Burma (well, officially Myanmar according to the government) is of course a close neighbor of Thailand geographically. As Anchali and I found out during our recent visit it is quite different from Thailand both culturally and economically. Luckily for us a direct flight between Chiang Mai and Mandalay now exists on Air Mandalay, a private and modern airline (not to be confused with the crash prone government run Myanma (not Myanmar) Air).
I was delivering Kat’s computer to her, which I later learned required some paperwork and bribes on her part. When we got off the plane and onto a bus to bring us to the airport terminal, an airport employee started to talk to me. He said “Mr. Georgie? Mr. Gagay? Mr. Gagagagay?” etc. until I said “Mr. Gregory?”. He was happy he found me and asked if I had a computer, then told me my friends were waiting for me inside. After a quick SARS test, immigration check, and customs, we were in a van on the way to Mandalay, 40 miles away.
Kat and Tony’s house used to be a school (the one they work for now) with something like 400 students. It’s big, old, and interesting, and our guest room was great. After the required chit chat and unpacking we got down to business and headed to the nearby “beer station” for ummm…beer and dinner. Besides the uhhh…beer we had things like BBQ’d quail eggs, whole fish, BBQ’d parts of fish, liver, and soup. It was good. Especially the beer!
The next day we went to an amazing temple I don’t remember the name of. Kat and Tony’s friend Si- mon, a Chin man from Northwestern Burma was our guide, translator, and driver. He excelled at the guiding and translating, but I’ll not comment on the driving! Simon is studying computer programming while trying to survive by teaching English to rich Chinese. He proved to be a wonderful person and a great new friend.
Not ones to keep us idle, Kat and Tony had plans for us. We were soon all in a questionable Japanese car from the 80’s (Burmese taxi) on the way (quickly!) to Maymyo, also known as Pyin U Lwin. Accord- ing to the Lonely Planet, “From 1896 Maymyo was a British hill station where, during the hot season, the servants of the Raj went to escape the head and dust of the plains. It is 67km east of Mandalay and, at 1070m (3510 ft), is considerably higher. The altitude makes all the difference. Even at the height of the hot season, Maymyo is pleasantly cool and at certain times of the year it can get quite chilly. Best of all, the air is fresh”.
Maymyo was indeed MUCH cooler and quite interesting. We had plans for a visit to the famous National Kandawgyi Gardens, as well as a “boy only” hike to a waterfall. Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate! Rain rain rain kept us either damp outside or damp in the local coffee shop. Anchali was freezing most of the time, so luckily the huge (outdoor) market helped as we found a sweater and a rain jacket. The next day we had a few hours of no rain in the morning and made it to the botanical garden, which was as beautiful as any I’ve ever seen. Then before we knew it we were back in another car of questionable mechanical stability down the windy crazy on the way to Mandalay. The waterfall will have to wait until next year I guess.
Luckily for Anchali, there happened to be a quite good Thai restaurant right across the street from Kat and Tony’s house. Even more amazingly Kat liked to eat there! So some good Thai food and some sleep got us ready for tour guide Tony. Kat was off to work and and Tony got stuck with us. We loaded into a tiny little taxi sized for dwarfs and made our way to the bank of the Ayeyarwady river. From there we boarded a “tourist only” boat for a 1.5 hour ride across and up the river to the ancient city of Mingun. Once we got accustomed to the steady string of people trying to sell us stuff, walking around this quiet historical area was quite enjoyable. We befriended a young Burmese man who taught English locally through a German funded program. He was a wonderful guide and very friendly and interesting. If you can read German the website is www.help-myanmar.org. A quicker boat trip downriver and another tiny taxi ride got us back home.
The following day both Kat and Tony had to work (not really, but they were very tired of us and needed to get away…ha ha ha) and we were left in the hands of Simon and his friend Mr. Creon. They stuck us on the back of their motorbikes and we cruised Mandalay. A trip outside the city to a temple and cave complex on a hill followed by an accent of the famous Mandalay Hill kept us busy all morning. Mandalay Hill was especially nice, with a beautiful temple at the top and a spectacular view of the city and the river. After lunch we went to the Mandalay Zoo, which was actually OK, though people selling food to feed to the animals at many exhibits was a little disturbing.
Simon joined us for dinner at a excellent Chinese restaurant, and we all feasted. The exchange rate is quite favorable for USD these days, so things were generally very cheap for us. Food and beer were consistently cheaper than Thailand, which was a nice surprise. However, anything imported from most anywhere except China was expensive. Most popular tourist spots also had a entry fee paid to the government, which was always a little painful to pay. They would use terms such as “historical restoration fee” but we all know where the money goes. Anyway, once we were in Burma our money went a long way.
The next day Kat was appointed tour guide, and Simon decided he wanted to come play as well. We hired a taxi for the day, and took a trip out of town to U Bein’s Bridge. This rickety curved bridge across a lake is the longest teak bridge in the world, at 1.2km. It was very interesting…people selling art in little huts in the middle of the bridge, lepers begging for money, university students strolling, and very few white tourists. A small boy and girl latched onto us as “guides” and they just happened to be selling jade necklaces as well. We crossed the bridge and visited the large temple on the other side, and then walked to see the university nearby, with hundreds of students lounging in the various tea shops. I gave in and bought a jade necklace for the outrageous rip-off price of $1.50. Kat refused to buy one, but gave her little guide about $0.50. He was still a little unhappy…we think because he could not make the sale. Back in the taxi (tiny with wooden benches for seats) we headed off to the “Snake Temple” known only by the taxi driver. It proved to be worth the trip…a beautiful Buddha image with three large Burmese pythons sitting on and around it. Another stop at a another temple and then back home to prepare for our going away dinner.
We invited Simon and his roommate Peter (another Chin, teacher at Kat and Tony’s school) to join us at a beer station before trying another Thai restaurant. Lots of beer, followed by food and fun made us sad to be leaving. Simon and Peter were absolutely wonderful and certainly hope to see them again. Kat and Tony were OK too (ha ha ha). A 6am taxi was arranged for us and we said our goodbyes to everyone. The trip home was much longer as we had to fly to Rangoon first, and then back to Chiang Mai. We found the people of Burma very friendly, most could speak at least a little English, and nearly everyone was quite excited to see a white person. I know what it must be like to be a famous star, no matter where we went people would stop and stare or maybe say “hello!”. Everyone thought Anchali was a Burmese girl and always tried to get her to translate. She would talk to them in English and say “Sorry I don’t understand you at all!”. It was a wonderful trip, and we are excited to go back again next year, hopefully for longer!