Monday, March 21, 2016

My Trip to Burma: Bago, an interesting city to end our amazing trip.

Well, I had a mediocre night’s sleep.  Ambien just doesn’t seem to work for me anymore.  I was hoping for a good night’s sleep, because we have a grueling day ahead.  Hours of sightseeing, then a few hours at the airport (our flight leaves at 10 minutes to midnight), then five hours on a plane to Beijing, seven hours on a layover in Beijing (ugh!), and then almost 14 hours to JFK airport.  Hey, it is what it is.

We met back up with Myo, our guide from our very first day.  Our bags were loaded into the car, and off we went to Bago. Located a 90 minute drive northeast of Yangon, and formerly known as Pegu, the town of Bago was the capital of several Mon and Burmese kingdoms, and flourished as a bastion of Theravada Buddhism in the 15th century, and then as a regional trade center in the 16th century. Each time a new kingdom arose, new gilded pagodas and reclining Buddhas were added. This quiet, scruffy little provincial market town now boasts a spectacular crop of monuments spanning more than 1400 years of history.  Bago has been chosen as the location for Yangon’s new Hanthawaddy International Airport, so the town will become even more accessible, if the project ever is completed. (It started in 1994, so don’t hold your breath.)

The drive to Bago took a while, and wasn't very scenic, I'm afraid.  But as we headed north toward Inya Lake, I knew we were getting close to Aung San Suu Kyi's home, so I asked if we could take a detour and see it.  

 Outside are prominent signs indicating that this is the headquarters of the National League for Democracy, and there's a picture of her father, General Aung San, at the top.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

My Trip to Burma: We return to Yangon for a glorious, unguided afternoon.

Our last morning in Mandalay.  Rough night for my partner, Mark, though.  The very spicy tomato dish we had for dinner last night at Too Too caused heartburn that kept him up half of the night.  A handful of Tums and a couple of Rolaids finally did the trick and he got a few hours of sleep.  We headed upstairs for our final breakfast.  I can’t eat “Asian” food for breakfast.  Fried rice, egg rolls, vegetable stir fry…  not at 7:30 a.m.  Today they had little pancakes, which were pretty good.  Again we had a nice chat with the kindly hotel manager.  We told him we visited Pwin Oo Lwin yesterday. He said he attended boarding school there from the age of 12 to 20.  Marn had told us that the town was known for their fine boarding schools.   

Our driver was waiting for us in the lobby.  True to form, he drove like a madman to the airport, getting us there 30 minutes earlier than anticipated.  We went to our gate and waited, with many others, for our flight to Rangoon.  In Burma, the public address system is a guy shouting out your gate number, followed by a swarm of humanity.  At 10:45, our flight time, an airport worker shouted out some numbers, and everyone rose and rushed the gate.  We got to the gate and were steered back, saying that this was not our flight.  We went back to our seats and watched as everyone boarded the plane except for me, Mark, and four other people.  I don’t know where all those other folks were headed, but I’m thinking, there’s no way that there’s only six of us flying to Yangon.  Two of the others looked American, and they were holding boarding passes from our same airline, AIR KBZ.  I asked where they were going, and they said Bagan.  Now I’m worried.  Did we miss our flight? Are we at the wrong gate?  There was no one there even to ask.  Then, after a few tense minutes, a KBZ guy signaled for us to come through.  We all got on a bus, and were soon joined by about three others, and nine of us were taken to the plane.  Our flight to Yangon was stopping in Bagan first.  And yes, it was just nine of us on the plane. 

The flight from Mandalay was pretty short.  The view from the plane was neat.  The farmlands below gave the landscape the appearance of a patchwork quilt.

We checked into the Grand United 21st Downtown hotel, the same one we started with in Yangon at the start of our trip.  The room was a little better this time, sunnier with a nicer view.  

We had the rest of the day to ourselves, and since our hotel was on the outskirts of Chinatown, we explored Chinatown a little bit. Many big cities have a Chinatown, and Yangon is no exception.  Covering roughly the area south of Anawrahta Road between Shwedagon Pagoda Road and Lanmadaw Street, it’s the home for many of the city’s Chinese-descended residents. This is a pretty fun part of town.  Two main sights in Chinatown are the Guanyin Gumiao Temple and the Kheng Hock Keong Temple. We checked out the Guanyin Gumiao first.  This temple attracts mainly a Cantonese crowd.  The tiles interior is nice, with red tables containing incense pots, flower vases, and nicely lit shrines.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

My Trip to Burma: The charming town of Pyin Oo Lwin, and the beautiful Kandawgyi Gardens.

Today we got an early start.  We were picked up at our hotel by Marn and our driver, and off we went.  Sixty-five kilometers east of Mandalay, on the western edge of the lush Shan Plateau 1070 meters above sea level, is the town of Pyin Oo Lwin, sitting far above the dust of Central Myanmar. It was established relatively recently (1896) as a military post providing refuge from the stifling heat of Yangon and Mandalay.   It was originally named Maymyo, or “May Town”, after Colonel James May, the town’s first governor, who was stationed on an early army base here. Once the railline to Lashio was completed, the town became the official summer capital of the British Burma administration.  While Mandalay and Pyin Oo Lwin are only 65 km apart, they feel a world apart.  Mandalay marches on to being a modern developed city, while Pyin Oo Lwin nurtures and builds on its past.

Being more than 1000 meters above sea level, the town is famous for its pleasant, much cooler climate than that of Mandalay and Yangon, which appealed to the homesick British.  After Burma gained its independence, the sizable Anglo-Burmese community gradually dwindled, but the Sikh and Nepali minorities whose forbearers were brought here to work on the railroads that are still very much in evidence.  Its role as a hot-season retreat from the steamy plains has seen a new lease on life in recent years, with the rise of an affluent Burmese middle class. Several of the old hotels have been (or are being) renovated, among them Candacraig, and dozens of new establishments have open since the tourist boycott was relaxed in 2010.

The history of this town is still evident today in other ways. Military connections still remain – the Burmese Army’s Defense Services Academy (training the “Triumphant Elite of the Future”) is just west of the center of town. Horse-drawn carriages clip-clop past the mock-Tudor and Scottish Baronial mansions with turrets and ample verandas, the bells of Purcell Tower chime every 15 minutes, strawberries are sold alongside tropical fruit at the Shan Market, and the best of the British leftovers – the National Kandawgyi Gardens – has been revamped, presenting neat beds of tulips alongside half-wild groves of teak trees. Further afield, the plunge pools of Anisakan Falls and the interesting Peik Chin Myaung Cave make Pwin Oo Lwin a perfect day trip.  Perfect, indeed.  

We started at the Shan Market.  Originally, Shan farmers gathered here to sell their produce because of the market’s proximity to their villages east of Pyin Oo Lwin.  But rents have gotten too high, causing the Shan to move to a muddy lane about 1 km further east.  The majority of stallholders and customers are Yunnanese migrants.

Here are some ladies selling Shan noodles.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

My Trip to Burma: The famous Moustache Brothers. No trip to Mandalay is complete without a visit here.

After an amazing day, jam-packed day, we went back to the hotel, chilled out a bit, and then grabbed a cab to see the Moustache Brothers.  If you don't know they're story, you're in for a treat.  

This is the venue where they perform.  It's their home, as well as their performance space.  It stays open, and people can wander in to buy tickets, or t-shirts, or just to chat with Lu Maw himself.

The Moustache Brothers are a daring group of performers. Active for more than three decades, these guys continue to do something quite risky every single night: they criticize the regime in Myanmar. This has not been without personal risk.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

My Trip to Burma: Lunch in Mandalay, then a boat ride to Mingun.

Our second day in Mandalay has been jam-packed.  This morning we saw all the different craftspeople in Mandalay - gold leaf makers, woodworkers, bronze workers and marble makers.  Then, a stroll down Mandalay Hill, a visit to the world's biggest book, and a stop at an amazing monastery.  All that activity makes one pretty hungry.  Time to dine at Shan Ma Ma.

I had read about this place in one of my guide books.  Very authentic Burmese cuisine, cooked outside and then set up, buffet style.  You point to what you want, and they load it on.  We decided to treat our guide and driver.

Lots of choices.  Yes, those are pig intestines in the back there.  And yes, Mark did order them.  Eww.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

My Trip to Burma: The talented Craftsmen of Mandalay; A visit to Mandalay Hill; Surveying the World's Largest Book; and the moody Shwenandaw Kyaung monastery.

Our first day in Mandalay (yesterday) was spent in the ancient cities of Inwa, Sagaing, and Amarapura located not far from Mandalay.  Today, we're spending time in Mandalay itself.

Most people have at least heard of the city of Mandalay.  If they know anything at all about Mandalay, it is usually that it is Burma's second largest city after Rangoon.  Mandalay is an important trade center, connecting Burma with China, with consumer goods flowing in and natural resources flowing out.  A few may even remember the name from there cultural icons, such as the 43-story Mandalay Bay hotel on Las Vegas's strip, or a string of World War II-themed Hollywood movies. These perspectives, however, fail to do the city justice, and a visit is essential to understand Mandalay's importance and the history behind the name.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

My Trip to Burma: Amarapura and the Beautiful U Bein Bridge

It’s now late in the afternoon and time to cross back over the Ayeyarwaddy river, to head to Lake Taung Thaman where we can walk the world’s longest teak bridge, the U Bein Bridge, for atmospheric sunset photos.  

The drive through Amarapura to get to the bridge was interesting.   Burma is a land of extremes, and on our drive through, we got to see some strikingly impoverished dwellings.  This is the little village, and this is all these folks have.  I took these pics from the moving car.

 As we got closer to the bridge area, we passed by a workshop where they must be preparing silk thread for weaving.  It made for a strikingly colorful picture.  Most of the residents here earn their living in workshops that specialize in making fine-quality longyis and htameins for weddings.  In fact, the distinctive sound of looms at full tilt is a constant soundtrack.

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