All posts for the month October, 2015
What would a visit to Burma be without a stop at Inle Lake? Not being temple or stupa guys, we decided to give this venue a shot. This shallow 13.5 mile freshwater lake is on the tentative UNESCO Heritage list. And much like the klongs in Bangkok, there are no sidewalks or roads, only one person wide boats with outboard propellers. Do you see now, why I find this more culturally intriguing that bouncing around Europe?
As we pass both one and two-story houses built on stilts, we also dodge the fishermen using a one-legged paddling technique unique to rowing a boat. They stand and row so they can see over the reeds and floating plants for navigation. And can you believe they have been using hydroponics for growing tomatoes since the Sixties? Overlay that with the over the water Tahiti style bungalows.
Image result for Inle lake Absolutely mesmerizing!
Plenty of ancient stone pagodas stand on the hills above the water. And over two hundred monasteries also use this area as home. But for over a century, Inle Lake has been the center of the Burmese textile business. The weaving center and its artisans are based in the village of Inn Pau Khon. That clacking sound could be coming from elsewhere in SE Asia, as well as far off places like Mexico and Ecuador. Burma is known for their lotus fabric, since the shallow lake is ideal for the flowering lotus.
Image result for Inle lake Where is my luxury bungalow?
I could see spending a night here, as long as my bungalow does not move! My only concern is finding something to do, like boat races, boat rides, or water balloon fights. Water levels are high in October, and the hot and sticky monsoon season is over. We might even hit the three-week long Phaung Daw U Pagoda Festival.
Inle is the second largest lake in Burma. The average depth is 7 feet, but during the rainy season, can increase as much as 5 feet. It contains twenty species of snails (hello escargot!), and nine species of fish that are not found anywhere else in the world. The population of about 70,000 live in four towns around the lake. Most are Buddhist, live in wooden or bamboo houses on stilts, and farm or fish for a living. Noise pollution, and sanitation are continuing issues.
Fortunately, the cuisine incorporates local natural produce. The most well-known dish is Htamin jin, made of rice, tomato, potato or fish salad pressed into round balls, then garnished with crispy fried onions in oil, tamarind sauce, coriander, and spring onions, with garlic, chives, chili, fermented bean cake, and fried dried tofu on the side. Sounds yummy! I hope.
And to be truthful, I am ready to go home. It is hot and humid through most of our trip, and I miss Sheri and little Beau, as well as the comforts of home. I miss my 2 hour morning bicycle rides, my friends, and my relatives. I miss home cooking, sports on TV, and my morning Peets coffee.
So, two nights here, and off to Bangkok for a short night stay, before flying home via Tokyo. If I had more time and $, I would stop in Japan for a few days.
It is 5am, Burma time. I am still tired after 8 hours of sleep. Maybe, I can sleep in the car or plane. Take me home, country roads, to the place, I belong.
Compared to Thailand, the coastline is undeveloped. The mighty Himalayas run from north to south. Three rivers are divided by the mountain ranges. The longest river is the Irrawaddy, which runs 1348 miles. The other two, which run into the “Waddy” are the N’mai, and the Mali Rivers. They empty into the Irrawaddy Delta, and then into the Andaman Sea. And of course, it was the famous Rudyard Kipling who referred to the river as “The Road to Mandalay”.
The river is naturally, the lifeblood of the river delta, and has been since the sixth century. Even the Brits used it when they colonized Burma. Rice is the main product grown here, irrigated by water from the Irrawaddy. Unfortunately, the military dictatorship signed a deal, probably with the Chinese, to build seven hydroelectric dams in 2007.
You dare ask, why China? Well, Myanmar is rich in jade, and gems (rubies are the best in the world), oil, and natural gas. Sadly, the income gap here is the widest in the world, thanks to the military dictatorship. They just discovered a huge mountainof copper, as well.
Myanmar is officially the fastest-growing tourism segment in the world. Just consider these numbers: In 2007, Myanmar had 300,000 tourists. This year, the country is preparing to accommodate more than 5 million. That’s a remarkable jump in such a short amount of time — and one that’s already changing the way the country presents itself to the world. Southeast Asia is a traditionally very affordable destination across the board, and Myanmar still falls under the budget category compared to many other destinations. But on a recent trip, I discovered some surprises between what’s cheap and what’s not for the region in the country. Here’s a look at what you can expect:
Food: The best bargain in all of Myanmar probably takes the form of its eats. As long as you go to local restaurants — the ones you actually see locals eating at — you can expect to pay just $1-$2 for a filling, quality rice or noodle dish. Traditional Burmese restaurants serving a lunch of fish, chicken, and meat will run $3-$4 per plate. This is pretty standard, even in towns that draw tourists, like Yangon, Inle Lake, and Mandalay. What you want to avoid are restaurants that have become “famous” among tourists thanks to mentions in guidebooks, which drives the cost up at least an extra dollar or two per dish. (Good thing is that you’ll instantly be able to tell before sitting down by taking a quick glance at the menu prices and the clientele!)
Drink: Here’s more good news for fans of food and drink. Alcohol is also very wallet-friendly here. All draft pours of local beer cost about 60 cents throughout the country. Bottled local beer will be about $1, possibly less depending on where you are. Bottles of local whiskey can be bought for $5-$10 at bars –or you can get them at $5 or less on the shelves of a store.
Ground Transportation: Buses are by far the least expensive way to get around the country, although the most time consuming. You can get a one-way ticket for the eight- to 10-hour overnight ride between Yangon and Inle Lake for $20-$30.
Air Travel: Don’t expect to find regional budget carrier AirAsia-type value when flying within Myanmar, especially within the tourist circuit of Yangon, Inle Lake, Mandalay, and Bagan. On the country’s cheapest airline, Golden Myanmar, a domestic flight of two hours and 15 minutes from Heho (Inle Lake) to Yangon can be $86 one-way. For a funny comparison, an international flight that’s about a half hour longer from Yangon to Bangkok is $42.
Entrance Fees: Myanmar is no dummy when it comes to distinguishing which places tourists want to see, specifically the Buddhist shrines. In Yangon, for example, entrance to the Shwedagon Pagoda costs $8, while fees to Bagan is now $15 (up from $10 back in 2013). In addition, tourists pay a higher price than locals for the same experiences. To be fair, that’s true in many other parts of Southeast Asia — and we still think that the attractions and their beauty are worth seeing. We’re just letting you in on the fact that, yes, entry fees are equivalent to five to ten meals, but they won’t cost you an arm and a leg.
Lodging: Similarly, budget travelers will be surprised to find that hostels and hotels in Myanmar aren’t really all that cheap compared to the rest of Southeast Asia. Mid-range hotels in the center of Yangon will approach if not exceed $100 per night, and private rooms in hostels or guesthouses are closer to $40 if you’re looking for amenities like air conditioning. That’s just about double compared some other tourist-heavy destinations in the region like Hanoi. But, again, we’ll say that $40-$100 per night for accommodations is perfectly manageable for most travelers — and most visitors agree that the lush landscapes, delicious eats, and seeing a country in transition makes for a great experience.
– See more at: http://blog.shermanstravel.com/2015/traveling-to-myanmar-whats-cheap-and-whats-not/#sthash.Hs77n6XZ.dpuf
A rare Burmese ruby in a platinum ring with diamonds sold for $30.3 million at auction, setting a world auction record for any ruby and for any stone by Cartier, according to Sotheby’s.
The buyer and history of the piece, with the ruby weighing in at 25.59 carats, was not disclosed. It was auctioned Tuesday as part of the annual Magnificent and Noble Jewels sale by Sotheby’s Geneva.
The price of the cushion-shaped “Sunrise Ruby” had been estimated prior to the sale at $12 million to $18 million. It is known for its “pigeon blood” red color and set between heptagon-shaped diamonds weighing 2.47 and 2.70 carats. The piece is signed Cartier.
The auction house called a natural ruby from Burma of this size and color extremely rare. The ring broke an auction record for any ruby per carat.
I may look around, though I hear rubies can legally be purchased at government sponsored places ONLY. Rubies can fetch the highest per carat price of any colored stone. The purest ruby is colorless, with the red color imparted by the trace element, Chromium. Ruby is also the birthstone for July. Back in 2012, a 6 carat ruby sold for $661,000 per carat! Pigeon blood is the descriptive term for the reddest ruby.
Keep in mind that about 12% of this money collected by the private sector from tourism funds ends up in the hands of the military regime. This begs the question many of us have faced over the last two decades. Is it better to go, which helps the military dictatorship, or better to boycott? There is no clear cut correct answer.
Some proponents of tourism in Burma say that more isolation won’t fix the problems and sanctions that push the country backwards. Burma is a land of contradictions, people whose undaunting spirit has withstood centuries of oppression, going back to Kublai Khan and King George VI. The current regime is called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), formerly known as the State Law & Order Restoration Council (Slorc), basically the oppressive military junta running Burma since 1962.
The junta arrested Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League of Democracy (NLD) in 1989, despite the fact they won 82% of the vote! From that period onward, the junta used forced labor to build up the tourism infrastructure, and rebuilt sites such as Mandalay Palace, re-paved roads, and built airports and runways. They even created “new towns” to disperse the population.
For many years, Aung San, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, supported a total boycott, though she has been under house arrest since 1989 (released in 2010). Of course, since she was released, things have changed, if only on the surface. She recently announced in 2015, that she wanted to run for the Presidency. However, she is prevented form running unless she needs the approval of at least one military legislator (the junta).
Most compelling is that the majority of locals want tourists to come. It offers locals an income and communication with the outside world. Human rights violations are less likely to occur where tourists are present. And the junta has stopped the required $200 exchange into Burmese notes upon arrival.
Yet, it is impossible to visit without some money going to the military junta. The new eVisa is $50, along with a $20 departure fee, and from 7 to 10% tax on services and purchases. The eVisa is good for 90 days from the date of issue, and for only a 28 day maximum stay for tourists. Travel to certain areas are still forbidden. Amnesty International reported that forced labor has decreased over the last decade.
That brings us to today. So, why did we decide to visit now? First, the doors of tourism are more open now than they have ever been. Second, we want to see the country before it changes dramatically. Over the last several years, we have been offered trips to Burma by locals we know, living in Bangkok. We were torn between “helping” the junta, or visiting a new and mysterious country. I think the time to visit is now.
The election is coming up, and the military regime has campaign posters everywhere. Aung San has none, since everybody knows her. She is quite beloved here, much like a queen in a monarchy.
And while we are talking about Burma, I refuse to call it Myanmar. And the capital is Rangoon, not Yangon. Tell me which ones evoke the memories of old Asia that I want to experience! However, if I am successful in obtaining a visa, I will call it whatever they want me to call it. But the main goal is to get there before everyone else does. It turns out that both Burma and Rangoon are the Anglicized forms used by the Brits when they occupied Myanmar. But since I grew up hearing about Burma, I recognize Myanmar as part of the military dictatorship, and not the pre-colonial Burma that we all want to see.
I may or may not be able to send emails once inside the country. I did not have any problems sending emails from Cambodia and Laos. I do not recall my email limits or lack thereof in Vietnam. Certainly, I was able to send countless emails from Russia last May. They say even if I can find Wi-Fi, it is going to be very slow. So, bear with me!
I want Burma to succeed, mostly in helping people here have a better life, and more personal freedoms. But not at the cost of what has happened in places like Africa, other SE Asian countries, and Central and South America.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the most famous pagodas in the world and it is certainly the main attraction of Yangon, Myanmar’s capital city. Locally known as Shwedagon Zedi Daw The, it sits atop of a hill and is 99 meters high. It can be seen from most places of Yangon day and night as the golden roof illuminates the city. According to some, the pagoda is 2,600 years old, making Shwedagon the oldest pagoda in the world. It sits atop Singuttara Hill, to the west of Kandawgyi Lake.
According to most religious experts, Shwedagon Pagoda is among the holiest sites in the land. It is said to contain the relics of four previous Buddhas. People come from far and near to worship here. They say the pagoda is worth more than the Bank of England since it is covered in solid gold plates, not gold leaf. And there are jewels near its apex. The top of the stupa is encrusted with 4531 diamonds; the largest of which is a 72 carat diamond!
However, no official documents attesting its construction exist and its age is still a matter of debate.
The main gold-plated dome is topped by a stupa containing over 7,000 diamonds, rubies, topaz and sapphires, the whole giddy concoction offset by a massive emerald positioned to reflect the last rays of the setting sun. There is little wonder that the Shwedagon is referred to in Myanmar as “The crown of Burma.”
As Myanmar’s most revered shrine it has always been customary for families, mendicants and followers of the Buddha to make the pilgrimage to the Shwedagon in much the same way that Muslims feel compelled to visit the Kaaba at Mecca at least once in their lifetime.
Such is the potency of the Shwedagon that Burmese generally hold it to be indestructible. Despite a major earthquake in 1769, several smaller quakes in the 20th century and a major fire in 1931, it still stands imposingly on the top of a hill. Visitors are required to remove their shoes upon entering the Shwedagon and negotiating the scalding floor tiles between the shaded sanctuaries is not an easy process. Even when President Obama visited in 2012, the Secret Service did not want to take their shoes off. But he insisted, so they broke an unequivocal rule and removed their shoes.
The pagoda is said to contain eight hairs of the Buddha, a fact that only adds to its prestige. The stairways and bridges leading into the main sanctuary serve the thousands of pilgrims who flock here, and flower and book stalls, peddlers of religious souvenirs and tea shops do a brisk trade during the Shwedagon’s long hours of opening.
“The Shwe Dagon,” wrote Somerset Maugham in 1930, “rose superb, glistening with gold, like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul.”
Travelers will see temples everywhere they go in Myanmar, and will doubtless be struck by the wealth and profusion of building styles. At Pagan for example, there is an ancient plain containing over 2,000 temples and pagodas, surely one of the most remarkable ensembles in the world. Yet still, assessed on their individual merits, the Shwedagon Pagoda remains unrivaled as temple, meeting place and symbol of national identity.
The Burmese are Theravada Buddhists, who follow practices that originated in Hindu astrology. Burmese astrology recognizes the seven planets of astrology, the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. In addition, two others planets, Rahu and Ketu, though they differ from the Hindu version. So, next time I say to someone that they must be from Ketu (the kings of all planets), the appropriate response is, “which one?”
Burmese Buddhists also need to know the day of the week they were born. Eight planetary posts are marked by animals that represent the day. The devotee places flowers, prayer flags, and pours water on the animal image, along with a prayer and a wish. In addition, it is a Buddhist custom to circle the stupa in a clockwise fashion.
Leave it to the Portuguese to have plundered the stupa, in 1608 by explorer Philip de Brito e Nicote. He stole the 300 ton bell to make cannons, but dropped it into the Bago River. It has not been recovered. Their incompetence was topped by the Brits who did the same thing in 1824. The Second Anglo-Burmese War resulted in British occupation in 1852. It remained this way for 77 years. The Brits exiled the King and Queen to India. The annexation and wars continued for many decades.
During WW2, the Japanese drove the Brits out of Burma, and declared it an independent country. Then the Burmese switched sides due to the harsh treatment they received from the Japanese. General Aung San emerged as the country’s natural leader.
In 1946, General Aung San demanded independence in a mass meeting at the stupa. After elections that Aung San won by a huge majority, he was assassinated by a rival before he could take office. In 1962, a military coup took over to lead the country into total nationalization. Forty two years later, in 1988, his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed 500,000 people at the stupa demanding independence. In 2007, 20,000 monks and nuns marched on the Shwedagon Pagoda. A series of demonstrations and clashes followed. The constitution has been suspended from 1947 to 2007.
Aung San General Aung San
Aung San was arrested before elections took place, though her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won more than 85% of the vote. The military junta did not allow the NLD to take office, and arrested many of the part leadership. Aung San was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and released from house arrest in 1995. She was arrested again 2000, and released in 2002. In 2011, she left Rangoon for the first time. And in May, 2012 she entered the lower house of the Burmese parliament as an elected representative. Needless to say, much work remains to bring Burma into the Twenty First century.
We are not “temple” guys but Shwedagon is simply magnificent. My hotel room faces the temple complex. I just do not know what will happen after the next election. But the people here are simply magnificently friendly and charming in every way, like Thailand on steroids. I am so glad we came.
But this is an old, disheveled work in progress, multi-ethnic, interesting, and even picturesque. The city border to the south and west is the Yangon River, also called the Hlaing River. To the east is Pazundaung Chaung (Canal),which flows into the Yangon River. To the north, the city pens up, spreading along long avenues. The northern end is where most businesses and hotels are located.
The two most important townships outside of the central area are Dagon, home to the famous Shwedagon Paya, and People’s Park, and Bahan, home to many of Rangoon’s mid range and top end hotels and inns. The Kandawgyu Lake sits directly on the north south flow of traffic, and is a most convenient landmark for us tourists. The central city is where we plan to explore on foot.
Since Mike and I are not “temple” guys, we will find other things to amuse ourselves. Both Chinatown and the famous Bogyoke Aung San Market are sure to capture our attention for at least one day. But the Shwedagon Pagoda is the highlight of most tours in Rangoon, along with the nearby excellent restaurants in the area.
The area is a contrast of great dimension, our 5 star Shangri-La Hotel amidst filth, grime, poverty, open sewage, and beggars of all shapes and sexes. But people go about their lives, perfectly safe here for us to walk the streets after dark. We walked about 20 minutes to energy infused Chinatown, filled with teeming youngsters, eating and drinking cheap beer in big groups. Mostly, young boys, few women, usually families only or couples. Not sure if it is demographics or culture.