A Nobody In Myanmar: Yangon to Kalaw to Inle Lake Nov 9-20, 2015

 
November 19, 2015….World Toilet Day
From a public health and quality of life perspective, Al Jazeera TV showed some of the world’s worst toilets. I think I’ve already left my mark on a few with the worse to come in India.
At this moment in the table behind me a woman is hammered with her friends, and she’s bawling, having just fallen down. She sounds like she’s in much pain. She’s hysterical but at least she’s not alone.
Which made me wonder if a fall doesn’t kill me, toilets from hell will. Suddenly I feel scared and lonely. And there’s no wifi.
These words may be my last, and I can’t even send them out. Damn you Myanmar, damn you for your bad wifi!!!
Sorry, I just needed to have a rant. Back to our regular educational programming.
Avoid arriving in large, dusty, dark, congested, polluted, stinky Asian cities at night.
Especially Yangon, which I did ten days ago. Ok it’s not that bad if you’ve been to Manilla or Mumbai (hope to avoid them both) but all roads eventually return to Yangon and I’ll see it three times before I exit for India. Whoopee.
Fortunately it does have the million years old, massive and spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda, rising 76m. Though heavily touristed, it’s a calm, serene place (until the Chinese tour buses arrive and then it’s game over).
 
 
Myanmar is supposed to be one of the last exotic, untainted adventure destinations. Loads of pain for loads of gain. Where template tourism and the absence of high speed internet and even ATMs  are a throwback to an honest travel, where you can purge yourself of western trappings. Much to my surprise this is only partially true.
Having read the locals demand foreigners pay with  crisp, immaculate U.S. Dollars, I  loaded up 4 weeks worth of Yankee greenbacks. But ATMs have sprung up like weeds after a monsoon and now foreigners can access and pay with the local currency. However Myanmar hasn’t discovered large bills ($1 and 5 equivalents are the most common big bills) so one must still  carry a shoebox to cart your ATM withdrawal.
While it’s not dialup, it’s not much faster nor reliable. But it’s coming.
The may be no Starbucks or McDonalds yet, but you can feel it. It’s also coming. Call this Cuba but with better food.
While smaller towns may have the odd horse and buggy and all manner of wrecks on four wheels, it’s not unusual to see high end vehicles and late models. So you get the feeling an emerging automobile culture fouled by payment plans is also coming
Everybody I’ve spoken to will offer an opinion about the recent election and the country’s future. A free press and the right to speak one’s mind isn’t coming. It’s already here. Gone are the days when foreigners were shadowed and locals were universally gagged.
Though its high season, some foreigners were spooked away because of fears of civil unrest after the election. It never happened. Nobody wants that. While it’s tempting to say this could be the next Vietnam with hyper capitalism just around the corner, one must remember the locals are mostly adherents to a conservative brand of Buddhism. As such they may lack the ‘make money at all costs and take no prisoners’ mentality of the Chinese and Vietnamese. The Vietnamese would spit them out for breakfast and the Chinese would turn them into plastic toys (the Japanese would make them a hapless anime character).
No, they’re not going to sell themselves out this way, they’re too gentle and decent. Heck, that sounds very Canadian! Some are content with basic human rights and freedom.  Imagine that?
Parts of Buddha:
Literally.
Botataung Pagoda’s gold and relic lined inner chamber (most stupas have a solid core) holds a gold case nestled amongst jewels with one of Buddha’s hair. The next shot is of another pagoda, I forget the name, but it has one of Buddha’s teeth.
My goal is to hunt down one of his toenails.
Street Food:
If you can stomach the lack of hygiene and food safety, some of the street food is delicious. You can count on it being lad ended with MSG, but also cheap cheap cheap, greasy and usually spicey. Theyre big on kitchen sink noodles—everything goes into it. To be honest, after Japan you’ll have to work real hard to impress me with noodles, though a buck a bowl helps.
So the best way to deal with the heat of Yangon is what the British colonialists did…and that’s head for the hills, first to Kalaw and then the area around Inle Lake.
Healing hands, calming air of former monk:
Look carefully and you’ll see that Usoe is missing a finger, lost in farming accident as a boy.
Since then he’s been a monk, like all locals at one point in their life, and a master massager of the Pa-O technique for over 40yrs….four generations in his family.  He works out of a tin roofed shack where the sweat and grime of those four generations of customers are infused into the bamboo walls and reed mats. At age 64 he still does at least 8 ppl are day. $10.46/hr which is on high side for shack operators. But worth every penny as I went back for seconds.
These little critters have a life expectancy of 65 and 68.
 
Market scenes in Kalaw and Nguangshwe….five stars markets for authenticity and local atmosphere.
 
No dog meat here (this ain’t Vietnam or China, but you can find roasted rat…and no I didn’t try it)
 
Inle Lake and the water villages are a total chill out spot. I took a few days off in between some biking and boated with Leah and Katrine ..two lovely people from Germany.
 
Fishing for mud for fertilizer.
Famous for their one legged fishing and rowing, the fisher folk haul in a decent load of fish. But the lake also functions as a wash basin, a toilet and exhaust from fleets of boats, so as hard as it was, I limited my fish intake.
 
 
 
 
Couple of days I went biking and tracked down some old ruins, including a cluster of a 1000 ruined stupas. Such as these:
 
I expected to have them all to myself, but an autumn festival was going on.
Families of monks lined up and partied then gave alms/offerings to 100s if not 1000s of monks of all ages.
Here some of the younger monks got ready for the big procession.
 
 
Red Mountain Winery:
Everybody passing through the area climbs the hill to the only winery in Myanmar. You’d expect it to be vile in a home brew kinda way, and the red did remind me of Trish’s dad’s (miss you Stan) home brew which was….sorry Stan, vile. However, a couple of the whites were almost drinkable.
 
Typically most eateries and beer joints are culturally divided. Walking ATMs eat and drink at tourist-oriented places, while locals have their own unsanitized holes. Occasionally, quite often actually, you see foreigners slum it and eat local. I tested my gut many a time and came out OK. But Kuang Kuang was the most interesting joint in Nyaungshwe, my base for six nights. Every evening but my last I’d grab a draft (75cents) on the way to or after dinner and watch the place crawl with either all foreigners, or all locals, or an effortless combo of both. Great atmosphere, great cultural interchange, and no one ever got too stupid.
Here I’m with Art (and his hired slave), a 68yr old American and core traveller fresh off the unbeaten track of Papua New Guinea where for 2 weeks he was the only gringo. He’d put most of us to shame.
Btw, the local brew, Myanmar beer is acceptable.
Heck they even served up passable Chinese food.
 
Taungyi 
One of the more popular festivals in Myanmar is the Taungyi Fire Balloon Festival. Here thousands rocked out to a band that can be best described as a high school garage band. Sorry, that was rather generous…a junior high school garage band.
 
But the real reason people came was to see these babies light up and fly off.
Massive hot air balloons lift off with a load of fireworks. Yes, a load of fireworks. Last year 4 ppl were killed and 12 injured. The night before, one went down prematurely and firebombed a car.
The one below also went off prematurely, raining it’s load of fireworks down and sending people scurrying for their video cameras or cover. But honestly, it was exhilarating. Each subsequent balloon that went off left us both excited and nervous for another debacle.
 
 
A Nobody In Myanmar:
I went to the Fire Ballon Fest with a lovely Swiss couple, Thomas and Sabina. They  were treated  like rock stars. People wanted their pictures taken with them. I get that.
Over the years and through Asian countries travelling with Trish meant l was a somebody. Her pasty white skin and radiant smile meant not only was she a walking ATM, but occasionally a novelty. We had our Schlick. I was her guide, we got local prices and also better service.
Here after they realize I’m a foreigner, I get a pause, perhaps some indifference, perhaps the red carpet. While I don’t have to carry Trishs bags anymore, I feel invisible. I see doors still open for white folk, but I’m more or less (especially when wearing the longyi), a nobody in Myanmar.