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:


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