Hitting Yangon

We arrived early in the morning. It was still dark but already tropical warm and humid. That’s were we wanted to be! The trees in front of the airport host millions if screeching birds during that hour. The air is full of diesel soot that will be with us for three weeks from now. Hooting cars as well. We stayed at the edge of Pazundaung, a “residential” area near the river where the small workshops are specialized in iron work. Oily screws, winches and shafts everywhere. People wash themselves on the street in the evening below their lonyijs. It’s a 10-minutes spectacle that’s intimidating and joyful at the same time.

Walking towards the center included defiling the probably poorest streets of downtown. The beaming white tourists where completely openly stared at and cat called. Men with blood like betel liquid dropping out of their mouths were coming way to close up to us, shouting “HELLO!” This never happened to us in any other area of the country. Sure, we were particularly white, particularly clumsily stumbling over the uneven side walks and it was particularly not us they stared at, but Marie. I merely wasn’t recognized when they studied her cleavage. I guess, this staring didn’t have so much of a sexual connotation but more the interest in so much white skin. Could be, it’s just the body length that made them stare at her chest rather the face …

Everyone! in that city has a mobile phone. The penetration of Telenor as higher than in the tram in Oslo. Monks hang out at the pagoda / on Facebook, busy with taking selfies.

[We also hang out more than once at the amazing lively Shwedagon pagoda, Yangon’s major landmark.]

Yangon has something of Berlin 20 years ago. An incredible need for and potential of speediest development. I’m just afraid that Yangon will fuck up even a bigger time than Berlin in terms of ugly architecture and unused urban settings. Other than that, we actually tried to stay away from the metropolis during the onward journey but ended up passing it four times in total …


Myanmar is beautiful …

Mawlamyine is probably the nicest city of the country. Kippling wrote his romantic poems here, too lazy to travel all the way up to the real site of crime with the melodic name, Mandalay. Or too much hitting on a “Mandalay” girl from town. Mawlamyine got its fantastic river promenade from the military, an invaluable asset. Doesn’t look like the Boulevard de la Croissette in Cannes yet; the potential is there. The promenade today is also the town’s main waste disposal site. Traders who come in to one of the three enormous markets would just throw all their waste over the promenade wall, like cardboard, organic left overs and, of course, plastic. Later, so the logic, the high tide will come and the next morning all will be pretty and clean again. Almost.

In Yangon, the only nice buildings in Yangon are the monasteries and the pagodas. I didn’t see one single colonial house that was in a better than ruin condition.

In Nyaung Shwe, I looked at the “modern” houses from maybe ten years ago, so ugly that I wondered what they are going to do with them in a few years time. I couldn’t imagine anyone living there in some five years time when news houses will have been built according to a non-brutal-totalitarian-chinese taste.

One of the omnipresent untidinesses was the most troublesome: the diesel particles in the air, everywhere. Everywhere there is activity, i.e. a vehicle with an unfiltered exhaust. I fully realized the bad air only when I was back in clean old Switzerland. Pust.

No the country isn’t beautiful in a common sense. Plastic already hit hard. We just didn’t stumble upon any really clean and fine setting. The few spots that are pure are the tip of a pagoda or a narrow angle of a landscape. Not a single white towel in this country is white, but beige to brown. Even the omnipresent gooey karaoke videos are not … proper: In every scene, somewhere an electric cable hangs from the wall or a plastic bag flies through the background. Selfie time!

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Nay Pyi Taw

The country’s capital is as absurd as everyone says. Few tourists come here and all Burmese, not living here, hate the it. It was built in secrecy and inaugurated 2005, still deep in the military times, meant to be modern and representative. In 2013 and 2014 the city hosted ASEAN Summit, quite a step forward for the country’s international recognition!

You arrive at a dusty remote bus station, however, as we learned later, everything in Nay Pyi Taw is remote. We knew immediately that a few hours stay in this city will do the job and tried to book the onward bus at the spot. Squeezed between a super cute sales girl in the bus booth and a super annoying betel chewing taxi driver who hasn’t gotten his daily customer yet, we managed to get our tickets to the desired destination later in the afternoon. Toilet costs 5 cents at the bus terminal, tissue 20.

At lunch, we met a lively woman who turned out to be the owner of the fashion shop across the road. “Women, men, beauty.” After we finished eating, we spontaneously went over (I spontaneously sent over Marie) to ask whether she knew someone who could show us around in the city. Big excitement!, she brought a brother, lots of betel chewing, she could drive us by herself in her own car and her small sisters would watch the business. One hour, two hours, all the sights, two hours minimum!, Nay Pyi Taw is not like Yangon, it’s a large city, “long distances”. I was as naive as to believe, the lady would offer us the ride in exchange to meet Europeans; and would have paid as much of a generous tip of 20$. We ended up in an awkward negotiation about the compensation, it turned out that she expected $100 … “Big city! Long distances!” Finally we not only found ourselves in her overheated car with yet another, younger brother, not betel chewing (yet?), but also with some minor intern relationship tensions – regarding the negotiation result. Which was $50 – an average monthly income in Myanmar. Shame on me!

And then saw we this Größenwahn of an urban Verrücktheit: a parliament building so huge and so remotely cordoned that it’s hard to imagine the people’s representatives. Megalism that’s only exceeded by the prime minister’s home?, house?, palace!. Completely empty roads with up to 12 lanes, insane architecture dropped here and there along the way. A 1:1 rebuilt of Yangon’s Shwedagon pagoda. Just ugly, with surveillance cameras behind mirrors, and completely deserted. NOT quite the spirit of the original.

There are “normal people’s houses” in villages outside the city. Having said “outside”, there’s only outside in Nay Piy Taw: there’s no center, only different zones, for each governmental department, military, the ministries, plus the “hotel zone”. The official’s residents aren’t as prestigious as you could think. Maybe they were perceived as super posh by the planners around millennium shift in a still completely locked off country – and compared to the desolate situation in former capital Yangon.

We also visited the Water Fountain (sic!) Garden, a questionable touristic highlight with tiger sounds from loudspeakers and discovery trails beneath artificial water falls. But there were real people here. Nay Piy Taw is said to be one of the 10 fastest growing cities in the world. Despite the beating artificiality, there is also a breeze of real life but it’s unclear how many people actually live here.

In the evening, already in the bus heading out of town, we finally saw the real highlight of Nay Pyi Taw: LED light strings along all roads’ side walks and landmarks’ outline and around the artificial lake. In all beaming colors, including the rainbow. Pride!

What a city! But we were happy that we didn’t follow all advices who strongly discourage us from coming here.

Nay Pyi Taw

No boyfriend, no problem

The bus ride to our next stop, Kalaw, fulfilled what other travelers told about domestic bus travels. We booked an ordinary operator, and found us in a bus made for small people. No leg space, no head rest that a European could rest a head on. On top of the overall nightlong squeezing  experience, my chair-back didn’t fold, instead, my man in front’s chair didn’t have an upright position. Swinging head, deep frozen by the insane AC, knees blocked between the two seats, bumping up and down and tortured by loud kitschy karaoke videos, I just wanted a bed.

Kalaw turned out to be super well organized compared to Yangon. People working for tourism speak understandable English and have something like a service mentality. As predicted, it was very nice to arrive here after dirt and heat in the plains. We stayed over here, enjoyed, and booked the threedaystwonights hike to Inle Lake.

The hike became one of the alltime highlights. It started out with the new year’s eve at Lily’s Guesthouse at which mad (and drunk) young men grilled ducks and chicken including head, wings and feet and just the Italians shared a wing or so with fat dripping fingers. The next morning was soft, we found the three guys with whom we booked, and two more couples joining. Being such a large group, we got two guides, 60 year old mathematics teacher James and 23 year old history teacher in spe Newnew. Both the perfect eye into Pa-O’s live today: James routined all knowing, Newnew crazy and authentic.

She grew up in one of the tribal villages, went to school in Kalaw, and moved out. Only when she’ll have graduated, she’ll be going to pick her husband. So far: no boyfriend. No problem. Young couples usually marry when she gets pregnant. But if they don’t, or she had more than one man, she got a problem. Then, she needs to move out from the village, request asylum in a neighboring settlement and live alone in a bamboo hut. Newnew’s words. However, she herself was flirting with almost everyone during the three day’s trip and I don’t have any concerns that she’ll “chose” her man exactly as she desires. She’s even comfortable with Facebook! How about Google? “This, I never tried.”

If you want to get a government post, you need to bribe the local officer. In Newnew’s case, it is about a position as a teacher in her home area because normally you’d be sent to one of the unpopular border regions as a start. Like her cousin, who ended up marrying a non-Buddhist Christian. Eeeek, that’s not what you want. But if you put two millions on the table, rather push under the table, and your contestant happens to have given four, then you lack both the post and the two millions. This system, she said would last long. They can be so successful with their anti-corruption seven-step program in Nay Pyi Taw. Too far, vast and poor is the countryside, too many graduate from university, too few good jobs are available. Whatever university means…

On the hike, we saw an old women carrying dried cow dung on her hand. We saw ox wagons that transport water to the village that doesn’t have an own source. We saw a stone break were man pounder the big stones to smaller ones and women who carry those on their heads. This is not after WWII and locked away, this is poor poor middle age. We passed mountain rice fields (“more expensive than the white rice from the plains”), chili fields and the “chili capital”. We actually got the impression of a sustainable, small scale agriculture. Jungle book like hidden monasteries in the hills completed the picture.

We saw Newnew’s home village were her family is still used to non-purified water, we came close the poppy field area, that, however requires extra permission not by the military but by the owner. We heard a lot of singing in the schools and we slept in a bamboo hut. The owner had space for us because his parents died and his brother is married. He doesn’t farm, “not farming, he’s alone, but helps other family”. The other group slept in the house of the mother of 9 kids. The last two were twins aged 7 and playing “motorbike” in the village. She chews betel. Girls normally don’t. “But married women do.”

Newnew hasn’t been neither in Bagan, nor Nay Pyi Taw or Yangon. No money, too expensive. She wants to go and … see the Shwedagon Pagoda. As a truly believing Buddhist. Her imaginary younger clever sister will have several boyfriends. She’ll earn money with trekking tours or something new like drug zone adventure tours. What will she do then? Get a baby? Start her own business? Or simply end up moving to Yangon?

This trip was much more off the beaten track than I imagined before.


No boyfriend, no problem