Burmese Days

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Sorry about the title, George Orwell. I (and every other doofus with a blog who’s traveled to Myanmar) just couldn’t help myself.

Although it probably seems like I am never going to stop subjecting you to posts about our endless vacation, the end is, in fact, kind of nigh. This trip had its three-month birthday a few days ago, which means we have only a few more weeks till we finally return to the states. The USA, the Mother Land, O land of family and friends and deep dark delicious beer! But alas, it is also the land of unemployment for the both of us, and one last semester of grad school for me. The clearest sign that the party is over is the fact that I’ve started making Real World to-do lists again. Fortunately for all of us, “finish blogging about Myanmar” comes before “find in-network dentist in Cleveland,” “make LinkedIn account” and “please start drafting Peace Corps paper,” so, let’s do this thing.

How about reverse chronological order?

Bagan

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Temples! Temples, and how. This was our last stop in Myanmar and the one I had been most excited about, back when we were planning this trip. Like Angkor Wat, Bagan is an endless sea of priceless, centuries-old ruins that you are, for some reason, permitted to climb all over like a monkey.

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We stayed for about a week, since the area is huge, dusty and hot, and we wanted to give ourselves enough time to explore while still sticking to our strict afternoon regimen of eating, napping, and watching Game of Thrones.

In the dawn and twilight hours, Bagan is pretty magical. You hop on your bike and point yourself toward the central plain and soon it’s just you and the cowherds. You can follow whatever dirt road you like; at the end there’s a fairytale temple, and if you’re lucky it’s all yours.

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But if you’re unlucky, one of the popular temples is at the end of that dirt road, with busloads of package tour retirees milling around, and aisles of vendors yelling “COLD WATER MADAME” and “PAINTINGS MADAME HAVE A LOOK IT IS FREE TO HAVE A LOOK.” When we managed to steer clear of these places, Bagan was lovely, like a waking dream; when we found ourselves being followed around by teenage lacquerware vendors who would coo “your earrings are lovely madame, where you from, hey where you going,” Bagan was the worst, most obnoxious place on earth.

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A couple weeks ago I was talking with an American expat in Mandalay about her time living in Bali. I asked what it was like, what with all the tourism, and the Australians, and such. The way she described it made it sound like something out of Dante’s Inferno to me, but it seemed like she took the vendors and hawkers and beggars in stride. They’re just trying to hustle, just trying to make a buck, she said, and how can I begrudge them that?

That conversation clarified something for me. Because obviously I agree: When people get all up in my face with their trinkets, I’m not annoyed at them. How can I be annoyed at them? Okay obviously I am annoyed at them, it is very easy to be annoyed at them. But of course I understand why they’re there, and that I should be patient and kind, and that I should remember how obscenely wealthy I am compared to them, and etc.

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On our first big trip through southeast Asia, we hit a lot of the must-see places in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, and so we spent a not-inconsiderable percentage of our time wading through crowds of vendors, or beggars, or both. As a result, I think I just accepted that into every backpacking trip, a goodly amount of “hello you beautiful you have a look” must fall.

On this trip, though, we’ve been to the following places: China, where domestic tourists are king and very few people could give two fucks about a couple of Americans; Laos, where people are so laid back that you can walk through an entire market of souvenirs without having anybody say anything to you; and Bangkok, where we have tried to steer clear of the backpackers’ ghetto this time around and have discovered a whole new city, one that is deliciously indifferent to our presence. And then Myanmar! Myanmar, with the most amazing people of all, people who are friendly and kind because that is just how they do, people who are pleasantly amused by your presence, people who will smile and wave their babies’ hands at you as you walk down the street, just for fun.

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So what I realize now is that, in those moments in Bagan when I was surrounded by people trying, loudly, to sell me things, I was mostly just annoyed with myself. For knowing how stressful I find those situations to be, and for somehow failing to avoid them, even though I am now thoroughly aware of how easy they are to avoid. Oh look, I thought, I’ve somehow found the one place in Myanmar that is as aggravating as Khao San Road. Hooray.

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In conclusion, Bagan was pretty cool at times, but not my favorite place. We did, however, have the pleasure of our travel buddy Pecaut, who shared our lust for Game of Thrones (but not, strangely, our lust for slothlike lounging for 80% of the day), and who took this ridiculous, yet sublime, photo of us:

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Then there was that one outing when the two of us got caught out in the middle of nowhere AFTER THE SUN WENT DOWN and all I can say is: Thank you for having that compass and that flashlight, friend.

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Now let us never speak of it again.

Moving right along to:

Mandalay

Mandalay was fun! For several reasons.

1. There were more buds to pal around with: Sam and Katie, a swell couple who Pecaut met on the plane (hi guys!) and Trinh, the motorbike-ridin’ RPCV below, who lives in Mandalay now and squired us about his fair city:

Thanks for the beers, buddy. Please enjoy your gifs.

2. This is the city where Ryan and I finally discovered teahouses. I don’t know what took us so long; in Yangon we ate mostly on the street or in proper restaurants, and somehow we failed to notice the large, airy teahouses, where men sit and drink chai-like tea and watch soap operas with their manfriends all day long.

In Mandalay we finally got with the program. Teahouses are awesome because of the aforementioned prepubescent boys who work there, who are all, as far as I can tell anyway, the most charming and adorable 12-year-olds on the face of the earth.

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When we asked Trinh whether any of these kids ever go to school, though, he said a lot of them are from the countryside, and they get sent to work at these places because they will be fed and clothed and housed and paid at least a little, which is more than their families can do for them back home. This is obviously sad, and made me feel pretty bad for taking so much delight in these boys. At least they get to practice doing math when they make change? Oh god I’m sorry I’ll stop.

Teahouses are also awesome for the food. We had heard some gnarly things about the food before we came to Myanmar, and indeed, the one traditional Myanmar meal we had was not really to our liking. Lots of oil in the curry, lots of unadulterated shrimp paste in the salads. Meh.

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Teahouse food, though! Noodle soup, peanutty rice salad, samosas, flatbread with beans — it posed no challenges to the palate, and was so cheap as to be basically free.

And finally, teahouses are awesome because the whole point is to sit there forever with your tea, and some of these places even have free wifi. Ryan and I are basically always on the lookout for two things when we’re traveling: Cheap delicious eateries that are packed with locals, and places where we can sit and use the internet and not feel bad for taking up space while we do so. Usually these places are different; usually the latter is a bar or coffeehouse in the backpacker district, and the former is…not. But with Mandalay teahouses, everything we wanted was in the same place! It was kind of magical, to eat my ten-cent samosa and taptaptap away on our netbook, while the Gentlemen Who Lunch at the next table over watched the soccer game on TV, and the teenager at the next table after that stared into his smartphone and sipped his tea. Knowing that we could sit there all day long and just keep ordering tea from those cute boys and nobody would give a shit. Heaven!

I mean the wifi didn’t always work very well, but still. I thought the whole thing was swell.

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3. And finally, Mandalay was fun because of –surprise! — the people. Are you tired of me talking about how much I loved the people in Myanmar? If I love them so much why don’t I just marry them, you say? Well too bad for you because I’m not even close to being done yet bwa hahaha hey wait where are you going?

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We did go on a one-day whirlwind tour of the big tourist spots around the city and that was a lot like the worst parts of Bagan, with the busloads of old white people and the crazed vendors and all. But whatever, we got what we deserved, and it was a nice day other than that. Ruins and house carts and weavers, oh my!

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But for the rest of our time in Mandalay, we just wandered around, drinking tea, smiling and waving and saying hello to people. My favorite part was when Ryan and I took a pedicab across the city; I sat in the rear-facing seat with my camera, and flirted with basically everybody who went by.

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Good times.

Hsipaw
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Oh hi, are you still there? Sorry this post is such a beast. Let’s finish this thing.

So, Hsipaw! Sweet, sweet Hsipaw. We stayed a week; I could’ve done another. The Lonely Planet says that when you visit Myanmar, you should make sure to go at least one place off the beaten path, one place that is not the “Big Four” (Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake). This is excellent advice, and if I did it again I would avoid the Big Four altogether. It’s just that Hsipaw (and, I suspect, a lot of other little towns like it) was the best of all possible worlds: A quiet, relaxing place, almost completely free of other tourists, populated by the friendliest people on earth.

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I mean, after I took these ladies’ photos, they thanked me. They thanked me! What kind of bizarro world is this!

Here’s another example: One morning I took my crappy little Chinese daypack to the market, to get a couple holes patched. First, I found a guy with a sewing machine at the entrance. He pointed me down the street a little ways, and I walked up to a couple women with another sewing machine. Then the original guy saw me and called to the ladies (I’m guessing here), “Hey, the foreigner needs Bob! Bob the Backpack-Patcher!”

And they were like “Bob’s right over there, see?” and I was like “Buh?” and started bumbling across the street towards an empty storefront, and by this time basically the entire market was yelling out “BOB! HEY BOB COME HELP THIS FOREIGNER!” Then Bob emerged, and I turned and smiled and waved at everybody to say thanks, and some people applauded.  Non-ironically. (!!!)

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After I got the backpack fixed, Ryan and I set off on another two-day trek. There’s this entertaining thing that men do in Myanmar if they work with foreigners in any way: They give themselves an English name that reflects what it is they do for a living. So, in Hsipaw, the guy who sold books was Mr. Book, the guy who ran the Chinese restaurant was Mr. Food, and the guy who sold fruit shakes was Mr. Shake. We were kind of confused when our guide introduced himself as Mr. Bean:

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Until he explained that his day job is at the market, where he sells — can you guess? — beans.

Mr. Bean was by far the most ridiculous character we’ve met on this trip. He laughed like Eddie Murphy. He would offer us betel nut, asking, “You want some candy? Hoo hoo hoo!” He often remarked that if his wife ever left him, he would “surely die.” He asked us if we knew the song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and then started singing it as loud as he could. When a competitor’s tour group would pass us on the trail, he would turn to us and say, “They are evil! Hoo hoo hoo!”

He was a weird old fart for sure, but a loveable one.

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This was our final trek of the trip, and I think we saved the best for last. Mr. Bean was consistently entertaining; the trail was dry, free of leeches, and not too steep;  the villages we passed through were jam-packed with adorable kids.

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We stayed in a tea-farming Palaung village, high in the hills. We got there in mid-afternoon so we had time to wander around, watching the women come in from the fields with their baskets heaped with leaves.

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We also had time to locate a shop with beer, so after dinner we had a wee little party with Mr. Bean and our host, who knows how to pose for a picture like nobody’s business:

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Nailed it.

When we returned to Hsipaw the next day, I got a lot of pleasure out of heaping all of our trekking gear in a corner of our room and bidding it farewell. Ryan’s sneakers, my boots, my poncho, my shorts I bought in Laos that were two sizes too big, my crappy backpack that had just been patched up: Think of all the space that opened up in our bags! Think of all the souvenirs we can buy, to fill that space!

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Our last couple days in Hsipaw were spent wandering to and fro. I went a little crazy and bought a few hats at the market, possibly as a result of the I-have-new-space-in-my-bag euphoria, which doesn’t make any sense because the hats are huge and made of brittle, inflexible bamboo and won’t fit in any bag:

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Ryan has suggested that I wear all three of them stacked on my head on the flight home. Perhaps.

We also accepted Mr. Bean’s invitation to come visit him at the market, to meet his daughter and his wife, and to try his bean salad.

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Man, this stuff was good. Pickled tea leaves, tomatoes, garlic, chili, sesame seeds, and the bean mixture that they sell at their stall. I have no idea how the beans were prepared. They had a hard crunch to them, like they hadn’t been soaked and cooked, but just deep-fried. I’m not sure if I can re-create this back in the states, but I sure am going to try.

Mr. and Ms. Bean sat and chatted with us, telling us about the postcards and photos and other mementos from tourists that were stuck to a nearby cabinet. When we asked if we could pay them for the salad, they laughed and then made us another portion, to go, that we could take with us on our bus to Mandalay the next day. Mr. Bean said that the water of the nearby river was magic, and that anybody who drinks it is destined to return to Hsipaw.  Then he pointed to our tea cups and said we’d just had some of that water, so we would be seeing each other again. “Remember to tell your friends to come see Mr. Bean!” he said as we left. “If they don’t, they will surely regret!”

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Well, friend, that brings us to the end of our adventures in Myanmar. If you have made it this far, I can only assume that you are a) a real masochist, b) a real pal, and/or c) at least somewhat interested in visiting Myanmar.  If c) is the case, then I will end by saying that you should definitely go to Myanmar, but you should probably not wait too long to do it.

Word on the street is that independent tourism there is about to explode, and I believe it. It wasn’t even the high season yet when we were there, and already a lot of the guesthouses were getting booked up. I can only assume that the fantastical, Disney-World-like levels of friendliness we experienced were due to two things: The fact that most people have not yet had a whole lot of contact with foreigners, and the fact that there is just something about the national character of Myanmar that makes its citizens extremely welcoming.  I hope it is mostly the latter, but really, it’s got to be at least a little of the former, and while I don’t want to be an ass and say that more tourists will “ruin” the country, I will be a realist and say that more tourists will change the experience for the tourists who come after them.

Basically, as of right now and for perhaps not too much longer, Myanmar is a treat to visit, mostly because of its people.  They make you forget what an overprivileged, voyeuristic, fat piece of backpacking shit you are.  Or actually, never mind, you can never really leave that behind; it’s more that the people in Myanmar see you for what you are, and they like you anyway, and they think you’re interesting, and they want to say hello.   That is a special thing, I think. That is rare.

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But anyway, now we’re back in Bangkok, enjoying the air conditioning, the iced lattes, and the anonymity.  We’re planning ahead for Malaysia, our last stop; we’re thinking about home, which seems closer than ever.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go research some dentists.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Burmese Days

  1. Kelsey

    MADAME, I am excited to see you! Hoo hoo hoo!

  2. Great job with capturing several aspects of Burmese life!

  3. Trinh

    I’m sipping on some myanmar beer in bagan as I’m writing you this message. Have a fun trip on your next leg.

  4. Tommy

    Just finished reading “Burmese Days” by Mr. Orwell. Your pictures and blog writting have added greatly to the book. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Hi Katie! Your mom shared your blog with me at the USMC Ball when I saw her. You’re an amazing photographer! This blog makes it way easier to live vicariously through you.

    Have fun during your last few weeks on the road!

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