A Step Back in Time with Myanma Friends

December 16, 2012-December 24, 2012

Hello Fellow Fish,

After our brief layover in Bangkok, we boarded our plane Burma bound. We landed in Yangon (sometimes pronounced Rangoon, or Yangoon) and tried our best to get our bearings, but we were a bit distracted by all the red-toothed men wearing skirts. This was something we hadn’t seen before but eventually realized that the skirts were very common traditional male garbs and the red teeth come from chewing a specific type of red beetle similar to that of chewing tobacco.

It was really refreshing to be in a new place but we had no where to go as we figured we didn’t need to make any reservations. So we get in a cab to the downtown area and ask the driver to take us to any hostels or guesthouses he knows of. Unfortunately, they were all booked. We did our best to negotiate where we could and finally got an owner to bite. We basically beg and plea for him to let us stay at his establishment offering to sleep on the lobby floor and/or the balcony. He is hesitant at first, but after much persistence, he does us one better and gives us the staff closet, which had 3 plywood bunks attached to the wall. We were ecstatic at our luck. So we put our bags down and go explore the city.

We got dinner at an authentic Japanese restaurant, which had every detail of Japanese cuisine, table etiquette, service, and even the toilets down to a tee. It was here I realized how similar Burmese sounds to Japanese in terms of voice intonation and rhythm of speaking. Which explained why every Burmese employee at the restaurant spoke fluent Japanese. Their English wasn’t very good, our Burmese was non-existent, so we found common ground and ordered and spoke in Japanese to communicate.

Yangon, it seemed, was a melting pot for all South East Asian countries. Every street we walked by had a feel of some other country in the region. For example, one street had a Laos/Cambodia feel, the next street down had short chairs and a Vietnamese feel, further along we encountered China, and India. Being such a geographically central country Myanmar fit the mold of having all different types of cultures clashing in this one capital city.

On our second day, we were woken up at the break of dawn with the staff members of the guesthouse coming in and out of our room getting ready for their day. This was obviously an unforeseen consequence of sleeping in the staff quarters. So we got our day off to an early start and walked around the city. We avoid being scammed by money exchangers that will claim to give you a good exchange rate (too good to be true type of deal) then pull a fast one and actually just end up taking your money. We spent the day walking and seeing the sights like the different golden temples and pagodas which would slowly become a trend for our time in Myanmar. At one such place, the Shwedagon pagoda, there was a “foreigners charge,” which is exactly what it sounds like. This got Ariel a little bit upset because he didn’t see this as a fair or reasonable practice. It is hard to disagree, but at the end of the day there was nothing we could do about it. So I snuck in, Jeff and Justin paid for tickets, and Ariel sat it out. This particular pagoda is famous for the extravagant and over the top amounts of gold inlaid to every possible place. The Buddha’s both large and small were covered in gold and had a really tacky looking colorful, spinning pinwheel, backlight. The place was huge, but it brought a very eclectic group of people to one place. Amongst the picture taking tourists, there were monks leading prayers, and worshippers following along and chanting with them. Nobody seemed to mind all the foreigners just checking it out and taking pictures of all this happening.

Staff room bed. There were only 3 bunks and Jeff lost the floor/on top of the cabinet draw

Wedding Crashing

After dinner, we made our way to Trader’s Hotel. The biggest hotel in the city, meant for foreigners and rich Burmese people. We walk in like we own the place and nobody asks any questions. We get the elevator up to the pool level and just sit and contemplate jumping in. There was a big gathering taking place next to the pool complete with a stage, screen, tables, and packed full of guests. Turns out it is a wedding. The hotel staff kept passing us four bums just sitting on the pool chairs, and I decide its time to try my luck. As a staff member walks out with a cart of food, I casually go up and start asking questions about it. It was clearly shrimp and other little finger foods, but I was waiting for him to offer my friends and I some. Of course when he did, I politely decline, insisting it is not my place to which he insists back saying there is plenty. So we chow down, and later, the same guy even brings us desert! Feeling emboldened, I cross the make shift boundary into the wedding reception and strike up a conversation with one of the guys in the smoking section of the area. Surprisingly, he spoke really good English. It turns out his cousin is the bride, and he introduces me to the rest of his family. The stage was for speeches and Karaoke, so once again, I steer the conversation towards Karaoke and get him to the point where he offers for me to sing. To which I politely decline until he insists. Once on stage, he makes a little introduction for me then we go on to absolutely nail Hotel California, by the Eagles. The crowd loved it and started calling me, “The HERO of the party.” Afterwards, the father of the bride came up and slipped me a bill in his handshake, the equivalent of $50, which was pretty awesome. Back at my new friends’ table, he introduces me to more people, and keeps putting glasses of Johnny Walker Blue Label in front of me. This family was obviously very well off and they loved having an American to hang out with and practice English with. I call over the other three and they join the party until it starts to wind down when the guy I sang with asks if we want to go to an after party.  Naturally, we agree and after a few more drinks, we get in his car and go to a nearby club.

Karaoke. This after the song, when the father of the bride came up to shake my hand.

Apparently, drunk driving is no big deal in Myanmar because this guy was TANKED. It was not smart of us to get in the car with him, and in any other situation I would have been very disinclined to do so, but the land is lawless and besides…YOLO. The family basically bought out the club, we had bottle service for more JW Blue, as well as an assortment of other beverages to compliment it. All of it paid for by someone not us. It was a great time filled with dancing and singing. The best part of the whole place might have actually been the bathroom. I was surprised as I walked to the bathroom door, a gentleman in a tuxedo opened the door for me. On the other side, another similarly dressed man pointed me to the urinal. When I was finished, at the sink were two men; one to squirt soap into my palms and the other to turn the water on and off. Once I was finished, the soap man turned into the towel man and dried my hands for me. At which point, the door opened up again and I was back in the club. Quite the bathroom experience.

As the night dwindled, we were dropped off back at the hotel. But we weren’t ready to be done yet. So we wander the halls of the hotel, through different ballroom and conference areas just trying to see what we can see. Jeff ends up finding a few loose beers that we help ourselves to and finally make our way out to find some food. We get a cab to take us to this late night food stall, and tell him to wait, it will only be 10 minutes. It wasn’t. We chow down and are then joined by a slob of a man, who is clearly drunk. He insists on taking us to another club, saying he’ll pay. So he gets in our cab with us and directs the driver to some deserted street. Turns out the club was closed. So he gets out, and tells us the driver wants 5,000 Kyat (local currency) and then walks off. We just nod and try to get him away, and we get dropped off back at our guest house.


About 10 hours north of the capital city, lies Mandalay. We got motorbikes and acquainted ourselves with the surroundings and tried to see as much as possible. Getting out of the city area was a feat in and of itself. We had to wind our way through crowded marketplaces packed from side to side with vendors and people carrying large baskets filled with produce on their heads. There was always a very distinct odor of fish and exhaust in the air which made breathing very difficult at times. Once outside the city, however, it was all worth it. We would drive along the river and marvel at the temples and pagodas scattered in the distant hills, sticking out above the tree line like giant elves with golden hats hiding in the forest.

Notice all the temples in the distance above the tree line

We were fortunate enough to be able to see some of the oldest temples ever built. A place called Sagaing Temple, where we had to drive up steep hills but were rewarded with stunning views from the top. Afterwards, we drove along to a place called Inwa (Ava) which was an island full of temples and pagodas, but had no motor vehicles whatsoever. As soon as we parked our bikes, we were hounded by a flock of children trying to sell us things. These kids were truly remarkable. They were all under 12 years old and all legitimately spoke 5-6 languages fluently. The first question they would ask is, “where are you from?” Then whatever your response, they would carry on in that language. It was impressive, yet a bit sad to think what these kids would be able to accomplish with that kind of skill set if they had had access to different opportunities, namely in other countries. Instead, they are stuck selling trinkets to tourists at a parking area of an island. Inwa itself was pretty neat. Since there were no cars allowed, at the landing area there was a small army of horse drawn carriages. Their prices were a bit steep, but there is no other way to get around the island because walking would take far too long. So we pay about $7.50 per horse and driver and get taken all over to see what Inwa had to show. Our driver even let me hold the reigns and crack the whip while we were in the carriage. Before the sun set, we had one more sight we wanted to see, and that was Anapurna.

So we get the ferry back to our bikes and follow a van to the famous bridge at Anapurna. We make it just in time to walk across and back and watch the sunset. Along the way, we start talking to some monks who turn out to be “novice” monks but they speak really good English. We tell them about our trip and how we had passing thoughts of staying at monasteries and being monks for a little bit, but never found the opportunity to do so. To which they extended an invitation to their monastery and said we could stay for free! The one caveat being we would have to cut our hair. So we respectfully declined.
Just MONKeying around. Actually discussing philosophical things with these "novice" monks

We followed a van to find our way back to the city and got dinner at a street spot that was run entirely by children. Once again, the laws here are lax (if not entirely non-existent) and that goes too for child labor. It was quite a scene. One kid would take our order, then yell across to another kid who would then cook it while yet another kid brought it to us and cleaned up for us. They all seemed to be having fun under the supervision of one adult who stood at the corner to oversee his operation. The food was delicious and we all ate our fill. Unfortunately, later that night, Justin threw his entire portion up just down the road from where he ate it.
Dinner wasn't sitting so well with Justin
On our next day trip, we found ourselves at yet another ferry that took us down river to yet another temple. The Minigun Temple. The Mingun temple is a monumental uncompleted temple/shrine that was begun by King Bodawpaya in 1790. It was not completed due to an astrologer claiming that once the temple was finished, the king would die. Sure enough, the king died before the completion anyway, but the completed structure would have been the largest in the world at 150 meters tall. There are huge cracks all over because of an earthquake that hit in the early 19th century. Along side of this is also the largest ringing bell in the world, weighing in at 90 tons! About 89 tons heavier than the liberty bell! We spent a good part of the day exploring this little area. We were able to sneak past the guards and climbed to the top of the temple for a great view of the surroundings. It was like stepping back in time, looking over the small town and seeing the people scurry about, with music gently playing in the background. Looking out into the distance seeing the rolling hills and little pagodas scattered about. The thing I noticed was the lack of power lines anywhere. The place was so natural it almost felt strange. Our time at the top was cut short when a man came up and told us we weren’t allowed to be up there. So we made our way down and looked around the little town before getting on the ferry back to the city area.
Minigun Temple

At the top of Minigun Temple

That night, we feasted. We found a BBQ place that grilled fresh and tasted delicious. Since we were in a bit of a local area, we drew stares from the people around us. After a while, one guy was bold enough to come to our table and offer us some of his food…it was grub. Literally, white grub that was taken straight off of a log in the woods. Timon and Pumba would have been pumped, but we were a bit more reserved and politely declined until the guy went away. The difficult part of leaving this area was finding a driver to take us back for the price we wanted. So we ended up walking most of the way and happened upon a small carnival; complete with rides for kids, games, and a stage at the very front putting on a traditional Burmese show. Naturally, we were drawn to the gambling part. We got sucked in to a game of dice and before we knew it there was a crowd surrounding us, once again, because we were the only foreigners there. The lady running the dice game made a killing off of our patronage and was able to close early and go home, so we moved on to the next stall, same story. The poor lady kept telling people to back up off her game area (it was on the ground) if they weren’t playing, but people were so curious to see what we were up to. After our stop at the carnival, we found two guys who would take us to our hotel.

Myanmar was an incredible country. The food fantastic, the people friendly just for the sake of being friendly, the culture rich and diverse. We were especially lucky to get there before tourism runs it aground like in a lot of the other neighboring countries. Surprisingly, Myanmar seems leagues ahead of places like Cambodia or Laos from a developmental standpoint despite it only recently opening its borders to tourism.

It is here that the group splits and I make my way back to Yangon to spend 12 hours in the airport before my flight back Thailand to meet up with some old friends from my study abroad days while the others hang out in Bagan before going back to Thailand themselves.

Pictures from Bagan

Stay tuned for the next installment when we are all back in Bangkok racing against time to make a flight and the loneliest Christmas I have ever experienced.

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Until Next Time,

The Tunas

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