A Travellerspoint blog

Myanmar

burma undercover 2005

bagan

note: bagan is the only spot in burma that i faced some annoyances.

i would appreciate that readers READ the whole travelogue and all the entries, before just singling out one post, and then without context and background of the author (that is, me) person and character, started making personal attacks.

just for your info, for this post (if you're too lazy to trawl through the rest). of course there are touts everywhere, and of course i know the economic crisis they are in. of course that would require me to be extra tolerant of touts. i have visited the country well aware of the problems they faced, and i have brought what i needed to give.

i am talking about particular spots, the annoyances at touristy spots that people should look out for, like bagan. i have met touts everywhere, some even end up as my good friends believe it or not, because i end up chatting and making friends with them. they were pushy, but they were not rude, unlike the ones i met in bagan, who were used to having tourists going there so it became like a normalcy for them to force people to buy, and be rude when they don't.

i will appreciate that before making comments in future, readers don't sound so high and mighty and pooh-pooh something without background and context. be polite and i will be polite to you as well. if not i will just delete your comments. thanks much.

Bagan is one of the most amazing sights in SE Asia. In an area of 40 km2, there are over 2,000 stupas and pagodas built during the Bagan Dynasty founded by King Anawratha in 1044 AD. Bagan is one of the ancient capitals of Myanmar. The main pagodas are: Ananda Pagoda, Damayangyi Pagoda, Hti-lo-min Pagoda, Shwegugyi Pagoda, and Shwesandaw Pagoda.

however, let's just say like my cambodia's angkor wat trip, this particular trip to bagan was somewhat of a letdown, just as i had imagined. perhaps, it's too touristy. and there are too many sly touts/peddlers harrassing you to buy their wares.

when i was at shwesandaw, a woman came forward and clipped a butterfly pin on my tee. she told me to put my sandals near where she sat. i had thought she was a temple staff. only later i realised, she's selling things and making me wear her pin meant that "i was hers". and that she'd done me a favour looking after my sandals. and taking off the pin would take time, and she could use it to her advantage and harrassed me further.

when i was at ananda, a girl kept following me about, trailing 3m behind me. like my shadow. i was so irritated i asked her "what are you trying to do and following me?" and then she said she wanted me to see her items after my walk. when i said no, she said "not now, later ok? later ok?" and wouldn't take no as an answer. i didn't answer. as i walked into the pagoda, a man followed me, telling me which angles to shoot. what a pest. he walked in front of me, expecting me to follow his steps. i walked the other way. then he reappeared with rubies "you want to buy stones?" he asked. when i went out, the same woman bugged me again.

after so many unheeded "i don't wants", i ran out of patience. i was feeling ill and trying to appreciate the ruins, and these people had to pester me non-stop. in a loud stern voice, i yelled "Maw Weh Chienh Bu!" meaning "I DON'T WANT". i hate having to lose my temper. i hate having to scold people. but these touts were too much.

the woman parroted after me "Maw Weh Chienh Bu!", as if to mock me. so annoying.

if you had read earlier sections, you could tell i love the burmese' friendliness - only when it's genuine. but in bagan, everyone wanted to make small talk not because they're interested in me, but so that they could get me to buy something from them. from painters, to jewellers, to hawkers. because of them, i had lost so many photo opportunities. they planted themselves at strategic places where the views are good. i'd rather lose a shot than being pounced on unexpectedly, lied to, or harrassed. that's why i preferred the more remote hsipaw or kalaw.

everyone says bagan is wonderful, i agree yes. the pagodas are exquisite but the people really annoy me. the first morning at the guesthouse, the woman serving breakfast ignored me completely. i was walking in front of a western woman, and she said "Allo!" so i responded. and i realise she wasn't greeting me, she was greeting the western lady instead. she went on to ask the lady how her day went, and asked what she would like to drink. i waited for her to ask me, but she ignored me. she didn't even look my way. another western woman came in, and she greeted her the same way. after she gave them their toasts, only then she acknowledged my existence. she spoke to me in burmese. i spoke english. then her face changed. only then she realised i was a guest and a foreigner, too. but she didn't treat me any better.

perhaps she thought i looked poor. anyway, i know i am very shabby-looking, and ill too. and even if i was a local, that didn't mean i should be treated any differently. she gave me two pieces of bread, the other people got four. HMPH. not that i could finish four pieces, but still. everyone else at the guesthouse was good to me, except her.

in the afternoon, i came back and asked for hot water. she was watching TV and she got her assistant to give me the mug. HMPH. what a snobbish woman. this kind of people don't deserve to have a good life. not that i'm cursing her, but well, i really dislike people who treat people nice only because they think they can profit from the relationship. full of crap.

then, i went on to my horsecart, and unlike the woman, the driver was overfriendly. now, thinking back, i think i had been taken advantage of. angry. you see, i was coughing and sneezing the whole way because of the dust, and the ancient pagodas didn't help. it was musty but i still climbed one all the way to the top. to get on top, one would have to walk through a narrow spiral staircase within the pagoda itself. you would need a torch because the stairwell is very dark, and the bricks are crumbling. anyhow, he went up with me. i have height phobia. so i was feeling a little frightened about looking down. if i needed any help, it's handholding and that's enough. the furthest all the burmese men i interacted with went was to hold my hand or my arm, that's it. this one grabbed me around the shoulders with one hand , held my hand with the other - hugging, yes. and when i was going up in the dark, he touched my buttocks, my back, my waist. HMPH. i was pushing him away, but he made it look like it's normal, that he was just being caring. so i was feeling a little confused, plus my splitting headache didn't help. then, on the cart itself, we chatted.

then came the TYPICAL want-to-molest query: "are you married?" and "if you want a massage?" and i said no. then he asked for my age. i said 27. and he said "me too!" then later he went on talking about how everyone needed a burmese massage. and I KNEW IT, he wanted to demonstrate the steps on me. at this point, we were at some very secluded place at noon. i just said "yes, burmese massage on THE TOES is very good". and he said "no, here is better!" before i could react, he started to press on my thighs and back. i pushed his hand away. i think he got the idea. because i was sitting right at the edge of the cart, almost falling off. and he asked me to put my things near him. i didn't want to. and because there's space, he asked me to lie down beside him instead of sitting down. he said: "not good for your back, you can relax". i said no. and then he started pulling weeds of my pants near the knees. ARGH! stop touching me, bloody pervert.

it didn't help that he was chewing betel (yucks), and has red stained teeth. and i think he's also very lazy. he kept saying that my fees were a discount. like he wanted to make me feel guilty. and there was one point near some deserted place, he said he wanted his horse to rest. so i got down, and walked around. he joined me shortly after. i was walking away so fast from him that i went straight into a cactus tree! it's quite amusing if you're there to witness. the tree was quite huge and the sturdy thorns pricked my forehead. i went "Owww!" and the unwelcome hero came to my rescue and started rubbing my forehead. URGH!

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the offending cactus

anyway, 3 hours later, i decided enough was enough. my cough was killing me. i asked to be sent back to the guesthouse. the horse was going clippety clop clippety clop, so slow. then he asked if i would invite him for lunch. the cheek! i asked to get down 100m away from the guesthouse, and gave him the fee and extra 1 dollar for him to have lunch elsewhere (not with me of course). he said he would pick me up at 6pm to see sunset, and the next day for sunrise. i thought it's unwise to go with him. after sunset, it's going to be dark. what could happen. so, i planned my escape and hid in a teahouse. i sat very far in, in the dark, with my back facing the road.

it was way past sunset and i thought i was safe. while sipping my strawberry juice, he suddenly appeared in front of me and said "ALLO!" i almost choked on my juice. "eh hi" and he said "where did you go? i wait for you long time. i ask the manager to find you" and i quickly replied "ah, not feeling well. feel very sick. so i walked slowly around. sorry. it's ok, i don't want to see sunset and tomorrow don't want also. i am very sick" and he said "ah ok, i can see you are sick" and then he stood there. in my heart, i went "SHOOOOOOO!" this translated to polite signlanguage speak was a nod and a polite wave "thank you... tata... babaiiii"... i think he got the idea that i wasn't going to invite him for a drink.

the next day, i got on a trishaw and the driver, nyunt, turned out to be a sweetie. he was so hardworking. have i told you how charitable burmese are - even the most impoverished ones? nyunt wanted me take me to see the sunset for free! "no need to pay, present from me," he said. i looked at the scrawny figure in front of me. nyunt was wearing an old, tattered shirt. at 24, he's his family's sole breadwinner, supporting his young brother and widowed mother. his earnings aren't much and yet, he still wanted to give "presents". i think he felt "indebted" because i had bought for him a bottle of mineral water and i volunteered to walk when the ground got too thick with dry sand, making cycling almost impossible.

i was told later that many tourists refused to walk or never offered to buy water for the trishaw riders. i was sad to hear this. water's just 20cents, and walking is faster than forcing the rider to expend so much energy pedalling. how inhuman some tourists could be! shame on them.

i didn't accept his offer though, because i was heading to yangon that afternoon. and i had fallen ill. so, no sunrise and sunset pictures in bagan.

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Posted by jalanjalan 20:07 Archived in Myanmar

burma undercover 2005

mandalay

U Bein bridge
South of the Patodawgyi Pagoda a huge teak bridge crosses the shallow Taungthaman Lake. During the dry season the bridge crosses dry land. U Bein was the "mayor" at the time of the shift from Inwa and he wisely salvaged material from the deserted Inwa Palace to build this 1.2km long footbridge - the longest in the world. It has stood the test of time for two centuries.

i almost fell off this bridge. some parts of the bridge had been laid with new wooden planks of a brighter colour. as i walked along the bridge, my mind started to wander far and away. in my dazed state, i thought i should step away from the "bright" planks, and go for the gray colour on the sides (which was actually the colour of the river). if i had done so, i would have fallen into the river.

anyhow, the monks were on day off on this day. and they were friendly, and trying to chat to as many people as possible - to connect with the outside world.

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mingun
mingun is one of the four ancient cities in mandalay. Mingun is about 6 miles from Mandalay on the left bank of Ayeyarwady River. A pleasant 45 minutes boat trip along the Ayeyarwady River which one can observe part of the life style of the people living by the river. The world's largest Mingun Pagoda was built during the reign of King Bodawpaya but left the construction unfinished when he died in 1819. There is also a gigantic Mingun Bell weighing 90 tons, claimed to be the World's largest hung and ringing untracked bell.

at mingun, i witnessed a squabbling teenage couple. actually only the guy was yelling his lungs out, scolding the girl. he even wanted to punch her. he was berating her in public and she just sat there quietly. i was wondering if this was a typical burmese relationship. later, i was told it's not. after i met ko shwe - a loving husband - i realise that behaviour is unique to every individual.

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look who's inside the bell? keke, yours truly. :D

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khanh was the highlight of mingun. we met at the river bank. later, we spent a few hours chatting about his aspirations and dreams.

khanh is training to be a licensed guide. he's now earning $30 a month. after school, he told his family in the countryside that he wanted to work as a guide, and not a mat-weaver like all the boys in the village.

"i want to see the world you know. although it's not possible under this government. but at least, speaking with tourists would allow me to connect with the outside world," he said.

"i get euro notes and coins from tourists and i want to show them to my parents. they're from the countryside and have never seen anything like this. i'm sure they will be proud of me," said khanh, unscrewing a box filled with various currencies.

khanh was a loyal son who loved his parents very much. he took out a slip of paper showing his donation of $1 to the temple, on behalf of his parents. he folded the certificate carefully and put it back into his bag.

"you love your parents a lot huh? you missed them?" i asked.

"yes, very much. my mother was crying when i left her. i just wanted to earn well so i could support them you know. i would earn more as a guide than a mat-weaver," he said.

he pointed to his white teeth. "see, i've stopped chewing betel the last three months. i promised a german tourist i would stop chewing. she told me it's bad for my health," he said.

"i agree. you can get mouth cancer if you chew too much. also, you look better without. it's good for business, too. more hygienic, you know," i said.

he nodded his head, agreeing.

khanh later bought two packets of tissues and passed to me "here's a present for you. i don't have much money. unless you want to share my food," he said, taking out his lunchbox.

"that's so kind of you, khanh. no i don't want to eat," i said. i was touched by the simple gesture. i took out two pens and passed them to him. "this is my present to you. you will need these when you're a busy licensed gude next time," i said.

he smiled and nodded his head. "thank you," he said.

taking risks and beating the system
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this is ko shwe, motorbike man-turned-friend. he's the highlight of my trip to mandalay. how we met was arranged by god. earlier in the day, i was looking for trishaw to take me to the jetty so i could visit mingun. i just chose one at random, an old man on a green trishaw. the man told me he would pick me up at noon, after my mingun visit.

so, after the visit, i couldn't locate the man. instead, ko shwe arrived on a motorbike, telling me he's been sent by the trishawman who's busy attending to other matters. i thought ko shwe was lying until he spoke to me in Bahasa. ko shwe has worked in a malaysian state for four years and so he was fluent in the language. i had lied to the trishawman, telling him i was malaysian. actually, in burma, i lied about my identity wherever i went. sometimes, i was thai, at other times i was filipina. but most times, i was malaysian. i am very careful about being tracked that's why i adopted various names and nationalities. and i made sure to clear the cache after logging off from the internet.

ko shwe missed speaking with malaysians and was ecstatic to know i was malaysian. but of course, i told him the truth. he wasn't disappointed. in fact, he's excited. and he told me he thought highly of me. "just now, when i came for you, you insisted on finding the trishaw man," he said. and i said "yes, because i promised him that he would take me around. i didn't want to break my promise." and he said "i know, your attitude is very good and i trust you", said the chemistry graduate.

i had lunch with him and opened a can of worms. ko shwe told me many dreadful things about the burmese government. he's a motorbike man because his degree is useless. he said "so what if i'm a graduate. my degree's worthless as there's no work for me" and no way he's going to work with the government.

"you know why there's so much corruption? the government pay civil servants peanuts and that's why they have to turn to bribery to survive," he offered. "this government is crazy, tax people like nobody's business. there's no freedom for us burmese. there's no media, we can't travel outside, and there are so many restrictions."

"government hospitals are corrupt. my mother was ill six months ago and no nurse/doctor attended to her for 10 days. my mother, a seventy something year old lady, was in so much pain that her body was curling like a foetus. i only realised my mother was not receiving treatment until i saw the woman on the next bed who's suffering from same illness being given a different medication. i stormed to the doctor's office and told him "how much do you want?" after i gave him $1,000 only then the staff treated my mother. that's all the money i have. it's expensive these government hospitals. and everyday i buy cakes for the staff, so they would treat my mother well. no compassion at all," he lamented.

"let me tell you another story. i was at the hospital when my wife gave birth, and there's a woman there who had trouble delivering her baby. she lost so much blood and was dying. she looked very poor. so, i told the doctor that i would want to donate my blood to the woman. and guess what, the doctor wanted to charge the woman 2,000Kyats (US$2) for my blood! i was so angry because i was donating for free and the woman was not rich. how could the doctors exploit me and patients like that!" he continued. he mentioned about how some of his friends who're still serving time because they openly opposed the government.

after lunch, ko shwe said that he would help me evade tax. because i looked like a local, he said he would use the "local gates" to get into the attractions, which he said were non-attractions. "there's nothing in the palace but the government charges $10 to foreigners. i'm not going to let the government earn so i'll smuggle you in."

he gave me a burmese name - nila. and told me to play dumb. "don't speak english at all. if the soldiers speak with you, don't say anything. i'll tell them that you're from the Chin state. it's one of the tribes here and you can't speak burmese."

"ko shwe, what would happen to you if we're caught? i'm worried for you!" i asked.

"don't worry. no one could tell you're foreigner," he assured me.

"but what's the worst that could happen?" i asked.

"i'll get sent to jail for a few months i suppose. like some of my friends. but don't worry. i'm confident we wouldn't be discovered," he said.

the city tour was the most heart-thumping experience for me. we went to the palace and a couple of other places of interest, using the back gate. there was a signage "Foreigners are forbidden to enter via this gate" and i wanted to die. sitting behind on his motorbike, ko shwe rode past soldiers and military officers. when they asked where he's going, he said he's meeting a friend, who's a general. i tried to act as cool as i could. i was so nervous.

reaching the places, he told me to enter first while he walked behind me. "you take off your shoes and just walk in confidently. if you hang around too long, they will know you're a foreigner. i'll follow from behind and i'll carry your bag," he instructed.

i did as i was told. i was afraid to take out my canon camera, which obviously looked like a "foreign" product with german wideangle lenses. he told me not to worry. i snapped a shot and quickly placed the camera back into the bag.

one instance, when we were riding out of the gate, ko shwe was stopped. he got down from his motorbike and four generals surrounded him, interrogating him in burmese. in my heart, i went "OH SHIT, i've been discovered!" i saw a soldier walking towards me from a distance and i didn't know what to do. i got down from the motorbike, walked towards the gate and pretended to get bitten by mosquitoes on the legs. i was so nervous.

then, i saw ko shwe making a signal for me. he told me to get out as quickly as possible. so, i quickly went through the gate and walked for 100metres. i was feeling so worried about him. 10 mins later, he emerged.

"what happened!? i asked.

"bah, nothing. they wanted to fine me because i didn't fasten my helmet properly!" he said.

"oh! phew, i thought i had been discovered!" i said.

"i thought so, too. i thought someone had spilled on me because he wanted a share of the profit. well, they wanted to fine me 2,000Kyats just because i didn't fasten my helmet properly, could you believe that! anyway, i argued with them. i told them i had a general friend in the army and would complain to him. so, they let me go," he said.

"ko shwe, you made me so worried! really! i saw the soldier coming towards me and i thought both of us are dead meat!" i said.

"i know. that's why i told you to quickly get out. you see nila... this is what the burmese feels everyday. we look cool on the outside but we are fearful all the time. inside, we worry and feel angry," he said.

anyway, we climbed mandalay hill and talked somemore - about his stint overseas, about his past love who's a malaysian. a muslim lady had fallen in love with him and asked if he would convert from buddhism to islam. he had liked her quite a bit, but to convert his religion was something difficult to do. afterall, theravada buddhists in burma are very religious and pious. the burmese life revolves around the Buddhist faith since the day he was born. obliging as they are, most Buddhist burmese will not compromise in matters concerning religion. why, even during the colonial period, the western lords, like it or not, have to go barefoot in temples. so for many, conversion is perhaps a very tall order.

"no nila, i wouldn't convert for anything. so, i went back home to marry my girlfriend," said ko shwe.

by that time, he shared so much with me he treated me like a friend. he didn't want to charge me anything.

"ko shwe, how much should i pay you?" i asked.

"no need nila. you're now my friend. i charge other foreigners but no i'm not charging you. we're friends now. i want to take you home to see my wife and baby," he said.

we didn't have time for that, unfortunately. but i gave him some money.

at the end of the day, ko shwe passed to me a sweet handwritten note: "nila dear, i will never forget today. keep intouch. far from the eyes, but you're close to my heart."

wonderful, wonderful ko shwe.

i realise many burmese do not make public their emotions. ko shwe, for example, rode to a quiet spot before passing me the note. then he rode to the guesthouse and he showed no emotion. same like Han, the inle trek guide. when he was alone with me, he was emotional, affectionate and expressive. but in front of other people, the relationship was business-like. and they usually felt embarrassed when you gave them presents. most westerners might think it's rude that burmese simply hide your presents in their fists, without opening them. but really, it shows how non-calculating they are. they would only open the presents when you're not around and they appreciate them a lot.

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moustache brothers
The Moustache Brothers enjoy a certain amount of notoriety in the West due to the continuing political nature of their humour. The Moustache Brothers perform an interesting blend of music, drama, improvisation, and social commentary/satire known as pwe. Two members of the troupe - Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw, Lu Maw's older brother and cousin, respectively - were arrested in 1996 after performing at an NLD gathering and telling jokes about the government and sentenced to seven years in prison, including two months of hard labour in iron shackles.

it was interesting to meet them in the flesh at their home. the trio, their wives and siblings, performed nightly at their home. the blacklisted group is disallowed to perform outside. they earn their keep through tourist dollars. lumaw, the host, was witty and very open talking about the "scandal". we have been told that government people in plainclothes do hang out outside their house whenever performance is ongoing to spy on them or the audience. after the show, i was approached by a stranger, who asked if i needed transport back. he didn't look like a trishaw rider and he sounded a little nervous. suspecting he's a spy, i told him i already had transport. ko shwe also swiftly came over and told the guy that he's sending me back. we quickly left the place.

i was wondering why the spy - if he really was one - would go for me. then i realise, i was the only person in the 10-strong audience who kept snapping photos non-stop. and i asked to buy their tee. also, after the performance, i went up to the trio and whispered to them about my desire to speak in length with them. they said i should come to their house again the next day during daytime. but i had already bought ticket to bagan. that was a pity, really. they said there's no way to telephone or email them, as the government is tracking their moves and tapping their conversations.

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(left to right) luzaw, lumaw, and par par lay

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personal thoughts & impressionsif i had another day, i would stay in mandalay. there were a few unsettled business - to talk with the moustache brothers and to meet ko shwe's family.

mandalay itself is a messy city and the air's filled with dust. mandalay made me fall sick. but there's a lot of "controversy", "excitement" and "adventure" to be had here - in the form of people and conversations. i had an adventurous time in mandalay.

Posted by jalanjalan 20:05 Archived in Myanmar

burma undercover 2005

hsipaw

Hsipaw is an ancient Shan town, the local capital of a Shan principality of the same name which according to its legendary history goes back to year 58 B.C. It is said to have been founded by Sao Hkun Hkam Saw, the fourth son of the Sawbwa (Saohpa) of Mong Mao named Sao Hkun Lai. The Myanmar (Burma) people pronounce the name as Thibaw and the last king of Myanmar, King Thibaw (1875-85 AD) got his name from this town. King Thibaw before he became King, was given this town by his father, King Mindon, and he was known as the Thibaw Mintha or the Prince of Thibaw, his mother being a Shan Princess later called Laungshe Mibaya or Queen Laungshe.

hsipaw is a remote sleepy town where electricity is available only a few hours at night. if you're a scaredy cat like me, you light candles around the room while you lay in bed. by 6pm (sunset time), everything comes to a halt. shops close around that time, and everyone prepares to retire to bed. afterall, what else can you do in the dark?

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when the lights came on for three hours at night, i had my dinner of instant mee and did my laundry, and prepared the candles. lighted the candles when the lights went out, and listened to my mp3 player till i fell asleep.

taking the 10-hour overnight bus from inle, i reached mandalay at 3.30am. it was a mad ride on stretches of rough road. i could have chosen to stay on in mandalay but decided to go ahead to hsipaw. i was too late to take the train (departing at 4.45am at another location) and was too early for the 5am bus. reaching mandalay, i was swarmed by a group of taxi drivers who told me to take their taxi. luckily there was this man, who worked for a hotel, who told me to hire a shared car to hsipaw. he said one driver had already found four other burmese men to join me on the ride to the north. i was feeling really worried. it was very dark still and i was going to take the car with five young burmese men. i could have been robbed etc etc. the driver charged 10,000K for the ride. i bargained to 8,000. anyhow, my gut feeling said i should be allright. and so i took up the offer (apparently, it's a good bargain). i slept throughout that 6hour trip and had bumps on my head. drivers here drive like mad bulls.

i woke up at 2oclock and started wandering around on my rented bike. i went to the mosque, met some kids there.

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then i went to hunt for food. i was hungry, and i didn't want to eat my sardines. i found a muslim vendor who owned streetstall 786 (muslim symbol). his daughter made for me some local shan noodles.

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and later i tried to find my way to the sunset hill to catch the sunset. but i got lost, and the seat for the bike was too high and i had trouble trying to balance myself on it.it was almost sunset and i was still pushing my bicycle around. i found a teashop and asked the teagirl how to get to sunset hill. she pointed the way. i walked on. 20 mins later, i heard the sound of motorbike "Vroom Vroom Vroooom" behind me. i turned around, it was the teagirl. her name's Minh.

she couldn't speak much english, but she patted the seat behind her and said "i take you to hill". WoooooooooWWWWW!!! HOW SWEET!!!! minh sent me to the foot of the hill. she said i could climb. but i didn't know how far up (later i learnt it's about an hour walk up!). she then said "i go with you. on motorbike". WoooooooooooWWWWWWWW! so she rode and halfway up the hill, the motorbike ran out of diesel. we went back down to refuel and we went back up. luckily i didn't attempt to climb. it was no molehill. it was quite a tall hill. Minh took me to the teashop later. i wanted to give her money, she refused to take anything from me. so i gave her the lipstick. heh heh.

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Minh and her motorbike

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we passed by these trees on the way up

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lovely sunset, isn't it? the sun looked like perfect bowls in burma

the next day, i went on a boattrip with middle-aged people - from australia, america and switzerland. they are seasoned travellers and i learnt a lot about the world. it was so wonderful to be in the company of mature people who were so willing to share their wisdom and experiences in different countries.

we also went to the many fruit plantations around the area. at the monastery, our boatguide told us about how the government collected tax from burmese. a bowl of noodles, for example, costs 200Kyats or 20cents. but half the amount was tax. indeed, it's believable. i spent much more for the things in burma than in laos, another underdeveloped nation. but laos items could be pricey if they're imported.

the boatguide also mentioned about how some families would prefer to send their children to the monastery to receive education, rather than government schools, which charge exorbitant fees that many burmese families - especially large ones - could not afford.

while having one of the sons donning the yellow robe was an honour to any burmese family, it was also seen as a reduction in family expenses. in the monasteries, children are taught the subjects taught in secular schools, too.

but i suppose one consequence of this is the rise of "fake monks". this elaborated in the Inle Lake section. go read.

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after doing so many things everyday, i couldn't sit still. so after that i went to see mr eusoff again and gave to him my medicines.

some hsipaw scenes:

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Posted by jalanjalan 20:01 Archived in Myanmar

burma undercover 2005

pyin u lwin

train ride from hsipaw to pyin u lwin
i must talk about this 8-hour train ride from hsipaw to pyin u lwin, because it invoked lots of sentimental feelings. on the train i sat with this middle aged woman and her 20-something year old son. the son looked so loving towards the mother. at that point, i thought about my own mother and felt like crying. i gave the lady oranges, which she took. and she gave me some juice. we bonded in silence.

the man beside me was having a headache. he was sniffing on orange peel to reduce the giddiness. i took out my ointment and dabbed some on his palm. he was appreciative. later at a station, i saw a boy hobbling outside. he hurt his feet. i felt so sorry and helpless. i took whatever medication left and called out to him from the train window. i gave him the tube of deepheat. his face brightened.

i saw young kids, as young as 5, already working. they carried pots of water and a mug. they worked as handwasher. they ran back and forth along the track, hoping someone would want his hands washed. for this, they probably got 10Kyats (1 cent). i felt sad. life must be tough for these people. but their faces didn't show any sign of weakness. their resilience was astonishing. i saw buffaloes being tied to trees. i felt like crying, too. a lot of things went through my head. suddenly, i realise i didn't miss anyone at home, i didn't miss my friends, my family, my work etc... but on that train ride, i thought about all my loved ones - dead and alive. it was a good ride. i spent the rest of the day walking around the town centre. and in the evening, i met steve, an australian traveller. we chatted over coffee until around 10pm and i went back to the guesthouse to rest. the clock tower (purcell tower), which was a gift from queen victoria and mimicked the Big Ben, made noisy "Dong Dong Dong" chime every hour. which was a blessing. my cheap watch, by now, has stopped working.

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The Gokteik Viaduct spans a formidable obstacle on the oldest and most direct route connecting Burma with Southwestern China, a route of which we have mention far back in ancient chronicles. It is, there is but little doubt, the same "gold and silver road" along which Marco Polo accompanied the Chinese invading armies on their march to Mandalay. In former times there was a very considerable traffic on it, but of late years the disturbed political condition of the countries through which it passes has led to much of the trade being diverted to other channels.

The general design of the bridge is, as you have heard, the work of Sir Alexander Rendel & Company, the Consulting Engineers to the Burma Railways Company. The bridge, however, was built by The Pennsylvania Steel Company, of Steelton, Pennsylvania, in the United States of America. By November 1, 1900, the viaduct was completed. The rails are at a height of 2,135 feet above mean sea level, and are 825 feet above the Chungzoune Stream, which flows through the natural tunnel below.

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pyin u lwin town centre
Pyin U Lwin, or Maymyo, used to be a former summer retreat for the British gentry during the period of colonial rule. Pyin U Lwin is placed at about 1070 meters above sea level and is 67 kilometers from Mandalay. The city has a peaceful setting where it is possible to admire the typical colonial architecture and the near Anisakan waterfalls.

Pyin U Lwin is dotted with important military facilities, including the Defense Services Institute of Technology. one can see soldiers in uniform and rifles walking around the city, but no way could you snap a shot of them. in fact, a traveller is disallowed from photographing any uniformed man or government military building.

what's interesting about pyin u lwin is the horse-drawn carriages used to transport people around, a "colonial" feature that still remains till today. sweater knitting is the forte of people living here and many shops at the city centre sell them.

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national press building. interesting to find a media centre - albeit already shut down. there's no freedom of press here and every media product rattles off government propaganda. i smuggled The Myanmar Times and The New Light of Myanmar - two newspapers - home (review in the main homepage section)

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around pyin u lwin
the following day, i hopped on a motorbike and explored the attractions around pyin u lwin, namely the botanical gardens, chinese temple and one pagoda as well as the sacred caves containing buddha images. the air was fragrant and the streets on pyin u lwin were clean. we passed by many pine trees, and colonial houses with huge gardens.

the highlight for me was the fact that i entered all these attractions for free - because they thought i was burmese. another highlight was when the motorbike man went to the local hospital to pay for his sister's delivery fees. the midwife came out of the operating room with her bloodstained gloves. later, i learnt that many burmese don't go to government hospitals because of the exorbitant fees. consultation alone costs USD$5, a big amount for poor burmese whose average earnings - depending on their job - are $1 to $3 a day. and the staff would not attend to them unless they pay the fees upfront. so, unless they experienced complications, they would give birth at home with the help of experienced village midwives.

then i learnt that the motorbike man had used the money i gave him (5,000Kyats = about USD$5) as deposit for the operation. he didn't tell me this until much later! he should have told me that earlier on so, we could go to the hospital and settle the bill first. his poor sister had to suffer because money had not been paid. no wonder he looked so stressed out.

the ride was pleasant and worth every cent. the only unpleasantness was the fact that the motorbike man chewed betel, and he kept popping that and spitting while we were riding. honestly speaking, i was feeling so worried about his red-stained sputum landing on my feet or face. so, whenever he turned left/right to spit, i ducked and kept my legs close to the motorbike. so much so that i developed cramps on my thighs. haha.

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Posted by jalanjalan 19:58 Archived in Myanmar

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