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Sunday, July 1, 2007

Burmese Days

Mingalabar again Myanmar!

arriving in style la

Htou Moun - Mandalay Candy/Kuih


Burmese street food

Roasted chestnuts

Burmese Ice Kacang

Burmese kuih-muih

Last trip, we came here also to recruit staff for Tamarind and JapaMala. Again, it's always work & play, we of course went exploring the country. We adored Bagan's wonder of 4000-something pagodas, fell in love with the floating life at Inle Lake, agonized by Yangon’s filth and ran away from Mandalay’s dust and mosquitoes. This time, we adapted pretty much to Yangon and enjoyed it for what it is and gave Mandalay another shot. I tell you, it couldn't have been a better adventure.

An Impression of the Golden Land
Characterized by noisy streets of honking cars, trucks and motorbikes, I found the cities in Myanmar to be quite charming, although I must admit it takes at least 2 visits to get accustomed to that sort of environment.
local transport

Bicycles like in Vietnam, trishaws like old KL back in the day and beat-up old vehicles I recognize from black& white photos of my young parents, all maneuvering on those dusty roads perimetered by old colonial grass compounds with big trees. That such scene preserved my childhood memories of old Singapore (where I grew up) in a dreamy monochrome. Like I can remember sitting in my mum's car to and fro school. But of course, minus the filth and chaos by a 1000% la.

Oppressive heat, flying dust, noisy streets, body odor and rotten teeth are the things you’ll distinctively remember of Myanmar. Translation : not the kinda place you should go to if you think you can de-stress.

Stress #1 - Remember to brush your teeth with mineral water ONLY.
Stress #2 - Do not eat anything uncooked (salads of raw vegetables, cut fruit or local cheese NO NO NO).
Stress #3 - If Paris has dog poo to look out for, Myanmar has this - almost every local chew beetlenut and then they constantly spew splatters of the residue, which is a mix of saliva & the blood-red stuff, just about anywhere. That stuff is really disgusting it's like they're vomiting blood. The ground is therefore beyond repulsive so look before you step. Don't bother with snazzy branded shoes ok, this is not that kinda vacation.
Stress #4 – Mobile phones and internet? Forget it. (Well, maybe life IS better without calls and emails... sometimes.) Now this is a chicken and egg question. Human civilization will have to come first ain't it? Well, there IS domestic mobile phone service and they know what SMS is, believe it or not, to get a mobile line, one has to pay USD$1000 or something ridiculous like that. And broadband of course isn't even half way there yet, although there's email, all mails going to yahoo and hotmail accounts are banned. If you can’t live without blogging, for one day, you’re doomed. What to do, the country’s still deprived of the most basic necessities in life - clean water to drink! Internet? Who cares.

Stress #5 – Forget to bring CASH and you’re screwed. The only places that accept credit card payments are 5-star hotels. To shop in Myanmar, they accept nothing else but cash. US$1 = 1200 Kyats. Here's a tip : Bring a big hand bag or a mini backpack as you’re about to lug around stacks of money like this.

Stress #6 – Remember to SHUT YOUR MOUTH about the government or you can get into some serious trouble, including jail. Secret agents often disguise as peasants, tour guides or even monks. Oh god you can imagine how hard it must have been for such an inquisitive loud mouth like me right?

Stress #7– So many stupas to visit and markets to shop at and way too many places to see, TOO LITTLE TIME!

YANGON CITY - view from Sakura rooftop restaurant (it's air-conditioned)

a typical shopping mall in Myanmar

But life in Myanmar is hard. Very hard. Because of the extremely low pay (many get as little as US$10 - US$30 a month!), people need at least 2 jobs to survive. Many Burmese have a university degree but they go nowhere with it. They end up doing odd jobs like waiting tables, sell fruits, driving taxis, selling ice-cream or cleaning the streets.

an ice-cream man at a local park

Those who speak decent English become tour guides. Most families would rather send their kids out there to work to help with some immediate income. The sad part is, people are pretty keen to read... to learn. Their circumstances and their sufferance unimaginable. This situation reminds me a lot of the state of peasantry in Cambodia only struck by a different sort of plight.

The Moustache Brothers Theatre
If you had watched Hugh Grant's 'About A Boy', you might remember a mention on Par Par Lay of the Moustache Brothers troupe having been arrested in '96 after making a joke on his government in their show. He was intially sentenced to 10 years in jail but was evetually released after serving 5 due to international pressure and uproar. Driven the support for the arts, a little sympathy and alot alot of curiosity, we decided to catch their performance in their shaggy private home on a dark lane somewhere in Mandalay. That's theatre for you in Myanmar.

Par Par Lay the eldest of the brothers and cousin Lu Zaw (3rd from my right) were arrested in 1996.

Par Par Lay, the man
He and Lu Zaw performed for fellow jail mates & lived through torturous camps

The Moustache Brothers stay true to their style till this day and perform stand-up comedy, traditional folk music & dancing and satirical jokes for tourists every night at 8.30pm. To hell with the spies.

Aung Sun Su Chi visited them in this home-cum-theatre in 2002. The picture taken with her now hang on their wooden shack wall to remind them everyday that politicians and comedians alike, share the same plight in Myanmar where words are often as powerful as weapons, and often feared.

Guess who's also on the wall on the blown up front cover of the '96 Lonely Planet? Lu Daw who speaks English does the stand-up and uses catchy phrases like “off the hook”, “tit for tat”, “get my drift?”, repeatedly blew the trumpet about his wife being the "pin-up girl". She too performs sprightly in various traditional dance routines that night. Despite her age, she still keeps great form in her art.

portraying the burmese marionette

The entire troupe is made up of the brothers, their wives and cousins, who also make burmese marionettes for sale in the day. 2 jobs you see. Ok la...i'm a sucker for sad stories. What i bought : a couple of Moustache Brothers brand t-shirts with a cute tagline (5000 kyats each only).

"If you haven't seen our dancing,
you can't say you've been to Mandalay!"
The T-shirts make great souvenirs for my brother and dad. Oh I bought a copy of the show on vcd too (1000 kyats). Will try to YouTube it later.....So if you ever step foot in Mandalay, please go watch the Moustache Brothers show.

Another significant landmark in Mandalay is the Mahamuni Pagoda. The huge huge huge Buddha statue is covered in gold leaf applied by everyday worshippers, for so many years it reached the thickness of 15cm! Pagoda shopping is fantastic too! Lots of vendors selling from traditional paper mache toys, brass bowls & stuffs to traditional show costumes. I particularly love these owls. Called Si-Kwet, these paper mache owls are actually lucky charms, come in pairs and in many sizes. I have almost every size and the biggest pair now find their cozy little spot on my book shelf in the study.

Living in the Age of Innocence
In poor Asian countries, if you'd noticed, you'll experience simple people living the most basic village lives and who often associate fun with just about anything karaoke. Their lack of education and exposure also implies them to be terribly out-dated too, naturally. TV ads in Myanmar are totally inspired by karaoke. For instance, jingles are all sing-along! There was this one that specifically made my ears ring, a locally reproduced midi-version of Kylie Minogue’s ‘I Should Be So Lucky’! I was just a teenager when Kylie's soap & suds video came out, gosh get real man these people... tacky indeed but essentially tasteless la, just plain innocent tastelessness - you know, cheapy graphics flying about coupled with exaggerated play-act, lipsing and lame dance moves. Now this TVC was advertisment for Thanaka powder, a local 'make-up' that both women & men use. 5 bintang ! Yes, for making me cringe till I cry. Here's how they wear their 'make-up'.

Excellent sunscreen they say....Not sure how true that is, but I tell you, women there don’t seem to have pigmentation problems, acne breakouts and whatnot. For the more fashion-conscious, Follow Me and Kanebo definitely rocks.
Ads of such nature range from shampoo, coffee-mix to real estate (yes they sing even when they sell you houses you understand).

MINGUN jetty

No no, I'm not bitching... how could I? Life's too strenous there to celebrate anything as worthless as beauty. I'm just relating my experience in a backward country, you know, the kindest sort of mocking. Speaking of living behind time, air-con taxis are therefore non-existent. If you can’t live without American fast-food, forget going to Myanmar. Not a single Golden Arches to be found it's bizarre. I don’t think the majority of the Myanmar population has even seen, heard, smelled let alone tasted a burger, Pizza Hut, KFC etc. See how green, innocent and unexposed they are...They only have their local kopitiams and roadside stalls pretty much like we do.
this restaurant is just a few doors away from The Moustache Brothers.Serves very very local Myanmar food

Chinese restaurants are aplenty if you’ve had enough of the usually oily and sometimes wierd traditional Myanmar fare. A friend took us to this roast duck place in Yangon that serves terribly good food with terribly bad music. Sounded like great entertainment to me! Bracing the thought of the karaoke-inspired TV ad, now I was gonna see it live! So it was like this : 5 girls on stage singing like they were 'pulling a cow up the tree' (as the Chinese would put it) plus with absolutely zero showmanship, zero fashion sense, zero costumes (quote Vernon “Pasar Malam” clothes) and with a few truly sad dance moves, these girls sure entertained. I've never been more entertained. Again, 5 BINTANG!

Cars and taxis are so beat-up their doors and windows don’t often open because knobs and handles are often missing. In Myanmar where cars look like they're made in the junkyard, they smell know, mildew is like the national perfume. But believe this, a beat-up piece of rusty junk like that costs up to US$30,000! Mad. My brand new Honda City that came with leather seats cost much less even a decade ago! Ha, half a mil for the Prado skipper drives back home. Absurd? Here’s more. Srubby burmese children so under-privileged they can't afford to buy food let alone go to school, hey, speak Italian! Tsk tsk tsk.... what's going on??!

A Day in Mingun, Inwa & Sagaing
The children, again peasant kids are used to pull the guilt trip. First they ask you to buy, then if deemed unsuccessful they ask you to give them some money with hand mimicking feeding food to the mouth, or ask for either stilo (pencils) or caramello (candy). And should all fail, they ask for regalo ( a present) any kind of souvenir la. Yes they speak pretty fluent Italian! It seems they all learnt it from everyday-tourists. Now that puts me to shame la.... malu tau... I'm still trying to speak the language, struggling with the complex grammar, all kinds of irregular verbs and the male-female of things, these Burmese kids speak it like they've been in private class for years! That's so raw I still can't get over it.

So this day upon arrival at the Mingun river bank after an hour's scenic boat ride, we were greeted by the local children's 'Ciao Bella!' and came running towards us with their sun-beatened dark & skinny hands strung with a million and one beaded & jade necklaces, sandalwood fans and hand-painted wooden rulers. Don't be surprised a few relentless ones will tail you, make conversation with you until you reach the world's biggest (uncracked) bell. Yup, if Paris has Notredame, Mingun has this bell tower on the bank of the elusive Irrawaddy River.
And the King of Mingun some 200 years ago was to build the biggest pagoda to ever be built in history (but it stands ginormous nontheless, unfinished at 50m this day). The story : The King aspired to build this gigantic pagoda high enough to peek over the mountain facing it where he resided. The height of his sincereity was to reach 150m if it was ever finished, looking like this…..

At 50m today, it reached only the 3rd tier from the bottom. The rest never made it. Then further severed by an earthquake in the mid 1800. While atop i imagined us as little ants rambling about a huge Apple Crumble.
note the twigs and joss sticks in between to "secure" the crumbled rocks, locals had put those there with a little prayer to protect the structure from falling further.

at the peak of the pagoda, overlooking the one built by the King's daughter
the other side facing the grand entrance guarded by 2 humungous lions now devastated by the earthquake
(you're looking at the lion's rear end)

To climb this enormous structure on an extremely hot day, one requires iron feet man. WOW the scorching heat beating on the stone steps can burn through your soles! No shoes and no socks permitted from the 1st to the 170th step. But fret not. Young boys are quick to sell themselves as your personal guide/coolie/slave for a small reward. They’re most eager to hold your hand, catch you if you fall in the pits and check this out, line your feet with freshly plucked leaves if you ever have to take a breather standing on those burning steps. Leaves….that’s classic. Now ain’t he worth more than just a couple of bucks for lining my feet? I gave the boy 5 bucks, a ‘Bravo!’ plus a Coke (the boy said he was to share it with his siblings later). What more I bought : one hand-made laquered umbrella at only 5000 kyats, 2 triangular farmer hats at only 1000 kyats each.

Such umbrellas are old crafts that our world no longer makes, sells or uses but Myanmar makes extremely beautiful ones, especially in the Shan state (where Inle Lake is). I kicked myself so hard and for so long for not buying any the last time, I vowed to buy the first one I see this time around. I bought 2 more later to give to friends as gifts. Rain or shine, it's such a fashion statement strutting around KL with it anyway. Buy, buy, buy!

You see, I have a distinctive theory when it comes to what charity really means. Instead of donating cash to associations (unless I'm a 100% sure of the company's integrity), I prefer visiting poor & regressed countries. I like, for example, to give them jobs by allowing them to be my temple guide, drive me around in their trishaw/ox cart/bull cart/beat-up taxi, buy their handicrafts (longyi sarongs, velvet flip flops, umbrellas, wooden sculptures, brass antiques, marionettes/puppets and triangle farmer bamboo hats - all of which are such inexpensive but beautiful things that no one should leave the country without...), buy the kids an ice-cream, give them candy, pencils, lipsticks, perfumes, small change whatever. Some genuine interaction makes these people so happy. To me, that’s real charity.

Having said that, I don’t mean it’s ok that you then go and bargain the hell outta your brains at the markets. Always struck me as sick that haggling prices down to ridiculous levels is etiquette of trade in a region where, to a foreign visitor, everything is so dirt-cheap anyway. It’s like further starving the already impoverished. A couple of dollars more ain’t gonna make you any richer!

Me : Are you ok?
Trishaw driver : I'm ok, are you ok m'aam? (he asked as he rode into another pot hole through the lightless streets of Mandalay)
Me : Oh yes, I'm very ok.... are you tired? (I was feeling very bad for this man coz our hotel was still very far away and he trundled both of us with sheer pedal power...aiyoh kesian la...)
Trishaw driver : I'm ok, no problem... my family very important (he has 6 kids or something). No working, no eating.

That is life for a regular Burmese guy.

monk boys chilling out in the village

June - Oct appears to be the low months due to rain. Therefore, the locals are complied to work even harder to get some business. Although Myanmar is crippled by its own government, the country is however, blessed with exquisite historical splendor and an exotic culture that bowls the West over. The Burmese are in turn blessed by the arrival of tourists and even humanitarians. If Malaysia was built by Banglas and Indons, Myanmar was built by the Italians and Spanish through the years in various contributions. Many roads were also developed in kind. Today, Italians & Spanish tourists are topping the chart, bringing the people a welcome influx of cash. Because of these countries' kind deeds, the Italian & Spanish soccer teams have therefore gained huge support and popularity in Myanmar. Funny isn't it.

MINGUN - can you spot me?

The whole Myanmar experience may be a little too excessively kampung, however one thing I enjoyed seeing is the concept of co-existence between man & animals. A place called Amarapura has an interesting highlight - the 200 year-old world's longest teak wood bridge (1200m) known as U Pein.
At the other end of this bridge is an authenic kampung slouching on the banks of a tributary of the Irrawaddy River. We stopped for a drink at this bona fide settlement as the sun began to wane. We shared our rest hut with scrawny chickens & dogs as dirty & skinny as the clothless and shoeless kids, scavenging near sleeping pigs and feeding cows. How rustic and rugged I thought, as it wasn’t possible to enjoy a breeze; every whiff was tainted by the stench of fish and physical struggle.

Inwa looked awfully similar to Bagan except there aren't as many stupas. We hired a horse cart at 4000 kyats for a tour, stopping at every pagoda to get hassled by more sellers. What I bought again: It was at the outside of one of these pagodas that I bought the Burmese Monk Gong for Ning as a birthday gift, a couple of hard-to-find cow bells with collar intact (USD$30 each), more cow bells without collar (USD$8-10), a set of Burmese Monk Gong Chyme (8000 kyats). Oh I really did my bit on charity, didn't I? Giving has never been more fun!
our very funky horse cart

INWA - reminds me of Bagan

Then the last stop before flying back to KL was of course Yangon. The day we arrived, I had such an urge to go back to ShweDagon Pagoda. Built 2500 years ago, its massive dome is made of gold slabs, real gold and on the parasols all the way up to the top are encrusted with so much jewellery, literally precious jewellery that people wear, some merely hanging on the reams, some embedded. People donated their earrings, rings, necklaces, loose gemstones of all sizes, baskets and baskets of these jewels to add reverence to this place of worship. At the very tip at the top sits a very large diamond - i don't remember how many carats but it's something crazy. Well, I came here again this time to offer my prayers. I was born on a Monday in the Burmese calender, the day of the Tiger. I did the necessary rituals - offered jasmine flowers and water - and made many wishes. This time, I paid fertility homeage. Yes, we both paid fertility homage. Ambui... I'm not even sure if I'm ready!

Anyway, so that was the start of our trip. Before leaving for KL, I couldn't not do some last minute shopping at the Bayoge Market la. Just so you know, this place is situated opposite the Traders Hotel (fyi it's nothing like our Traders Hotel in KL) if you wanna go there one day. Good shopping.

side lane of Bayoge Market
What I bought more
At least 5 longyis (the Burmese call sarongs 'longyi' and a typical design for men is plain with little squares; women longyis are very pretty, totally different from the Malay/Indon batik). Price : 3500 kyats only. Must have is the indigenous Burmese velvet flip flops at only 1500 kyats a pair - they come in many colors (I bought 2 blacks, 1 red, 1 blue & 1 grey). Also bought a garuda marionette, some buddha statues and a couple of traditional Burmese musical instruments.

Where I Stayed in Myanmar
Mandalay : Mandalay Hill Resort (Myanmar 5-star, Maple 3-Star - i think it's over-rated even though by Mandalay standards this is the best hotel in the city, USD$80 per night, very basic toiletries (hello...stuck in the 80's?), frequent power cuts, lousy hotel food but you pay through your nose, town not accessible by foot. TIP : take blue taxi between 2000 to 4000 kyats only.)
DO NOT let this hotel's rather impressive magazine ad fool you, although service was pretty good.

Yangon : ParkRoyal Hotel (Myanmar 5-star, Maple 4-Star - Excellent breakfast spread, decent and comfortable room alot of S'porean guests, strategic - 15-min walk to Bayoge Market.
The hotel right beside the Bayoge Market is excellent too (we stayed there last time).

Bagan : Sakura (5-Star no complaints, beautiful and vast view of the Irrawaddy River from the lobby to restaurant, horse-cart available for day exploring but opt for bicycle rental it's not only cheaper but alot more fun cycling from stupa to stupa through the grasslands.)

Inle Lake : Inle Princess Resort (5-star no complaints, in fact this is an extremely chic hotel, awesome ID, spectacular natural environment as this resort is built on the water therefore everyone arrives by the typical Inle fishing boat. Extremely romantic.)

Reminder : DO NOT FORGET your sunglassess (fashion aside, shield your eyes from flying debris & dust while in vehicle). Also, a bandana comes in handy, cover your nose & mouth when in car/taxi/trishaw/horse cart/bull cart.

Jesu Shie!
(thank you in Burmese)


Chit Oo "Mstudio" Photographer said...

Great trip and Nice Shoot photo

ZeonZone said...

This is my first time to your page and I must say thank you for the very informative post on Myanmar. Planning to go there early next year. It's nice to see you contributing to the poor too buy buying their trinkets.
PS- That's a loooot of cash on the table. ;)

k.t.x said...

this is definitely the page i hv been searching for for insights to myanmar...the only outstanding SEA country!

it's a human rights vs preservation vs moving forward vs freedom dillemma country!!

Tamarind Restaurants KL said...

hey ktx,
oh gosh i can't rave enough of Myanmar. It's such a wonderful country.... hopefully my dream of building a resor in Bagan will come true...;)

Go visit!

k.t.x said...

wow, serious? a resort in bagan. that's exceptional. juz make sure it is vernacular! i was briefly involved with a butik resort in putao in the kachin state.