one, I think that Yangon is
less dense than Bangkok. But also, the government has banned
motorcycles in Yangon for security reasons, so you're not constantly
dodging them like you are in Bangkok.

The trip has been great fun so far; we have a good group and a good
guide, and Myanmar is a really interesting place. Unfortunately I
don't have time to write more about the trip right now, but I'll fill
in more details (and post some pictures) later.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Pictures from Koh Tao

I'm back in Bangkok now, waiting for Daina to show up. I thought I would take advantage of my free time to post a couple of pictures from Koh Tao.

First, here's the view down the beach from Big Blue, where I was staying:

A classic tropical view from the same beach. The palm tree was obviously planted like that on purpose; it's just there to attract attention to a beach bar.

And this is me with the hawksbill turtle! I never got the chance to do any underwater photography myself, but I did buy a video of the last two dives in our Open Water course; this image is taken from that DVD. I guess you'll have to take my word that the guy in the picture really is me.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Koh Tao, Thailand

I'm now in Thailand, on the small island of Koh Tao, in the Gulf of Thailand. The island is only a couple of miles on a side, so you can walk most places pretty easily---although most people who live here have motorcycles for getting around. They don't really have much respect for pedestrians, either, but I think that's par for the course in Southeast Asia.

Anyway, I got into Bangkok a week ago, and it was pretty crazy---I stayed in a simple room that cost less than $7, and slept on the hardest mattress that I've ever seen. Well, actually, I had to lie there for a few hours before I could fall asleep---I think it was a combination of the mattress, jetlag, and the heat in Bangkok, since it doesn't cool off much at night.

I decided to get out of Bangkok and head down to Koh Tao, so on Wednesday, I caught an overnight train from Bangkok to Chumphon, where I got a boat to Koh Tao. It was the first time that I had ridden in a sleeper car, so that was cool, but again I didn't get too much sleep, this time because the train got to Chumphon at 4 in the morning.

Koh Tao is really beautiful; I'm staying about a minute's walk from an awesome beach, and the island is completely covered in trees. There's lots of palm trees, of course, but not the retarded kind that you find in California---the trees here actually give you shade and their fronds aren't nearly so deadly when they fall down. Of course, you do have to watch out for coconuts...

The most exciting part about Koh Tao, though, is the scuba diving! I started working on my PADI open-water certification as soon as I got here, and I finished on Sunday. Of course, that only took three-and-a-half days and it only involved four open water dives, so I had to do some more; now I'm working on my advanced certification. It's probably a good thing that I'm leaving on Thursday; otherwise I might spend way too much money on diving... Hey, at least everything is cheaper here, right? (It was so nice going from Scotland to Thailand, from a country where I rarely spent less than $20 on dinner to one where you can get a great meal for under $3.)

The diving has been lots of fun... The water here is warm and clear, and it's amazing how many fish you can see. On one of our dives, we even got to watch a hawksbill turtle feed from the reef for a few minutes. He didn't seem to mind us at all, just kept eating away.

We also see tons of jellyfish here. There are these tiny clear ones that end up all over the beach; they're not bad, since they don't sting, but it is a creepy feeling when you swim through a bunch of them and feel them brushing against your skin. Today, though, during our deep dive (to 30m), we ran into a bunch of jellyfish near the surface that did sting. They were actually a lot prettier than the other kind, but I ended up getting stung 3 or 4 times before I was able to reach the boat. Sure, it was somewhat painful, but the pain wears off pretty quickly.

Tonight, we're going to do a night dive, and hopefully we'll get to see some bioluminescence (but no more jellyfish!). We'll do two dives tomorrow, and I'll be done with the advanced certification. On Thursday, I'll catch the boat and train back to Bangkok, where I'll meet up with Daina; then it's off to Myanmar on Sunday!