Monday, 29 October 2007
Burmese days and Burmese nights that melt flawlessly into each other in a brilliant sunset or sunrise. Waking up in a foreign land, going out and being greeted by the incongruity of it all, people selling bananas on the sidewalks, packed pick up trucks zooming by, mohinga being dished out for breakfast by roadside hawkers is really an amazing experience. And this is followed by finding breakfast, a process of wandering down the streets and tree lined boulevard until you see something that catches your fancy. The roadside breakfast is probably the most authentic of all, sitting down on those small plastic stools and sharing the company of locals.
The tea houses and restaurants are also interesting places to sit down over a bowl of Shan rice noodles/mohinga/rice with mixed dishes, not forgetting the customary pot of diluted Chinese tea. The best part of it, was not seeing a single other foreigner in these places tucked away in little alleys and backstreets. Finding them is often a satisfying experience, like the small 333 noodle shop recommended by Lonely Planet tucked in a small street behind the City Hall. Or that little Burmese BBQ in Chinatown, where we, once again, perched on small stools while dipping our sticks of porcine innards into a communal pot of boiling soup for it to cook, into the chili sauce bowl, and then into our mouths. And we were actually taught how to do this by a friendly Burmese gentleman who was enjoying his meal and the young couple who ran the BBQ. Travellers often derive great satisfaction in knowing that their paths are unique, their own, and i guess im no exception, and so often it is the experiences and times you share with the people there that make these experiences unique, and so different from that of a tourist. A nice quote i think i got from LP was that a backpacker is a collector of experiences, the tourist souvenirs. Cant have put it better.
Food aside, my first day in Burma was devoted to the two main Payas in Yangon, the Sule Paya and the unmistakable Shwe Dagon, visible even when driving into the city. Sule was my first exposure to Burma's many Payas. The main attraction was not the paya itself, an undoubtedly attractive golden spire forming an island in the middle of a crossroads, but rather the people at the paya and how they went about their daily lives, as opposed to tourist sites where everyone is in the industry, you get a pseudo culture and most of what they wanted was to make money off you. It was a genuine interaction and understanding of the Burmese culture, and how religion plays a major role in their daily lives.
What struck me most was the tranquility, as if life was pure and simple, unburdened and unencumbered by the trappings of material wealth or the pursuit of it, as it should be. The Burmese, are truly, despite the hardships they face and oppression, one of the most happy, caring and content people ive ever seen.
Sunday, 28 October 2007
First experience of a cultural shock, compounded by the men in longyis gathered right outside the airport on the sandy carpark who crowded around you offering to change money and get you a taxi. The former i did at a bad rate - didn't know the rates for dollars to kyat (pronounced ch-yat) had just risen. Lost i reckon about 5 dollars. It did leave me a bad taste in the mouth, being hustled, and faced with the reality of travel in a foreign country. Admittedly i felt, then and throughout the ride into downtown Yangon, that was this what i had expected or wanted, as all first time backpackers do. Being warned by my driver against taking photographs of the guys in green longyi (traffic police), and generally anything that looks vaguely military/government did nothing to add to my enjoyment of the ride into Yangon. Doubts by then were really forming in my mind if i was misguided in embarking on this journy.
The doubts soon evaporated - the Burmese, really are the nicest people ever. I cannot even remember how many times people have offered their assistance willingly and with a smile, even though i was obviously the lost foreign tourist. Getting directions, being offered tea and meals at their own expense (which really moved me, given the hardship the Burmese people are facing), and even bringing me to their homes to meet their wives and children.
My main grievance is the insane and irritating camera fees - from 1 to 2 USD. They can spot you from a mile off when you whip out your camera, and then close in to sell you those small bookmark like tags to allow you to continue taking photos at major tourist sites.
After amassing so many of the annoying little tags, i became that wee bit wiser and started to spot those guys with their little tags and ubiquitous safari jackets coming and tuck that camera away in my pockets until they passed or went to hassle another traveller. Another thing was the high entrance fees - barring the Shwe Dagon, which i felt was really worth it at 5USD, the other places were really extortionate in their entrance fees. The worst of the lot was Bago (Pegu)'s mini Buddha World at 10 USD for a few, new Buddhist statues and temples. Did manage however, at Kyaiktyo (the Golden Rock) to avoid the 10 dollars, a fortune to the poor backpacker, by pretending to be a local with the aid of my Burmese guide, a Christian Kayin named Soe/Saw (transliteration), made easier no doubt by my Asian heritage.
What really gnaws at me is that all this insance ticketing money (expensive by most standards) is going to fund the military regime and line Senior General Than Shwe's pockets while the ordinary Burmese struggle to feed themselves and their families. Which will inevitably evoke the longstanding debate of Burma: to go or not to go.
I'd say go, main reason being that the government can survive in isolation - it has other sources of revenue (natural resource exploitation is one), while the people, if isolated, suffer much more than the government (which i presume is, and can be very happy to be left alone, especially now with mounting international pressure). Tourism can be another source of revenue to them, and helps raise awareness of their cause. Just DO NOT be a package tourist, then you really are bankrolling the junta and supporting its atrocities. As an independent traveller, staying in guesthouses and locally run hostels, definitely do not cross out Burma from your itinery. And from what i could tell after just one night in Yangon, it was beyond beautiful. It was magical.
Saturday, 27 October 2007
The heat, the stultifying midday sun that soon gave way to a cool,breezy evening, the teashops, the Burmese people in longyi (sarongs) and thanaka (cosmetic made from grinding a certain tree bark), the masses of people, laughing, with brooms sweeping the floors of the Paya in the fading light, clockwise, in a ritual to sweep away the bad luck. The flood of memories soon interrupted by another browser at the travel section. Of which im quite a regular of - drop by when i have time to kill, just flip through the maps and tracing imaginary journeys with my fingers....
But that sudden jolt into bustling, colonial Rangoon and then back made me realise i should really start writing about my experiences and memories of the Golden Land before time eats away at them. There are memories that never fade, but to me, it is those small things that matter, like the Burmese who taught me how to do up a longyi, giving a life demonstration in an eatery in the middle of no where , or stopping by the road to Mandalay to relieve ourselves and have a group of passing Burmese laugh at us. We could have, on hindsight, chosen a more strategic spot rather than right beside the bloody highway i guess.
- Photocopies of cards, passport
- Debit cards
- Some spare cash
- Contact numbers - embassy, home, insurance agent, bank etc
Absolutely essential for solo backpacking trips when your best mate is, well, yourself. A safety blanket, so to say, in case things fall apart.
And when they inevitably do, its worth noting that you travel to travel, for the journey itself and not the destination.
So ive basically restricted myself (so far) to just flipping through my Lonely Planet and going through a mental checklist of things ill need for like the millionth time. Tough. And all interspersed within long and ungodly hours of poring through notes on marketing and Lacan/Freud...
Dread leaving college and going to work for 2 weeks of leave per year... But what choice do i have. Loans have to be paid. After that ill probably quit, do my big overland trip and then decide again what i want to do with my life. Then again, hopefully journalism wont be too boring a job seeing thats going to be my major unless i prove to be an advertising genius (doubt so)....
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
The earth, that is sufficient,
(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
Friday, 26 October 2007
Which brings me: i still have to document my recent travels in Burma and Cambodia - something to do in my spare time i guess. Now what i have are little scraps of paper that i scribble upon in my room over a drink looking out at the night (if im fortunate enough to get a view). Hmm... other things to do include planning a crazy/insane RTW that will take me overland from Singers to Calais in France before taking the chunnel to Britain, down the hippie highway, overland, and then a flight to the states, down highway 66, and then Hawaii and then Japan and overland back to Southeast Asia. Is it just me that when i look at the world map, i invariably trace a route up from Singers to Burma, India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and up into Europe, and think, hey, thats actually not a very long road.
Also saving up (or trying to for the matter) for that KTM 640. (materialism and all.... but when i saw it i just couldn't resist.)
In short, i felt it just wasn't me. I started to question the system, the whole purpose of studying hard, going through the O, A levels, making it to university. I never questioned it, most people never, it was like it was a reality, a fact of life. But was it?
There is so much more to life than just studying, working and then retiring. I felt i wanted something different in my life, i felt i wasn't born to just produce, and consume, and amass material wealth, and die.
By chance, i picked up a copy of Rolf Pott's Vagabonding in a public library, and it was it then, that i decided, life is an open road, there is so much more we can do and explore in life - it is a journey, an epic of infinite opportunities and possibilities. Then i started reading on travel literature - having tea with the Bedouin in the desert, mushing through the Yukon, captivated me. This, i decided, was what i want to do, it was what i found joy and exuberance in. What i tell myself, is that in 60 years time, the stories i want to be telling was of how i found my own paradise in a beach off the coast of Burma, how i got lost in the mazy streets of Cairo and trekked all the way up Mt. Kinabalu to see the sun rise. Not how i bought my first BMW, or how i bought my first property and grew my portfolio. Although some people may derive pleasure in that. To each his own, i say. Im thankful ive found what i want to do, what i seek for in life.