Saturday, February 7, 2015

First Impressions of Myanmar: Burmese Cultural Insight 101

Thailand on the left, and Myanmar on the other side of the river.  100 meters apart and a world of a difference
You learn so much about a country by crossing it's border, in my case, simply rolling across that dividing line from one country to the next. I like to go into a country without researching too much. I do however, plan my route some, but I don't want to form too a lot of pre-conceived notions about a culture and their customs before I start to witness and observe. It is my way of investigating:observe, find out, form opinions, and continue to refine them.....The famous inquiry cycle I use with my students when teaching mirrors the real world.  Once, I'm in the thick of it, deep in the country, I'm doing my research daily with every kilometer, which is exactly what happened when I pedaled across to Myanmar 3 days ago.
Immigration and police, ever so friendly at the border.  They are everywhere in this country!

It's as easy as the sign says!

Departing Thailand was painless, I pedaled 100 meters and was in Myanmar. I went to the foreigner building expecting a long line, but to my surprise, there were only two other older gentlemen in the office, and they were doing a Thai visa run. Two men handled my entrance, one in uniform in one in civilian clothes. Both spoke perfect English, enough to interrogate me in a friendly way. Are you alone? No group? Where have you been? Where do you go? What is your job? Looking over my passport and it's many stamps, they found my Myanmar Visa, stamped it, I smiled for the camera, and I was all set. However, I wasn't allowed on the road today. There is one main road between the bustling border town of Myawaddy and Hpa-An, the next big city 150 kilometers to the west and it is so small and narrow and climbs over a major mountain pass, it operates in one direction only on opposite days. The day I crosse the border an odd day, traffic was headed towards Thailand. Tomorrow, the road was open for traveling west. I thought about ignoring this and cycling on, but decided an afternoon to get some logistics sorted out in a new country seemed more sensible.

Since there was no one waiting around and these two men were plenty friendly, I decided it was my turn to ask the questions. Have you seen other cyclists? Where can I change money? What SIM card do I want to buy? Where is a guesthouse in town for foreigners? They answered all these questions quickly and to my surprise there was another cyclist in town, 3 others for that matter: one English and two Aussies. Their English was so good, I asked them if they would help me with basic Burmese for my little cheat sheet, and so they did and I even got so lucky to get a photocopy of basic Burmese as well. Just when I was starting to get the tones and pronunciation of Thai under my belt, Burmese is considerably different, even the alphabet, or so it appears.

After a good half hour in their air conditioned room I set off to find a hotel. They had recommended a cheaper one to me, although I didn't know if it really was a cheap hotel or they were trying to send me to their friend's hotel and give him business. And so my basic Myanmar cultural lessons began.

Priceless faces on these kids.  They are still shy with tourists and say "Min Ga La Bar" rather than "Hello"!
The People

You'd think that living in a border town the people were used to seeing foreigners, but they aren't. Foreigners, westerns and people with white skin, seem to be a novelty. Although they seem rather shy and humble, they go out of their way to say hello, smile, and say a word or two in English, usually “Hello!”, “Hey you!”, “Where you go?” They certainly are honest and haven't sold their sole to tourism, at least not yet. I bought coconut meat and I thought the man said it's price was the equivalent to $7, a steep price to pay, but I handed him the money. He shook his head, appalled, and realized he had confused the number 7 hundred for 7 thousand and gave me back the wad of cash. Had this happen in a country where locals are eager to make a quick buck off tourists, I think they would have taken the money and run!

I was the guest of honor at the Full Moon festival I stumbled upon and this women was so excited to feed me!

The immigration officer who advised me on the hotel really did send me to the cheapest hotel in town for foreigners. Later that afternoon, walking around, I found two others and inquired about their prices. Both were three times as expensive.

Women here carry things on their head, similar to women in Africa I've seen
Exploring the market, which I'd also say was much more primitive than any Thai market and consisted of a single alleyway rather than a network of streets or even a covered shelter area. There was a lot of loud music at the end of the way and when I approached it seemed like there was some sort of party. Indeed it was, the full moon festival, a young teenager informed me and they were happy to have foreigners participate which meant they treated me to several mugs of sugar cane juice and this sticky rice dish mixed with all sorts of energy laden goodies mixed in including coconut, peanuts, sesame seeds, and garlic. I wish I could have stashed some away for the following day's ride. During my first day cycling, I was given an energy drink and a liter of water handed out the window by two different cars. Watermelon stands line the road in this area and I can't help but stop every 30 to 40 kilometers, it's about 35C (100F) during the day. Every time I try to pay, they refuse money!

Can't get enough of my watermelon with the heat


Myanmar has yet to be exploited by tourism which is what gives it it's charm. The doors have been open so recently that they are still so excited to see foreigners. However, the government is still uneasy from having so many outsiders in their country they have tight control on the tourism industry here, making for more of an adventure. I read the blogs of several cyclists, both of those unemployed on a global trek, and those with a bit heftier budgets , and their stories differ quite a bit. Those who try to free camp and do it on a budget have great stories to tell about escaping the police and border controls. Thailand had their fair share of border controls, but they were rather pointless and more to be seen than actually enforce. I passed maybe a two dozen in a months time, and was stopped at one, and never did they ask me for my passport, they simply wanted to chat and practice their English. In Myanmar, during my first day of pedaling, I passed 5 border controls in the first 20 km and was stopped at one, who took my passport details and wanted to know my planned itinerary both of that day and the month, basically. Towards the middle of the afternoon, I came across another border control and they also stopped me basically telling me I should “stay here, at nice guesthouse, tomorrow go to Hpa-An.”

So what's the deal with accommodation for tourists in Myanmar? There are hotels and guesthouses, and plenty of resorts, especially in the tourist “hot spots” and beach resorts. But in places that are more off the beaten track, they are fewer and harder to come by. The problem is, the government has determined which guesthouses can accept foreigners. Therefore, you might find a guesthouse in a small town, but they aren't allowed to let you stay. The ones sanctioned by the government are pricey and the hefty prices don't reflect any sort of added value, unfortunately, or else I would splurge! In comparison to the rest of southeast Asia, it is not uncommon to pay 25-50 USD a night for a basic room with a cold water shower, which would cost about 4 to 10 USD in Thailand or Vietnam. So why not camp, knock on a door, or stay at a temple? Basically it is illegal. The citizens of Myanmar are not allowed to invite visitors into their home, nor are temples, and those who do risk heavy consequences. Police and immigration officers wear civilian clothing, making it hard to determine who they are and where they are.

A very basic hotel for foreigners, for the same amount of money in Thailand ($8) you have a really nice room!
Or perhaps I should say lack of. Just walking down the main street in Myawaddy, life carried on in much the same was as in Thailand. However, you step on the main drag and you are in for a surprise. Many of the streets in towns aren't paved, houses are in shambles, put together in a makeshift manner with any sort of material that could be found. In rural areas, houses are made out of bamboo, tarp, or dried banana leaves. Some are delicately built on bamboo stilts and look like a good wind storm would blow them over.

A more modern house next to an older run down wooden house

A typical house, one of many made from dried banana leaves.  I don't know how they survive the rainy season.

A primitive bridge connecting a river village to the main road

PArt of the one lane road I used to cross the border

Primitive (but charming) if the adjective that comes to mind. My initial conclusion that there can't be too much modern infrastructure here can to my mind quickly as all the products in the stores had Thai Baht price tags on them and were written in Thai. They border may have opened for foreigners recently but for commerce it seems to have been open for years with a steady flow of Thai products being imported. For instance the cars seem to come from Thailand or Malaysia, cheaper to manufacture there I'm sure. The problem is that in both those countries, cars drive on the left. In Myanmar they drive on the right, but they drive a car made for driving on the left, only slightly hazardous in my opinion!

Local Customs: Men in Skirts, Yellow Face Paint, & Bleeding Mouths

I know their proper name is a sarong, but I can't stop thinking of them as “man skirts”. A long tubular piece of fabric that the men wrap around their waist and tuck. Voila, a comfy skirt! Seeing a few men come out of a public restroom, I gathered they wear shorts underneath, or at least some. You don't see nearly as many women in the skirts, but 95% of all the men wear them.

The typical man skirt on these men at the Half Moon Festival making the delicious sweet rice
If the skirts don't make you chuckle then the yellow face paint will! Again, it isn't face paint, it is the whitening cream that is ever so popular in southeast Asia. This one has a yellow tint to it and is painted more deliberately in circles on the cheeks and nose, but some seem to bathe in it! Sunscreen is hard to come by because they go straight for the hard core stuff that is suppose to turn your skin white. Why is it that the darker complexion people always want to be lighter skinned and the fair-skinned people darker?

Typical Burmese yellow whitening cream applied to the cheeks and forehead, sometimes a dot on the nose....

I was caught off guard when I stepped out of the immigration office and talked with the first local. What the hell happened to your mouth? Are you bleeding? Do you need help? Did someone punch you in the mouth? But behind the mouthful of red saliva there is a huge smile, and then a disgusting and robust spat, and a red liquid stains the sidewalk. Beetle nut. I had been warned about this habit in Thailand, but never witnessed it during my travels. In Myanmar I have seen only a handful of men's mouths that aren't stained red. I've seen countless “bleeding” mouths now and I'm still startled every time I see it seeping out. Dentist would have a heyday here, so would Oncologists. At the end of the day it is basically nicotine they are getting form the Beetle nut. At first I thought I saw a stall with something sweet wrapped in a banana leaf, so I went closer to investigate as my mouth started to salivate. But when I saw the women brush on a white paste and fill it with bits of this beautiful nut cut up and folded like a small package, I gathered this wasn't a sweet edible treat. I watch a guy place one of the packages in his mouth carefully between his lower lip and teeth, and gathered it was the Burmese version of chewing tobacco, only it was addictive and stained their teeth blood red. The stalls to make the Beetle nut packages are everywhere, equivalent in presence to coffee stands in Thailand.

She's making the Beetle nut pouches
A beautiful nut before it does damage to your teeth

I had recently withdrawn more Thai Baht than I knew I would need in Thailand, but I thought I could exchange the left over currency to Myanmar Kyat. Up until a year ago, there were only a handful of ATM's in the entire country. I went to the bank that advertised money exchange in Myawaddy only to find out, they didn't exchange Baht, only Dollars and Euros. I did have some of each, but only one 20 euro bill passed the “mint condition” test. While I was waiting in the bank, the employees were carrying handfuls of cash from one corner to another wall. Of course there were armed security guards with small pistols in holsters, but I still felt as though I was witnessing some sort of bank robbery. I had never seen so many paper bills in my life, it was shocking! Since my attempt to exchange money failed at a proper bank, I went to a “black market” stall, I had done my research. A man and his daughter had a small wooden table and a cloth over top with a calculator as well. I asked them the exchange rate and it was just slightly lower than what my currency exchange app told me I should get, so I proceeded. If I felt like I has witnessing a robbery in the bank seeing the stacks of cash, I felt like I was a bank robber when he laid before me two big stacks of bills. With no coins in the Myanmar currency, kyat, (pronounced chat) 1,000 Kyat is equal to about 1 USD, an easy conversion for all and many places will take dollars. This makes for an incredible amount of bills. They even have a bill that is equivalent to 1 cent! In reality I had only exchanged about 250 dollars but I felt like the richest person in the whole world with those hunks of bills in front of me. Uneasy and nervous, I quickly went back to my hotel and stashed the extra money.

The little black market stall where I converted Thai Baht as the banks only want dollars and euros.  Look closely and you will see his red teeth....
Boy do I feel rich, although those hunks of cash are equivalent to 200USD

The Land of Pagodas
Regardless of the direction you look, there is always a Pagoda whether it be up on a hilltop, balancing precariously on a rock on a mountainside, or in the small villages. Pagodas are everywhere, as temples were in Thailand, but even more present. Monks have also changed color, they are dressed in red gowns and never have I seen so many young monks. Buddhism also seems to be much more relaxed here in Myanmar. I've seen countless monks smoking cigarettes, driving motor scooters, chewing Beetle nut, and even drinking. Next thing you know I'll see one with a wedding ring. With so many pagodas, it's no wonder every-other-person I see is a monk, not really, but their presence is more noted than in Thailand, Cambodia, or Laos. As a result there are also quite a few monasteries, which seem to be the place to stay for tour cyclists to avoid the higher guesthouse prices. I'm sure I will experience a monastery, or two, on this trip!

Bago's impressive pagoda at sunset, the best time to go

The Golden Rock and a couple dozen more pagodas dotted the hillside

There are massive amounts of monks here, especially little boys


I spent my first hours in Myanmar wandering the streets of Myawaddy. It seemed every other shop was a food or tobacco stall or a mobile phone store. How many mobile phone stores does one town possibly need? I went to inquire about a SIM card, and it seemed as simple as Thailand. Basically for about $8 you get a Myanmar SIM card with about 1GB of data and cheap local phone calls and text messages, about 3cents a minute. I went for one of the SIM cards the immigration officer had mentioned and they helped me set it up. Internet wasn't working, so I left my phone there and came back in a few hours. The young man that spoke good English was no longer behind the counter but the women in basic English said “Internet no work today!” I was thinking, ok no big deal, so I asked, “What about tomorrow?” In her basic English, she replied again, “Internet no work this week!” I tried to hold back from laughing and just thought, Gee, couldn't you have told me that before I bought the SIM card, I just assumed the network connection would be working, after all, that is what you pay for......I took it with a grain of salt, no big deal, wifi does seem to be advertised everywhere, although the connection is incredibly spotty and works intermittently!

While walking through the local market, I saw a few local joints packed with people sitting in chairs. They weren't consuming anything, but rather glued to the TV screen. It dawned on me, obviously TV isn't a commodity not found in many households. Unfortunately they were watching some god awful karaoke session. Fascinating though, how watching TV can be a very social even in a developing country.

A quick makeshift way to widen a road in Myanmar

I knew going into this country, the roads were not optimal for cyclists. Many are in awful condition and extremely crowded. I experienced this on Day one. New roads are being built, but again, some of the road construction is so primitive and being done completely by had with little machinery. Rather than resurfacing and adding on an entire lane, they seem to work on a smaller scale, adding a meter to each side of the road, enough so that cars can pass one another on a single lane road. I didn't see any painted lines on the roads for the first two days and traffic was heavy. But what you don't hear in a picture is the noise coming from the road. They love to use their horn in southeast Asia, that I knew, but in Myanmar horns sound every second as if it is a ticking of a clock. Every time a car passes you, it honk to let you know it is coming. Do they really think I can't hear their load motor, some of the cars look like they are from the turn of the 20th century! I had a continuous headache for the first two days from all the noise, it was relentless. To some extent it gives the country character, but I desperately wish the drivers went to the same driving school I attended. I'm thinking of making as sign for the back of my bike that reads: “Nice to see you too, but please don't honk.” Somehow I don't think it will help!

I don't know how I caught a restful moment on this road, it looks rather serene.  The dirt shoulder here will shortly be asphalted and expanded I'm sure!

The border road in "good condition". When I see vehicles like this, I'm glad I have my own two wheels!

Myanmar was an afterthought for this trip. I was originally deterred due to the tight government control which can make for an awfully expensive bike tour. After several encounters with cyclists and tourists headed to Myanmar via land border, I was too curious not to go! What a great decision I ended up making. The read adventure is about to begin!

1 comment:

  1. We follow You ^ ^ to see the World .Miss u friend