Friday, January 29, 2016

My Trip to Burma: Bagan Part 2 - Balloons over Bagan, Pagodas and Monasteries, and Sunset on the Ayeyarwaddy River.

No rest for the weary.  Woke up super early this morning and went to the hotel reception area to meet the bus that was taking us to the balloon ground for our hot air balloon ride over Bagan.  Every morning and evening, from October to March (the winter season), Balloons Over Bagan takes people on a magical flight over the Bagan Archeological Zone.  The sight of these hot-air balloons drifting serenely over Bagan’s otherworldly skyline is almost as iconic as the temples themselves.  

Our bus was a bit rickety and the road to the balloon area was unpaved, and the ride was absolutely whiplash-inducing.  Our balloon pilot later told us that these buses are Canadian, left here in Burma after World War II.  They were supply trucks, but were converted into transport vehicles.  They've been running faithfully for about 70 years!

Monday, January 25, 2016

My Trip to Burma: Beautiful Breathtaking Bagan Part 1 - Fascinating Pagodas, Impressive Lacquerware, and an Amazing Sunset

Vacation is supposed to be a time to relax.   Well, not today.  We set our alarm for 4:00 a.m., quickly got dressed, and checked out of our hotel in order to meet our driver and zip to the Yangon airport for our flight to Bagan.

The domestic terminal at Yangon International Airport is total chaos, but somehow, people seem to get from Point A to Point B.  We arrived in Bagan early and were met by our guide, Myint Naing.  His English was also heavily accented, but he was more comprehendible than our first guide, Myo. 

It was too early in the morning to check into our hotel.  Instead, we started sightseeing right upon leaving the airport.  

Even though Rangoon and Mandalay are more well known, most travelers to Burma are in agreement that if you had to limit yourself to one city in this country, it would have to be Bagan.  Burma’s ancient capital from the ninth to the 13th century, Bagan (formerly Pagan) is considered the soul of Myanmar, much like Sukhothai is the heart of old Siam. During the time Bagan was the capital, it became fashionable to build pagodas and temples, and noblemen competed with one another to construct grander and more elaborate ones. Poorer people built more modest structures.  The result: Bagan is one of Asia’s – indeed the world’s – great sights: 26 square-miles festooned with 4,446 of temples, pagodas, and religious monuments rising from the flat plain bordering the Ayeyarwaddy River. 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

My Trip to Burma: Yangon Part 3 - The Holiest of All: The Shwedagon Pagoda.

We started with a bang.  Our first full day in Burma saw us spending the afternoon at the Shwedagon Pagoda. Nothing prepares you for the Shwedagon Pagoda.  This is the most sacred shrine in all of Burma.  At 325 feet, the stupa totally dominates Yangon’s skyline.  No site is more revered.  No site is visited in such numbers.  Legend has it that the shrine contains the relics of four Buddhas, including eight hairs of Gautama believed to have been brought here during his actual lifetime. It is also said to enshrine the staff, water filter, and bathing robe of three preceding Buddhas who are recognized within the dominant Theravada Buddhism of Burma. Successive rulers enlarged and embellished the complex, adding countless shrines, halls, and smaller stupas. Earthquake damage (multiple incidents, the worst being in 1768, causing the top of the stupa to collapse) and several acts of vandalism by colonial invaders (the theft of the 300 ton Great Bell of King Dhammazedi in 1608, and the theft of another of the pagoda’s bells two centuries later) have had little effect; it has been lovingly restored every time and remains an incredible site.  As the story goes, just as the pagoda grew from strength to strength, so did the people of the land until they finally emerged as one nation, Myanmar.  It’s not just Burma’s holiest shrine, but a potent symbol of national identity and a major rallying point for the pro-democracy movement since colonial times.  One of many westerners who visited Burma and wrote about it was the Italian merchant of Venice, Gasparo Balbi, who arrived at the Shwedagon in early November of 1583. An Englishman, Ralph Fitch, arrived at about the same time and traveled from the capital city of Bago (which we visited on our last day in Burma) to "the fairest place" in the world, as he was lead to believe.  Michael Symes, Hiram Cox, and Lord Dalhousie, the then Governor of India, followed. Adolf Bastian from Bremen, Germany visited in 1861. Other notable visitors were Rudyard Kipling, who called it a "beautiful winking wonder" after a visit in the late 19th century, and our president, Barack Obama, visited in 2012. General Aung San addressed a mass meeting at the stupa in 1946 demanding independence from Britain, while during the pro-democracy uprising of 1988, his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to another huge gathering at the pagoda, which was also a focal point of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, with huge demonstrations and protest marches featuring as many as 20,000 monks and nuns.   

Sunday, January 17, 2016

My Trip to Burma: Yangon Part 2 - Pagodas, and BIg Buddhas (Seated and Reclining)

After a morning of architectural sightseeing, it was time for lunch.  Although there is no shortage of authentic Burmese restaurants in Yangon, Feel Myanmar is probably the city’s best place to sample Burmese food. Food is laid out in a big buffet spread at the back of the restaurant.  I asked Myo if we could stop there and eat, and invited him to join us for lunch.  Our meal was HUGE.  They just kept bringing out plate after plate of food.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

My Trip to Burma: Yangon, Part 1 - Cool Colonial Architecture

We stayed at the Hotel Grand United 21st Street Downtown., located on the edge of Chinatown.  Nice hotel, good price, friendly staff.  After a restless night (still frazzled a bit from the long flight and lost luggage), we headed up to the 9th floor of the hotel for breakfast.  There’s a lovely terrace up there, with nice views over 21st street and Mahabandoola Road, the main stretch.  Breakfast was surprisingly varied and tasty, too.  I don’t normally eat fried rice and noodles for breakfast, but I adapted quickly.  I did snag some toast and jam, and of course, some bacon.  And potatoes.  And cake. And another piece of cake. 

The view from the terrace was pretty nice.  Off in the distance, you can see the golden stupa of the Shwedagon Pagoda.  We'll be visiting that later this afternoon.  

At 8:30, we met with our guide, Myo, and driver, Tarzan. Our incredibly long day of sightseeing, in oppressive, coma-inducing heat, is about to start.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

My Trip to Burma: The Ups (free seat upgrade!) and Downs (lost luggage) of Getting There

Normally, I write my blog posts after the trip, but I recently bought a little keyboard for my iPad mini, allowing me to type on an actual keyboard, which I can do reasonably fast, rather than on a touch screen, which I am terrible at. 

Initially, I was worried about a bunch of things.  The weather report in New York on our day of departure was not looking good.  They predicted lots of rain, and wind.  I was concerned, because our connecting flight from Beijing to Yangon is tight:  just an hour and ten minutes.  Even a small delay could affect our connection.  But the rain and wind never materialized. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

What's in a Name? Burma vs. Myanmar

            This is a country with two names.  In 1989, the ruling military junta decided to officially change the name from Burma to Myanmar (at the same time renaming Rangoon “Yangon”).  The official reason was that Burma’s name derived from the majority Burmese population, the Bamar people, who make up nearly 70% of the population and dominate the country both culturally and politically.  Unlike their neighbors Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, the rulers wanted a name that was more inclusive of minorities like the Shan, Mon, Kachin, Chin, and Karen who have lived in the hills and outlying areas for centuries.  These people are all now citizens of Myanmar.

Friday, January 1, 2016

My Trip to Burma: Why Burma?

 “Burma? Why Burma?!”  This, along with one or two raised eyebrows, has been the response I’ve received when I told people that I’d chosen Burma for my next exotic adventure.  I had been debating between Burma and India.  I mentioned this to a client and he said, with not even a pause to collect his thoughts, “Go to Burma, definitely.”  I asked why, and he said, “Burma just recently opened to tourism. The country is still unspoiled, and tourists are still a novelty to the Burmese.  They treat visitors like royalty. The Burma of tomorrow will look very different from the Burma of today. India”, he noted, “will always be India.”

            That evening, I started scouring for flights.

            This is Burma’s moment. Yes, I could have  waited until the country becomes a full-fledged democracy.  Perhaps it would have been better to wait until the animosity toward the Muslim population settles down, and the armed conflict with minority ethnic groups is resolved.  Maybe I should have sat tight until the political prisoners have received their reparations.  I could have visited other countries, and bided my time until censorship is truly a thing of the past.  I could have done  all of that, yes. 

            If I had waited, however, I risked visiting a country that had lost that wonderful old look that had been preserved by the harsh, self-imposed isolation.  I risked the dilution of Burma’s mystical Buddhist purity.   I risked the people in remote villages losing their innocent curiosity about me as they grow accustomed to tourists.  I risked seeing the women discard their htamein and men abandon their longyis in favor of Levis and Nikes and Tommy Hilfiger shorts.  I needed to visit before they fix the English on the menus and signs. I needed  to visit before Starbucks and McDonalds started sprouting up like mushrooms. I needed to visit before every billboard is plastered with a trendy Benetton ad.  I needed to visit now.

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