This will be a photo blog. I enjoy taking pictures, especially of people. Following are photos of folks my camera found during our Myanmar adventure. Many have their faces smeared with a paste made from logs which acts as a sunblock and moisturizer. It’s very popular — and no doubt lots cheaper than Estee Lauder.
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A long, broad strip of sand, a calm sea, a few lonely swimmers, a few more sunbathers lounging in beach chairs, tranquility: Myanmar’s Ngapali Beach is unspoiled splendor.
After our two-week sightseeing tour of this fascinating land (see previous posts: Burma Background and Myanmar’s Astonishing Sights), we sought seaside relaxation.
Our beach hotel, one of many luxury resorts here, offered a spacious sea-front room, pool, outdoor dining on a terrace above the beach – all in a perfectly manicured verdant setting.
This is Myanmar for tourists. Just outside the hotel grounds is reality: rutted, dusty roads, primitive shacks, broken down temples, wild tropical vegetation. Plus, lots of motorcycles, women walking with burdens balanced on their heads, noisy kids, homeless dogs, monks draped in burgundy, nuns in pink…
While the hotel world was paradise perfect, we left the sanctuary several times to explore the real world. First, a trip by “bus,” a rickety tuck-tuck type vehicle with two parallel hard wooden benches for seats, passengers crammed together. The “bus” sped over the ruts, passengers holding on to anything for support while bouncing up and down, jolting to and fro. There were many stops, and not just for passengers to get on and off.
We stopped to pick up a few huge sacks of ice at an ice factory where a vintage machine crushed big ice blocks. The sacks were piled in the middle of the two rows of bus passengers. Then a gas station for a wee bit of petrol. And, stops for giving donations. In Myanmar, a country of devout Buddhists, it’s common to see folks along the roads with large silver colored bowls. These are for offerings for monks. Passers-by often stop and throw in some money. The bus stopped to oblige those wanting to contribute.
A woman with a bucket of live squid sat next to me. Another had a few eels on top of a pail of ice. Most had large parcels. Young men jumped on and off at random, hanging out the back of the vehicle. I was intrigued by the scene, but, BB (husband Bicycle Bob) seemed in agony and was all too happy to finally reach our destination, the inland town of Thandwe, after a 45-minute painful ride. I wanted to visit the town’s market in search of souvenir bargains. Alas, this was just a huge, chaotic, smelly market of produce, clothing, hardware. We did buy some fruit, a bathing suit for BB, some instant coffee, cookies, soft drinks and a couple of bottles of beer – all for less than $10.
There are no taxis in these parts. BB was not up for a return bus ride. We walked all over town, looking for someone we could persuade to give us a ride for cash. Finally the driver of an old and dirty station wagon agreed after his friend, who understood our request, translated.
Unfortunately the bus ride did a number on his BB’s butt. He is skinny – no padding, and ended up with rear end welts. The salty sea water only enhanced the pain. Since he is not a swimmer, he did not seem to miss forays into the water.
I did myself in with a bargain priced all-body Myanmar massage. Huts whose proprietors offer all kinds of massages for less than $10 are profuse at one end of the beach. My masseur, a slight fellow with the power of an Olympic weight lifter, pounded, stretched and jerked my body for an hour. Not pleasant, especially since I had sore ribs. On the last day of the sightseeing trip I fell, my ribs landing on my hard camera. The massage finished off the rib injury. Moving my arms was agony. I could no longer swim – my second favorite sport after skiing.
So, we walked along the beach, went to a “cooking school,” and rented bikes. BB, a bicycle aficionado, was not happy with the bikes, simple, ancient models, but there was no choice. The ride – even more ruts than on the bus ride. We pedaled to a nearby town, a wreck of a fishing village. We saw where much of the factory ice ended up. Trucks loaded down with the heavy bags pulled up to a wharf of sorts. Men loaded as many as five of the bags on their shoulders and headed down a jetty to the boats.
Along our bike route we passed areas blanketed with plastic sheets upon which fish baked in the sun. Dried fish are a staple in much of Myanmar cuisine. While we love fish — the fresh variety which was plentiful and delicious here — the stench of the dried fish was a bit much.
BB’s butt was still sore, so he passed on a snorkeling trip. I gave it a try since more leg than arm movement is involved in snorkeling. I was the only passenger in a simple motor boat driven by a man and his young son. The snorkeling was a disappointment – few fish. But, the ride was interesting, with a stop at a
miniscule island with a mini restaurant selling food and drinks at inflated prices.
The women who ply the beach selling fruit from the baskets on their heads have also learned to inflate prices. Why not? If the tourists are dumb enough to pay… But, when one wanted to charge me more than $2 for three small bananas and $3 for a mango, I refused. Bananas are like peanuts in Myanmar – profuse, and I can buy a tropical mango in France for $3 or less.
Except for the soothing sounds of the sea slapping the shore, the only beach sound is these fruits sellers advertising their wares. They saunter up and down, past all the hotel lounge chairs, calling out in sing-song tone, “Ming guh la ba (hello), pineapple, banana, coconut.” It was like a ritual chant.
On one of our walks we had seen a sign in front of a rundown restaurant advertising cooking lessons. We liked the food in Myanmar. Since I love to cook, why not sign up? The kitchen was a health inspector’s nightmare, but our two instructors, neither of whom spoke English, washed their hands frequently. They chopped, sliced and diced with professional skill. The resulting meal was excellent, especially the avocado salad (see recipe in column at right).
In addition to the beach massage “parlors,” food shacks are lined up along one part of the beach with tables in the sand. We became regulars at one run by a couple and their niece, a friendly young girl who spoke a bit of English and helped me master a few words of Myanmar. I had befriended one of the numerous homeless dogs and wanted to buy some food for it. I tried several beach eateries. All refused to sell me chicken pieces for a dog, except this one, hence we gave them our regular business.
The man was the chef. I asked to watch him prepare fish over an open fire in his tiny, rustic kitchen and picked up a few tips. For a beach finale dinner, we splurged on lobster. Perfect, and my friendly dog even appeared to bid good-bye.
Myanmar is on the move, emerging from decades of isolation and repression. Tourism is booming. Roads, including the one to the Ngapali beach resorts from the nearest airport, are being improved. Soon there will be quality bikes to rent and Cordon-Bleu type cooking schools at the beach. Throughout the country, new hotels are under construction. People are learning new skills, including English, to qualify for jobs in the tourist industry. According to an official estimate, the hotel and catering industry could create over a half million jobs in Myanmar by 2020. Lives will improve. But, hopefully the rapid rise of tourism will not destroy the allure of Myanmar, a place Rudyard Kipling found “quite unlike any place you know about.”
See below for more photos. And, for a different take on ratatouille, try Lecso, a Hungarian version mentioned in my recent blog post, Swiss Slopes Welcome Journalists. Click on photo at right for the recipe. Comments and new subscribers welcome. Add your email address at top right to receive future posts.
It is huge, bizarre, unreal. We were flabbergasted. “Incredible,” we uttered. “You say ‘incredible’, but this is only the fifth largest Buddha in Myanmar,” our guide Min explained. This big Buddha in the city of Yangon was the first of numerous touristic sites on our 13-day tour of this fascinating country. During that tour, we saw much more that can only be described as “incredible.”
The Reclining Buddha, 235 feet long, was originally built in 1907, but destroyed by the British and Japanese during World War II. It took five years (1952-1957) to make a new Buddha. “It took two years just to make the glass eye,” Min said. I was perplexed by Buddha’s face – eye make up, lipstick? Isn’t Buddha a man? “We want Buddha to look pretty like a woman,” Min explained.
Buddha’s enormous feet were another mystery, each with 108 squares. Each square represents Buddha’s past life before he became Buddha.
Another mind-boggling spectacle, this gilded temple complex in Yangon is the county’s most–visited sight, as well as a pilgrimage site. Sixty-four lesser pagodas and numerous shrines are clustered around the golden dome (three tons of gold) which rises 322 feet above its base. According to a legend, it is 2,500 years old. Archeologists, however, think it dates to sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries, but was rebuilt numerous times in succeeding years. At the top of the dome is a diamond orb, a golden sphere studded with 4,351 diamonds. And, at the very top, a 76-carat diamond.
Min told us that eight hairs of Buddha are enshrined in the dome. During our trip, we visited many other temples which are also said to preserve sacred Buddha hairs.
I found people watching at the pagoda as interesting as the mammoth religious monument. Some kneeling in prayer at different shrines. Others pouring water on many of the countless Buddha statues. Yet others offering flowers to Buddhas. And, many just sauntering around the complex, taking photos, laughing, even sitting in groups on the floor while enjoying snacks. Definitely not a holy place of silent meditation.
This giant boulder at the edge of a cliff (Mt. Kyaiktiyo), part of its base extended over the chasm below, seems as if it could come crashing down the mountain at any minute. And, like most religious monuments in Myanmar, it is golden. We visited in time to watch the sun sink on the horizon and bathe the rock and surroundings in a pale pink glow. Just like saints, Buddha gets credit for many miracles. This one could make you a believer. According to Min, there have been many earthquakes in the area, but the rock has never moved.
Golden Rock is an important pilgrimage site for Myanmar Buddhists who burn incense, light candles, make offerings, and pray at the site. Men are permitted to approach the rock and affix gold leaf squares to its surface. Not unlike the scene at Schwedagon, the atmosphere on the surrounding terrace is more party than prayer. Many of the pilgrims have traveled a long way and come with mats to roll out for eating picnic style and sleeping at the site.
Getting to the rock on the mystical mountain is an uncomfortable, yet griping adventure. Some pilgrims may hike the seven miles from the base camp to the top, but most, as well as tourists, climb in the back of huge open trucks which have hard wooden slats for benches. Every inch of space must be filled before the trucks depart for the bumpy, bouncy ascent over a rutted dirt road at what seems are Formula I speeds around hairpin turns through the jungle terrain. Better than any roller coaster.
As mentioned in a previous post, Myanmar is marching ahead on the path of progress. Work on paving the road to the top of the Rock was underway during our visit. It was dark when we left the site and walked down a path to a hotel where we spent the night. The route is lined with souvenir stands, behind which the sellers and their families live in primitive shelters. All had electricity and television — new developments, Min said.
It has been called the Angor Wat of Myanmar, a wonder of some 3,000 temples scattered across the plains of Bagan. In every direction domes of the ancient temples dot the skyline. Most were built between the 11th and 13 centuries and have been reconstructed. Therein lies a major problem. UNESCO stepped in to assist with reconstruction after major damage during an earthquake in 1975. According to Sai, our guide in Bagan, Myanmar’s military government kicked UNESCO out in 1989 and took over temple reconstruction, using cheap material and not adhering to archeological guidelines. UNESCO called the fruit of their efforts a “Disney-style fantasy version of one of the world’s great religious and historical sites.” For this reason Bagan is not on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites.
But, it should be seen. The temples are in various states of decay and reconstruction. Many can be entered, Buddha statues admired, chambers explored. Some even have traces of ancient wall paintings. Sai took us to Schwezigon Pagoda, considered the most important of Bagan’s temples, in the early morning when the sun’s rays were still soft, workers were busy sweeping the grounds and monks arrived to worship. Few tourists to tarnish the mystical ambience.
Tourists, however, are important to the economy, especially in Bagan which thrives on visitors. Ox cart drivers offer rides through the plains past dozens of temples. Boat drivers take passengers on excursions on the Irrawaddy River. Souvenir hawkers abound.
Sai led us to a temple popular for Bagan sunset viewing, a tourist must. We climbed and climbed steps in dark, narrow, crumbling passageways to reach the crowded rooftop where all had cameras ready. A bridal couple even managed the ascent to have a professional photographer capture them with the temples and sunset in the background.
I asked Sai to take me to a temple I had read about in Lonely Planet, Dhammayangyi Pahto. He was reluctant, but agreed. The temple has mysterious, bricked up passages. Hundreds of bats cling to its ceiling. That, plus its brutal history, make a visit an eerie experience. King Narathu had the temple built in the 12th century to atone for smothering his brother and father to death and executing one of his wives. He ordered the brickwork to fit so tightly that not even a pin could pass between two bricks. Those who failed at the task had their arms chopped off. Thus, it is believed the temple has bad karma and is probably why it never underwent major restoration. And, perhaps why some guides prefer not to visit?
Thousands of golden Buddhas hidden in the inner depths of a massive limestone cavern. Definitely incredible! It was another long and arduous climb up steps to the entrance of the Shwe Oo Min Natural Cave Pagoda which shelters approximately 8,700 Buddhas, many left centuries ago by pilgrims. New statues continue to be added by worshippers. We followed a narrow path into the 460 foot long cave where Buddhas sit in crevices and crannies in the rock walls. Tiny Buddhas. Buddhas draped in cloth. Buddhas made of alabaster, teak, brick, cement. Buddhas off in dark corners. Buddhas under spotlights. We walked on and on and on through the maze of Buddha-lined passageways. Our guide for this part of the trip, Hein, showed us a hole where a monk was supposed to have entered but never returned.
I don’t suffer from claustrophobia, but it got to be too much. I needed an escape to fresh air. And, a chance to photograph the giant spider near the cave entrance. According to a legend, seven princesses took refuge in the cave during a storm. An evil spirit, a “nat” in the form of a spider, imprisoned them. Along came a prince who heard their cries, killed the spider with an arrow, and freed the lovely princesses. “Myanmar is a golden land of legends,” our guide said. We heard many throughout the trip.
This is another tourist favorite in Myanmar. We stayed at a hotel whose many buildings were all on stilts in the lake which is 13.5 miles long, seven miles wide and three meters deep. Our tourist boat, a type of motorized canoe, took us to lakeside towns where we visited a market, monastery, and — more temples of course. We saw floating gardens and stilt house villages. Hein told us that one third of the lake is comprised of these gardens, and that 80 percent of the tomatoes sold in Myanmar come from the floating gardens where rice, other vegetables and flowers thrive. Incredible gardening!
We visited the Inn Thein Pagoda complex where some 1,054 small stupas are overgrown with moss and greens. Most date from the 16th to 18th centuries and have decayed with age and encroaching vegetation. Theft has been another problem. Gold and other precious valuables are often sealed inside Buddha statues. Thieves destroy the Buddhas to recover the goods
More Myanmar to come. Don’t miss the next post, 10 blissful days at Ngapali Beach. Add your email address at top right to receive future posts.And, please add a comment. I love to learn what readers think about my posts.
Isit Burma or Myanmar? You will hear both. Since 2011 the official name has been the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. The military junta changed the name from Burma, the name used since the mid 19th century, to Myanmar in 1989. Rangoon became Yangon, and several other place names were also changed — all in an effort to rid the country of British era colonial names.
During our travels, we inquired. Which name did citizens prefer? The answer we always got was “Myanmar.”
Following is a brief history lesson – important to understanding Myanmar today.
Burma was a British protectorate from 1885 until 1948 when it gained independence. Civil war among minority groups followed until 1962 when General Ne Win took control and set up the world’s longest running military dictatorship. Industries were nationalized. Tourist visas were limited to one week. Foreign books and magazines were not permitted in the country. Burma was isolated. The economy was in shambles.
In 1988 peaceful protesters took to the streets. Their leader was Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Military violence quashed the protests, and in 1989 Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. (She was released in 1995, but put under house arrest twice again.) An election was held in 1990 with the NLD as the winner. However, the military would not relinquish power and many politicians were jailed.
The US and Canada imposed an investment ban on Myanmar in 1997, and in 2000, the EU intensified economic sanctions citing human rights abuses.
Protests broke out again in 2007, with monks taking a leading role. Thousands were arrested, 31 killed including a monk who was beaten to death. In 2008, the country was ravaged by Cyclone Nargis which left 138,000 dead. Shortly thereafter, in wake of criticism following botched up relief efforts, a long promised referendum on constitutional reform was held with the goal of creating a “discipline-flourishing democracy.”
Elections took place in 2010, boycotted by the NLD, with the military-backed party the winner. In 2011 a former general, Thein Sein, takes the helm as president and embarks on a series of reforms to direct the country toward democracy. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. A human rights commission was established. Press censorship was relaxed. Political prisoners were released. And, the door was open to tourists, as well as western companies for investment opportunities.
Those, and other changes that we witnessed, are encouraging. The real proof of democratic progress will come with elections in 2015. According to the current constitution Suu Kyi, the national heroine, is prohibited from running in the presidential contest because her late husband was British. However, the constitution is supposed to be amended to permit her to run.
Since her party won in bi-elections in 2012, Suu Kyi is a member of parliament. She is adored, revered by the people of Myanmar. Those we spoke to said she could easily win the presidential contest. Their hopes and aspirations lie with her. Will the constitution be amended? If so, will there be a fair election?
According to political commentary, Myanmar has gone too far to turn back the clock. Even without a constitutional amendment and Suu Kyi at the helm, economic progress marches on at a rapid pace. There are no Starbucks and Golden Arches yet in Yangon, but they are sure to come. In this frenzied metropolis, there are clean, modern restaurants serving western food, a few fancy five-star hotels and more to come, multi-lane highways. We found Wi-Fi everywhere we went in Myanmar– usually in the hotel rooms. Construction sites abound. Roads, even in remote areas, are undergoing improvement. More and more tourist sites are installing modern, much appreciated, toilet facilities.
Of course, all is far from golden like the country’s thousands of Buddhas. Ethnic violence between Muslims and Buddhists plagues the western part of the country. According to a United Nations investigation, at least 40 Rohingya Muslims, the persecuted minority group, were massacred in January. The government continues to deny the killings. Guides talked of corruption, a lack of education and opportunities for the poor.
“Before 2010, a Toyota (the car of choice in Myanmar) cost $22,000. Now it costs $10,000. But for the majority, $10,000 is still too much,” said one guide. (Guides did not want their names mentioned in conjunction with quotes. There is still a lingering fear of Big Brother.)
The influx of tourists is helping with more jobs — working in hotels, on construction of tourist facilities, as guides, drivers. That can only get better.
“Before 2011, there were between 700,000 and 800,000 visitors per year to Myanmar,” another guide said. “In 2011 there were 1.05 million tourists, and in 2012, 1.5 million. We expect 3.5 million this year.”
We are glad we got in before the rush. Our trip was booked with Asian Trails (www.asiantrails.info) During our 13-day sightseeing tour we had four different
guides and drivers, different ones for different regions. We flew from Yangon to Bagan, from Mandaly to Inle Lake, then to Ngapali Beach and back to Yangon. After the tour, we spent 10 blissful days at Ngapali, Myanmar’s unspoiled beach resort. Cost per person: $3,335, which included all transportation, ground and air, within Myanmar, all hotels, two meals per day (except at the beach where only breakfast was included), guide services and admission charges.
The guides all spoke English and were extremely knowledgeable. They pointed out the best places for photos and made sure we got sunset shots. Both guides and drivers were polite, courteous and obliging – often taking us to places that were not on the pre set itinerary.
The cars were comfortable and air-conditioned, with bottles of water and handi-wipes provided. The latter were indeed handy to clean dirty feet after barefoot treks through temples. We were delighted with our visit and Asian Trails.
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