Kyaikto and Golden Rock: Defying gravity and time

The pagoda at Golden Rock appears to defy gravity
The pagoda at Golden Rock appears to defy gravity
Sexism is alive and well at Golden Rock
Sexism is alive and well at Golden Rock
Look closely.. there are TWO golden rocks at Golden Rock (I am slathered in sunscreen--not suffering from a skin disease)
Look closely.. there are TWO golden rocks at Golden Rock (I am slathered in sunscreen–not suffering from a skin disease)
Packed like sardines at starting point for ascent to Golden Rock
Packed like sardines at starting point for ascent to Golden Rock

While tired after intermittent sleep on the overnight bus from Bago to Kyaikto and the famous Golden Rock hanging pagoda, I was relieved to arrive in daylight and check in to my hotel. I caught a ride to the hotel, the Bawga Theiddi, which has two locations–a main location in the township itself, which is a modern multi-story building, and a a set of one-level garden bungalows on the main road to the Golden Rock pagoda.

The bungalows looked beautiful from outside, and have a small dipping pool in front. But the toilet was clogged and overflowing in my room, which had clearly not been cleaned.  The second room had been partially cleaned.  Management appeared detached—perhaps the rooms in the large main hotel are better managed.  The bungalow was also far enough from town and eateries to be inconvenient, but as my stay was only for two days and one night I did not relocate.

Very early the next morning I caught a motorbike ride to the departure point in town.  As the photograph shows, visitors are packed like sardines into the back of large pickup trucks, and zip up the mountain.

An itinerant Buddhist preacher solicits alms in our truck on route to Golden Rock pagoda.
An itinerant Buddhist preacher solicits alms in our truck on route to Golden Rock pagoda.

On route to the shrine we stopped for an itinerant Buddhist preacher who stood in the truck and asked for donations to his alms bowl.  Other monks along the road also solicited donations.  Most of the visitors appeared to be Nepalese, with few Westerners.  This impression was borne out once I reached the shrine, and was particularly striking when I walked down the other side of the mountain into the hillside market stalls along the steep stone steps.

It seemed to me that despite its being high season, the locals were surprised to see a Westerner (although it may also have been that my face was coated with white sunscreen–hah!).  The booths often served as makeshift homes. While many sold somewhat tacky souvenirs, the traditional herbal and “ghost medicine” merchants were fascinating–albeit mystifying.  I took photographs as discretely as possible, but in the only incident of its kind I was angrily reproached by one one of the medicine merchants in a threatening manner. I did manage to get some photos of other medicine booths, but the one where I was reproached was by far the most diverse and fascinating in its display.

A bored youngster mans a traditional Nepalese medicine booth in the hillside village beyond the Golden Rock shrine
A bored youngster mans a traditional Nepalese medicine booth in the hillside village beyond the Golden Rock shrine

 Late Bus Back to Bago then Mandalay

Poor planning meant that I had to catch a late bus back to Bago and then a 10-hour night bus to Mandalay in order to accommodate  my itinerary. One suggestion–give yourself a few extra days in Myanmar. I was 16 days in country, and adding only two or three more days would have greatly eased my journey.

Arriving in Mandalay around 6 the following morning, I was greeted by a throng of shoving, shouting, waving taxi drivers asking if I needed a driver. I focused on the one serene face in the crowd, and ended up striking a deal with Ko Aung, who became far more than my taxi driver, but rather a guardian, advisor and friend. I grabbed my one bag (always travel with only ONE bag–see the website for details) and we zoomed off to the Yoe Yoe Lay guesthouse beyond downtown Mandalay.  I had arranged a single room beforehand, but a mixup resulted in my having to share a dorm room with five other people. They were all considerate, however, and the rooms were immaculate, had built-in night reading lights on each bunk bed, and had clean flush toilets and  hot showers about 10 steps away. The guesthouse includes breakfast and for $10/night it was a real bargain. The hostess and owner, Nan Bwe, was gracious and thoughtful–and apologetic about the room confusion. I highly recommend this guesthouse.  TO BE CONTINUED….


Bago: Home of the Snake (Pagoda)… and many more

Everybody--nuns included--zips around Bago on motorbikes.
Everybody–nuns included–zips around Bago on motorbikes

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Slideshow: click/tap to pause/advance

When I rolled into Bago from Yangon a steady stream of beeping motorbikes, pedicabs and buses was kicking up dust as they zipped down the main street. Bago is not much to look at, but is home to an amazing number and diversity of pagodas including the aptly named Snake Pagoda featuring a live 15-foot Burmese python. Some of those pagodas are featured in the slideshow above.

Traffic madness in Bago
Traffic madness in Bago

Transport to Bago from downtown Yangon was fairly simple.  I had a taxi pick me up at my hotel (around 3000 kyat for the ride) and drop me at the downtown bus stop. There I caught a rickety bus to Bago–there were old transmission parts and tools stored between some of the seats. I think the bus was air-conditioned, although I don’t recall that it worked. There was an in-flight movie–something common to both high-end and and basic buses in Myanmar.

The rickety (and very cheap) bus from Yangon to Bago
The rickety (and very cheap) bus from Yangon to Bago

For my one night/one day visit I had arranged to stay at the very basic and inexpensive San Francisco hostel, steps from the bus drop. My private room cost $10/night. The bathroom–a classic Burmese squat–was located down a steep, narrow flight of stairs. But the proprietor was friendly and knowledgeable, and arranged my motorbike taxi tour and made sure that I caught the right overnight bus the next day to Golden Rock.

Bago's outdoor reclining Buddha
Bago’s outdoor reclining Buddha

One of Bago’s most striking sights is the Mya tha luang outdoor reclining Buddha. The Buddha was built in 2002 to replace a crumbling ancient Buddha.

This is one of two giant reclining Buddhas in Bago, the other being the Shwethalyaung, said to have been built in 994 A.D. and restored under British colonial rule in 1881.

A blue and pink cow trots along a dusty road as Burmese dogs walk the wall surrounding a Bago pagoda

Bago Pagoda Burnout

This drowsing dog captures my sense  Bago pagoda burnout
Bago pagoda burnout–the dog says it all

Pagoda burnout is common to first-time visitors to Myanmar. Jet lagged, sleep-deprived and choking on dust, I reached terminal burnout in Bago after a day spent speeding around on the back of a motorbike until one pagoda blurred into another. If I had some advice about seeing Bago, it would be to avoid the one-day whirlwind, and stay for an extra day or half-day.  I was pressed for time with only 16 days in country, so that  made no sense for me.

At the end of a long, dusty day I packed and got on board the all-night bus to my next destination, Kyaikto’s gravity defying Golden Rock pagoda. Click Golden Rock to link to next narrative.


Vibrant, Dirty & Disparate Yangon

A sinewy monk in saffron leans over a table with booksellers at Yangon's bustling Bogyoke market.
A sinewy monk in saffron with booksellers across from Yangon’s Bogyoke market.
Slide Show: Hover over image to stop or restart

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When I arrived in Yangon it was late, but I wandered around as dusk fell, exploring back alleys and finally venturing across suicidally busy Pyay Road to Inya Lake (not to be confused with Inle Lake). Disoriented from jet lag and sleep deprivation following my 46-hour trip from Baltimore I wandered around lost–constantly thinking I recognized a particular stray dog which I had seen in an alley on my way to Inya Lake. (It didn’t take me long to realize that somewhere back in the gene pool was a dominant stray dog that has given rise to a line of Burmese street dogs that all look alike). Finally, I asked a teenaged kid for help and he walked me back to my bed and breakfast, Myanmar Bike World.

That act of kindness in helping a stranger find his hotel at night came to characterize the kindness of the Burmese people. This was repeated over the next few days, as my taxi driver took me into town to buy a plane ticket and refused to charge me for waiting at the airline office.

I spent two days in Yangon, and this, written after the fact, is an impressionistic account of my experiences and perceptions.

As elsewhere in any medium-to-large urban area in Myanmar, rush-hour traffic in Yangon is often frenetic, but the appearance of chaos is deceiving, as Burmese–unlike many Americans–know how to drive in dense urban traffic and use skill and focus rather than aggression to negotiate the road.  However, one characteristic that differentiates Yangon traffic from that in Mandalay, Bago and other cities is that motorbikes are banned in Yangon for reasons unclear (See “Ban on motorbikes lingers”).

In Washington, Los Angeles or New York a blown horn is a sign of anger or impatience, while in Myanmar the horn is used ONLY for one purpose–to alert other drivers and pedestrians to your location. This is necessary because of the volume and velocity of both vehicular and human traffic. I will talk more about the paradox of traffic madness with harmony in other posts.  Getting used to the need to beep almost caught up with me in Bagan, where I rented an electric bicycle.  I overcame my conditioned aversion to beeping after nearly hitting a little kid running blindly up a dirt alley.

Building cranes loom over crumbling high rise buildings and rush hour traffic in downtown Yangon

Yangon is a city that exemplifies the changes rippling through Myanmar since the opening of diplomatic relations and tourism a few years ago.  Busy traffic, crowded sidewalks, and  dilapidated apartment buildings with clothes hanging outside coexist with building cranes looming from the few vacant lots in downtown Yangon. Yangon was the only place I saw people other than monks or nuns begging, and there is an area along the major thoroughfare into the city lined with homeless people living in makeshift shelters where they hang clothing on fences and cook with small stoves or campfires.

Open ditches full of trash, garbage and other waste line the main road. Trash—particularly plastic—is a huge problem everywhere in Myanmar, and there appears to be little coordinated effort at trash collection and cleanup.

Crumbling buildings and an aging electrical grid characterize much of downtown Yangon
Nuns in pink bearing alms bowls march through downtown Yangon

In the Bogyoke market and surrounding streets, modern malls coexist with myriad street vendors hawking everything from fruits, herbs and prepared food to books and T-shirts.  On one block there are a line of opticians, and this is where I ventured into Pwint Thiri Optic at 373 Upper Shwe Bontha Street to get a new pair of prescription bifocals made on the spot.  After a brief eye test, the optician showed me a choice of frames. I selected a titanium flex frame and the optician told me to get lunch and come back in one hour.  I returned as directed and picked up my new glasses for a total of $31. Note: I eventually found my misplaced prescription glasses and noted that the lenses were a bit sharper than those from the Burmese optician. But for $31 the Burmese glasses did the job–and with better quality frames than my nearly $200 pair from my hometown of Baltimore.

Booksellers along Bogyoke Aung San Road in Yangon
Yours truly in longyi at my Yangon hotel, Bike World Bed & Breakfast

Just before entering the optician I had purchased a longyi, the omnipresent garment of choice for the majority of Burmese men and women.  This garment is a long, wrap around, one-piece, ankle length dress–and is readily visible in my photo gallery here.  I never quite mastered the art of tying the longyi, and always felt on the verge of becoming semi-naked in public at any moment. But with a little help from the optician, I tied the longyi and wore it all day in Yangon.

Shwedagon: The Disneyland of Pagodas

Shwedagon pagoda at night
Shwedagon pagoda at night

Yangon’s fabulous Shwedagon pagoda is among the most annoyingly touristy scenes in Myanmar (second, perhaps, to Bagan’s Shewsandaw “sunset pagoda”).  Its splendor notwithstanding, it is the Disneyland of pagodas.  Continue reading “Vibrant, Dirty & Disparate Yangon”

Introduction: Burmese Daze…. (with apologies to George Orwell)

NOTE TO READERS: My background is reporting and journalism, and my natural propensity is to think in terms of a book-form narrative when writing, after the fact, about a 16-day trip to Myanmar. Blogs, of course, are designed to place the latest post at the beginning. After considering the alternatives, I decided to simply make the introduction a sticky post (always at the top) and have subsequent posts fall by default in the order posted–but with a red link providing the reader with the ability to click to posts in chronological narrative order if desired.  (Technical note: All photographs can be clicked to enlarge.)

When I left Baltimore for Burma on January 11, 2014 I had never been anywhere in Asia but wanted to go to Myanmar while the culture was still intact and change was underway.  Tourism has opened up in Burma only in the last 3 years, and although I found some major tourist attractions were crowded, in many places one rarely saw Westerners.

So many iconic images of Burma crowd my mind. I took hundreds of photographs and will share a few here.  Regarding my blog title, the combination of the time difference (11.5 hours), sleep deprivation, all night buses, adrenaline and two bouts of dysentery definitely kept me often feeling dazed–but usually not in a bad way. About the only time it bothered me was when I  made the mistake of trying to navigate on my own. I have an innately poor sense of direction and the above combination combined with novelty of place led, on two occasions, to my wandering around and getting nowhere.

While Burma is the land of pagodas and stupas, among the first pictures I am posting here captures something else charming and wonderful about this place.  It is a photograph of a man on a motorbike leading his horse across a bridge over a tributary of the Ayerwaddy–I think it is the Chinwin–can anyone out there read the sign?

The photograph captures the way modernity and antiquity coexist side-by-side in Myanmar. On many occasions I saw farmers plowing rice fields with water buffalo while 100 feet away someone else was using a gasoline-powered rototiller.

Some aspects of life there are a time warp.  I took a nearly 17-hour ferry from Mandalay to Bagan, and the pilot checked the depth of the Ayerwaddy River by using a long, red and white striped sounding pole and a flashlight!  Keep in mind that SONAR was developed in the 1930s… somehow it has not yet been adopted in Myanmar.

My friend and trusted motorbike taxi driver Ko Aung on bridge near Sagaing outside Mandalay
My friend and trusted motorbike taxi driver Ko Aung on bridge near Sagaing outside Mandalay

The gentleman leaning against the sign is my motorbike taxi driver, Ko Aung, who treated me like a member of his family and made he feel that I had a real friend, not just a driver. The photograph below of the man leading the horse was made possible because Ko, at my request, caught up to the motorbike, giving me time to snap the picture. As anyone who travels knows, many of the best photographic moments elude capture, but in this case–thanks to Ko and a little luck–I got the photograph and captured a bit of the spontaneous essence of Burma.

A man leading his horse across a bridge near Sagaing outside Mandalay.

Getting to Yangon

Departing Tokyo for Yangon January 13 2014

Getting to Yangon–formerly Rangoon and still RGN in airport code–took 46 hours in transit with an overnight in the Tokyo suburb of Narita. There I caught a free shuttle to my hotel, where I stayed in a tiny but clean and quiet room that cost $46 for the night. I was tapped out and chose simply to relax and not use my limited time to look around the city.

Over Myanmar on route to Yangon January 13 2014

Because you cross the International Date Line, you lose a calendar day in transit above and beyond the actual transit time. Hence I departed on February 11, stayed overnight in Narita, and arrived shortly after 5 p.m. at Yangon International Airport on February 13, 2014.

Arriving at Yangon International Airport January 13 2014
Arriving at Yangon International Airport January 13 2014

There I was accosted by taxi drivers wanting to charge me $20 for the ride from downtown Yangon to my hotel, Myanmar Bike World Bed & Breakfast. I walked away at which point the driver who was asking for $20 asked me “what do you want to pay?” We settled on $10 and were on our way.

Even the initial trip to the hotel was a continual assault of odors and images for a Westerner who had never been to any Asian city.

I arrived at my hotel, Myanmar Bikeworld Bed & Breakfast after a turn up a side street past two embassies and arrived at a dead-end gate entry into the bed and breakfast.

After settling in, I took a walk across insanely busy Pyay Road to Inya Lake just a few blocks away.  It was getting dark when I headed back, winding my way up the alleyways, and I was jet-lagged and—with my notoriously poor sense of direction–wandered around feeling lost.

In what became a typical Burmese act of kindness, a teenaged boy finally led me back to my hotel.  Myanmar is a country characterized by the kindness and decency of its people and–not insignificantly–by their honesty and integrity.  Almost anywhere else I would have felt unsafe wandering up dark alleys and streets in a strange city, but not in Myanmar.

The next day I headed for the famous Bogyoke Market in downtown Yangon.  Click Yangon to link to next narrative.