Myanmar is Where Buses Go to Retire

Due to the economic sanctions placed on it by the US and EU, Myanmar has to make do without many consumer goods. It does, however, have relations with many Asian countries, so based on what I saw, Myanmar isn’t hurting as much as the US government likes to think it is. For example, there are joint-venture hotels in Yangon (between the Myanmar government and investors from other countries.) All the Coke we drank in Myanmar was imported from Thailand. Myanmar is rich in natural resources, and the government makes a lot of money off of precious gems that are illegal to sell in Europe, but allowed in China.

The transportation system also depends on its Asian neighbors. The country doesn’t produce its own buses or cars, so every vehicle I saw was used, usually Japanese or the occasional Korean model. This is common in New Zealand and probably other countries as well, but the funniest thing about Myanmar buses is that they haven’t bothered to repaint them, so they still sport their Japanese paint jobs. I recognized quite a few of these buses, and tried to get as many pictures of them as possible.

Wow… if I ride this bus, I can get to the Radisson Hotel at Narita Airport? Sweet! (Aung Mingalar bus station, Yangon)

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kitakyushu anymore… (Rest stop, on the road between Yangon and Mandalay)

Even Japan Railways (JR, the government-owned transportation system) sells buses to Myanmar. This one, unfortunately, looked like it had rammed into a building. (Aung Mingalar bus station, Yangon)

But best of all…

Our first evening in Yangon, we were walking around in the dark (no streetlamps in Myanmar) looking for a restaurant we had read about in the guidebook. We misread a sign, took a wrong turn, and started walking down 51st Street in Yangon. Up ahead, I saw something familiar…

“Hey Bob, this bus has the same colors as the Amagasaki city bus!”

“Yeah, it does!”

“Look, there’s some Japanese on it! It IS a Japanese bus.”

“And it even has the entrance in the front and the exit in the back!” (Most Japanese buses work the opposite way, boarding in the back, but Amagasaki city buses board in the front.)

“Wait a second….”

“WTF??? It IS an Amagasaki bus!”

“Why does it say “Myanmar Customs” on the front?”

“I don’t know…. Maybe we shouldn’t hang out here.”

“Bob, go stand by it so I can take a picture, and prove we saw it!”

“No! I don’t want to get in trouble!” (It is illegal in Myanmar to take photos of certain things.)

“No one’s looking!”

Bob promised we’d go back during daylight hours to get a better photo of the Amagasaki city bus, but we never did. I wonder which route it ran? We found another one near another government building. If only Amagasaki knew where their buses were now….

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Bagan: The Should-Be World Heritage Site

Imagine an area the size of Arlington County, Virginia. Now imagine that instead of houses, schools, and paved roads, that area is filled with four thousand temples, big and small, connected by dirt roads. Most are about a thousand years old, dating back to when the area was the capital of an ancient kingdom. There are some tourists, and a few locals, but ten or twenty temples get most of the visitors, leaving most of the others empty except for their Buddha statues and artwork inside. Now you are starting to get an idea of what Bagan is like.

Bagan plain at sunset

The area was somewhat mysteriously abandoned in the 13th century- historians generally agree that it had something to do with the marauding Mongol Empire, but exactly what happened is not known. The temples fell into disrepair, and were further damaged by an earthquake in 1975, but most have now been restored. Although the Pyu kingdom in Myanmar was a contemporary of the kingdom of Angkor, and both practiced Hinduism and Buddhism, the temples are completely different. The temples of Angkor are big- Angkor Wat is gigantic- and are distinguished by their fine sculptures and bas-relief carvings. Many are made of sandstone. The temples of Bagan, on the other hand, tend to be small, and are made of red brick.

Small Bagan temple with an impressive sikhara (corncob-like topper)

Inside they are typically bare, except for a Buddha statue at the center and perhaps some fresco paintings on the walls. While some temples of Angkor are Hindu, others Buddhist; the temples of Bagan are overwhelmingly Buddhist.

Temple ceiling

A few of the more recent ones are large and have lots of statues, but it’s really only a few compared to the number of small ones.

Thatbyinnyu Pahto, one of the busiest temples for tourists, worshippers, and vendors

Actually, most of the small ones don’t have names, only numbers.

One stupa leans, maybe due to the '75 earthquake? The temple number is visible on the lower right

Due to sold-out buses, we could only spend about three days in the area, but I was glad I got to visit it at all. It’s a beautiful place and deserves to be as famous as Angkor Wat.

Happy New Year!

We were lucky enough to celebrate three New Year’s celebrations this year. We rang in January 1st in Sydney, Australia, on a hill overlooking the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge. For Chinese New Year in February, we were in Indonesia on the first day and spent the rest of the festival in Singapore, enjoying several New Year’s-related events like the River Hongbao Festival and the Chingay Parade. Many countries in Southeast Asia, however, celebrate New Year’s in April… with water. Water symbolizes purification, and originally (so I have heard) it was sprinkled onto the heads of elders and onto Buddha images as part of the New Year’s ceremonies. Nowadays it’s more of a water fight.  It’s called Songkran in Thailand, Pii Mai in Laos, Thingyan in Myanmar, and Water-Splashing Festival in southern China (celebrated by the Dai people,) but they’re all about the same. Three or four days of lots and lots of water.

We arrived in Myanmar on the first day of the festival, in the evening. The day’s activities had finished already, so we didn’t get splashed at all. The next morning, we were wondering if we would even get wet. Oh boy, did we ever.

We had pre-booked our hotel, which we typically do only if we are going to arrive somewhere after dark, and we wanted to find somewhere cheaper to stay. So after breakfast, we set out to walk to the center of town. I think we had walked about ten steps before the kids next door attacked us, brandishing hoses, water guns, and bowls.  I had wrapped my camera in a plastic bag inside my purse, but I really shouldn’t have even brought my purse with me at all. These kids had no mercy. Our clothes were dripping and our shoes were squishing as we walked down the street. And that was only the first group.

Every few buildings or so, and on every street corner in Yangon, there was a gang of kids posted outside, waiting to drench any passersby. Besides the weapons I named above, some people were armed with weapons that looked like bicycle pumps and shot a mean squirt of high-pressure water. Others had filled their water bottles and poked holes in the caps to use it as a squirt bottle. On some streets, there were “pandal,” bleachers specifically set up for Thingyan. Speakers nearby blared music. People crowded into the bleachers, grabbed a hose, and started spraying. Pickup trucks (usually filled with at least 20 teenagers dancing in the back) would drive  right by these pandal, so that the occupants could get as wet as possible. I saw some older people walk by without getting splashed, but it seemed like almost everyone was participating.

Kids joyriding during Thingyan- they were waving and screaming "Hello"

Being white foreigners, of course we were special targets. The first three days we were in Myanmar, we were totally soaked the entire time. There was a short break every day for lunch and resting, from about 12- 2:30 pm, providing some respite, but for the most part we were wet all day long. We enjoyed it at first, because it was so hot out, but on the second and third days we looked forward to nightfall so that we could go back to the hotel and put on some dry clothes.

We never did move hotels the first day, because there was just too much going on and we didn’t know about the lunch break. We reached the city center, found it blocked by a pandal, and admitted defeat. We were able to move the next day.

Pandal pandemonium

During the late afternoon of our second day, we were walking along the riverside and turned up a random street to get to our hotel. Near an intersection, we chanced upon a small group of people who were playing music, dancing on a table, and heartily throwing water at anything that moved. They poured water down our backs, of course, and we showed off our dancing skills. That amused them so much that they brought out some whiskey and bananas, and invited us to have some. A few of them had relatives in California, and were pleased to hear that we were American. It was nearly 6 pm, though, and the day’s activities were winding down. They asked us to come back, so we spent the whole next day with them, eating and drinking and dancing.

For the record: the Burmese LOVE the World Cup 2010 theme song by Shakira. They would play it two or three times in a row, play something else, then play Shakira again. Wocka wocka hey hey….

It turned out that most of them were related, and the rest were good friends. Most of them knew at least a little English, and a few of them were quite good. They took such good care of us, and gave us so much food and whiskey, that we started to think of them as our Burmese family. They were also kind enough to share their bowls, which are perfect for hurling water at passing trucks and buses. In return, I left my watergun with them.  Here’s our family portrait (and for the record, the woman hugging me FORCED me to wear that bright red lipstick):

Someone was even throwing water on us while the photo was taken...

When we left, several of them exhorted us to “come back next year!” I don’t think the finances will allow it, but I would if I could.

Outdoor table dancing- an important part of any New Year's festival

Introducing Myanmar

“This is Burma, and it is quite unlike any other land you know about.” -Rudyard Kipling

There are no 7-11s here. Most people, both men and women, wear skirt-like longyi instead of trousers. Cheroots (a kind of Indian mini-cigar) are more popular than cigarettes. Women paint their faces with light yellow-colored makeup, emphasizing their cheeks with big round circles. People still chew betel nuts and spit on the street, the spray the color of blood. It is indeed unlike any other land I know about.

Downtown Yangon with Sule Pagoda in the distance

Myanmar was not on our original itinerary, but a Canadian man we met in Indonesia recommended it wholeheartedly. He had visited a few years ago with his daughter and loved it. As if to seal the deal, he mentioned that AirAsia, a popular budget airline, flies to Yangon. I had thought that flights might cost about $200 round-trip from Bangkok- not too bad, but a little pricey for Southeast Asia- but on AirAsia, they are as low as $50 round trip.

Why did we have to fly, anyway? It’s right next to Thailand, isn’t it? Yes, but the border area is unstable. There is on-and-off internal fighting in Myanmar, between the government and ethnic minority rebels, in the eastern part of the country, near the border with Thailand. There are also certain places where overland travel is off-limits to foreigners, as decreed by the government. So while there are a few border crossings, most of them are only open for day-trippers (used mainly by merchants selling goods on either side of the border, or foreigners renewing their Thai visas) and the few that are open, might as well not be, because foreigners can only get so far before reaching an “off-limits” zone and having to hop on a plane. The main areas of interest to visitors are primarily in the center of the country, and these areas are very far from the fighting and any accompanying nastiness. So the best bet, as of now anyway, is to enter by air.

In the past, the leader of the Burmese pro-democracy party, Aung San Suu Kyi, has encouraged a total tourism boycott. This was in response to the government’s “Visit Myanmar Year” project in 1996, in which forced labor was used to construct roads and airstrips to ready the country for what it hoped would be an influx of visitors. (Less than 200,000 came.) And that’s just one episode. Every day, human rights abuses are rampant, people lack basic freedoms such as free speech, and next year marks 50 years under military rule. Nothing appears to be changing, despite recent “elections.” Yet Aung San Suu Kyi has changed her position. The reason is, she says, because she’s realized that foreign tourists can be a boon to Myanmar, if they avoid government-owned hotels, transport, and restaurants in favor of privately-owned businesses. Myanmar has one of the lowest per capita GDPs in the world, and they desperately need the money that tourism can bring. While every business must pay federal taxes, an independent tourist can make sure 85-90% of their spending goes in the pockets of ordinary people. Based on our experience, this is really not hard to do. Private businesses make up the bulk of businesses in Myanmar, especially at the budget end of the spectrum.

The other benefit tourism can bring is awareness. The Burmese we met were always keen to ask about foreign countries and likewise encouraged us to tell our friends and families about Myanmar. Several people told me “come back next year” and “bring your mother, father, sister, brother.” If there was ever a citizenry that should not be judged by its government, it is the Burmese. In contrast to the government’s secrecy, the people we met were very open and talkative. They are hopeful that they will see real democracy soon, and anxious for support of the international community. They watch the news- everyone we met was very interested in politics- and one man wanted to talk to me about what was happening in Libya. He was heartened by the decision to implement the no-fly zone, and he suggested to me (in total seriousness) that perhaps the US could invade Myanmar next, to help the people overthrow the military junta.

One of my friends told me that Myanmar is very high on his list of  “places to never go.” I understand the sentiment, because it seems like it would be a difficult place to travel, that it might be dangerous for a capitalist devil Westerner, or that it would just be too sad to visit a country where the people lack so much. However, I told him to reconsider his list. Myanmar is full of surprises. It’s safe, easygoing, and we encountered no problems with government officials.  Everything we ate was delicious. The temples are incredible and the ruins of Bagan rival Angkor Wat. Best of all are the Burmese people. They are poor, but the most generous I’ve ever met. We, who have comparatively huge bank accounts, were given gifts and treated to several meals, with no expectation of reciprocation. Whenever we were lost, people went out of their way to help us find the right bus or even walk us to where we wanted to go. It’s a fantastic place to visit and I would encourage anyone to go. And bring your mother, father, sister, brother.

Me in front of Htilominlo, one of the temples of Bagan

Top Five Reasons We Love Malaysia

Yes, we went back to Malaysia! We had to get a couple of visas- the infamous Russian visa, as well as one for Myanmar. We were hoping to get the Russian one in Singapore, but no dice (we were too early to be applying.) Then we had hoped to pick up our Myanmar visa in Phnom Penh, but the embassy staff told us it would take fourteen working days. I asked them if there wasn’t anything they could do- we’d already bought our plane ticket! They said perhaps they could get it done in ten working days, but we didn’t have that much time left in Cambodia.

So we phoned up the embassy in Malaysia (God bless Skype) and they told us we could get it in five days, or three if we wanted to pay a little more. We had to rearrange our flights a little bit, and lost about a week in Myanmar, but oh well. Lesson learned. Always call the embassy first.

In the end, we spent an extra two and a half weeks in Malaysia, gathering our visas. But it’s not so bad really. If we have to be stuck somewhere, Malaysia’s not bad. It’s one of our favorite destinations, actually. Here’s why:

  1. (Almost) no language barrier. English is one of the official languages of Malaysia and everyone studies it in school. Moreover, since Malaysia is home to ethnic Chinese and Indians as well as Malays, English is the lingua franca. I met an American guy on the subway whose wife is a lecturer at a Malaysian university, and he told me that all tertiary education is conducted in English. These people are seriously good at English, which makes getting around a breeze. It’s also really easy to meet locals, and have good conversations, unlike, say, Thailand, where it’s hard to chat with anyone who’s not selling you something.
  2. Fabulous beaches.

    It's also a nice place to drink fresh watermelon juice by the water

    The Perhentian Islands have the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. I haven’t been to the other east coast beaches, but Pulau Redang looks just like the Perhentians. During the filming of the movie South Pacific, what island was used as Bali Hai? That’s right- a Malaysian island, Pulau Tioman. There is also some really fantastic diving and snorkeling. We liked the snorkeling around the Perhentians, but I’ve heard that Borneo (Pulau Sipadan) is even better.

  3. Melting pot of history and culture.Malaysia, due to its strategic location between China and India, has always been a meeting place for different peoples. Nowadays its population is made up of several different groups: the aboriginal inhabitants of Malaysia, the majority ethnic Malays, and ethnic Chinese and Indian groups. During the British colonial period, the authorities encouraged immigration from China and India- that’s why today Malaysia and Singapore have the ethnic makeup they do. One city, Melaka, was actually a colony of Portugal and Holland before it was part of British Malaya. More recently, the Japanese controlled Malaysia for a few years during WWII. It’s almost

    Shophouses line a street; Georgetown, Penang

    like Southeast Asia in a nutshell: it’s a great place to learn about the history of Southeast Asia, visit mosques as well as Hindu and Chinese temples, and see old colonial buildings. It’s also possible, in Malaysian Borneo or in Taman Negara, to visit indigenous settlements.

  4. FANTASTIC food. Piggybacking off of number three… all this diversity makes for amazingly varied food scene. As if three cuisines weren’t enough, many Chinese and Indian residents have been in Malaysia for several generations, so there is now also fusion food: Indian-Malay fusion is known as Mamak style and Chinese-Malay fusion is known as Baba-Nyonya style. Penang is especially famous for its Baba-Nyonya food (and the whole city of Georgetown is a World Heritage site, to boot.) During our ten days in Kuala Lumpur, we usually ate Indian food for breakfast, Malaysian food for lunch, and Chinese food for dinner. YUM…and if you crave something different, KL also has really good international restaurants.

    How about Chinese tonight?

  5. Easy on the wallet. The cost of living in Malaysia is a little higher than some of the Southeast Asian countries (Laos, Myanmar) but it’s a good bit lower than the US, Europe, or East Asia. Yet the standard of living is high-the highest in Southeast Asia, after Singapore.  Even staying in a guesthouse and eating out three times a day, our daily baseline budget was about $15 per person. Of course you can stay in resort or fancy hotel chains, but even these come at a cheaper rate than in Western countries. It’s also one of the most affordable places to get a scuba certification. Whatever your fancy, the important thing to know is that you can live it up without cringing at your bank statement afterwards.

The Killing Fields

Cambodia is the kind of place that inspires extreme feelings. Awe and anger, sadness and hopefulness and fear- it’s kind of a rollercoaster ride. But just like the scariest coasters at the theme park, it’s exhilarating and so worth it.

To be honest, this post has been hard for me to write. I had a difficult time sorting out my feelings about our first Saturday in Phnom Penh. My dad and sister were still with us, and we decided to visit two sites associated with the Khmer Rouge regime: the former prison S-21 and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek.

When I was in Berlin on a study-tour, a few of my classmates and I used one of our only two “free days” to take a train way out to the suburbs to visit Sachsenhausen concentration camp. It made for a depressing day of sightseeing. But we felt that it was our duty somehow, as a human being, to try to understand what happened during the Holocaust. Just visiting a site isn’t enough, but it helps put facts into context. The concentration camp that we happened to visit was one of the older ones, opened in 1936, and was the destination for many political dissenters, homosexuals, and other “undesirables” as well as Jews. After the war, it ended up in the Eastern zone, and it was used by the Soviets in much the same way it had been used by the Nazis. Of course I know what happened during the Holocaust, but actually visiting the place helped me understand the role of the camps, particularly Sachsenhausen, before and during the war. I also didn’t know that any camps had been used by the Soviets. Things are always more complicated than they appear.

This is especially true when it comes to the Khmer Rouge regime. They officially ruled Cambodia from 1975-79, but actually controlled parts of the provinces both before and after that time period. S-21 and Choeung Ek are the primary memorial sites in the country, but many (though not all) of the people who were imprisoned and later executed were actually purged members of the Khmer Rouge party (the upper echelons were growing paranoid.) It seemed weird to me that the two most famous victims’ memorial sites in the country would actually be sites where a lot of Khmer Rouge died. I am not saying that they deserved what they got- not at all, and especially not their wives and children. But knowing this fact made me wonder: of those who were imprisoned, how many actually had clear consciences? How many prisoners had previously been the jailers? The Khmer Rouge accused people of ridiculous crimes, especially related to espionage, and it’s generally accepted that most were innocent-of those crimes. But who was truly innocent?

A classroom converted to jail cells at S-21

Now that the trials of upper-level leaders have begun, it’s easy to place all the blame on a handful of people. But half a dozen people were not responsible for the deaths of two million people. Others are guilty; yet not all- Khmer Rouge member does not equal mass murderer. Many were young, some were children, and did not know what they were joining. It’s fair to say that before 1975, few had any idea of Pol Pot’s future plans. It’s far more complex than I originally thought. I wonder how far the trials are going to go.

Despite these qualms, I still wanted to go see these sites. They’re the closest ones to Phnom Penh (S-21 is in the city center) so they are the most logical sites to memorialize to ensure that many people, both foreign and Cambodian, can come visit. And I think it’s important to pay a visit: education is the best way to prevent such events from happening again. While I was there, I tried to think about all of the victims of the Khmer Rouge, not only the ones who passed through S-21 and Choeung Ek.

Bob said the worst part about S-21 is that it used to be a high school, and it still looks like it. Actually, it really looked like a Japanese high school- big, square, concrete, with many floors. It’s hard to accept that the torture that occurred here could’ve happened in a place of learning. It’s disgusting. For me, more than any other emotion, that was the feeling of the day: not sadness, not anger, but total disgust.

S-21: Except for the barbed wire outside, it looks like just a normal high school

Choeung Ek was the final destination for most prisoners of S-21. Like S-21, it’s been preserved much as it was found. Although some pits of bodies have been exhumed, not all of them have, and it’s easy to find human bones or bits of clothing sticking out of the ground. My dad said he felt like the victims were trying to talk to us, and it was eerie. And like S-21, it demands the question “how could this have happened?”and I felt like I had a huge responsibility to tell my friends and family about these places, about what I have seen.

Exhumed pits at Choeung Ek Killing Fields

The most unfortunate thing, now, is that both of these places are extremely poorly curated. The fields of Choeung Ek are fairly self-explanatory, so that was okay, but the museum on the grounds was disappointing. S-21 has barely any descriptions at all for its exhibits, and for those that do exist, the translations are full of mistakes. Both places do offer tour guides (for an extra fee, subject to availability) but I felt it was a disservice to the victims’ memory not to do a better job of explaining the horrors that happened there.