Tag Archives: Burma

Elections

Standard

As mentioned in my first Myanmar post, I was a bit nervous traveling to a country whose government has such a violent and oppressive reputation.

And of course, they would be having by-elections during my visit.

While everybody said election time should be safe, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. This would be the third time in more than 20 years Myanmar had a democratic election, and only two years since the military government transformed into a “civilian” government, still led by former military men. Furthermore, this would be the first time Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party would be running for office since “The Lady” was put under house arrest in 1989 and her party’s landslide 1990 election victory nullified by the military junta.

Curious? Yes. But very, very concerned…

In the weeks leading up to the election, we saw campaigning throughout Myanmar, and it was fascinating. Parades of trucks drove through small towns bearing loudspeakers and loads of people, all wearing NLD t-shirts and all with big smiles on their faces. Campaign tables sold t-shirts, buttons and flags bearing the red NLD slogan and faces of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, as well as her father General Aung Sang, heralded by many as the father of modern day Myanmar.

Myanmar Elections - Kalaw

National League for Democracy campaigning in Kalaw

As the world watched (foreign observers being allowed in for the first time), the NLD succeeded in winning 43 out of the 44 seats it contested and largely without problems. While the win only gives the NLD a small minority in Myanmar’s still military party-dominated parliament, it does give them a foot in the door and a voice unheard for the past 20 years.

Unfortunately, I was caught in a 12-hour bus to Yangon on the day following elections, but when I did finally reach the city I still found plenty of activity happening in the NLD headquarters. While the immediate celebrations had finished, dozens of people still loitered both inside and outside the building, while supporters continued to sell NLD t-shirts and other items outside. In fact, vendors all throughout the city were selling NLD t-shirts, something that would have been unheard of, even illegal, just a few months beforehand.

Myanmar Elections - NLD Headquarters

NLD supporters outside the party’s headquarters in Yangon

While speaking with supporters outside, one girl invited me to an election celebration to be held the following day in a town nearby. Between her broken English and our rushed conversation, I really had only a 30 percent idea of what was actually going on the next day. All I knew was I had an address scribbled on a piece of paper written in English and Burmese with instructions to arrive around 9 a.m. the next morning.

Somehow the next day, I managed to convince my friend Gloria plus two random strangers to share a taxi with me to the middle of nowhere to take part in a random event I vaguely understood. And the experience was unforgettable.

An hour from Yangon, we found ourselves in North Okkalapa, a small, poor village and hometown of Naing Ngan Lin, the NLD winner of Dakkina Thiri, one of the constituencies of Myanmar’s capital city, Nay Pyi Taw. We had been invited to his post-election party.

When we arrived in the town, Naing Ngan Lin and about 50 friends, family and supporters were eating and celebrating in a small restaurant in town. As the only foreigners, we were quickly made the center of attention, with everyone, including Naing Ngan Lin himself, eager to speak with us.

Naing Ngan Lin

Naing Ngan Lin and his family

Naing Ngan Lin had an interesting story.

He told me he had been involved in politics for the past seven years, though mostly as part of a separate democratic party, the United Front of Burmese Activists for Democracy, before choosing to join the NLD.

His main contribution, however, were his schools.

Walking through Northokkalapa, rundown houses stand on stilts standing above mucky water and garbage-covered dirt, while children and stray animals run freely throughout. While money was clearly an issue, one woman told me that many children could not attend school, because they had to stay home and take care of their younger brothers and sisters while both of their parents were at work.

Northokkalapa, Myanmar

Northokkalapa

Naing Ngan Lin’s goal had been to build free schools for children who could not afford to attend the government schools, and he had created five schools to date.

But Naing Ngan Lin’s political activities had made him a suspicious figure by the government for years. In fact, he told me he had been arrested twice, first in 2006 for suspicions that a foreign teacher had been illegally giving scholarships for his school (which Naing Ngan Lin said was false) and second in 2009 for “no reason” one day outside an Internet café. Naing Ngan Lin said, though treated well, he was detained for two months the second time and only released after American Senator Jim Webb’s high profile visit to the country in 2009.

Even during his legal campaign for his NLD seat, Naing Ngan Lin told me two of his campaign workers had been threatened, though none of that seemed to faze him. His sights were set on the future. Now, he said, his constituency had two main problems: access to clean water and consistent electricity, and he told me he planned to build a new well.

Leaving Northokkalapa, I was grateful I had taken that random taxi to the middle of nowhere and gotten just a little piece of what these historic elections are like for people on a more intimate level.

While it’s only been a few months since the elections, things have already started changing for Myanmar, with both the European Union and the United States lifting some of its sanctions against them. Though only small steps so far, I will be very eager to see what happens next…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Breathtaking Bagan

Standard

There are a few times in life when everything just seems to come together to create a truly incredible experience. For me, that was Bagan.

Situated in Western Myanmar, Bagan is THE destination to visit in Myanmar and definitely a highlight of all Southeast Asia. While itself just a small town, Bagan is famous for having possibly the world’s most concentrated collection of temples, pagodas and stupas, most dating from the 11th- 13th centuries. In fact, more than 2,500 temples are scattered among a 13 by 8 km area, leaving endless opportunities for exploration.

While in itself Bagan is a spectacular destination, what really made the experience incredible were the people. For this trip, I was able to meet up with my former India travel buddies, Gloria and Sirisha, as well as a few new friends, Waldo, James and Tom. Together, the six of us spent an incredible three days, cycling around the temples, arguing over what time to get up for sunrise, getting lost and, eventually, cycling back together, four out of six bikes with flat tires (a special thank you to Waldo for cycling back with me in the back seat WHILE carrying my bike when both my tires went flat!). There were also plenty of fun non-temple moments, watching movies, cutting up “80s” t-shirts, and making a strange pact to volunteer to dig up dinosaur bones in Utah with the paleontologists we met at breakfast…

At the end of the day, Bagan is much better seen than described, and below I have the best pictures of the temples, and fun, of Bagan.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Bridge Over Troubled Water

Standard
Bridge Over Troubled Water

A close friend of mine always says no matter how stressed out I get, things always have a tendency to work out for me. Sometimes I think he’s right.

After having spent an incredible few days in Kyaukme, a small Shan town in northern Myanmar, I headed to Mandalay to meet up with some friends. As Myanmar’s second largest city, Mandalay is noisy, dirty and, frankly, one of my least favorite places in Myanmar. It’s real draw, however, are the ancient cities surrounding it, especially Sagaing, Inwa and Amarapura, home of U Bein’s Bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge.

My friends James and Tom and I decided to share a taxi for the day and hit all three cities together, ending with a spectacular sunset viewing off the bridge.

We hiked up the endless stairs of Sagaing Hill and viewed the stunning interconnected monasteries below. Then we took a boat and headed to Inwa, my favorite, where we took a horse-drawn carriage past endless sunflower fields to view the town’s ancient temples. Unfortunately, as I stood poised to capture a particularly beautiful temple, I heard my camera beep and watched my lens sink back to the base in exhaustion. I had forgotten to charge my battery the night before.

Inwa

Inwa

While I kicked myself for my mistake, James and Tom graciously shared their cameras with me, allowing me to use my memory card so I could take my own pictures. Though it wasn’t a super easy situation, I thought it was a pretty neat trick.

After a busy day climbing steps and walking around villages, our exhausted bodies were ready for a relaxing evening in Amarapura where we could enjoy a peaceful sunset off the bridge.

“Peaceful” ended up being the least accurate word I could use to describe that evening.

Upon arrival in Amarapura, James and Tom headed off to travel the length of the bridge, while I decided to grab a snack before sunset. As I sat down to a steaming plate of deep fried corn (snack options were limited), I met Marcus, a solo traveler from Toronto and struck up a conversation.

When sunset approached, Marcus and I headed for the bridge together, making our way down the 1.2 km bridge to join the hundreds of other tourists who had also come to watch the sunset. I had told Marcus about my camera battery situation, and he generously offered to share his photos with me via email later on.

U Bein's Bridge

U Bein's Bridge, the world's longest teak bridge

But as I looked around at the boats, the people, the water and the sinking sun, I didn’t want someone else’s pictures. I wanted my own. So I asked Marcus if he would mind if I borrowed his camera for a few minutes just to take some photos with my own memory card, and he agreed.

Despite the fact we were standing over a wooden bridge amidst a moving crowd, neither one of us thought perhaps exchanging 32mm x 24mm memory cards might be a bad idea. And sure enough, the second I removed the card from the camera a man bumped into me, and it dropped from my fingers.

As I watched the card slip through the wood cracks, I saw every single non-backed up memory of my incredible experiences in Kyaukme and the Shan villages slip away into the green waters below. Unlike all of my other Myanmar adventures, my trip to the north had been solo.

I’m pretty sure my heart stopped for a full minute, which is especially bad when the whole scene appeared to be in slow motion.

In my shock, I turned to Marcus for confirmation that this horrible stupid thing did happen.

“Did you see that? That old man bumped into me. It’s gone now, right? Like, I can’t get it back, right?”

As he stared back at me, equally shocked, my heart sank. My card, though in itself was relatively worthless, contained all the evidence I had of my experience in Kyaukme. And it was a goner.

I stood there, eyes popped in disbelief when suddenly, a beacon of hope: a monk.

“Excuse me, Miss, I help you?”

The monk had seen everything, and though his English was limited, told me the water below was relatively shallow, and I might be able to fish the card out.

I jumped up excitedly, “Yes, yes!”

As I looked around for the best way to get down, I heard the monk speak to a local boatman below about the situation, and he too agreed to help.

I instantly went into super focus mode. By the look of the sun, I had about 15 minutes left until sundown, when all would be lost. Even if the card was retrievable, this was a race against the clock.

I immediately shot off, gaining an incredible second wind that allowed me to dodge people, leap over obstacles and round off back handspring back to land (more or less ;)). Once there, I realized how far along the bridge I had been and began the awkward walk through the dried plants back in the direction I’d come from to find the closest place from which to wade.

When I finally reached the location (luckily Marcus had stayed to mark the place where I had dropped the card), I was relieved to find the boatman was already in the water scooping with his fingers in the muck below.

As much as I’d like to say I jumped right out there and joined him, I must admit, I had a moment of princess, er, I mean panic… That water looked nasty, and I began to wonder about diseases, infection and any unwanted surprises in general. But I couldn’t let a random stranger remedy my bad judgment without me, so I hiked up my pants, dropped off my purse (my protective traveler instinct wondering if my bag was safe on shore) and waded in.

I kept my memory card in focus while I walked through the unnaturally green, toxic-looking lake. As I sunk my hands into the mud below, pulling up mostly shells, I gritted my teeth and prayed these would be the worst of my findings.

But as my friend predicted, just a few minutes later, my luck returned. The boatman had succeeded and stood, holding out my tiny blue card for me to retrieve.

Memory Card Saved

Memory Card Saved!

I don’t know if I was more elated to have found the card or shocked that we had actually managed to rescue it. All I know is I began jumping up and down and threw my arms around the boatman in a big, awkward thank you hug, which was quickly rescinded seeing his discomfort (cultural barriers, whoops :/).

Memory Card Rescuers

Me and My Heroes!

When asked what they would save if their house was on fire, people almost always say they’d grab their photo albums. I suppose memory cards, hard drives and CDs are our modern day equivalent, and it’s not until these things are in jeopardy that we realize just how precious they are.

I think now, I’m always going to back up ;).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Off the Beaten Track

Standard
Off the Beaten Track

I had barely awoken from a nap when two energetic young adults jumped into my carriage and asked if they could practice English with me.

In my groggy state, my immediate reaction was to avoid aggressive, young Asians, who usually had an ulterior motive or sale up their sleeves. But then I remembered I was in Myanmar, a gentle country, largely isolated from much of the world, and relaxed.

“Ok,” I replied.

I looked around and realized, despite having already traveled six and a half hours by train from Pyin U Lwin, we were only in Kyaukme, a small town still 20 miles away from Hsipaw, my final destination. I recognized the town from my guidebook, an alternative jumping off point to go trekking in the Shan state, which it had described as “far off the beaten track.” While this had initially interested me, the nice lady at the travel agency in Mandalay had quickly dismissed the idea, saying there was nothing to do at Kyaukme, and Hsipaw was the far better option.

To be fair, I had never really wanted to go trekking to begin with. But I had three days to kill before meeting up with my friends in Mandalay, and after months of playing it safe, I thought it might be a good idea to push my travel limits a little bit and try a destination less well-known.

As I began to chat, I remembered to speak slowly as we covered the basics: Where are you from? What is your name? What do you do?

The two, a 20-year-old boy and a 19-year-old girl, were students at one of the town’s English schools. Every night, they joined a handful of others in the small schoolhouse to learn English with one of the town’s few English speakers, other locals like themselves who’d taken great pains to learn English on their own. Not native English speakers themselves, the teachers encouraged the students to talk with Western visitors during the 30-minute train stop on the way to Hsipaw.

As the conversation continued, another teenager joined our group, and I immediately noticed his English was much more advanced than his peers. John was a university student studying English who worked part time as a tour and trekking guide to the few tourists who make it to Kyaukme. From the off-handedness of the information, I knew he wasn’t trying to sell me anything, yet there was something about him and this small town that interested me more. Small, soft-spoken with carefully-placed “messy” black hair, John looked younger than his 19 years. But his direct, yet polite, demeanor revealed a young man with big plans for himself. I pulled out my guidebook as we continued to chat, searching again for why I had planned on going to Hsipaw. Markets, temples, hills, Hsipaw had lots of attractions listed, while Kyaukme literally had none. I sighed. I liked these guys, but I was going to have to give Kyaukme a miss.

But as I heard the train horn sound to leave, something inside me changed. Before I realized what I was doing, I heard myself say, “Ok, I’ll stay!” and the boys quickly helped me grab my backpacks, as we scrambled off the train.

No guidebook, no fellow travelers, no recommendations, I had no idea what I was getting in to. But I was ready for adventure.

A small village in the eastern part of central Myanmar, Kyaukme has only one guest house licensed to host tourists, and John offered to drive me the short distance on his motorbike. As we rounded the corner to the guest house entrance, he pointed to the young man across the street chatting with an older white couple and told me that was his English teacher, Joy.

With only a few English schools in town, none with native speakers, Joy asked if I would mind dropping in to class to speak directly with the students, and I was happy to oblige.

Later that night I found myself at the “Best Friend English School,” a small classroom in a building in town. As John and I walked in, I realized I was interrupting a lesson on articles of clothing. About 10 students sat in long, rectangular tables facing their teacher who pointed to a pair of pants and a belt buckle drawn on the chalk board.

But despite his own lesson, the teacher warmly welcomed me to the class and immediately pushed me to the front to speak to the students directly.

As I stood in front of them, a bit nervous at first, I was greeted by a sea of smiling faces and a cup of tea. A fairly even mix of men and women stared back at me, all ranging from older teenagers and college students to young adults with established jobs or families.

I really had no idea what I was doing, so I decided to start slowly and see where things went. After a short introduction, the girls especially, seemed very interested in knowing about my life, and I found myself answering questions about my age, what I did, my marital status and what I thought of Myanmar. At some point, I found myself drawing a mitten on the chalkboard surrounded by some half-haphazard wavy lines as I pointed to my hometown(s) and explained Michigan’s shape, lakes, industries and surrounding states.

Kyaukme English School

Me with the students at “Best Friend English School” in Kyaukme, Myanmar

My second visit to the English school took me a little by surprise. Instead of a Michigan geography lesson, this time the teacher asked if I would teach the students a song. Luckily for them, I’m a bit of a diva ;).

Perhaps I was a little homesick, or maybe I just thought a sweet tune with simple, happy lyrics would be a great tool for teaching English, but the next thing I know I’m belting out “My Girl” by the Temptations and pointing to the words I’d scribbled on the board. To my delight, the students really seemed to enjoy themselves, and I got them to do a pretty good rendition of it, if I say so myself. It made me really happy to be able to share a little bit of my home state with them, even if it was in the form of a Motown song that came out 20 years before I was born :P.

Though I enjoyed teaching at the school, I had other ideas on how to spend my time in Kyaukme. As part of the volatile Shan state, the town is only a few hours away from some of Myanmar’s ethnic fighting between the Burmese state and the Shan people, fighting for greater autonomy.

While I was not interested in getting too close to the fighting, I was curious to explore one of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities and see how an entirely different group of people live among a controversial and repressive military regime.

To my delight, John was free to take me to the Shan mountain villages, and since he had his motorbike, I did not have to go trekking after all. It was perfect!

The next day, as promised, John met me bright and early for our journey to the Shan villages. Our plan was to visit three villages that day, sleep over in the last town and return to Kyaukme the next morning.

Helmets on, backpacks attached, we rode through the mountains past endless green rice paddies, grazing water buffalo and children playing in the fields. Surprisingly, we did not pass many other travelers on our two-hour long journey, though the all-encompassing dust resulting from the villagers’ annual burning season let us know that we were far from isolated.

Shan Mountains

Reaching our first destination, I discovered a scene that would repeat itself throughout the subsequent Shan villages. All around, wooden houses with corrugated tin roofs dotting along the windy, dirt road that looped its way through town. Tea leaves lay on mats outside, drying in the sun, as John explained that nearly every villager was a tea farmer. While largely quiet, men worked outside, chopping up bamboo stalks for building or weaving, while women took care of the housework, washing clothes, weaving fabric or preparing food. Nearby up the hill, children gathered in the village’s lone school house, repeating the chanting of the monks to learn their native Shan language.

In the middle of town, a small shop sold snacks, drinks and basic necessities, where adults and children alike gathered to pick up supplies, have a drink or simply to visit. And resting quietly at the top of every village lay a gold-covered pagoda, the town’s center for worship and most sacred point.

Kyaukme Pagoda, Myanmar

On my trip, John took me to visit several families he knew. While communication was limited, these people graciously invited me into their homes, offering me tea and sunflower seeds while I explored their houses. Surprisingly large, the wooden Shan houses were often two stories high, comprising of a main room, kitchen and one or two bedrooms containing basic beds or lots of open space for bamboo mats and blankets. Plastic or wooden chairs and tables filled corners, while photos of family members and children fulfilling their traditional monk duties dotted the walls. And in every home, a large cabinet full of Buddhas, flowers, incense and photos served as the family shrine. Out back, basic, outdoor faucets on concrete floors provided running water with wooden outhouses nearby.

Shan House

Inside a Shan House outside in the mountain villages outside Kyaukme, Myanmar

When we reached our final destination, John took me to the home of the village chief who often provided accommodation to the village’s visitors. While he was out of town, his wife made us a simple dinner of rice, eggs, peanuts and a watery vegetable soup. As the power was often out, sunset covered the town in a silent, all-encompassing blackness where even the stars’ vivid brilliance was not enough to keep the town awake.

Around 9:30 p.m. John and I headed up to the second floor to find our pillows, blankets and bamboo mats laid out among those of the female farm hands who come to the village seasonally to pick tea leaves. Despite the early hour, I fell asleep quickly in a surprisingly restful night sleep. Around 5:30 a.m. in a stereotypical rude awakening, the roosters began to crow to signal the start of a new day. While John wasn’t too keen on the early rise, I enjoyed watching the women prepare for their day, saying their morning prayers, combing their hair and carefully applying the bark-based thanaka paste to their faces to protect their skin from the Myanmar sun.

After breakfast, a large spread of noodles, peanuts and eggs, John and I said our goodbyes and began our descent back to Kyaukme.

While I never did make it to Hsipaw, my last-minute journey to Kyaukme ended up being one of the best travel decisions I’ve ever made and a true adventure off the beaten track.

Though I know much of the rest of my travels will include the well-paved and well-shared roads to monuments, big cities and tacky souvenirs, I will be forever grateful knowing there is at least one memory that is all mine.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Myanmar.

Standard
Schwedgon Pagoda, Great Dragon Pagoda, Golden Pagoda

Schwedgon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar. The most sacred pagoda in Myanmar and a national symbol.

I went to Myanmar with low expectations.

Though I’ll admit my knowledge of the political situation was relatively limited, something about the words “Myanmar” or “Burma” sent chills down my spine with ideas of violence, oppression and scary men in military uniform.

As I began to research further for the trip, my fears both soared and subdued, depending on the day and who I was speaking with. On the one hand, stories from other travelers painted a picture of a beautiful country full of beautiful people where mass tourism had yet to leave its mark, where foreigners, especially, had nothing to fear from a country trying to make good with the West.

On the other side, this is a country whose infrastructure and relations with the West are so poor that it doesn’t even have ATMs, a country where travel is restricted to limited government-approved destinations and where locals are forbidden to communicate too closely with outsiders. This is a country where, for the first time I’d come across, Lonely Planet openly encouraged travelers to avoid government-run shops and hotels in order to reduce the amount of money going into the hands of an unlawful, oppressive regime.

And if that weren’t enough, this was a country whose violent past caused my own parents and those of my fellow travelers to worry, insisting on obtaining the contact information and detailed itinerary of every planned location in case of disaster. Oh, and for the first time in more than 20 years, Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s government-opposed National League for Democracy party was going to participate in Myanmar’s by-elections during our trip. Yeah. I was a little bit nervous…

But the minute I landed in Yangon my fears instantly subsided. After months battling aggressive Indians, Thais, Cambodians and other Asians jaded from the commercialization and indulgence of mass tourism, I was amazed to find that the people of Myanmar are some of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Everywhere we went, the Myanmar people went out of their way to greet us, help us or simply to smile at us and, unlike nearly every other Asian country I’ve been to, were willing to bargain fairly without taking advantage of us.

The generosity of the Myanmar people was also incredible. Whether it was having lunch at the home of a family in Yangon that Waldo met on the train, or receiving homemade cigars and flower leis from the old lady on the boat or trying the incredibly popular yet disgusting betel nut with the men at the ticket agency (see video below), the hospitality of the people of Myanmar was extraordinary. My personal experience with a certain monk and boatman who went vastly out of their way to help me after my extremely bad judgment was a particular kindness I will never forget.

As a travel destination, Myanmar is honestly not unlike every other neighboring Buddhist country in Southeast Asia – except with extremely poor infrastructure. Not gonna lie, unless you are extremely patient or really enjoy long, bumpy bus rides, poor Internet connections or frequent power outages, I would not recommend traveling Laos and Myanmar back to back – at least not for seven weeks straight. But once you are there, Myanmar can provide some truly beautiful experiences into an old world whose existence has remained largely untouched by modernity.

The following are a handful of my most memorable experiences in Myanmar.