Friday, March 1, 2013

TRAINS AND RICKSHAWS


Our last day in Yangon we took a train from the main station to a village in the suburbs.  The trains are very old and beat up looking, with holes in the floors.  I thought they were a relic from the British rule in the 1940's or earlier, but our guide said they got them a couple of years ago from the Chinese.  He is very down on the Chinese, saying they only give them junk, like third hand buses and cars.  In contrast, my Chinese professor says China can't understand why Burma is so anxious to be friends with America when China has been one of their only friends for the past twenty years and the Americans were boycotting them.

Yangon train station
The trains had wooden bench seats and open windows with no glass.  They had about ten sets of railway tracks but only a couple in use, and those were full of weeds.  Our group started out as the only people in the car, but Burmese villagers got in at subsequent stops.  Nobody spoke English but they seemed very happy that we were visiting their country.  The language of smiles and gestures goes a long way.





Monks beg for food daily

My rickshaw driver


 tea break

When we reached our destination, we got on rickshaws and took about a 15 minute ride around the few blocks of the town area.  We passed a long line of  monks out for their daily food begging routine.  Villagers smiled and waved all along the way.

They have not seen a lot of tourists here yet, but I predict that in ten years the country will be a totally different experience.  Along with the planned tourist infrastructure will come the hawkers and beggars you see in other Asian countries.  You would not think that people who have lived under an oppressive totalitarian regime could be termed innocent, but that is what I see in their smiles.  I hate to see that change as they see tourists more as people they can take advantage of than as friendly visitors.

We met the bus in town and got back to the ship in time to sail on to our next destination, India.

Burma SAS stats:  over 50 cases of GI problems, one monkey bite, 15 jellyfish stings, one fall through the floor (see my monastery visit).

Thursday, February 28, 2013

YANGON

Making betel leaf rolls

My remaining three days in Burma were spent in Yangon, the former British capital (then Rangoon) of Burma that sits on the Yangon River about an hour or so from where the ship is docked.  It has a population of about six million, but has few skyscrapers and lots of trees, making it seem more provincial than international.  The downtown has wide, paved streets and old British style buildings.  We walked from the Strand Hotel, the oldest in town at 110 years, past the post office, city hall, Sule Pagoda, and Independence Monument.  There was a small market selling lots of betel leaf.  The leaf is wrapped around a mix of betel nut, lime paste, and tobacco and chewed.  It causes oral cancer, loose teeth, and red mouths but is still popular with some.





Downtown Yangon







We went on to Kandawgyi Park. a beautiful lake that holds the Royal Barge, now a floating restaurant.  Next we went to see the reclining buddha statue, not as large as the one I saw yesterday but a much prettier face.  He was built in 1901 of brick and cement.  After a good Burmese lunch at Padonmar Restaurant, we checked into our hotel.  I have my own room, which overlooks the lake.  There is wifi in the rooms, a real luxury after going without for a few weeks.



Royal barge

Civic Center

View from my hotel room

Reclining Buddha


We got to relax a little before heading out to the 2200 year old Shwedagon Pagoda, a magnificent complex in a beautiful park.  It was founded by two brothers who were apparently given four hairs by Buddha, which are enshrined in the Pagoda.  We spent an hour walking around the 450 foot tall Pagoda.  I met an OAT tour and talked with them about their journey.  Some of them were very interested in going on Semester at Sea.  My burnt feet are much better today.  At the end we got to light a whole section of lamps in front of the Pagoda, which is lit up beautifully at night.  Dinner was at Le Plana, an outdoor French restaurant on the grounds of an old mansion.  It was new agey, with minimal food and maximal presentation.  We had a shrimp appetizer, pork, plus ice cream for dessert.  I have no idea what it costs, but the cars in the parking lot were very luxe and the people well dressed.  I felt very plebeian coming in a tour bus and wearing a T shirt.










The next morning we stopped at a nunnery and saw all the little girls in their pink outfits gathered to say goodbye to a schoolmate who was leaving.  The buddhists apparently educate the girls, as well, but separately.  We then went to the Kaleywa monastery.  This is a more advanced school and has girls as well, but mostly boys.  It has over 1000 students, who study math, science, reading and writing, as well as religion.  They rise at 5 or 6 a.m. to chant and study, then go to pursue, usually at a prearranged place so the same people are not giving food all the time.  It is part of the religion to give food to the monks.  They can't eat solid food after noon.  The rest of the day they read, sleep and chant.  After 5 or 6 years they decide if they want to remain a monk or go out into the world.  There are 500,000 monks and about 60,000 nuns in Burma.

We went in a large room with some of the junior monks and nuns and they told us about their life.  We sang and danced for them (macarena and hokey pokey, which seem to be the standards everyone knows) and they sang for us.  Then we went to visit a classroom.  The rooms are huge, so I am surprised those in the back can see the small blackboard or hear the lesson.  They were taking a physics exam, but we went around and gave all the students gifts of workbooks and pens.  It must have been quite distracting while they were working problems with pencils and protractors.  They just moved the gifts and went on with the tests.  One of our students took a step backward and accidentally fell through a hole in the wooden floor.  His knee was lodged in and they had to pry out another floorboard to get him out.  I did first aid to the big scratches on both sides of his knee.






nuns and monks taking a physics test

Ed through the floorboard

Monks lined up for lunch


Meditation center

Next the students lined up in two seemingly endless lines.  We got in groups of two to man the different food stations.  On each side there was one for rice, next a cooked vegetable mixture, then a kind of cole slaw, then fruit.  The native ladies dished up small bowls, which we then dumped into the larger containers the students carried down the lines.  It took about an hour to dish everything up.  
We then got to sit down for our own lunch.

In the afternoon we went to a meditation center.  The people either sit or walk VERY slowly around the room to meditate.  A buddhist meditation master met with us and explained meditation.  

We walked around Chinatown before going to dinner at the Sky Bistro on the 22nd floor of the Sokum tower, one of the tallest buildings in the city.  The views were incredible.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

BAGO


Unlike other large cities I have visited in Asia, Burma feels very third world.  95% of the men wear longyis, a wrap around skirt.  There are shiny golden temple spires all over. 

 I took a day excursion to Bago, a capital in the 13th century.  It was supposed to be a two hour drive but it took 3 1/2 hours to get there, even with only one pit stop.  The roads are narrow and it is easy to get stuck behind slow traffic.  

Our first stop was the Kha Khat Wain Monastery, one of the largest in Burma and a school for monks.  They come to take a five year course in religion before going back to their home territories as career monks.  Most male Burmese buddhists spend a couple of years in monasteries, often to pursue regular education, but the ones here concentrate on religion.  They are not allowed to eat solid food after noon, and we were supposed to be there to help feed them.  Alas, by the time we got there, there were only empty tables, except for three elders having there meal in a corner.

No monks to be seen
Except the three elders

And the clean up crew







By this time, we were hungry, so we skipped the next thing on the schedule and went directly to lunch at the Hanthawaddy Restaurant, which was very nice.

Next we went to the Shwemawdaw Pagoda, over 1000 years old and with a spire higher than the main Pagoda in Yangon.  We got there so late that the tiles on the ground around the Pagoda were like frying pans.  Of course we had to go barefoot.  I walked all the way around the thing, resulting in feet that felt more like fried eggs.




Shwemadaw Pagoda
I could barely walk now due to burned feet, but made it out of the bus to see the next attraction, the Reclining Buddha, at Tha Lyaung Pagoda.  This is from 994 but was supposedly taken over by the jungle and not rediscovered until the British put the railway through in 1890.  It is one of the largest reclining Buddhas in the world.

Mon house made of reeds
We were still behind schedule and decided to skip the market in favor of the Mon village, the only village of this tribe in the area and known for its weaving.  We wanted to see it before it was spoiled by tourists, since the next few years are probably going to bring big changes to Burma.  Alas, it was a holiday and almost everyone had gone to the temple.  We got to walk around the village and see the houses and dormant weaving equipment, but it was sadly flat with no people there.




Our last stop was at the War Memorial Cemetery on the way back to the ship.  It has 2700 graves of Allied Forces fallen in WWII.  It is beautifully kept up.  It flunked as a loo stop, though, as only one toilet, and that didn't flush.



WWII allied graves


War memorial
We got back just in time for dinner on the ship.  Out of ten hours on the tour, six were spent driving to and from Bago.  I saw few monks, Mons, and have burnt feet.  Not the best day.


Monday, February 25, 2013

TO MYANMAR


We had a smooth sail from Singapore through the Straits of Malacca to the Andaman Sea, then up the Irawaddy River Delta to Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the capital of Myanmar (formerly Burma).  On the way to Burma we had a memorial service for the professor who died in Shanghai.  This consisted of the ship doing an infinity pattern on the ocean and the passengers and crew throwing out red roses into the wake.  Quite remarkable, but hopefully not something I will do again. 

Burma just recently opened to American tourists.  The former socialist government wanted to wipe out traces of colonization so changed the names back to pre-British ones, but the people still use the old names.   They even changed the road right of way from left to right in the 60's.  Even today most of the cars on the road have right hand drive, so the driver is on the same side as the curb.  

This country was a British colony for 100 years until the Japanese took over in WWII.  They achieved independence under General Aung Son, but he and his cabinet were assassinated soon after. 
  The military took over and ruled with an iron hand for 40 years, during which the economy was mainly driven by nepotism and cronies of the military.  They kept Aung Son Soo Ki, the daughter of the late general, under house arrest for 20 years, during which she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  She missed seeing her daughters grow up and her husband pass away in England while she remained in Burma.  During this time the world, with the exception of China, pretty much boycotted Burma due to human rights issues.  The government finally allowed elections for 55 seats out of 600 in the parliament in 2011, and 50 of those went to Aung Son Soo Ki's National League for Democracy.  The next elections will be in 2015, and hopefully the country will go further into democracy if the military does not crack down on it.

The government is now considered a semi-democracy.  Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have visited in the past year, and the US Chamber of Commerce is here this week.  Four Burmese banks have just been approved for financial dealings with US banks, so money should start flowing.  Most of the major hotels here used to be owned by cronies, but there are now very nice hotels run by foreign companies.  They had one million tourists last year and expect nine million in 2020.  There is a lot of discussion on how to grow responsible tourism without damaging the beauty and cultural heritage of the country.  They don't want a lot of cheap "backpacker" type hotels and become like Thailand, so licenses to accommodate foreigners are controlled.

We were supposed to dock at 8 a.m., but they delayed us till 4 p.m. so they could dredge the river.  It seems very shallow as we were sure churning up a lot of mud on the way in.  There is no way they could take in large cruise ships.  We did not clear customs till about 6 p.m., so I will start my adventure in Burma tomorrow.