Day two in Myanmar and I was finally being stared at again! Even though I complained every day in China when the locals stared at me, I missed it when I left. There are so many tourists in Thailand that I wasn’t looked twice at. The most attention I could hope to get was from a tuk tuk driver trying to rip me off. I was nothing special. But here in Yangon people were interested in me–kids wanted to sell me postcards, diners watched me walk past, fruit vendors smiled.
Although Myanmar borders Thailand it couldn’t be more different. Men wore longyi, the sarong-like “skirt” and women didn’t wear pants. The men were thinner and women were heavier. One Chinese tourist told me that he had come to find a wife because the women had more curves. I was fascinated by the streets of Yangon, watching old men inspect jewels on the street corner next to my hotel and children playing soccer in-between passing cars. Click here to watch kids playing soccer below my hotel during the night. (Quicktime 1.4 mb)
I had saved an entire day for The Shwedagon Paya, Myanmar’s holiest Paya or Buddhist temple. After a breakfast buffet on the roof of my hotel I met a German man named Lutz who was heading in the same direction. Together we walked to the market, looking for the local bus that would take us North to The Shwedagon. It didn’t take too long before we flagged one down and tried to climb in the back. The man collecting fares directed us to the cab next to the driver–quite an honor. Jumping out, our money was refused and we headed toward The Shwedagon.
We could see the huge stupa rising up on the street in front of us, but decided to step into another paya along the way which looked interesting. The Maha Wizaya Paya was a newer building with entrance arches covered in surreal depictions of Buddha’s life. The circular corridor was lined with glass cases depicting the great cities of Myanmar, including Bagan and Inwa. What made this stupa special was the hollow center. Most stupas contain a relic (a tooth or hair from Buddha) in the center, which is covered and built upon. Local citizens contribute a large amount of their own money to construct payas, although some are fully funded by the government or a wealthy patron. By giving money a person is attempting to gain merit for themselves and their families in their next lives. I believe there a relic in this stupa but people could get close, sit around the center and pray.
Psychedelic mural at Maha Wizaya Paya
The area I was staying in Bangkok was a backpacker’s haven. The streets were littered with internet cafes, CD sellers, tailors and restaurants serving “American Breakfast.” Because of this, I was able to book a spot on a bus to the airport for a lot cheaper than a taxi. After checking out of my hotel I sat down in the restaurant downstairs on the street and waited for my bus. And I waited. I waited 45 minutes before I started to worry. One thing that traveling in 33 countries has taught me is patience. Finally, I flagged a taxi to take me to the airport, worried that I would miss my flight. I had heard horror stories about the traffic and, looking at my watch I started to curse my patience. Even the taxi driver yelled at me for waiting so long.
The flight over was quick, and amazingly I was served a steaming hot entree which took up most of my time on the flight. Passing through customs was easy and the guard refused to let me declare my laptop. I had heard that there can be problems with higher-end electronics (the government thinks you’re a spy) and it was best to declare them. I don’t know if things have changed so much since I had heard that advice or if the guard was just lazy, but my beautiful white iBook stayed in my bag. I eyed my fellow passengers in baggage claim, trying to decide the best candidate to bum a ride with. No one was very friendly so I wandered outside alone, passing by the empty FEC exchange booths. Up until a few years ago foreigners were required to exchange $500 USD worth of money into FEC notes. They were basically like certificates you could exchange for goods in the tourist sector, mainly hotels. The practice has been discontinued and anyone who changes money at an official money changing station is a fool because the official exchange rate is almost half of the black market rate. Standing outside I asked a girl about my age what a good price for a taxi was and she offered me a ride. She worked for a NGO and was being picked up by her driver–sounded good to me!
I’ve been very busy here in Bangkok, I hope everyone’s keeping warm in the Northern hemisphere. Tomorrow morning I leave for Myanmar again, this time via Rangoon. The internet situation there sounds a bit iffy so sit tight!
Ideally I would have taken the 6 am bus from Chiang Rai to the border town of Mae Sai to enter Myanmar. Instead, I got on the bus around 8 am and didn’t arrive at the border until midday. Both sides were teaming with stalls selling everything from souvenirs to spices. (more…)
I was sitting very comfortably in Chiang Mai, Thailand eating ice cream and pizza when I looked at a map. I suddenly realized that Myanmar was only 1.5 hours away! The next day I was on standing in immigration wondering if it might be possible to get a 5-day visa. After four offices, three photos of myself, two hours and ten U.S. dollars I was free to visit Myanmar. Except for the fact that I was only allowed to go as far as the city of Kengtung three hours away, that I had to surrender my passport at the border and that I had to go out into the city, find a driver and bring him back to get verified to drive me.
Although the journey there and back was filled with red tape and no less than five police checkpoints (to register the foreigner’s movements), it was worth it. The people in Kengtung were happy and smiling and excited to see me. Old women in the small towns I bicycled to as well as little kids appered giddy to see a foreigner. One woman even invited me in to eat with her friends. I’ll write a little more when I get the photos ready but I’m back in touch and heading over to Chiang Mai tomorrow morning.