August 31, 2007

China's Wild (Sth) West...

:: Lijiang ::

Since departing Myanmar we've spent the month of August high, high up in the Chinese mountains with yaks. Internet has been sparse so once again we're doing a big catchup on all our highlights of the past few weeks. This entry also concludes our time in China; on the 2nd of September, we hop into our bunks and travel on the highest train journey in the world (reaching 5072m) from Chengdu to Lhasa, Tibet.

From Myanmar our route back into China was a flight to the city of Kunming. We'd spent a few days here before so it was a familiar stomping ground. After a sneaky Big Mac we were ready to tackle the tasty noodle soups and skewers served up in the Muslim quarter. After a couple of days of getting back into the swing of using our Mandarin numbers and elbowing our way onto public transport we were ready to head north and tackle the rest of the Yunnan province - and further afield.

:: Dali ::

Our first stop was Dali an ancient city that has undergone extensive restoration. Flanked by a mountain, and surrounded by high city walls and a moat this city is a mecca for Chinese tourists. We spent quite a bit of time watching all the ridiculous photo opportunities that people were taking outside the city walls amidst downpours of rain. As a major tourist destination there were no shortage of restaurants to cater for demand. One thing that has shocked us is that since we were here eight months ago the price of meat has risen by a whopping 45%. Luckily we saw this fact on TV otherwise we'd still believe that people were trying to rip us off. Unfortunately we left Dali before realising that one of the most famous "chinglish" signs lived there, it's a famous sign over a squat toilet that simply reads "No shitting in the toilet". Moving north in the full brunt of the region's wet season we reached the picturesque city of Lijiang. Despairingly we reached the labyrinth of the old town as darkness was falling and when there wasn't much room at any of the inns. Arriving under such conditions is always the worst part about backpacking, particularly when the bags are getting heavier and wetter. Adding to the stress were armies of tiny Chinese tourists barging around with umbrellas held at a dangerously eye gouging height - well for me anyhow. Whenever they tried to pass Marcus they bizarrely would attempt to raise their umbrella over and above his! The following morning bathed in sunshine, Lijiang looked a lot more appealing - although the peril of the sun umbrella was still threatening. We managed to find a perfect little traditional Naxi courtyard guesthouse complete with a friendly pregnant owner who when asked when the baby was due replied "it's coming in two days".

The old narrow streets of Lijiang are lined with small waterways and little bridges making it a quirky little place with lots of character. The local ethnic minority in the region is the Naxi people and their Dongba religion and culture, of Tibetan origin, is an important part of the music, paintings and lives of the people. Lijiang is also an extremely popular destination for rich domestic tourists; after dark the bars and restaurants are full of this breed favouring expensive imported Heineken in place of their cheaper local brew. The rowdiness and noise level gradually elevates as rival bars compete in "sing offs" across the canals. Literally one bunch of girls trying to out-sing the other, what's more is that it appears to be the same song that they sing all night, every night.

After getting caught out in the rain badly once, we decided to invest in some very stylish ponchos... and they're not of the normal variety... we got ones that would definitely keep us and our backpacks dry. Designed to cover one's entire body on a motorbike (Marcus's has a see-through bit at the front so the headlights can shine through) this rain attire means business, we left Lijiang as ready for rain as Noah was for the great flood.

Our next stop was a 2 day hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge, allegedly the deepest gorge in the world. Again, it's a heavily visited spot but thankfully the bus tourists are all confined to the bottom of the gorge close to the river (and near the bus parking lot). The hiking trail wanders high up the gorge along a tranquil scenic route far away from the hustle and bustle below. Hiking the gorge is relatively straightforward, you leave any big luggage under lock and key at the start of the hike and take off with a small bag, some water and a map. There are guesthouses dotted along the trail and red arrows mark the way. In total the trek takes about 8 hours. Most people complete it in an easy two day outing leaving lots of time to enjoy the scenery.

We set off early aiming to reach the halfway mark that day. There is only one place that you can go the wrong way, there are red arrows literally marking every conceivable wrong move you could make except this first one. A bunch of locals saw us go off in the complete wrong direction and said nothing - they've since been hexed. Three hours later we were still scrambling up the side of a mountain in the rain trying to find non existent red arrows. After asking a local to direct us to the right path he sent us up higher, way up into the already elevated altitude. Eventually after 7 hours we found a group of houses and asked for some help with getting back to civilisation. Weather conditions had made wearing our motorbike ponchos compulsory so we must have looked a right sight when the people answered the door to us. A local man walked us a couple of kilometers down the other side of the mountain back onto the trail. I'm sure he was wondering where we left the motorbike!

After a dismal first day and a hard seven hours of climbing we ended up a mere two hours into the hike. We turned up like drowned rats at Naxi Family Guesthouse and were greeted with cups of tea, piping hot showers and superb food - some of the best we've had in China. That's the way we remember it ... maybe it was the relief of finding the path with the red arrows. Anyhow after a good night's sleep we woke up without too much muscle fatigue and managed to complete the hike. After the previous days exertions the remainder of the hike seemed like a dawdle - all we'd to do after all was to follow the red arrows to the end and enjoy the spectacular views and incredible mountains all around us.

:: The End of the Rd. - View from Seans ::

We stayed the second night in Walnut Garden where lots of backpackers round off the trek before heading back via taxi to pick up their big bags and head on to the next destination. Our excitement didn't end there however, heavy rainfall had caused two landslides on the road back forcing us to clamber over the debris watching out for falling rocks. Luckily/unluckily a minivan was stuck in the middle of the two landslides so he was able to ferry us the few kilometers between landslides.

Our next stop was the charming old city of Zhongdian (3400m) where we chilled out for few days soaking up the hot sun and getting used to the thin air. Of all the old cities we've been to in China this is by far our favourite, its small scale, restored buildings, cobbled streets and the lack of tourists around made it a perfect place to relax. The aroma of bbq-ed skewers wafted from the old town square all day as stall upon stall cooked up beef, pork, potato and veggie skewers. In the evening the stalls were cleared away to make room for the locals to dance in the square. The dancing was attended by everyone from the old ladies of the village, to the local policeman to toddlers ... and surprisingly it wasn't all put on for tourists... there were only a few of us there watching on has they danced for hours nightly. It was neighbourhood aerobics in it's purest form.

:: Dancing in Zhongdian ::

We found ourselves traveling along the same route as Aussies Blake & Ros and Stu & Jane. After a couple of packs of cards were introduced we settled into a couple of competitive nights of cards interrupted only by last minute dashes down to make the skewer ladies before they packed up for the night. Jane and Stu suggested a day trip of picking a nearby mountain and climbing it with a picnic. The contents of the picnic quickly expanded to included a kilo of the finest yak cheese and a couple of bottles of Yunnan red - that was all the incentive the rest of us needed. The following morning laden down with a massive picnic we marched up the selected mountain and polished the lot off. After a fabulous picnic we made a somewhat giddy decent back into down ... no ordinary hike indeed... positively flashpackery.
Our next stop in the weird town of Daocheng, as it's national park Yading is currently closed there is no reason to spend any time in this place; you stop for the night and then escape as quickly as possible the following day.

We arrived in Daocheng after a horrendous day of traveling. Not only did we get a puncture that day but as night fell and we were climbing hairpin bend roads over an extremely high pass (no trees or vegetation to be seen out the window) the engine started making funny noises as the universal joint totally gave up on us. Thankfully we made it to the top and pretty much freewheeled down the other side of the mountain into a town where we were met by a mechanic. After a bit of old school soldering and hammering (using the car headlights as a flashlight) the universal joint was miraculously fixed and we rolled on into the kip that is Daocheng.

:: Litang Monastery ::

Escape from Daocheng to our destination of Litang the following morning turned out to be another nightmare. A minibus driver agreed to take us and a price was negotiated and agreed - then he refused to leave. These antics went on for couple of hours spreading to all the drivers in town until they were demanding a ridiculous amount of money. We got so infuriated that we all ended up ignoring them, going for a beer and telling them we were quite happy to wait for the bus the following day rather than bow to their greed. At 2pm tickets went on sale for the bus, by 2:01pm in a massive crush the tickets were all sold out leaving us with limited options. Luckily we found a driver returning to Litang and all hopped in willing him to drive us out of town before he changed his mind like the rest of the drivers. Nobody relaxed until we were a couple of miles out the road and well clear of Daocheng.We stopped for a couple of nights in the Tibetan town of Litang - highlights included giving the yak meat dishes a go and visiting the monastery.

:: View Over Litang ::

Our next stop was the wild west cowboy Tibetan town of Tagong located in the middle of the Sichuan rolling grasslands. Tagong is a one street colourful trading town - the local woman wear heavy silver jewelery and weave a red braid and yak bones into their hair. Most of the local men have long flowing hair and stride around in cowboy hats. We stayed in Gayla's Guesthouse a Tibetan home converted into funky accommodations - the dorm rooms were there most ornate one's we've seen to date.

After a couple of one night stops in Danba and Kangding we hopped on a super deluxe bus (unintentionally) and floated into Chengdu city hours ahead of schedule. Luck continued to be on our side when we found out that there were only two tickets left for the train to Lhasa on the 2nd of September. (The Tickets are sourced from the black market, such is the demand...)

The next thing on the agenda is to go and do a big shop for foodstuffs for the train, the Chinese are the masters of individually wrapped snack foods, entire supermarket floors are filled with every type of snack imaginable. There's no excuse for boarding without preserved eggs, vacuum packed skewers, jellies and a carefully chosen range of noodle dishes.

So, that's the saga so far, it's time to say farewell to China and take the a train up to the rooftop of the world, Tibet & Nepal, here we come.

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August 30, 2007

Myanmar Slideshow

Our Myanmar

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The Road to Mandalay Part 5: Mandalay

:: The Final journey on the Road to Mandalay ::

I genuinely thought that the mystic "Road to Mandalay" line originated from the nursery rhyme where Nellie the elephant and the head of the herd "met one night in the silver light on the road to Mandalay". It's since emerged (after a couple of days of me humming the song) that Australians don't have that nursery rhyme and it was actually Rudyard Kipling who coined the line in his poem "Mandalay".

Anyhow we can vouch that the road to Mandalay is in dire need of resurfacing but it does get better the closer you get to Mandalay. One thing we forgot to mention before was that as a former British colony, Myanmar traffic drove on the left side of the road until 1970 when the military administration suddenly decreed that traffic would now drive on the on the right side of the road. However, there are still many old cars and buses and almost all the modern cars are second hand imports from Japan so virtually every vehicle is right hand drive. This creates a dilemma that requires someone literally hanging out the passenger window or bus door watching the road ahead informing the driver (whose view is completely blocked) on whether or not it's safe to overtake.

Hours later we pulled into Mandalay bus station, located a totally inconvenient 7 miles from Mandalay city centre. As expected we were quickly surrounded by taxi touts looking for our business and the haggling for the correct fare for the journey began. Suddenly as the price for the taxis was becoming reasonable two guys appeared out of left field to bid for the job only difference was that they were trishaw drivers. After explaining that we couldn't have them cycle us and our bags 7 miles into the city they protested telling us that they were having a slow day and needed the business .... and besides they did it all the time. And so the final 7 miles of the road to Mandalay was tackled at a leisurely pace right down the middle of a dual carriageway full of huge trucks, buses and taxis.
We got chatting to our between lung fulls of exhaust....and they provided us an interesting insight into their business. It turned out that these guys were trishaw drivers by choice, they had an education, had good English skills and had work experience but with the current state of things they earned more riding than they did teaching or working for the government. To rent their bike cost them 300 KYT per day (~.30c AUD). Their goal was to save and buy the bike (100USD) , which one of the guys recently had achieved. Rent is 4000KYT (4$ AUD) a month for a bamboo hut. These guys worked hard, but with their language skills they were well placed to get work from tourists which hopefully means more income for them.

Our first impressions of Mandalay can be summed up by the words hot and dusty. It's a relatively new city, only 200 years old, identifiable by it's modern grid streets numbered New York city style. From the number of Chinese hotels and businesses it's very apparent how important Mandalay is as a city on the main road to China. Undoubtedly it will continue to grow as the Chinese investment pours in. Around the centre of town each street corner is multifunctional acting as a trishaw rider station, a bike repair area and a couple of business who time share the space, i.e. a tool shop by day and street restaurant by night.

:: Chicken Curry ::

After a day or so we had identified Chapatti Corner, one such street restaurant cooking up out of this world curries and serving up piping hot chapattis. It was to be the first of many of our visits to that particular street corner. Every evening at 4pm a shop closed and the pavement converted into a full on busy restaurant serving hundreds of diners from 5pm onwards.

:: Fermented tea Leaf Salad ::

To escape the heat of Mandalay we took a side trip to the hill town of Pyin OO Lwin three hours pickup drive away. This is a charming little town with many imposing colonial buildings and a colourful fleet of horse drawn stagecoaches that provide a taxi service around town. It's like the wild west meeting the cool Mandalay hills. The highlight of our trip up there was finding a great tea shop with an amazing tea leaf salad and crispy naan bread.

:: Local Cabs ... ::

With our trip to Myanmar finally coming an end we had enough time for one more meal at Chapatti corner, one more draft Myanmar, some last minute souvenir buying and one last ice cream from Nylon Bar before heading for Mandalay airport for our flight to Kunming, China.

:: Chappati Corner ::

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August 14, 2007

The Road to Mandalay Part 4 : Bagan

There are two preeminent ancient religious cities and archaeological sites in South East Asia, one is Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the second lesser known one is Bagan in Myanmar. The unpopularity of Myanmar as a tourist destination has meant that Bagan's vast array of temples have been relatively unvisited in comparison to it's counterpart city Angkor. The LP sums it up quite well saying 'Imagine all the medieval Churches of Europe, built in an area the size of Manhatten island'.

Bagan entered the golden age in 1057 AD when King Anawrahta conquered the Mon capital of Thaton, and brought back to his capital the Tripitaka Pali scriptures, a large number of Buddhist monks and artists and craftsmen of every description. The result was the transformation of Bagan into a religious and cultural centre. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Bagan became a truly cosmopolitan centre of Buddhist studies, attracting monks and students from as far as India, Sri Lanka as well as the Thai and Khmer kingdoms. It was during these two centuries of extraordinary architectural and artistic activity that city and its surrounds were covered with over 13,000 splendid monuments of every shape and size, the inner walls of most of which are decorated with incredible frescoes.

Today some 2,224 monuments from the original 4,446 that existed at the end of the 13th century still stand in a vast open plain covering 16 square miles. From the top of most of the temples you can look out across the dusty plain and see and endless uninterrupted view of literally thousands of temples.

Bagan is divided into three sections, Old Bagan where the ruins are co-located with a couple of swanky hotels, New Bagan where all the locals were "relocated" to by the government in 1990 (from Old Bagan) and Nyuang-U where most of the tourists hang out and every second restaurant offers "pizza and pasta". Staying in Nyuang-U you quickly find out there are two ways to see the temples; you can hire a horse and cart or take a bicycle, we chose the route of most independence and found ourselves on a three day very hot bike expedition around miles of sandy paths that meander around the thousands of temples. There are so many temples that it's impossible to see all of them all. Our route didn't always go to plan and there was lots of pushing the bikes through ploughed fields to a pagoda where we couldn't find the road. Our most annoying experience was where the map indicated that there was a road straight through a golf course and out the other side but a security guy on the gate refused to let us cycle through whilst droves of locals were whizzing along the route. Yes.... I did say golf course... there are even a couple of stupas in the middle of it all... there wasn't a sniff of a golfer the day we didn't pass through.

There are some highlight pagodas which see the most tourists every day. You can easily tell how popular a place is by looking to see how many hawkers are selling laquerware and sand paintings outside. We preferred some off the beaten track temples where we could usually get a few minutes of solitude up the top admiring the view before we were tracked down by someone selling their wares. Unfortunately there are a large number of really young kids selling post cards and trying to collect and exchange foreign currency from tourists. The hassling around the area is very persistent and can become very annoying. The Burmese phrases "I'm not buying" and "I don't want" came in very handy when they didn't fall on deaf ears.

Entrance into the archaeological area is totally unrestricted, foreigners purchase their $10 US dollar entrance ticket at the airport or on the bus on the way to Bagan this then entitles you to unlimited access for an unlimited amount of days to the area. It's largely accepted that most of the entrance fee lines the governments coffers with only a small portion actually going to the preservation and protection of the Bagan area. Sadly UNESO failed to designate Bagan has a world heritage site and has pulled out of the country after allegedly finding it impossible to work with the Myanmar government. It's also reported that the military junta has haphazardly restored ancient stupas, temples and buildings, ignoring original architectural styles and using modern materials that bear no resemblance to the original designs. Interestingly The Plain of Bagan is a living collection, new stupas are being built by rich families, this is a really great thing, its a growing spectacle.
Due to the lovely Chinese Internet Blocking policies I Cant embed this video in the post. The link below should work. Its a Panorama of the Bagan Plain.

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August 13, 2007

The Road to Mandalay Part 3 : Kalaw

:: Almost Full..... ::

Leaving Inle behind we jumped in a local pickup truck, waited for it to fill up with other tourists and locals, and when full ....we squeezed in more people and trundled off at snails pace. Somehow our antique vehicles exhaust managed to belch all the exhaust fumes into the passenger area. During the first 5 minutes of the journey there was lots of talk between all the western tourists. After about 20 minutes an overwhelming feeling of tiredness kicked in, total silence prevailed as the carbon monoxide headaches developed. Eventually we reached the Shwenyaung junction where we took a few deep breaths and found another pickup going to our destination of Kalaw high up in the hills. Another hour down the road and we were shunted into yet another pickup truck that took us the scenic route via the a local market where it dropped off some cargo, we hand delivered letters to some business and collected and delivered a 44 gallon drum of petrol before continuing on to our destination.

:: The Old & The New - Paulong Manuscripts ::

Kalaw was a popular cool destination for British to escape the heat of other areas in Burma during colonial times. Nowadays it's slowly turning into a backpacker town and base for trekking - lots of tourists hike from Kalaw to Inle lake on a 3 day 2 night outing. We missed the boat on that one so settled for a one day hike up into some of the local villages around Kalaw. Unfortunately we chose the worst day and ended up drenched and literally up to our knees in mud. Despite the mud we'd a great day, our guide answered numerous of our questions about Myanmar stretching to "has Myanmar ever won a medal at the Olympics?"

:: Our Host & Paulong Writer ::

After a few hours hiking through the tea and orange tree plantations we stopped for lunch in a house of a local village man for lunch. Our host was bent over a manuscript carefully transcribing lines from an old text for the local monastery, he is regularly commissioned to reproduce texts of the story of his tribe. He is the (only) writer in the Paulong village. He passed on the skills of writing the Paulong language to his son who is now a monk in the village. The book he was transcribing was of Buddhas life, from a copy he wrote a number of years ago. Traditionally the books are made from a large number of paper sheets glued together. The ink is made from tea leaves ... mix it with the pigs gallbladder. It was a few hours of slipping and sliding in the mud later when we dropped back into Kalaw town. After a couple of refreshing Myanmar Beers we trudged back to the guesthouse for welcome hot shower.

:: Flooded Rice Paddies around Kalaw ::

An early 7am start the following morning saw us rushing out of the guest house (a soft boiled egg in hand for breakfast) to wait on the side of the main road for the Bagan bus to pass through somewhere between 6:45am and 8am. When it arrived the bus was already pretty full i.e. all the seats in the aisle had bums on them and so we'd to negotiate ourselves into our seat assignment which luckily happened to be the only two seats available. Three hours later we all got a breath of fresh air when the bus emptied out to watch the bus helpers change a flat tyre. We were very fortunate and managed to go until 3.30pm that afternoon before we experienced our second puncture which auspiciously occurred within spitting distance of a puncture repair outfit. As darkness fell we finally arrived in Bagan and began the accommodation search - enviously passing restaurant after restaurant of tourists tucking into dinner and frosty beers.

:: It really was muddy ::

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August 9, 2007

The Road to Mandalay Part 2

:: Locals at Indein Market ::

A long (19 Hours) overnight bus journey covering 660 Km brought us to Lake Inle, a freshwater lake in the mountains of Myanmar's Shan state. The lake shores are home to 70,000 people who live in wood and woven bamboo huts on stilts and live simple lives as farmers and fishermen. The dominant ethnic group in this area is the Intha people who have developed a distinctive one foot rowing style. Standing on the stern of the boat with one leg the men wrap their other leg around the oar and power themselves along using just their leg. The one advantage this weird style gives the men is better visibility over the reeds ahead.

:: Leg rowing ::

We used the village as Nyaungshwe as a base to explore the area. The village is located about 5 miles upstream of the lake. One thing we immediately noticed in the village was that there were crates of tomatoes being loaded up into trucks everywhere. We took a walk around the village and came upon warehouse after warehouse full of people sorting hundreds of thousands of tomatoes into different boxes. A day trip out on the lake revealed the source of the crop. Using seaweed from the lake, farmers have constructed rows and rows of long floating saturated platforms; so-called floating gardens covering kilometres of the lake. According to the season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, sunflowers etc are sown by the farmers who access the floating gardens in little wooden boats. While we were there the local ladies were out in force in their little boats picking the ripe tomatoes as far as the eye could see on the lake there were floating tomato plants laden with fruits...... important learning point .... from what we've seen it's not possible to over water tomatoes!

:: Harvesting on the lake ::

Our day trip swung past the local rotating market in the lakeside village of Indein, where local hill tribe ladies decked out in luminous orange head scarfs sell their wares. Tourism unfortunately has taken a lot of the "local" focus from this market leading to lots of tourist driven trinket stalls. However on saying that there is still plenty of local produce and lots of groups of little old ladies with bright orange scarves on their heads sitting around smoking cigars. A short walk out of Indein brings you to the top of a hill home to hundreds of small stupas.

:: "Jump !" ::

The just for thrills stop of the boat trip was at the "Jumping Cat Monastery"...... bored monks here have taught their cats to jump - well that was the info we'd been given. Arriving to a beautiful old teak monastery on the lake we disembarked and entered to find twenty or so cats sitting around relaxing.. we told them to jump but it didn't work.... I think we just expected them to jump upwards. Later we saw then in action jumping obediently through a hoop for a small treat. Still think jumping upwards would have been cooler.

An obvious left over from the colonial days is the practice of frequenting tea houses. Tea, cakes and savoury snacks are offered either on curbside plastic (kindergarten sized) tables, or in minimalist shops (concrete floor and adult sized plastic tables). Busy from breakfast until dinner time, men, women and families drop in for a hot drop and a nibble. At the other end of the spectrum, beer stations are the Myanmar versions of pubs. Normally all-male, concrete floored and equipped with 1 beer tap (serving whichever brand the beer station is affiliated to) the really interesting thing about them is that most people there are not drinking beer. Spirits in Myanmar are stupidly cheap. $2 AUD (1.2 EUR) will get you a 700ml bottle of decent whisky (even cheaper for Rum or white spirits). For the price of a beer you can get a quarter bottle of spirit so most guys opt for the whisky. They buy a bottle and sit down with water to finish it (half or qtr bottles mostly) or they get a slug put into their mug of draft beer. Apparently these boozers are a fairly new arrival in Myanmar, they seemed to have hit a sweet spot as they were to be found in most of the towns we visited.

From our chats with locals, another interesting point kept coming up. The governments intervention in communications. Personal incoming and outgoing mail is routinely read. There is only one mobile phone company - Government owned, so thats covered (and a SIM costs $2000 USD) and only one ISP, so they watch your internet movements as well. One example given to us was that email sent internally takes between 1 and 2 days to arrive (read make it through the government censors).

I think this photo I took at the Mandalay airport pretty much sums it up.

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The Road to Mandalay Part 1

:: Shewdagon Pagoda by night ::

Myanmar. A country that may not ring many bells with you immediately; hopefully these jottings will help add a few "bells".

Probably better know by its previous name - Burma, Myanmar is a country we need to keep an eye on. Led by a Military government since 1992, it is a sizable country (the largest in Sth East Asia), with plentiful resources that is heading in the wrong direction.
Myanmar is a major exporter of Rubies, Jade and illegal drugs (2nd largest producer of Opium), it also has significant quantities of old teak forests which have mostly all been sold off to Russian or Chinese opportunist businessmen (it used to supply 75% of the world market). Income from these exports finds its way mainly into the hands of the ruling generals. The normal citizen in Myanmar is very poor compared to the rest of the region. Sustenance farming is the norm, with government jobs (say teacher) very lowly paid compared to the private enterprises (ones of any scale normally co-owned by military staff) in the country. (a teacher earns between 12 & 20 USD p/month).

The lack of infrastructure investment has led to a situation where there are very few good roads (proximity to airports, Defense academies and smuggling routes ensure better quality). One main Nth/Sth road branches off into single lane (plus a bullock & cart path) unmaintained tracks to East/West destinations. This makes for very slow and bumpy overland travel. Electricity is unreliable, with most businesses setting up a diesel generator on the footpath out front.

Market forces of supply and demand, fuelled by the shutdown of most international import/export (except from China) has led to a crazy situation with cars. Most of the cars you see on the road are 1980's Japanese models or even older. In Mandalay they are still running taxis and buses provided by the Japanese as War repatriations. To import a car you need to line the generals pocket to the tune of ~$40k USD. Needless to say only the top earners (see above to imagine through what business) can afford newish vehicles. So the top end market (2005 Landcruiser) will cost you around $300k USD in country. A 1980's Toyota corolla - around $23kUSD. Ludicrous. Interestingly this had created an industry hand modelling cars or reconditioning wrecked and rusted chasis (alot of US army Jeeps) into one-off vehicles.

We were lucky enough to enjoy a few nights of chatting with locals, often over a cold Myanmar larger (Government owned). In these discussions they imparted their dislike of how the government is running their country (The Military conducted - then ignored results from 1990 elections), their view of the corruption from the top, their concern about the friends Myanmar is making (The Russians are helping them build a Nuclear reactor, China is their major trading partner) and their hope that the future will bring regime change.

All these details are to help paint a picture of the country from a political and economic perspective. They shine no light on the fabulous spirit, generosity and friendliness we experienced from the people. We really enjoyed our time in Myanmar. We learnt alot that we want others to know, we saw fantastic sights, ate incredible food and shared great memories with locals and of course each other. Its a country that is not on the easy road, but we feel greatly rewarded for our expedition there.

Ok on with our story.....

Following a long night on a hard metal seat in Bangkok airport we took to the air and landed in Myanmar's capital city Yangon (formely known as Rangoon from British colonial times). Our first view of Myanmar was on final approach to the airport when all we could see was the skies reflected over hundreds of square kilometers of heavily flooded land. The reference to the umbrella in the last blog entry was not just in there for the laugh.

You very definitely know you are in a very different country from all others once you step outside the airport in Yangon and meet the people. All the men wear longyis (sarong style long skirts) - David Beckham didn't dream it up by himself! All the women and children smear a thick yellow paste on their faces in various designs as a combination of makeup and sunscreen. The first words of English you hear in the airport are spoken in a grand English accent reminding you of Myanmar's colonial past. When you hit the Myanmar roads you become aware of a plethora of 1980's Toyota Corollas which take you back to childhood memories of what cars used to look like in the old days.

Yangon is a bustling capital city with a mix of grand dilapidated colonial buildings on leafy streets and huge golden pagodas, once of which dominates the centre of the city doubling as a massive roundabout. Walking down the main street is time consuming as street sellers have set up elbow to elbow along the path selling everything from tv aerials to samosas. The street stalls pen you in to a tiny footpath where the flow of people dictates your progress in actually getting anywhere. There is a strong Indian influence in Yangon evident in the number of high quality cheap and cheerful indian restaurants churning out curries with kick and thali plates full of flavour.

Our time in Yangon was spend getting caught out in the frequent surprise torrential rain showers and fending off the droves of money changers who constantly hustle for business.Due to International sanctions, all foreign banks withdrew their presence in the 80's - leaving the country without any international financial services - read - no ATM's, no Credit card transactions, no travellers cheques. You need to bring all the money you will need with you in USD cash. Tourists to the country pay for their hotels and entrance fees in US dollars but all other expenses are paid in the local kyat. You can only buy kyat when you reach Myanmar officially $1 USD = 6 kyats but on the black market $1USD = 1250 kyat, leaving the black market as the only viable option. US dollars proffered to changers must be absolutely perfect to a ridiculous degree. Annoyingly we invested a lot of time in Bangkok airport slyly touring the many 24 hour money exchange booths begging them to swap all our older looking notes for a perfect ones only to be rewarded with lots of humming and hawing and questioning of the integrity of the notes in Myanmar. Carrying out the dollar to kyat exchange itself is delicate procedure that usually takes place in a dark stairwell or other suitably covert location lending itself to the illegal activity. In our stairwell after extensive examination of our two perfect $100 bills and lots of tut tutting over a possibly bad serial number we were eventually given the thumbs up and the guy reached into the back of his skirt and pulled out a colossal wad of worn, tatty, dirty looking bank notes each one almost the size of a newspaper. The largest domination of the kyat is the 1000 note (1AUD, 0.60 EUR, 0.85 USD), if you're lucky you only have to count a few hundred of these if you're unlucky you're in the stairwell a while counting in 500 notes. Later that day we left with our supermarket bag full of small big sized money.

No visit to Yangon is complete without taking in it's most infamous pagoda. Myanmar's most sacred Buddist pagoda, Shewdagon Pagoda sits glittering on a hill overlooking Yangon. With it's 98 metre gilded stupa it towers above the city. Thousands of Myanmar people make a pilgrimage here each year. It is truly a spectacular sight, the lower stupa is plated with 8,688 solid gold bars and an upper part with another 13,153. What's almost more impressive is what you can't see, the tip of the stupa is set with 5448 diamonds, 2317 rubies, sapphires and other gems, 1065 golden bells and at the very top a single 76 -carat diamond. Rain showers during our visit to the Pagoda drove the crowds away and we were left in solitude to enjoy the striking reflections on the wet marble surrounds.

:: Circle train - Yangon ::

On our final day in Yangon we decided to take a spin on the circle train that loops the city's outskirts in a mere three hours, it's a good way to see all the small satellite villages and farms around Yangon. The rickety old wooden train carriages are open and empty apart from two wooden benches that run along under the open windows - No shortage of natural air conditioning. Rushing to catch a train that was almost pulling out of the station we presented our "foreigner fare" of $1 US dollar note each. In a memorable exchange the station master said "This note is old I need a new US dollar bill" Marcus replied "My friend I can guarantee that note is newer than the train !" As it happens our foreigner ticket got us into executive class. We were quickly waved up one end of the near empty carriage and a length of thin rope was tied across to distinguish our space from everyone else's. All occupants of the carriage regardless of proximity rope were drenched when the monsoon rains came down with a vengeance.

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