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.