An ambiguous sight

Myanmar had existential problems for many years. Now with the new government trying hard to create a modern state within its existing borders, different ethnic groups are perhaps coming together. That’s a long-winded way to lead in to the featured photo.

I saw this old lady selling fruits at a temple in Bagan, famous for being the first temple which was visited by the newly freed Aung San Suu Kiy a few years ago. I thought that the lady looked like she had an unusually long neck. Perhaps she was Kayan, one of the group of Karen people who were displaced in the 1980s due to an ethnic uprising against the government of Myanmar. A large fraction of Kayans became refugees in Thailand.

The most well-known fact about Kayan people is the neck rings which the women wear traditionally. This pushes down their collar bones and is supposed to give them a longer neck. Without the rings, it was not clear whether this lady was Kayan. I strongly suspect that she is, but I did not want to ask.

Lack of development gives rise to many conflicts. A far-sighted leader can sometimes end these conflicts by a mixture of pragmatism and generosity. We have seen this work in parts of India (and not work in other parts). As we travel in Myanmar and meet so many extremely friendly and generous people, we hope that Myanmar is now about to get lucky.

Myanmar street food

Street ices in MyanmarI began to discover street food in Myanmar today. The simplest are roasted corn on the cob and roasted sweet potatoes, like in the featured photo above. (Did you notice a funny thing about the stall: it has a mirror?) And the food gets more interesting from there. Ice cream is a great favourite: from the intensely coloured sorbets like the one you see in the photo here, to wonderfully creamy durian flavoured ice creams. On a Sunday it is easy to figure out what are particular favourites. In the middle of the day ice cream was the big draw. Tea shops are next in popularity. This is familiar enough to give me a handle on the rest of the food.

Schoolgirl waiting for bhel in Myanmar

I discovered one more fact which explained what makes it possible for school children to have roadside snacks: there is a 50 kyat note. So all the blogs and travel sites which said that the lowest currency note is 100 kyat are wrong.

A very popular snack later in the day was a spicy mixture of various things tossed together. You can see two kinds of guavas (the white discs with green skin), papaya cut into long strips, onions chopped into small pieces, tamarind (the dark matter) and a familiar tart tasting red fruit which I could not put a name to. All this was mixed with a secret sauce from the pot. This is very similar to many Indian snacks like bhel.

Handicrafts in Myanmar

Burma has wonderful handicrafts. A popular destination like the teak bridge across the Irrawaddy river in Amarapura is full of shops for tourists: much of it street food and t-shirts. But among them are shops selling wonderful hand-carved wooden objects, like those you see in the featured photo.

Man polishes masks in Amarapura in Myanmar One very attractive aspect of these shops is that they seem to be direct sellers. The person who owns the shop sells his own work. This is such a refreshing change; over most of the world there is a whole chain of commerce which claims brings an artist’s work to us. This chain adds no value, but only cost. The past circumstances of Myanmar have forced a change to this system. One hopes that it remains so.

We loved the masks which you can see by clicking on the photo above.

Two faces of Myanmar

I’m blogging my first impressions of Myanmar. Before arriving I’d looked through many blogs trying to piece together an impression of the country as I might find it. The reality is at once recognizable and yet totally different. It is the reason why one must travel and not just read travelogues.

faceyoungThis young face that I saw on my first evening in Myanmar is something I had expected. There is a mixture of various fruits and leaves, called thanaka, which is applied on faces of youngsters and women of all ages. I remembered reading that it was turmeric, but the colour was too dull. I asked my local guide, Mi Mi Lat. She said that the main ingredient is a local citrus fruit! The photo here is not unusual, I’ve seen similar photos, and similar patterns, in many blogs.

Later I saw an older woman making herself what I would call a paan in India: betel leaf with calcium lime and areca nuts. Her face was made up with the same paste and the paan (kwun ya in Myanmar) had stained her lips red. I found it a very interesting face (see the featured photo), and something I’d never come across in my couple of months’ reading of blogs. What a wonderful cultural continuity there is between the two faces.

And what a lovely metaphor for this country on the threshold of change.

Beer under a banyan tree

The thing about coming to a new country is that everything confounds you. I arrived in Myanmar and immediately travelled to the banks of the Irrawaddy river. There was a pop-up bar under a beautiful spreading banyan tree and several local boys were sitting and drinking beer under it. The very relaxed setting reminded me of Munich’s biergartens.

Each beer costs about 4000 kyat (around 3 US dollars). The median income is 65,000 kyat. So this should be unusual. Do all these boys earn well over the median income? Probably, since you can see one of them trying to take my photo with a smart phone.

Maybe after a week I would be able to parse the subtle social signals which tell a local which of the many people you pass on a road probably owns a smart phone, drives around in a motorbike or car (imported, as they all are), and could be expected to have beer at a relaxed biergarten.

Money and Myanmar

Pictures of Myanmar Kyat notes

Note added after travel at the end of the post

In less than 24 hours we will be in Myanmar. We heard many stories about how difficult it is to change money, and how we’ll have to carry large amounts of cash with us once we leave Mandalay and Yangon. Money changers and ATMs are said to be hard to find outside these cities. I hope that the advise I read here is correct: “Unlike many other countries in the third world, Myanmar is extremely safe for tourists. You needn’t worry about carrying large quantities of cash on you, but still take the usual precautions.” Since we have little choice about carrying cash, this is reassuring. The other problem with having to carry large amounts of cash is that it is hard to make a good estimate of exactly how much you need. As a result, it is likely that we’ll have quite a few kyats left over when our trip is over. So it was good to find that one can change Kyats back into dollars before leaving.

We found that most travel web sites (this, for example) say that for about two years now, ATMs have been available. This website tells us of a 5000 Kyat charge on a withdrawal of 300,000 Kyat (a charge of only 1.6%). Others talk of difficulty in using ATMs. I’m sure internet and power outages are also issues.

Recent information is that credit cards are accepted by airlines and top hotel chains, but there is a 5% charge on their use. Our airline tickets are paid up, and we are not going to be staying at the top hotels, so our credit card will not be of much use in Myanmar.

A travel agent repeated the advise from Tripadvisor: “It is essential that bills are in first class, pristine condition, with no folds, rips or writing. New is best and keep them flat, maybe between two pieces of card. 100’s and 50’s will get the best exchange rate so use lower denominations for paying hotels and restaurants- again condition is important.” This seems to be so important that there is even an illustrated article which shows how to keep dollar bills in good condition!

About Kyats, I was surprised to read that there are no coins in Myanmar. This is surprising but rational, since minting costs more than the face value of small coins over most of the world. What is decidedly odd however, is that the smallest bill is the 100 Kyat denomination, equivalent to about 10 US cents.

To understand why this is odd, consider the following facts. In the US average salaries are around 4,000 dollars and the smallest coin is one cent; the ratio is 1 in 400,000. The smallest useful unit money in the US is a dollar, which is about 1 in 4,000 of the average salary. In India the average monthly salary is about 20,000 rupees, and the smallest coin in general circulation is 1 rupee; the ratio is 1 in 20,000. The 5 rupee coin is an useful unit, and that is 1 part in 4,000 of the average salary. In comparison, the average monthly salary in Myanmar in about 65,000 Kyat. So the smallest currency is 1 in 650 of the average salary!

The smallest transaction that make do will take away about 0.2% of your salary. Maybe this is designed to discourage spending. Any Burmese people we meet at a restaurant will probably have a salary far above average. Just this currency question makes me feel that Myanmar will be totally different from India. I’m looking forward to it.

Note added

Currency exchange is not a problem in Myanmar. The insistence on crisp dollar notes remains, but there are many legal shops for money exchange in Mandalay, Bagan and Yangon. The rates are pretty uniform. Rates inside airports vary little, but it is worth your while to check the rates at all booths. Large notes get the best rate of exchange. I saw lots of working ATMs, although I did not use them. I saw currency notes denominated in 10000, 5000, 1000, 500, 200, 100 and 50 Kyat. We had a little bit of currency left over at the end of the visit. It was easy to change it back to dollars at Yangon airport.

Burmese Days

Its not hard to whip up a recipe for a quick trip through Myanmar. Take a couple of days in Bagan to see some of the 2000 temples. Add a little cruise down the Irrawady if that’s to your taste. Fold in a dose of Mandalay in order to visit the Mahagandayon monastery, and the few remaining teak houses and bridges in this last imperial town. Perhaps a pinch of Maymyo, once a colonial British hill station, now renamed Pyin Oo Lwin; somewhat like Myanmar’s Abbotabad. Cross over the central highlands, perhaps stopping for a quick look at the numerous statues of Buddhas left by visitors at the Pindaya caves, and then on to a day or two of relaxed boating around Lake Inle, looking at the floating gardens, visiting the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery, famous for its jumping cats, and the Indein pagoda complex. Before flying out of a Yangon in slow decline from its colonial glory days, like a lesser Kolkata, visit the Shwedagon pagoda and the sleeping Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi. Allow plenty of time for the mixture to settle into your soul. Add a dash of other sights which are accessible, and its food.

That is the easy part. The flavour of the whole is hard to anticipate before you travel. The hard part is to get a feel of what the country is like before leaving home. The military dictatorship which lasted from 1962 has slowly ceded space to an elected government. I looked for books on Burma. There are many books with deal with the events before the recent elections. A graphic travelogue called "Burma Chronicles" by Guy DeLisle was published in 2009. It is about his experiences in Myanmar as an expatriate. "Burma’s Spring" by Rosalyn Russell is almost a companion volume, talking of her time in Myanmar as an expat a little later. Both authors were journalists living in Myanmar with their spouse who worked with an NGO.

Now, in the last year, and half a decade after these books were written, the situation seems to have changed. Myanmar has had high-profile government-to-government meetings with its neighbours. It is looking for ways to defuse the ethnic violence of the last decades [Note added: Alas, hopes]. There is a little a lot more news about Myanmar on TV now, and Burmese newspapers are available on the web (at least Myanmar Times and Mizzima are.

I wanted to know a bit more about Burmese history than the oral history told and retold in the family, histories of the Japanese advance and retreat during the war, and oblique references from the history of the Indian freedom struggle. The book "The River of Lost Footsteps" by Thant Myint-U fills this niche. It is a very readable popular history which takes you from the early years of the Burmese state to modern times.

What remain are the practical things: hotel bookings, choosing travel options, and obtaining visas. Also, one has to take time off to learn more than the simple, all purpose greeting, "Mingalabar".

Earthquakes and travel

It turns out that we often travel in one of the most earthquake prone parts of the world: the plate boundary between India and Asia. This includes the Himalayas, much of Myanmar and Bangladesh, and large parts of western and southern China. Large earthquakes are infrequent enough that travelling is fairly safe. However, we have often been saddened by news of the destruction of places we loved. A year ago it was Kathmandu. This year, just as we begin preparations for a trip to Myanmar, there is news of a second serious earthquake in that country.

Learning about Myanmar is hard. It has cut itself off for so long that the world’s media pretty much ignores it. On the day of the quake there were reports across the world, but there has been no news later. When I set about investigating this, it took a while to get to Myanmar Times, which confirmed that the official count of deaths and injuries remains small: "Three people were killed and five injured, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement said." All is not well, however. Mizzima, another newspaper from Myanmar, reports: "The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has expressed her profound sympathy to the government and people of Myanmar after the devastating 6.8 magnitude earthquake that struck central Myanmar, including the ancient city of Bagan, causing loss of life and extensive damage to nearly 200 historic monuments and iconic pagodas." That means about 10% of the temples have been badly damaged.

I discovered that this is not the first time this has happened. The Myanmar times had an article which said "State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi instructed the Culture and Religious Affairs Ministry yesterday to refrain from conducting urgent renovations on the 187 ancient Bagan pagodas and temples that were damaged by a 6.8-magnitude earthquake on August 24. She asked the ministry to discuss renovations with specialists from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and to make their plans with technical support from the organisation". The article led on to another which reported on the fallout of an earthquake in 1975: "More than 600 ancient pagodas in Bagan have been ruined by botched renovation work, an architect has claimed. U Sun Oo, a member of the Bagan Management Plan Organising Committee, laid blame for the destruction on the practice of putting out complex and sensitive repair work to tender."

An older news report talked about some other problems in maintainance: "The long-running “limbo hotels” problem arose when the 42 hoteliers were cleared to build in Bagan by the Archaeology Department in 2013, but subsequently ordered to stop work and not to take in guests. The guesthouses, mostly modest establishments run by local residents, are deemed to be too close to Bagan’s famed temples, a factor that could put at risk the city’s bid to be included on the UNESCO World Heritage listing. As a result, the Ministry of Culture reinstated a zoning ban put in place in 1998 but rarely enforced since then. Earlier this year, 129 properties deemed to be operating too close to the ancient site, including the 42 guesthouses, were given a 10-year deadline to move to a special hotel zone."

The most disturbing report for would-be travellers comes from Bangkok Post, which reports "Another Myanmar earthquake of at least 7.0 magnitude is possible and it may affect Bangkok and northern Thailand in the absence of an aftershock in the neighbouring country after Wednesday’s 6.8-magnitude". I tried to confirm the basic facts, and found a site called Earthquake Track which indeed confirms that there are no aftershocks.

Bagan is one of the high point of a Myanmar itinerary, so this leaves us somewhat undecided.

Note added after the trip:

While all the snippets of news about damage to temples is true, Bagan is still stunning, and definitely worth traveling to. More than a year after the quake, there has not been another one. This could mean that the next one will release a lot of energy. Or it might not. Earthquakes are hard to predict.

Burma telegrams, all waiting to be read

map of MyanmarI found a present for The Family’s birthday: a trip to Myanmar. For practical reasons we can only make this trip months too late, but it will be a birthday present in spirit.

We have discussed a road trip to Myanmar for long, but when you start planning it looks uncomfortably romantic. We just do not have the time for a drive in the single week that we can take off from work. So we are forced to fly; we will miss the continuity that a journey by land would give us. There are flights from Kolkata to Yangon. However, the only convenient flight from Mumbai to Kolkata and then on to Yangon is on a Monday. We do not want to waste the weekend, so we decide to go through Bangkok. This gets us to Yangon in a reasonable amount of time.

We have little more than a week for this trip. This calls for a lot of reading. My knowledge of Myanmar has been restricted to stories I heard from my grandmother. This was a country which many Indian families had contact with before the second world war, mine being no exception. When the Japanese air force started bombing erstwhile Rangoon in 1941, children and mothers came back to India to stay with relatives. When Burma was captured by Japan, Indians had to flee, many on foot, during the extreme monsoon weather that strikes these parts. I remember the story of someone in my family, I forget who, walking back to India. I was too young then to appreciate how bad this must have been, but impressionable enough to remember the horror stories.

A few years ago, when we travelled to the Mizo hills and heard about American pilots bailing out of burning planes and seeking shelter with the local villagers, I did not connect it with old family stories. A few weeks ago I mentioned my grandmother’s story to a friend, and she said that someone in her family also walked back home. She remembered hearing that it took half a year. As we talked, we began to connect these up with stories like those we heard in the Mizo hills. How is it that a whole nation has forgotten stories of this long walk home?

We will spend a dozen days travelling to Myanmar and back. So many travellers have written about their experiences in recent years (here, here, here, here, …), that it will take me weeks of reading. I have weeks, so that is fine. These are our Burma telegrams, as Kipling once wrote, waiting to be read.