Not all those who wander are lost.

Myanmar (Burma)

Myanmar Lesson #5 – All Options Have Pros and Cons

Our pre-trip research led us to believe that the bus ride from Inle Lake to the pagoda-studded plains of Bagan would likely end in disaster. Bloggers have described the minibus journey as the worst experience of their lives: 50+ people crammed into 30 seats, choked by dust, suffocated by heat and nauseated by tight turns and projectile vomit. Trip Duration: 12 hours. Yeah, thanks but we’ll pass.

Getting from Point A to Point B anywhere in Myanmar requires an incredible amount of planning, flexibility, and patience. Whether it be by train, boat, plane or bus, the infrastructure is simply not conducive to traveling long distances. Short distances too, for that matter.

The 20mph seven-hour train ride was a perfect example. But in most cases, apart from the discomfort and time, you can assume you’ll arrive safely at your destination. In most cases.

With no train option from Inle Lake to Bagan, we opted to hire a private driver which was cheaper than the flight and faster than a vomit-filled bus. Other bonuses included: leg room, air conditioning, and the flexibility to stop whenever and wherever we wanted. But as always, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Sharing the Road

Burma has a unique driving situation. They kept the colonial-era British cars (driver on the right side), but they drive like Americans & Europeans on the right side of the road. Further complicating matters was the fact that the two-lane roads are home to numerous modes of travel: trucks, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, cars, ox cart, horse carriages, and walkers. Despite the lack of passing lanes and sidewalks, passing was typically an easy affair. To signal our presence and the fact that we wanted to pass, the driver honked his horn (10+ times seemed to be the norm). At that point it’s the responsibility of the slower moving person/vehicle/animal to move to the right or risk getting hit.

Passing a larger vehicle was a bit trickier, especially on a curvy mountain road. Slow-moving buses and trucks often flashed their left-hand turn signal as a way to signal to our driver that the coast was clear to pass. But this was more a friendly gesture than a rule of the road. In the event that the driver in front did not give us the “Okay to Pass” signal, the driver would attempt to pass anyway. It’s a horrible system because the lack of a the turn signal means one of two things: 1) it’s not okay to pass, or 2) I’m not a friendly driver and I can’t be bothered to let you know that the coast is clear.

So what would you do in the following situation: you’re driving on the right side of the car, on the right side of a narrow, curvy, two-lane road and you have a bus in front of you. Do you a) wait for the bus to signal to you that it’s safe to pass, b) ask the passenger on the left to check if the coast is clear, or c) try to pass on your own and cross your fingers?

Clearly option A was not in the cards – there was no telling how long it would be before the road straightened out and we negotiated a flat fee, so the driver was motivated to get us to our destination in the least amount of time. Option B was difficult considering the language barrier, though I think gestures would have been okay in this case; but rather than attempt to communicate, the driver simply continued to chew his betel nut and chose option C, the source of my first grey hairs.

Sharing the Road (2)

Poor Eugenio was sitting in the passenger seat. So as the driver slowly inched into the on-coming lane, completely blind, it was Eugenio that saw first whether or not we were in for a head-on collision.  Lip biting, white-knuckles, breath-holding, sweating, and stomach churning were the norm and for the sake of the sanity of my parents (who do read this blog from time to time), I won’t go into any more detail of that horrific journey.

Let’s just say that we stepped out of the car, ecstatic to be in one piece and with an important lesson learned. Even the vomit-filled bus option had its merit: we wouldn’t have been fearing for our lives.

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Myanmar Lesson #4: Wake Up Early

I am the epitome of a morning grump. I absolutely hate waking up, I hit snooze an embarrassingly high number of times, and if I haven’t had any caffeine, you better not attempt conversation. Regardless of the previous night’s activities or the day ahead, every morning is an uphill battle. It is only because I’m a Gemini that I can also say with a straight face that dawn in my favorite time of the day. It’s the magical moment when the world wakes up, slowly and gracefully transitioning from night to day.

So when the alarm rang on Sunday morning at 5:15am, despite wearing my grumpy pants, I rolled out of bed, put on my layers and braved the frigid walk to the docks (while telling myself, “this better be *#&^-ing worth it”). We climbed into our hired boat and cruised through the fog to the middle of Inle Lake, just in time to see the sun creep over the mountains. Coffee or no coffee, it was the best decision we made during our time in Myanmar.

The combination of the dim, early-morning light and the fog was so surreal that the Intha fishermen, working with their unique rowing technique, looked like ghosts of the past. With one leg planted firmly at the stern, they wrap the other leg around the oar and carefully maneuver the long-bottomed boat. This method leaves their hands free to cast their nets. And the overall effect is mesmerizing.

Inle lake is unusually shallow and reaches its maximum depth of 12ft. (3.5 meters) only during the rainy season. The lake floor is covered with tall reeds, making it difficult to see below the surface. By standing upright the fisherman achieve an angle that enables them to better see any signs of fish hiding in the reeds; and with their hands free, they can act quickly to maneuver their nets.


Myanmar Lesson #3: Slow Isn’t Always Steady

…and it most certainly doesn’t always win the race.

After having spent a week in Myanmar, we were accustomed to the feeling of going back in time. We were used to seeing horse and ox carts on the streets. We had learned not to expect hot water and stable electricity. We weren’t surprised when the bank told us at 10:30am that they were waiting for the official exchange rate from Yangon and so we couldn’t exchange our money. Buses without doors, bathrooms without toilets (just a simple hole), dishes washed in a river or lake, bicycles with sidecars, cars with diesel engines spewing out black smoke…after a while, you adjust.

And that’s precisely when Myanmar throws you another curve ball:

  • The Journey: Nyuang U (Bagan Valley) to Mandalay
  • The Distance: approx 200km (125 miles)
  • Duration: 7 hours
  • Average Speed: 28.5 km/h or 18mph
  • Method of Transport: train
  • Departure Time: 7:00am

Our adventure started at 6:30am at the ticket office inside the Nyuang U train station. It’s not possible to purchase tickets in advance, online or otherwise, but we were told that a half hour was needed to obtain tickets and board the train.  We were only 4th in line, so we had more than enough time, right?

Wrong. 25 minutes and 3 customers later, we approached the window, handed over our passports, held up 3 fingers and said, “Mandalay?” at which point we figured out why this process was painfully slow.  The man behind the counter, working by candlelight, started to handwrite our tickets on carbon copy paper – something I haven’t witnessed in at least 20 years. And since the Burmese alphabet has absolutely no resemblance to our own, watching him write our names and passport numbers in English was nothing but torture. Once at the counter, it took 10 minutes to buy our tickets.

Ticket

Luckily, they held the train for us and for the remaining people in line. We climbed into our “Upper Class” cabin. Normally I don’t splurge on first class treatment, but we heard stories about the normal class: wood benches, enormous bags of produce, seat-less passengers filling the aisles and thereby making the bathroom inaccessible. I could handle that for an hour or two, but 7 hours was a bit much.

We departed after settling into our spacious, permanently reclining seats. And we shortly discovered that no “Upper Class” comfort in the world could have prepared us for this journey.  At times it was like being in bed when my younger sisters were jumping all around me.  At other times it felt like trotting on a horse while swaying side to side like a ship in a storm.  Bumpy, shaky, jerky, rocky, noisy, and likely to cause panic attacks. I took this video in an attempt to capture the motion of the train, this wasn’t even the worst of it:

Why did it take 7 hours to go 200 kilometers?  We had thought it was due to the number of stops, but in reality it was because the train could not physically go any faster without risking derailment. We were lucky that we all have strong stomachs. And thank god we weren’t on wooden benches!!


Myanmar Lesson #2: Watch Your Step

Betel Stained

Both the Thais and the Burmese love to smile, but there is one striking difference. Don’t expect any pearly whites because Burma is a betel-chewing country, and wow does it leave its mark! Described by my boyfriend as “an explosion of spice that gives you a light, airy feeling and makes your mouth go numb,” chewing the betel nut has another side effect: it turns your lips, gums, and teeth red. Luckily for Eugenio, it doesn’t appear to be permanent, at least not for a first-timer.

Betel Nut stand

To fuel the Myanmar’s biggest habit, betel stands are on every street corner and in every market. Operated by one person, each stand contains a pile of bright green betel leaves, a bowl of chopped betel nuts, a jar of slaked lime (used as glue), and several containers of spices including: anise, cardamom seeds, cloves, cumin, cinnamon, rose powder, tobacco, etc. The Chewer approaches the stand and selects his choice of spices, and the Betel Man gets to work. He applies the slaked lime paste to the leaf, places the spices in the middle, carefully folds the leaf into a nice package, and places it in a small plastic bag. Each bag contains 4-5 of these betel packets, to be consumed throughout the day. We were told that similar to smoking, betel-chewing helps curb hunger and keeps you awake.

Street SpitBut the real fun begins after a few minutes when the chewing has stimulated the excess production of saliva. Loogie hocking is apparently a form of art, and the Burmese are professionals. The sound of snorting & gathering of phlegm is constant and the streets, sidewalks, and buildings are covered with these red, chunky splatterings. So you best watch your step.


Myanmar Lesson #1: Use Your Head

When it comes to using your head, Burmese women have got to be some of the most skilled on earth. Anything regardless of shape, size, or weight, could be balanced on their heads and carried throughout town. External distruptions to one’s balance, like a squirming baby or a ridiculously bumpy train (more on this later), didn’t seem to disrupt their poise and elegance. Being the clumsy oaf that I am, all I could do was marvel. And step out of their way.

Here are a few photos I was able to snap on the streets and in the markets throughout the country:


Myanwhere?

Flipping through the first few pages of any guidebook, you’ll usually find some sort of list which explains all the reasons to visit a particular country: art, national parks, museums/monuments,
people, nightlife, traditions, food, etc. I found an exception. The top of page 28 of the Lonely Planet – Myanmar (Burma) reads something like this:

Don’t Visit Myanmar If…

If you don’t like to compromise on such things as food and hotel quality, and/or have a low tolerance for last-minute changes of plan or being denied conveniences such as guaranteed round-the-clock power, use of ATMs and credit cards, your mobile phone and the internet, then perhaps Myanmar isn’t for you.

Call me crazy, but I was intrigued rather than discouraged.  A third world country whose government was determined to isolate its people from the outside world (more on this later)…what would it be like?  What types of customs do the Burmese practice, what traditions do they honor? What do they think of their government, considered to be second only to Somalia as the most corrupt in the world? What do they eat & drink, and how? What do they wear? What is their day-to-day like?  How would they react to me and how could we communicate?  My list of questions and curiosities was endless, and I knew that the answers couldn’t be found without firsthand experience. I needed to see it for myself, so at that point I got my favorite travel buddies on board and booked our flights, unsure of what to expect…

…we returned last Sunday (Feb. 3rd) battered, bruised, exhausted, dehydrated (massive loss of bodily fluids, won’t go into details), and overwhelmed. But I truly believe that the most difficult travel is also the most rewarding; Myanmar was no exception. We took ourselves off the well-trodden, wide, smooth, paved SE Asia Tourist Trail and chose Myanmar’s rocky, narrow, dusty path with blind corners and obstacles around every turn. A very trying adventure, but we were greeted by a people and a way of life that in absolutely no way resembles anything from home (in Italy or the USA). And those experiences, those moments with a beautiful people, made it all worthwhile.