Myanmar

Our second trip

( Jan-Feb 2003 )

 

We went back to Myanmar as we indicated we would in our last report. We plan to go back in 2004, again with Myanmar Voyages. For us, there is no other place with so much beauty, interesting architecture, grace and serenity of both land and people. The E-postcards we wrote are at the end.

 

 

 

 

The first thing we did when we were back in Yangon was to revisit the Shwedagon Pagoda complex and spend several hours around sunset soaking up the incredibly beautiful and tranquil mood. Buildings like these surround the pagoda on all sides.

 

 

 

On our way through Mandalay, we visited the ancient capital Inwa. In one of the very old teakwood monasteries we saw this young monk studying in a shaft of light..

 

 

 

The Mahamuni Buddha image in Mandalay is one of the most venerated images in Myanmar. As he did last year, Juergen joined worshippers and attached 24k gold leaves to the image, adding to its golden lumpiness.

 

 

 

 

 

The pictures above and below were taken at the Naga festival. It was only the second time that this annual celebration was open to foreigners (174 total) and it was an incredible experience in color, sound and performance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can you tell the difference between tourists and Nagas? And yes, those are tiger jaws on their necklaces…killing tigers has been forbidden, so we hope these are inherited jaws. Note the boar tusks…

 

 

 

After the Naga festival, we went to Putao in the north. Only some 50 tourists a year go there and most of the time we were the only ones. Transportation is difficult. We used a 50-year old Jeep (original engine) and had to walk across bridges like the one on the right which are too flimsy to carry cars (the Jeep had to go through the water). That’s Yvonne with the guides.

 

 

 

This area is surrounded by the Himalayas – India to the W, Tibet to the N, China to the E. While trekking west of Putao, we saw beautiful pagodas like the one above and spider webs covered with morning dew. Supplies take 6 days to get here by truck.

 

 

 

This woman was pounding rice, her infant happily on her back as she smiled and talked with us. Rice is put in the trough and pounded. Her toddler’s tiny foot “helped” her pound.

 

 

While trekking, our gear (which included food, pans, and sleeping stuff) was carried by an army of porters. We had our main guide (Shwe, kneeling at the far right), two local trek guides and porters as needed.

 

 

 

Our local guides cooked for us. The picture shows them in the kitchen of one of the private homes we stayed in. Their cooking was excellent (and, more importantly, safe for us to eat).

 

 

 

 

Some of the river crossings were adventurous. None of these bamboo bridges exist during the rainy (monsoon) season and many roads are impassable.

 

 

 

We spent 5 days in Kengton, the capital of Shan State, which is Myanmar’s Golden Triangle. We trekked on four days to remote hill tribe villages. In the picture on the left are Akha women with their splendid head dresses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yvonne bought an Akha purse which is worn like a loin cloth. She wore it around her neck. When we met these Akha women while trekking, they cracked up seeing this.

 

 

We bought this headdress as well as a young boy’s headdress from the market. This shop sold all the “makings” to the Akha. (There are few tourists here)

 

 

There are only 700 Enn people left and we visited three of their villages. They wear black and they eat dogs. Somehow they think they look like dogs if they have white teeth – so they blacken them.

 

 

 

These Palaung village women wear big silver belts because they believe their ancestors were birds, and they have to weigh themselves down so they don’t take off!.

They have beautiful gardens and are prosperous.

 

 

On our trek to the Loi villages very near the Chinese border, we saw this 400-year old monastery far from any road.

 

The Loi live in longhouses (about 15 families in one house).

 

 

 

 

 

Road scene: ducks are herded home with water buffalo following behind. They really get their ducks in a row! The duckherd(?) was pleased we wanted to photograph them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This trip we saw rice being transplanted to fields from the rice nurseries. This water buffalo is pulling the plow before the final plant.

 

 

Finally, we went to Mrauk U near the Bangladesh border. It was the capital several centuries ago. This is one of our favorite pictures of the entire trip: inside the Kothaung temple. Each detail on the wall is another Buddha image.

 

 

 

Stupas in Mrauk U. Note that here, near Bangladesh, women carry water in aluminum pots. In the rest of Myanmar, water is carried in buckets hung from a shoulder pole or in clay pots.

 

 

 

Our guide Shwe is presenting our favorite trek lunch: sticky rice mixed with coconut milk, a few red beans and grilled in bamboo. Just peel and eat. It’s delicious – and all of our guides couldn’t believe we’d rather eat it than western food! It was no contest!

 

 

Seeing monks on their morning alms collection is a sight we really enjoy in Myanmar.

 

 

For our earlier trip pictures, we now have an index to all of our webpages!

 

If you want more details of our trip, here are the 5 E-postcards we sent from Bangkok right after we left Myanmar:

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Hi,

 

After 25 days in Myanmar (Burma) we are in Bangkok.

 

Our trip was really four totally independent trips in Myanmar. This is a mini-report on our attending the Naga Festival in the NW of Myanmar, not far from the border with India. The other sub-trips were 1) time in the north, between India and China and south of Tibet, 2) the Golden Triangle area next to China, Laos, and Thailand in the eastern part, and 3: the Mrauk-U ancient temples near the Bangladesh border in the west. Those reports will follow.

 

Background: The Naga are former headhunters that celebrate their New Year by villages joining together for a festival. The one we attended had 6 different Naga groups present. During the dances and their choreographed walks into the celebration grounds men and women wear their traditional costumes. The “Naga Hills” are also wonderful, heavily forested, rolling hills with views for long distances. For headwear, Naga men wear a single white large hornbill feather worn vertically at the back of the headdress. Most groups wear large boar tusks at the front of the headdress, making quite a sight. Until the government and missionaries got involved, the Naga men wore only a 4” diameter metal disk as “pants”. Today, they are required to wear black soccer shorts that are almost knee length with their costumes. The shorts have two horizontal white stripes. It looks ridiculous. (Short black shorts would be much less distracting)…anyway… The Myanmar government is marketing this festival and spent an incredible amount of money to present it to the world…representing only 174 tourists and about 100 guides and other support personnel. There were people from everywhere – no one country dominated very much. They brought in generators and provided electricity to the village. They built 24 western-style flush toilets set in bamboo “outhouses” – it was really creative. Military Intelligence has its own travel agency (Phoenix) as they too want foreign currency. They have the clout to gather a dozen of the best trucks (that is relative!) from the jade mines and everywhere else in northern Myanmar to pull this off. This is only the second year that the area has been open to tourists.

 

Our experience: We flew in to a very small town, transferred to old SUVs for a short ride to the river. There we boarded one of those Asian boats you’ve all seen in pictures and went upriver for about 45 minutes, where we disembarked on the riverside and boarded trucks. We were the last of the tourists to arrive (most had arrived a few days earlier) so there were only 5 truckloads of us. That was the beginning of one of the true adventures of our lives. The very old Chinese trucks were dump trucks with the beds about 5’ above the ground. They were filled with large sacks of rice and tea for the festival – and they were not level. To get on the trucks (about 15 to a truck) we climbed on a chair, then the back of the chair, and clambered over the back. People handed up our luggage. Then we all had to find a place to sit on top of sacks and luggage. After about an hour our truck died and we had to join those on the truck following us. Another time we waited until drivers repaired a truck. We and our guide (same guide as last year and for our 25 days this year) changed around every hour trying to untangle our feet from the others and the gear. For the first half of the trip Y sat on a sloping bag and had to hold on to the side of the truck to keep from sliding down on a man from Rome that looked like Einstein (he was probably 60). In this condition, we traveled over 5 mountain ranges on rutted dirt roads on switchbacks that were so vertical I still can’t believe the trucks could manage them. So we were usually going straight up or straight down. The foliage was beautiful. A jungle of ferns, wild bananas with fruit, palms, trees. It got down to 42 degrees and we were all bundled up as well as we could be. The sky was incredible, and when the trucks stopped and the dust died down we were enthralled. For over 5 hours we traveled this way. I have to say it was an adventure, but it was really tough. Being the last to arrive the bamboo room we should have had was taken and we had to wait for an hour (around 11 PM) until they decided which locals to remove from the wooden floor of the school house so we could have their place. It was a cold and uncomfortable couple of nights.

 

The festival: Wow! Wow! What a super duper experience. The Naga are very disciplined and it’s wonderful to watch them organize themselves for entry to the festival grounds (a soccer field).  The first day they had a great (for us) dress rehearsal. Every village group of men lined up outside the field and when their time came, they started a low chant that sounded as if the first half of the line gave a couple of sounds that was echoed by the last half answering with a few note chant that was answered by a couple of sounds in harmony. They repeated that slow chant/echo chant over and over as they came one by one down the road. Every group had a different “chant”, each softly sung. They spaced themselves about 4’ apart. First one group appeared and waited “patiently” while everyone photographed them (what choice did they have), then the next group lined along the road and walked down the hill with their chant and lined up in front of the first group. The women appeared in the same manner often moving their hands in a dance-like way as they walked. After the rehearsal they moved about the area and talked in small groups, while the most famous costumed group moved to a flat area that provided wonderful photos with the distant Naga Hills in the background. This took several hours and was worth the hardship. They also wear tiger teeth and claws on necklaces and other things that we do not approve of. The government and everyone else is working very hard to convince them not to kill endangered animals and is having an effect.

 

The day of the festival consisted of hours of military speeches given on a stage with the lectern in front of a lineup of five of the Naga villages head men (in costume). That part was boring, but it was followed by each group we had seen the day before performing dances.

 

A few Naga could speak English and we had chats. One third of the Naga people are in Myanmar, two-thirds in India. Neither country has been able to really “control” them.

 

You're welcome to tell us we're crazy!

 

Yvonne & Juergen - on the road again

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Myanmar 2003 – Report 2 – Myanmar’s north

 

We first flew to Myitkyina where we drove to the confluence to two rivers that create the Ayeyarwady River that flows all the way through Myanmar. We rode in a long boat that was a couple of feet wide through mini rapids upriver and checked out gold mining, Myanmar style. A bank of the river is sold off in around 50’ sections. A generator is used to run pumps that blast the river bank (about 20’ high) with water. Then men carry the 6” diameter rocks away with two buckets hanging from a bar over their shoulder. This is tough work. The sand is carried up and run over a wooden chute that is floored with something like indoor/outdoor carpet. The gold dust will fall on that carpet. A couple of times a day they take the carpet and retrieve what might be gold. That is then sold to be further refined. There were about 6-8 teams of men working.

 

The only non-locals we saw there were in the government hotel with us. They were two groups of Americans. Two men were there from a private agency that funds orphanages and were looking for some to fund. The other group was quite interesting. They were from the Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. A woman Army Major was the lead and the others were a medic from the Marines and a PhD historian and a PhD anthropologist from the Embassy. They had been booted out of North Korea recently and were in this area of Myanmar to look for plane crashes (there were thousands here between India and China during WWII). They didn’t care about the planes; they are here to recover the bodies – after 55 years! They had just recovered 26 bodies (found wallets and half-full canteens in some cases) in New Guinea! In one day in 1943 (I think) planes left New Guinea on bombing missions on the islands to the west. The weather closed in and the pilots couldn’t land. Forty-seven planes crashed because of weather that one day! Some of the planes had crews of 15. The Major (Renee) was great fun to talk to. They were here for two weeks to determine which crashes to come back and go to. It would be two-weeks through the jungle, and in many cases, into areas still controlled by insurgents.

 

Then we flew to Putao in the north. We found out that only about 50 tourists a year go there – probably because there’s not much beyond scenery there.

 

We stayed in the military compound two nights. The Guest House was nice, but had no hot water or heat. We, and our guides, were the only guests. The caretaker was a very nice military guy who spoke a little English and was very anxious to please. We ate outside at the only restaurant in the town (at 15,000 it is the largest town for hundreds of miles) so were quite cold when we got back to the room. He greeted us wrapped up in a blanket with a wool hat. He brought a large bucket and a sprinkling can (they have flowers around the house) of hot water to the room – our shower consisted of squatting in the bathtub and pouring mixed hot/cold water over us with the sprinkling can! It worked, we have no complaints.

 

Our vehicle was a 1950 American Jeep with the original 4 cylinder flathead. It was great fun. We also stayed in two villages of the Rowan minority group. The first was very large and laid out in rectangular pattern. It was unbelievably clean with wells at the front of each compound and the outhouse at the rear. We stayed with the “headman” and when my question about how he got all the villagers to be so clean was translated, he answered that in the 50s they got health training. They had a lot of disease 50 years ago and that rate of disease has been falling and he is very proud. It was a model village. We trekked 6 miles in this area, past a pagoda that reflected in the river with the snow-capped Indian Himalayas in the distance. It was gorgeous and so peaceful. Gasoline, and everything else, comes here either by air as we did, or over a very bad dirt road. The road method takes 5-7 days and the driver must drive across 5 rivers without bridge or even bamboo ferry. There are very few cars here as a result and little electricity.

 

We spent a night in a second Rowan village to the west of town so we could trek uphill in that area. That village was a mess (our guide asked for us and was told the headman wasn’t a very good one, and was probably an alcoholic). What a contrast. We didn’t stay with the headman but with a villager that didn’t know we were coming (that’s the way it works). The house had never been dusted. Our room was the rice storage room and they brought in beds for us. The beds looked like beds but were wooden like the floor. We managed. The trek was spectacular through jungle-like plants.

 

Lots more, but that’s enough…

 

Yvonne and Juergen

 

 

A little more info on the previous e-mails.

 

The Naga participants traveled as much as 12 days across the Naga Hills to attend. We talked to a young man who lived 2 days walk from India. He and his group traveled 2 days by boat, 2 days by truck, and 2 days walking. There are no roads. The school room we slept in had a wooden floor, but there were large spaces between the boards and the cold came through. The roof was thatch. The door was bamboo.

 

In the north, the Rowan ethnic minority villages, and the houses we stayed in were on stilts, were made of wood and had thatch roofs. The one we stayed in had no well in the second village and the water had to be obtained from a house two houses away.

 

Outside the center of the few cities in Myanmar, most homes are on stilts, have thatch roofs and are made of either bamboo or wood.  Inside they are empty, decorated only with colorful posters. The “kitchen” consists of a 3’ square area surrounded by wood and filled with sand that contains the fire. A metal stand holds the pot as it is heated. The family sits on the floor to eat, so there is little furniture. People put down mats and sleep around the fire for warmth, and we’ve decided, to stay away from mosquitoes as malaria is common. There may be two small rooms off one end, separated by a curtain.

 

It’s impossible for us to really get a grip on the 100+ separate nationalities in Myanmar. The majority (said to be 68 percent) of Myanmar’s 49 million citizens are Bamar, the ruling group. There are SIX main ethnic minority groups, each of which has its own state. There are also divisions that contain areas with many groups and no majority group.  The Golden Triangle area is in Shan state, which contains about a quarter of the land area in Myanmar. The Shan people (read Siam) are related/speak a similar language to the peoples of Laos and northern Thailand. They are lighter in color than the Burmans. When we were in the north, we were in Kachin state, where the Kachin group is the majority, with many other groups as minorities. The Kachin are mostly Southern Baptists.

 

The last part of our trip was to Mrauk U, a famous archeological site. The site is in Rakhaing State, where the majority is a mix of Indian and Mongol and more. The population is 25% Moslem, and the capital, Sittwe, does not seem to be part of Myanmar at all. The people are pushier, darker, and more direct. They ask if we like Rakhaing, not if we like Myanmar. We also saw far more men drinking.

 

Myanmar is an extremely difficult place.

 

 

This e-postcard covers the third sub-trip, to the Golden Triangle area SW of China, W of Laos, and N of Thailand.

 

We were there for five full days. We trekked 30 miles in the mountains in 4 days, each day to a different ethnic minority. There a few people in each village we visited that wear the traditional clothes daily, even to the market in Kengtung, the capital of the area. It’s a great introduction to the ethnic minorities, as villages rather close to each other speak different languages, wear different clothing, and have different customs. Most are Buddhist, but very many are animist. Quite a few are Baptist, some are Catholic.

 

We had a local guide that spoke Shan, but most villages only had one person around that spoke either Shan or Burmese. Before we trekked, we went to the market and our local guide bought several medicines as well as candy and balloons to pass out so we could take pictures. The first villages we trekked to (and the “farthest out”) were of the Enn. These people wear black clothes and black turbans, and because they eat dogs feel like they look like dogs if they leave their teeth white. Therefore, they have a mix of barks and leaves to chew and they have black teeth. Our guide was good at being friendly and passing out cigarettes and we got invited to the head man’s hut. We were joined by a number of villagers. They were incredibly dirty. Some of the women were very attractive. These people have chosen to believe that injections and needles are against their animist belief. They also have not bought into the package that cleanliness leads to health and they are extremely unhealthy. They work as porters for the other minority groups, carrying goods long distances to the market. It is mostly woman’s work.  There are only 5 villages of this group left in this area, and a total of about 700 left in the world. Because of their inbreeding, they have many other problems. It was other-worldly to be able to sit on the “porch” of the head man’s hut and be able to ask questions.

 

 The Akka was the next group we trekked to, the women wear the most incredible headdresses of silver balls with colored beads that hang down the sides and under their chins. Many of these women were very attractive. They carry incredibly heavy loads of logs in baskets on their backs held by head straps. Here our guide also managed to get us invited into a house where we were shown a very special medicine that consists of huge wasps marinated in strong wine liquor. We visited four of their villages, all along high ridges overlooking the wide flat valley and the town of Kengtung.

 

Then we climbed to the very top in a different direction, into pine trees again, and visited the Lahu people that visit the market once every two months as it is so far away. We visited 3 of their villages, again on ridges, visible from each other, but a long walk between due to being in the mountains.

 

The last trek took special permission from the government. It was to two Loi villages. These are famous for the wonderful 400 year old monasteries (in Lao style) they have. The monasteries are beautiful. The villagers prefer to live in long houses, topped with thatch, that contain about 15 families, two families to a “fire pit”. We walked through one taking photos. They are very dark inside, with light only coming in from the ends. There are racks hanging from the high (maybe 15’) ceiling to hold belongings. Along each wall is an enclosed area for each family’s privacy. We would not consider it such. The interesting thing about our trek to these villages is that they are only 19 miles from the China border and are well past the area controlled by the Myanmar government. The area is controlled by two drug cartels, the Wa minority group army, Communists, and nationalist Chinese (KMT). The villages we visited are rumored to raise poppies, although far enough away from our trek that we were allowed to visit. The monasteries have been cleaned up, and a new long house was built with a tin roof, thanks to drug money. It’s all pretty invisible unless someone tells you….

 

The Wa drug lords are far richer than the Shan majority and the Shan resent them. The Wa are rich enough to build a new toll road through the mountains to Thailand, so now it’s only 3 hours to drive there. The Wa collect toll and there’s nothing anyone or the government can do about it.

 

We later visited a Palaung village and watched the silver-belted women water a very healthy garden. Not far from there we dropped in on a Wa village where all the women were smoking long-stemmed pipes. These people were head-hunters as recently as 50 years ago. The Wa villages were enough afraid of each other to put a 60’ wide thorny “wall”, entered by a tunnel around their villages. They liked most of all European heads, especially those with “mutton chop” beards!

 

We loved it.

 

We’ve so much more we could write…

 

Yvonne and Juergen on the road in Bangkok (we start home tomorrow afternoon)

 

 

 

 

This last report (unless I think of something else) is of our experience in Rakhaing state, not far from Bangladesh.

 

The reason for going to Rakhaing state was to visit the ruins of a previous kingdom at Mrauk U. Rakhaing state is on the sea and is an area full of rivers. Almost all travel is on rivers as roads are almost non-existent even during the dry season. 

 

To go the 40 miles from the capital, Sittwe, to Mrauk U, we traveled 6 hours by boat going, 4 hours return due to the flow of the river and the big tidal effect. We got there at very low tide and had to walk a plank from the second deck to the “pier”. Y was terrified getting off the boat and the young captain practically pulled her across the plank (joking all the way). The plank was probably 12’ above the mud below. It was the same on return. Then we had to climb onto several boats as our boat was tied up farthest from shore.

 

The boat was about 60’ long and would carry the usual 30 tourists two days later. The days we took it (it was part of the package for the boat and restaurant in Mrauk U our tour company contracted for) we were with one other couple (very nice, from Colombia – he’d been to Tibet for 1.5 weeks, for example) and on the return we were the only clients. The captain had a large room on the top deck in the middle of the boat, we had the run of the decks both front and back. The back was covered with a tarp and we sat under it with our guide and planned NEXT YEAR’S return trip! As with last year, we couldn’t bear leaving here without the next trip planned. We love the diversity – and equally, the lack of tourists. In most places we went, we didn’t see another non-Asian. (Although in the more touristy places there were the French and Germans on tour in groups up to 25).

 

The land on both sides of the river is flat and is all farmland, so it was interesting to watch. Many things are completely different here than in the rest of Myanmar. The women here carry water on their heads in pretty and shiny aluminum pots (pottery elsewhere). The farms pile their straw in a completely different way. First is a tall bamboo pole, then they make a bamboo fence about 5’ away from the pole and circling the pole. That’s filled with hay/straw. Then someone goes up a ladder and stands on the top of the bamboo pole (really, we saw it) and helps to stack the hay that’s passed him. The result is like a bullet with a flat top. It looks impossible to do.

 

The archeological site of Mrauk U is far more impressive than we thought, based on the pictures we had seen. Many of the temples have hallways inside, one, very like a maze, that have Buddha images on both sides. They are on hillocks, against the hills, scattered all over. The city had very large reservoirs around it and had two (actually more) city walls. When the enemy got over the first wall, the Mrauk Uers waited until high tide, then opened gates and flooded the entire moat area (a very large area). Mrauk U was only defeated by collusion with the people within.

 

Back in Sittwe, the capital, we went to what must have been our most interesting fish market. The wooden (almost long rowboat-like fishing boats) were filled with fish and they brought their catches up to the pier. Sittwe is between the Indian Ocean and the river, so there was a lot of interesting fish. There were several piles of rays 5’ high; some of the rays were 3’ in diameter. We saw all sorts of prawns we’d never seen before – one they called “Indian” was bright yellow and about a foot long. We also saw octopus, squid, dried fish, it was something. As Buddhists don’t like to kill things, most of the fishermen and people in the market are Moslem. We tried to keep a low profile.

 

The flight back to Yangon stopped at the most famous Myanmar beach resort and we saw the advertised miles and miles of white beaches and maybe one little resort. It looked beautiful, but we knew again we’d be bored in about 5 hours and want more adventure.

 

The owner of our tourist agency and his father (managing director and president) and their wives took us to dinner to critique our program, so they can tune up the product brochure they sell to agents. It was an interesting evening, in a beautiful outdoor restaurant.

 

We want to recommend them to anyone who wants to travel to Myanmar. They’re really careful and worry like mother hens about their clients! (They were more concerned with our ability to trek, the places we stayed, then we were).

 

These e-mails only cover about 5% of our experiences. This was a super wonderful fantastic mind-expanding knowledge-increasing adventure into a place called the “Land of Myth and Mystery”. You don’t have to go off-road as far as we did to experience this. There are very nice hotels in Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake.

 

We read in the Bangkok News that Angkor Wat (Cambodia) had 750,000 visitors last year, and about 1000 are arriving each day. They expect 1 million in 2003. We visited it only 2 years ago and I think there were about 200,000 that year. We only had to wait for a few minutes to get any photo we wanted without people in them. We’re so glad we didn’t wait. The same will be true in Myanmar if….   Myanmar has so much more to offer than Thailand and Cambodia. Already cruise ships are starting to stop. Our tour company will handle the biggest ship yet planned, for next October, 2000 people. They have to come up with 80 A/C busses. Some of the people will fly to Bagan. The place will change, totally. Go before it happens if you have any interest in such an experience!

 

We leave the hotel in a few hours and head home.

 

Yvonne & Juergen on the road home