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Trip 10 -- Outer Indochina

Message 4: Yangon to Inle Lake

Date: Sat, 25 Feb 2006 09:36:16
From: seth@sethweinstein.com (Seth Weinstein)
Subject: Indochina update #4: Yangon to Inle Lake

Through a colleague of my mother's, I was fortunate to meet Herve Charbonnel and his wife Si Zan, who work (and met) at the French embassy in Yangon. Herve had come to Myanmar 20 years ago as part of his French civil-service requirement, and he never looked back. They invited me to dinner at their house in Hlaing Township, a few miles north of downtown Yangon.

"We are lucky tonight because we have light," Si Zan said shortly after I arrived.

Herve continued the thought. "I have heard there is a tradition in America to honor Thomas Edison once a year by turning off the electricity." I said I had heard of no such practice. "Well, in any case, here we honor Thomas Edison every other night," he said.

Si Zan was swinging what looked like a tennis racket. "We have many mosquitoes," she explained. Whenever she hit one with the racket, it received an electric zap.

But despite erratic electricity and abundant mosquitoes, it was a beautiful wooden house, way off the main road - Herve had to pick me up as no taxi driver would have been able to find it. We pulled up, and Si Zan secured the two large dogs and opened the sliding get to let Herve's car through.

Dinner was part Myanmar, part French - a cold shrimp-and-cabbage salad, fried fish, rice, and vegetable soup. "If it were really Myanmar," Si Zan said, "it would be more spicy and more oily." These were followed by homemade bread with cheese, and then pomelo (giant grapefruit). I brought some Australian merlot - I'd had four wines to choose from at the little market in Chinatown, two white and two red; the white couldn't have been chilled, and the red was a Bordeaux that looked too cheesy to present to a Frenchman.

In true Myanmar style, we ate the first four items together - the Myanmar people never eat in courses, preferring to take helpings of everything at once. I thought it interesting that Herve ate Burmese-style, fork in the left hand and spoon in the right, using the fork to push everything onto the spoon, while Si Zan, the native from Myanmar, ate mostly with her fork.

They have a ten-year-old daughter, Anne, who attends a part-local, part-international private school - the normal public schools would have been inferior (as they are in so many places), and the more-expensive expat schools would have segregated her from local children her own age. So she gets the best of both worlds, regularly interacting with local and foreign children alike, and at age ten she can already speak French, English, Burmese, Shan (her mother's native language from the north), and Mandarin. She has also been taking piano lessons, and we exchanged concerts.

On my final day in Yangon, I walked a few miles up to the San Pya fish market (I don't know why I have such an affinity for fish markets). This one was more about slicing ice and less about a huge variety of fish being brought in from boats, but it's possible that's because I got there around noon, when there wasn't much activity. Oddly, the little place for lunch behind the market didn't feature fish on the menu, which I found disappointing.

To get back downtown, I wanted to take the "circle line," a sort of slow train that makes a loop around Yangon - and here I encountered another puzzling example of Myanmar bureaucracy. The station closest to the fish market wasn't a major stop, and they couldn't sell me a tourist ticket, so I'd have to go one stop and buy a tourist ticket for $2. (Certain items in Myanmar - hotels, train tickets, and some museum fees - foreigners have to pay for with dollars.) But that wasn't the direction I wanted to go in. However, if I tried to go in the other direction, apparently I'd have to pay $4 as I'd be "fined" for not having a tourist ticket that they couldn't sell me in the first place.

I took the bus instead.

The sleepers had been full when I'd booked my train ticket to Mandalay, but upper class (not to be confused with first class, which is far inferior) was almost as good. I had a lone seat next to the window, and it reclined almost completely. I spent an hour or so in the dining car, which was appropriately dingy and raucous (the best kind) and eventually joined a few locals at their table, until their conversation waned and they started to leave. Then someone spoke to me from the table behind.

"God created the sun, the moon, the earth..." he began.

Why can't I meet normal people on trains, who just want to play cards and drink beer?

"Are you Christian?" he asked.

"Jewish," I replied.

"I haven't heard of it. But I am the sun, I am the earth, I am the moon. I am very poor..." he went on.

And also very alone, a few seconds later.

Mandalay reminded me of Hue - a sprawling but manageable friendly city with a great royal palace. It took a half-hour just to walk along one side of the moat, which is something I had to do to get to the Oriental House dim sum restaurant. Like dim sum places in New York, the dining room was a large banquet hall reached by a long staircase. Unlike dim sum places in the USA, there was just one cart, with about 50 dishes on it, and I walked over to it to pick and choose rather than wait for it to come to me. I was the only diner, even though it was prime dim sum hour - 12:30 on a Sunday. The waiter kept bringing me dishes until I'd tried everything, mainly because he had nothing else to do. The second I was finished with a dish he took it away. When I left, by the time I was halfway down the stairs the hostess had the door open for me, eager for activity.

A banner at the entrance to the palace read: "Tatmadaw [the military] and the people, cooperate and crush all those harming the union." The ticket seller gave me a hard time for not presenting her with a crisp new $10 bill (the $10 palace ticket is also valid for several other sights).

"Please change this money. We cannot accept it." It had been folded and had a small black mark in the corner, visible to anyone with a microscope.

"I'm sorry, but this is what I have."

"This money is for paying hotels. It cannot be used here."

"This money is what your railway office gave me in change!"

"Maybe you can pay in kyat?"

This was an option I hadn't considered, but she wanted 13,000 - a terrible exchange rate. I probably had other $10 bills, but I saw no reason to fumble through all my money. In the end, I made her change a $100 bill, and in return I received $90 of the crispest bills I've ever seen. Besides, it's fun to play with bureaucracy when it can come to no harm and the matter is absurd.

And that incident was just about the most interesting thing about the palace, which was built in 1857 but renovated through forced labor less than ten years ago. The buildings are stately enough, and one contained an interesting museum, but there's not much to look at in most of them - it's as if the king had changed quarters and his moving company had done a very thorough job.

In the evening I saw the Moustache Brothers, a three-man vaudeville troupe famous for having been banned from performing outside their home due to their history of political satire against the government - two of the three were even forced into hard labor for five years as punishment. The "head" guy (at least the night I saw them), Lu Law, was fond of English idioms - when his wife made him mad he would "fly off the handle," and he called her his "pin-up" because her picture appeared on the cover of an old Italian-language Lonely Planet guide to Myanmar. While the show wasn't particularly politically charged, he was very funny, and his wife and a couple of other women performed Burmese dances.

Besides seeing the palace and the Moustache Brothers - and making the half-hour barefoot pilgrimage climb up Mandalay Hill (lined with Buddhist temples and shrines along the way), the best thing to do in Mandalay is get slightly out of town. A few miles south, in the town of Amarapura, is an impressive teak pedestrian bridge dating from 1849 and featuring 1060 posts - a helpful sign indicates the bridge's length as 7.8 furlongs. And a few miles south of that is the old town of Inwa, famous for its teak monastery. Inwa is reached by a ferry at the end of a road flanked by rice paddies, and its principal sights - including the monastery and a 19th-century watchtower that makes the Leaning Tower of Pisa look straight - are best explored by horse cart.

Onward to Bagan - Angkor's contemporary in Myanmar - via a terrible overnight train ride. Here upper class was nothing more than lightly padded, almost-vertical wood seats, and the train alternated between lurching violently from side to side and lurching violently up and down. The lurching was so drastic, in fact, that my backpack, which started the ride sturdily perched on the overhead rack, came falling down about an hour into it; I awoke to see it dangling in mid-air, hanging from the (apparently surprisingly strong) Eagle Creek cable lock with which I'd attached it to the metal bars. Whenever we stopped, loud vendors would surround or board the train and attempt to sell things. How many kyats for some peace and quiet instead?

Whereas the Angkor temples were individually impressive, each unique for its own reasons, the most spectacular thing about Bagan was the collection of them taken in at once. There are about 4000 temples spread out over a couple of hundred square miles. Most are built of brick or stone (or a combination) and have large Buddha statues facing the four cardinal directions; from the 11th to the 13th centuries the temples were built grander and grander, some with several terraces and elaborate paintings on the interior walls. For better or for worse, you can't clamber all over them the way you can at Angkor - I'd have run out of steam quickly.

As at Inwa, the best way to see them is by horse cart (at a measly fee of $6 per day). My driver, Aung Aung, took me around for ten hours with the aid of a horse named Rumple, stopping midway for lunch at a buffet - for just under $2 they bring 21 dishes to your table. We were due at a certain place for the sunset, but we arrived there a bit early, so I took a short walk by myself. I came upon a nondescript temple - Temple No. 1746, if I read the Burmese numerals correctly - that had a few stupas in front of it. It was a perfectly respectable prototype temple, elegant and understated. No one else was there. I could see for miles, the only items visible being the dry grass and the thousands of different-sized, different-color temples poking out at them, like a giant 4000-piece chess game stopped in freeze-frame. A goatherd came by with his herd, and then a cowman came by with his cows, and farther out were the horse carts. And it seemed nothing had changed since the 13th century. Even at night, I dined by candlelight, as the electricity was off. I didn't mind.

An excruciating 12-hour bus ride brought me to Myanmar's fourth main destination: Inle Lake. It was a good place to save for the end, as it's relaxing and peaceful. The main lake is surrounded by little canals which in turn are surrounded by hills. A boatman called Chippy (named for the condition of his teeth) took me around in a canoe along the canals for a full day. He paddled Burmese-style, by standing on one foot at the stern and looping his other leg around a single oar, sort of kicking it backward to stroke. Sometimes he sang as he paddled.

We went seven miles - about two hours - and then stopped at the village of Kaung Daing. It's near a floating garden - two meters of earth in nine meters of water support tomatoes and potatoes. The village itself is known for its rice crackers and dried tofu, both of which make excellent snacks, though I don't envy the people who sit in front of hot stoves all day to make them. We had lunch in one of the bamboo houses; the walls were full of pictures of temples and Burmese women (I'm sure various family members contributed to the collection), and the TV and single light bulb were run off two bread-loaf-sized batteries. After lunch we climbed up a hill for great views of the lake, and then I slept for most of the canoe ride back to the lake's gateway town of Nyaungshwe.

After Inle, my responsibilities on the trip were over; I had only to get home - which for me is as exciting as the destinations themselves. It would be a half-hour pickup-truck ride to Shwenyaung, where I'd catch a local train to Thazi and then an express overnight train back to Yangon, and then I'd fly to New York via Bangkok and Seoul. (I'm writing this in Bangkok, where I have a seven-hour layover.)

I started early Friday morning, leaving my hotel at 6:15. I somehow found a Shwenyaung-bound truck and prepared for a long wait as it was empty, but soon after a canoe appeared with four women and ten large baskets of fish - all going to the Shwenyaung market. A lively man named Maximilian (it wasn't that, but it had about the same number of syllables, and I'd met a Maximilian the previous day so it stuck with me) guided me from the market to the train station.

"Train station?" he asked to confirm. "Quickly, quickly!" he said, and he took off. I had no idea why we needed to rush; I had an hour to get to the station, which was about a kilometer away. He guided me to some trishaw drivers (the Burmese pedicab is basically a bicycle with a sidecar comprising two back-to-back seats).

"No, I want to walk," I said.

"Quickly, quickly! You see the tree? The tree is cold," he said, pointing. It was cool in the morning in Shwenyaung, a couple of thousand feet above sea level.

I was keeping my usual, steady, somewhat-faster-than-most-people pace.

"Slowly, slowly!" he went on, for now he had fallen behind and had to catch up. People waved to him and laughed as he passed - he was quite a character. He pointed out everything - food, animals, vehicles.

"Train station!" he exclaimed as we got there. "Slowly, slowly!" he said, running ahead to the ticket booth.

He put me in a good mood.

The Man in Seat 61 (http://www.seat61.com - a fantastic country-by-country guide to train travel) gave the "Slow Train to Thazi" such a glowing review that I had to take it, even though it's the slowest way to approach Yangon. It started with a fun ordeal involving my upper-class seat (seat A-4 - the same seat as I'd had on my two previous trains, it turns out). The seat back was slightly lopsided when I boarded, but still more or less in place - but then I tried to swivel the seat around as one is supposed to be able to do, partly so I could face forward, and partly so I wouldn't have to share legroom with whoever was going to occupy seat A-3. The swiveling mechanism worked, but there wasn't enough room between the seat and the edge of the train car for it to go fully around, so it got stuck, and when I tried to push it back into place the seat back came off. A couple of the train crew tried to assist with tools (well, a somewhat inexplicable long knife, anyway), showing the eagerness of Boy Scouts intent on displaying how handy they are. After a few minutes the whole seat had disintegrated, and the seat back was relegated to a space behind the seat itself, where - in a manner characteristic of Asia - it provided seating space for three Burmese, as did the seat itself. I was awarded seat A-3, which I got to have to myself.

A mouse was on the train - I saw it a few minutes after we left, trying to pry itself into my backpack. When I did a double-take, it got scared and ran away, but it came back every few minutes to try to see how close it could get.

Eventually my attention was riveted not on the mouse, but on the man who occupied part of the destroyed seat A-4 for the middle third of the 9.5-hour trip to Thazi. It wasn't so much that he snorted, grunted, hocked, and spat, but that he managed to do it all while smoking almost an entire pack of cigarettes. Now for some reason I am able to tolerate a modest amount of cigarette smoke - outside, in well-ventilated bars - but when I'm confined to a seat, even one as stately and well-functioning as seat A-3 on the Slow Train to Thazi, I find it utterly maddening. Many others started lighting up (including, I think, a monk and the man who asked for his ticket), but he was the worst offender. I finally took to sitting on the armrest and keeping my entire upper body out the window, trying to get some air. I figured if I fell out, at least I'd be able to breathe again.

And the scenery wasn't even that stunning. It was pretty enough, with hills and fields and all that good stuff - but it wasn't a patch on the Danang-to-Hue route. The shrubbery was all overgrown and wilted in the dry climate, the only color came from the numerous sunflower patches, and this part of Myanmar is known for its dust. You suck it in all day, it coats your throat, and then you have to wash it down or cough it up. No wonder everyone's always spitting.

Three hours and about 12 cigarettes later, my friend in A-4 left the train. I saw him walking off to the left, and then somehow I heard him on the right. It was a large pig, making exactly the same snorts and grunts.

"You are unlikely to have any difficulty booking an upper class reclining seat on one of the expresses to Rangoon when you get to Thazi," advises the Man in Seat 61. But when I got to the ticket window it was "Only ordinary!"

There was a lot of commotion when the train to Yangon arrived, an hour late. People climbed through the windows to get in and out, and there was a mild stampede for the actual door. It was blocked by large sacks on the ground - people just stepped over them. But strangely, ordinary class - basic wooden slats - wasn't as bad on this train as upper class had been on the train to Bagan. The rails and bogey mechanism were better, so there wasn't as much lurching. Although seats are numbered, it seemed overcrowded, with people sleeping in the aisles and under the seats. I had to move people around on the floor, as if they were boxes, to get to the bathroom - they seemed not to notice.

I had a few hours to kill in Yangon before my series of flights, so I dumped my bag at the May Shan Guest House, where I stayed last week - they really are a friendly bunch there - and walked around, did some shopping, and had a final Shan meal of squid salad and fish curry. Then I boarded a bus to the airport, or most of the way - the "airport bus" actually drops you a 20-minute walk away.

Myanmar was a tough place to leave. It's certainly one of the more colorful places I've been - the images in my mind of men in longyis (long skirt-like cloths worn by almost all men in place of pants), women with thanakha on their faces (ground tree bark used as stylish cooling makeup), and children in crisp white shirts and green longyis crossing the rice paddies on their way to school won't go away easily. The juxtaposition of the repressive regime and the upbeat nature of the people is fascinating. It will be equally fascinating to see how things progress - and hopefully they will, albeit not to the loss of the country's more appealing cultural characteristics.

That said, I've had enough curries for a while - the simple croissant with cheese served on the Myanmar Airways International flight to Bangkok was a welcome change. And I suppose I'm ready to go back to a fast Internet connection, reliable electricity, and a common language with the people with whom I interact.

Until the next trip, of course.