Two and a half thousand years?

I was told that if I happened to be in Lake Inle or its neighbourhood, I should not miss the group of pagodas called Shwe Inn Thein in the village of Indein. We ran into a traffic jam on the canal as our boat approached the village. Many boats were trying to dock. We got off and took a walk through a bamboo forest to reach a covered walk. Our local guide, Ni Ni Leung, had told us about the many shops that line this walk, and warned us not to be distracted. This was good advice. When we reached the site with its hundreds of old brick stupas, we were stunned by the beauty that needs to be reclaimed from decay. Many stupas are in the condition that you see in the featured image.

Details on a pagoda in Shwe In Thein, at lake InleMost of the stupas date from the 16th and 17th centuries CE, I am told. However, the oldest which can be dated comes from the 14th century. The Shan kings founded a state which was roughly contemporary with the Bagan kingdom. It is said that Anawratha, the founding king of Bagan, erected a stupa in Shwe Inn Thein. Later I read that it is believed, by some, that the site hosted stupas from the time messenger monks from the Magadha empire, dispatched by the Indian emperor Ashoka, brought Buddhism to this area. Apocryphal stories of miracles and great antiquity often adhere to places which are old. So I don’t know whether this is true. However, in the spirit of that most wonderful of guide books, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I choose to repeat the most colourful story about this site.

I saw much renovation going on: ancient stupas are being covered in undecorated plaster and painted gold. Ni Ni Leung told us more than once of the difference between renovation and restoration. When one sees the renovated golden stupas, one longs for thoughtful reconstruction. The decorations on the old stupas are exquisite, as you can see in the example above, and in the featured image. We saw only one which has been restored with any care. The present government of Myanmar is very culturally conscious. It is possible that it will invest in the education needed to make sure that this site receives the care that Bagan now gets. In any case, this is a sight that should not be missed if you are in the neighbourhood.

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Blue hour at Lake Inle

I arrived at Lake Inle in the Shan state of Myanmar expecting that the boats would be traditional. I’d heard stories of how the boatmen on this lake can row with oars held in hands as well as feet. I was surprised at my first view of the boats. They looked completely traditional: flat bottomed teak boats with elegant long prows. But each was kitted out with an outboard motor. They were fast and rode high, slapping the surface when the wind picked up a bit.

Hotel on stilts at Lake Inle in Myanmar The half hour ride to the hotel was great fun. We cut through the lake at a very rapid clip. The sun had set just before we arrived at the jetty in Nyaung Shwe town. As we started out the light was fading from the sky. The golden hour was shading into the blue hour as we raced through the water. Soon the lights of the hotel rose out of the water ahead of us. We rushed through channels bordered by reeds. Then the motor cut out and we coasted in to the jetty. This was the coolest ride to a hotel that I’ve ever had.

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.

Soccer balls and the Forbidden City

The Family and I visited the Forbidden City on a hot day of May last year. We’d not really anticipated how hot Beijing can get, and this day was a special scorcher.Guardian lion in the forbidden city We passed the three main audience halls in the central courtyard and turned into the section called the Palace of Tranquil Longevity, looking for the famous nine-dragon screen in front of the quarters of the famous Qianlong emperor. The sun was almost directly overhead. We had run out of water to drink. After admiring the dragons, we started looking for one of the food stalls inside the palace grounds. As a result, we did not pay too much attention to this guardian lion in front of the Qianlong emperor’s palace.

I was drawn back to my photo of this Tongshi, as bronze guardian lions are called in Mandarin, by an interesting article which connects it with Platonic solids, the design of footballs, and certain chemicals called buckyballs or fullerenes. A football is made by stitching together panels which are either pentagons or hexagons. Regular solids of this kind are called buckyballs. In the picture of one hemisphere of a football you see 6 pentagons. Since a football is symmetric, the half that you can’t see will have another 6 pentagons. A footballIt seems that mathematicians can prove that there must be exactly 12 pentagons on any structure that looks like a buckyball: and that the standard issue football is one such. The football, these new molecules, and Platonic solids like the dodecahedron are all tied together by these 12 pentagons. From the article I learned that the shape of the modern football was anticipated in the year 300 CE by a man named Pappus who lived in Alexandria. This figure was later discussed in a book published in 1509. The book was written by Luca Paccioli and illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci. In China such solids were first discussed much later, probably for the first time by Wending Mei in 1692.

The lion was made during the Qianlong emperor’s reign, so sometime between the years 1740 CE and 1800 CE. However, when you look carefully at the details, in the featured photo, of the ball held by the lion, you notice that it is not a buckyball. I can see only one pentagon. The article has photos of the bottom of the ball, and counts a few more, but nowhere like the 12 needed to make a buckyball. So it seems that the artist who made this deformed the shape of the ball quite significantly but could not dispense with pentagons. Still I like the fact that this shape brings together Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Qianlong emperor.

Crowds with a stick

This has been going on for a while I guess, but I’d noticed it last year only among teenagers and movie stars. Now it has started creeping up the food chain. All the places which used to be called "scenic spots" are blighted by hordes of selfie shooters. This being India, a selfie is not complete without the whole neighbourhood. I’m tempted to join one of these selfie groups and smile at the camera. Will they notice a stranger grinning at the edge of the group? The alternative is to have the kind of visceral reaction which you see on the face of the guy moving out of the frame.

Selfies in ChinaChina is also full of people deploying selfie sticks at every place where tourists may go. You see a typical Chinese selfie being taken in the photo here: it is completely individual. The Indian selfie is much more communal. What does that tell us about the two countries?