Myanmar in Snapshots

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Sunrise Over Bagan

Beautifully chaotic and deeply fascinating, Myanmar (Burma) is like no place else I have ever been. Off limits to foreigners for decades and with travel and information still largely controlled and restricted by the fists of the government, discovery often comes as quick glances and snapshots in time. Travelers here are welcome, but are largely held at a distance by the locals with an underlying caution, anxiety, and perhaps a little bit of suspicion. Individual interactions tend to be transactional, always with eyes averted and with very soft voices indeed. Seldom are conversations with outsiders or foreigners extended beyond need which can initially come across as a rushed indifference. This is not to suggest that the Burmese are not warm nor engaging (they are quite the opposite, but more aptly, as a society and culture they are quite insular.

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Quiet Study

Travel in Myanmar is not easy. In fact it is often difficult, uncomfortable, and certainly not for the faint of heart, the feeble of body, nor the weak of stomach. People are desperately poor and very young children work 12 hour days in the streets and on trains. The air tastes dirty. The infrastructure that exists is crumbling and getting sick is inevitable (they call it Burma Belly for a reason). Yet the landscape is incredibly beautiful, the sheer size and scale of religious sites and buildings is completely overwhelming, and the way of daily life is staggeringly hard. Three and a half months in the surrounding regions and I think it is fair to say, that no stop quite prepared us for the immersion into Myanmar. It is so vastly different culturally, religiously, and economically from its neighbors that in spite of a relatively short distance traveled to reach it, Myanmar very much feels worlds away.

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Morning Catch, Inle Lake

Night buses took us from Yangon to Bagan, Bagan to Kalaw. Our feet took us onwards to Inle Lake and then a final hurrah on the night bus back to Yangon. exhausting and bumpy are the two words that come to mind. Along with hell froze over. As the planes in Myanmar have a tendency to fall apart and on occasion have fallen out of the sky, night bus travel was an unavoidable evil.

At least there were no babies to step on this time.

SNAPSHOTS

Early morning ride on the Yangon Circle Train

Daily life unfolds inside and outside the windows of this rickety old narrow gauge commuter railway.  For three hours the train continuously rocks and rambles, covering the 45.9 km of track and 39 stations that form a circular loop around Yangon. The full ride costs under $1.00 and passes from city to village to countryside and back again. Each stop brings an exchange of people along with the myriad of things that they carry, lug, sell, eat, and sort in the carriage. I chose not to photograph any of the children at work on the train.

As seen on the streets of Chinatown, Yangon

Chickens. And their heads, their feet, and all of their other parts in between. Alive, dead, cooking, and consumed, it all happens on the crowded and hot streets of Chinatown. Nothing quite prepares one for the assault on the senses and there is no greater motivation to become a vegetarian.

 

The long walk to Inle Lake

The 40k walk from Kalaw to Inle Lake winds through the rural villages, over hills, and through many fields. Farming tools and techniques are as they were in the 19th century. Carts are pulled by oxen, wheat is cut by scythe, and the harvest is carried on back and by hand.

 

Like nowhere else at all

Peace out Myanmar

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I left my heart in Cambodia

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Battambang, Cambodia

More specifically in Battambang.

Eight hours north of Phnom Penh (the fascinating waterfront capital that is undergoing a rapid transformation entirely fueled by mounds of foreign investment), three hours west of Siem Reap (exploding boomtown that is the gateway to the temples of Angkor Wat), Battambang is a small city that feels more like a large town. It is fantastically dusty, has a burgeoning art scene, and it is architecturally interesting.  When the full sun hits the colonial era buildings, the effect is distinctively Hopper. Soulful, lonesome, melancholy, if it were anywhere elsewhere, Battambang would be the perfect setting for the great American novel.

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Chinese shopfront-style buildings of Battambang

A chapter could easily be written for every street corner of Battambang and the colorful residents would no doubt be an endless source of inspiration. Tuk-tuk drivers spend much of the day sitting idle, whistling and calling at locals and visitors, in search of a fare. Say no once, they try again. Say no twice, well, you have three more times to go until they truly believe you might just wish to take a stroll on your own two feet. During the heat of the day their motivation vanishes and they line up on the side of the road by the riverbed, napping in hammocks underneath the trees.

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Going nowhere fast in Battambang

On the main road of Battambang, past the traditional Chinese medicine shops and the school that is in a perpetual state of recess, a row of barbers cut hair on the street. I’m not entirely sure if an appointment is necessary, but if you find yourself in pants that are to long while waiting, you can step into a nearby doorway where five little ladies sit, their foot pedal sewing machines ready to make a new hem. Amble on a bit further to reach the by day antiques and curiosity shop that by night, transforms into a bar and boutique hotel. Owned by an eccentric and lovely Australian ex-pat couple with the gift of gab, the scene inside is a comedy unto itself. Oh the stories they do tell about the going on’s in Battambang.

Of the local art scene, Phare Ponleu Selpa, is the anchor. Based in Battambang, the performance complex and associated art school grew out of the post-Khmer Rouge era refugee camps and is a source of pride not only in the city but for the entire nation of Cambodia. Need some inspiration in your life?  Watch a cast of fifteen and sixteen year old students perform a full length circus that they have written, choreographed, and scored that fully resonates with an international audience. And this is without the benefit of fancy costumes or elaborate props. This same spirit spills over into other visual art forms filling the streets with galleries and cafe’s.

And did I mention that there is also a bamboo train?

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All aboard the bamboo train!

A 45 minute joyride to nowhere and back that is hysterical, ridiculous, and just simply fun. Locally called the norrie, the train consists of a bamboo platform set on two sets of thingy’s that resemble barbels and is powered by a guy and his small motor stuck on the back. With a little bit of an incline, the train can get up to at least 35 mph. It runs on a single track that serves traffic in both directions. When two trains converge on the same spot, one direction must jump off and their train gets fully disassembled. Once one passes, the undone train gets put back together again.

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Giving the right of way

Is it safe?  Definitely not.  Is it fun? Absolutely!!!!!!

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Have you heard the one about the 5 monks riding a bamboo train?

 

 

 

Sojourn to Singapore

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Singapore!

After you experience food poisoning, there is a stretch of time that you lose all sense of logic and reason. Blame it on dehydration, but at the time booking plane tickets for a two-hour flight to Singapore, in order to avoid a four-hour ferry ride to Phuket seemed perfectly reasonable.  This is especially true if you are someone who was born to have feet on land and land only (even with fistfuls of Dramamine and an arm full of pressure point sea-bands), where any crossing that does not require an open sea is particularly enticing. And so began a very long day that had us on just about every form of transportation available to mankind…starting with an early morning tuk-tuk, followed by an overpacked minivan, then said minivan on a ferry-boat (15 minutes across the channel), a plane, a bus, and finally ending with a train.  After a full eight hours of transport, I’m still pretty convinced that it was an upgrade.

Oh, but the destination point was Singapore! A modern metropolis in all respects and after two and a half months in the netherparts of South East Asia, even more of a spectacular vision of utopia. The streets are immaculately clean (as in if you were to drop a piece of sushi on the ground, you could pick it up and eat it-well past the 5 second rule-and no we did not attempt this),the public transportation is easy and efficient (attention MTA, you should be embarrassed), and above all else, the Singaporean’s are diverse, engaging, and incredibly helpful (if you look lost or unsure of your way, at least three people will fall over themselves to assist) (note to self: good karma to repay, no longer growl at tourists in the way on the streets of NYC, or at least try not to, for a week).

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Chinatown is sparkly clean!

Arriving in the few days before the start of Chinese New Year, the city was decked out in red and gold (including giant inflatable roosters everywhere) and by chance we stumbled upon a number of colorful rehearsal parades (with funky floats and neon inflected dance routines). It all felt a little bit magical.

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Year of the Rooster

In a weekend we managed to pack in a trip to the famous Singapore Zoo (amazing!), a walk around the orchid gardens , replaced the infamous green tea toothpaste with actual mint, and indulged in some very overpriced but needed western / hipster food. One cannot underestimate the spiritual impact that cloth napkins, a couple of taco’s, and a few budget busting margaritas can have after a 75 day diet of street noodles and rice.

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Hipster Party

And I’ll spare you a few paragraphs on the joy of simply running a toothbrush under the sink tap instead of a bottle of water (which incidentally never has enough water left in it to do the job properly).

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A tiger is a more interesting photo than a toothpaste tube.

Leaving with a little more bounce in the step than we had on arrival (and a much lighter wallet), onwards we go for the next leg of our journey…Cambodia.

#truthoflongtermtravel (edition 4)