Books · Travel

Indonesia Etc- book review

For such a diverse, fascinating and lofty country, Indonesia is somewhat obscure. Completely made up of islands, and thus the world’s largest archipelago nation, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation and fourth most populous, and it is Southeast Asia’s largest economy. But other than Bali (and maybe the Komodo dragon), is there anything famous about it? Elisabeth Pisani decided to do something about this pitiful situation by setting out to travel across the length and width of the nation. The result was Indonesia Etc- Exploring the Improbable Nation, part travelogue, part history and political primer.
As a former journalist and epidemiologist who had lived and worked in Indonesia for many years and spoke the language, Pisani certainly had the knowledge and experience to pull this off. But more importantly, she had the traveler’s knack of always being curious, never shunning an adventure, and being able to befriend strangers, even stay with them for months as she did with a family in a headhunting tribe.
Eschewing the main island of Java, where the capital Jakarta is located and home to two-thirds of Indonesians, at least until the end, Pisani travels from giant Sumatra to tiny islands in the Maluku chain. She also takes on Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo (Malaysia and Brunei occupy the rest).

However, what makes the book compelling is that Pisani goes beyond just travel, but gives some insight into Indonesian habits and quirks, like corruption. It is common to portray third-world countries as naturally beset by corruption with family and ethnic ties playing a huge role. But, Pisani explains that for Indonesia, factors like government decentralization and democracy exacerbate corruption.
There is also some good commentary about Indonesia’s recent history, from colonialism under the Dutch to independence to the present. We also learn about the country’s first two leaders, Sukarno and Suharto, and the complications with forming a nation that was made up of hundreds of peoples, languages, cultures and islands.

Pisani also does not shy away from the hard stuff like the mass killings of Chinese and Communists by the army and militias under the guise of crushing an attempted coup in the late 1960s, as well as East Timor, which eventually separated and is now independent, and Aceh, where fundamentalist Islam is strong. For the latter, which some call “Veranda of Mecca,” a strong separatist movement has given way, after the 2004 tsunami, to but with more autonomy to run their own affairs, which notoriously include sharia law. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, a pair of gay men were publicly caned after being caught engaging in sex. And also recently, the former mayor of Jakarta, a Chinese Christian, was found guilty of blasphemy for criticizing a passage in the Koran. He had also lost the election in May to an Islamist rival.

The book was published in 2014 and it had been on my reading list for some time. It still holds up even if some of the political and social problems described like Islamic fundamentalism and the decreasing tolerance towards minorities may be even worse now. But nevertheless, they would strengthen Pisani’s assertion that Indonesia is still a country that deserves more attention from the world.

Visit the book’s website where she still writes about Indonesia.

Books · China

Asia’s Cauldron- book review

The South China Sea has been the biggest flash point in Asia for the past few years, even though North Korea has stolen the thunder with its provocative missile tests in the last few weeks. Surrounded by multiple nations, but heavily contested by one that is furthest away from it, the sea is a vital conduit for regional trade with over $5 trillion worth of shipping passing through it each year. It is also rich in underground petroleum deposits. The nation that I am referring to above is China, which has expended a lot of effort in claiming and occupying islets and reefs in the sea that even extend into other countries’ waters. Asia’s Cauldron – The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific looks at this potential theater of war and the geopolitics surrounding it.

Kaplan outlines China’s rising military strength and capabilities, which last week’s news of China launching its home-built and second aircraft carrier provided a reminder of. China claims over the majority of the sea, using a dubious nine-dash map (first issued by the ROC in the mid-20th century) that supposedly shows that China historically had control of many islets in the sea. While this flimsy evidence does not have much ground in contemporary international norms or laws, China has disregarded this and continues to stand by its claims.

But yet, international conventions be damned, as other than economic collapse or a significant decline, China is set to dominate the region. However, while nations like Vietnam and Malaysia are obviously too small to confront China by themselves, the US support and cooperation among those countries can ensure a balance of power. Because to ensure stability and relative peace, balance of power rather than US domination is necessary. In other words, China’s rise must be tolerated and even given some breathing space, though the US needs to remain involved.

Kaplan also says that the South China Sea is potentially to China what the Caribbean is to the US, basically its maritime backyard over which which it has total domination. The US did this in the early 20th century and China is trying to do something similar. Of course, one difference is that rather than being filled with mostly tiny Caribbean countries, the South China Sea is surrounded by larger, older countries that do not readily accept Chinese domination.

So in addition to China, Kaplan also devotes a chapter each to key countries including Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and Philippines, all of which he visited. He provides interesting and insightful observations of each country on their geopolitical situation,history, military, and society. Vietnam is the one most at threat from China, but despite its small size, it is a feisty country with a long history of resistance to Chinese occupiers and attackers from imperial times, not to mention its fight with the US in the Vietnam War.  Meanwhile, Kaplan surprisingly rates Malaysia highly, seeing it as a model Islamic nation that is also democratic and diverse. The chapter on Philippines makes for somewhat surprising and amusing reading, as Kaplan likens it more to a failing Latin American country than an Asian one, a result of its inefficient Spanish colonialism. In these country chapters, he provides a complete picture combining interviews, history and observations, as opposed to some writers who visit a country and use a few anecdotes or statistics to come to conclusions.

Robert D Kaplan is one of my favorite authors, due to his keen geopolitical views and insights on regions and conflicts around the world in Africa, Central Asia and the Balkans. He is famous for The Coming Anarchy, a 1994 essay that painted a very bleak picture of the world due to overcrowding, tribalism and environmental issues. But his writing is measured as opposed to alarmist or emotional. Even if you don’t agree with him, you will still learn something.

Asia’s Cauldron was published in 2014, but its topic and views are still just as relevant and vital now.

Myanmar travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Myanmar travel- Mandalay

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My last travel post about Mandalay was actually about the ancient royal towns around the city, so this one is about Mandalay proper.
The city may be Myanmar’s second city and the former royal capital, but it isn’t exactly a tourist hotspot. One reason is the country has other more interesting places like the former capital Yangon (Rangoon), the ancient temples of Bagan and myriad scenic destinations like Inle Lake. Another reason is that bombing during World War II destroyed much of Mandalay’s royal palace, which was eventually rebuilt on the same site. Granted the rebuilt royal buildings probably look the same as the original and the complex itself is an incredibly large site completely surrounded by a moat, but it didn’t appeal to me so I didn’t visit.

I instead went to Mandalay Hill, one of Mandalay’s main attractions which provides great views of the city, the Irrawady river and the mountains and plains to the north and east of the city. Mandalay Hill is also supposedly where the Buddha visited over 2,000 years ago and prophesied that a city would be built at its foot. Just 790 feet, Mandalay Hill takes less than a couple of hours to climb, but since it was so damn hot and I had a driver, I took the easy way up courtesy of his car. From the parking lot, I entered a building with an escalator that went to the top. The hill has several temples on top, which is not surprising in this very religious country, at least in the Buddhist parts. There were gleaming and ornate gold stupas, statues of hideous green cartoonish ogres and a female deity Sandamukhi who supposedly cut off her own breast to offer to the Buddha as a sign of her devotion, monks, and even sleeping dogs. There were also some locals, many of whom were themselves tourists, and they were flocking around white tourists to take photos (this happens a lot in China in smaller cities too).
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Kid with thanaka (local sunscreen)-smeared face
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The ogre Sandamukhi who pledged devotion to the Buddha. I’m not sure if the dozens of little ogres behind her are her offspring.

Back on the ground, my driver, the same one who had taken me to the places around Mandalay the previous day, took me to the Kuthodaw Pagoda which features over seven hundred of white stupas, each housing a [sculpted] page of Buddhist scripture, which together made up the world’s largest book. When I went inside, I was immediately met by two female postcard vendors, which happened many times at Bagan and other places. The first one left me when I promised to see her postcards when I was leaving, but the other one didn’t quite let up so easily and followed me a bit. I walked around to take in the sights, and I bought postcards from the  first vendor as promised. As I was leaving, the second girl, who had a nice golden leaf design painted on her cheek, really got to work on her sales strategy. I tried telling her I had already bought postcards, to which she was having none of it, replying in charmingly broken English, “My friend happy, I not happy!” Whenever I tried to cut her off and say no, she’d say something like “Really? You buy from me? Please.” Usually I try to be firm with vendors who are too forward but this girl was just too much and I ended up buying postcards from her too.

I then went to Sandamuni, which also featured a giant golden stupa and countless white stupas arranged in neat rows that collectively had a dazzling effect. It resembles Kuthodaw Pagoda, though I found this one more attractive. The over 1,700 stupas (not a typo) each house a slab featuring Buddhist teachings and commentaries, a vivid example of just how seriously the Burmese, those that are Buddhist in this case, take their religion.

After Sandamuni, I stopped by a wooden teak temple and Kyauktawgyi Buddha Temple, which featured a massive hall with walls and pillars covered with green decorations. By then, I had had enough of temples and I was ready to head back. I left Mandalay later that night by overnight bus, which I had booked in advance. It was clean and spacious and I recommend it as an alternative to taking a plane or train. The journey back to Yangon was uneventful though at times, I felt a little jittery as the bus drove on the highway in near total darkness. By the time it was close to Yangon, the bus made a few stops where people got off and the emptier it got, the more apprehensive I felt about missing my stop. As it is, the final stop was the Yangon bus terminal which by then, I was relieved to reach.

That is until in my early morning drowsy (6 am) and sleep-starved state, I accepted an offer from a taxi driver who was loitering in the station and ended up getting overcharged by him (lesson: never take taxis inside stations because they always overcharge tourists). What happened is he gave me a price, then as we were driving out, several guards stopped us and asked me what the driver charged. When they heard, they immediately told me it was too high and that the driver should charge me less. “OK, OK!” said the driver, but as soon as we drove off, he turned to me and said I had to pay the original price.

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Sandamuni

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Entering Kuthodaw

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Puppets being sold by a vendor outside a temple
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One corner of the enormous moat that surrounds the (rebuilt) Royal Palace
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Kuthodaw Pagoda’s giant “book”
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Page housed inside a stupa

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Temple on top of Mandalay Hill
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Books

Finding George Orwell in Burma- book review

It is a good thing I didn’t read this book before I went to Myanmar (Burma) last year. If I did, I probably wouldn’t have had such a carefree mindset. Finding George Orwell in Burma is an American writer’s attempt in 2003 to trace Orwell’s life in the country which had a huge influence on him. Orwell spent five years as a policeman in the country, which his first novel Burmese Days was no doubt based on. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, his two most famous books which were about communism and totalitarian dictatorship, had so many prescient similarities with post-independence Burma that Burmese joked these two books and Burmese Days made up a “Burmese Trilogy.”

The news about Myanmar has been stunningly positive in recent years, with the sudden opening-up of the country to the West, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and the elections in February, which the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s party won overwhelmingly. Yet it wasn’t so long ago when Myanmar was one of the world’s bleakest places, almost on par with North Korea. Under decades of military authoritarianism, the country became poverty-stricken and repressed with its people under constant surveillance from authorities and information heavily censored.

The people didn’t need to read Nineteen Eighty-Four, they were living it and many were fully aware of it. Even as the author was questioned and followed by government officials, she held many conversations with friends and strangers about the country’s politics. Almost everyone furtively tells the author how terrible the country has been under the military regime. “The British may have sucked our blood, but these Burmese generals are biting us to the bone!” an elderly man tells the author. Things were so bad in the country that the author, a Bangkok-based American who speaks Burmese, uses a pseudonym, Emma Larkin, to write her books.

Larkin travels to each of the places Orwell was posted in – the former royal capital Mandalay, the Delta, Rangoon (now Yangon), Moulmein (now Mawlamyine) and Katha. She tries to imagine how Orwell was influenced and inspired by his experiences to the extent he became more cynical about the British Empire through how it ruled Burma. Having gradually annexed the country and overthrown the monarchy, the British also abolished traditional institutions that helped run the country like the monks and replaced them with colonial officers. Orwell completely changed his view on empire and decided to become a writer after going on leave from his post in Burma. In the end, Larkin didn’t come close to finding out exactly what pushed Orwell’s transformation but it is easy to see how it might have been a gradual process. And this change was for the better because Orwell would write about the underclass and the poor, and eventually his masterpieces about communism and totalitarianism.

It is a profoundly sad book that is thankfully about a time that has passed. But I wonder whether the Burmese people could have so easily forgotten all the terror of the past or if it still lurks in the back of their minds and hearts. When I visited there, many of the people were courteous and restrained and it was almost unimaginable that just years before, they had lived through terrible repression.

Myanmar travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Bagan photo roundup 2

Because we all can’t get enough of Bagan, here’s a second photo roundup post of its myriad ancient temples.

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These boxy buildings were storehouses, according to someone I asked.
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Dirt road that got increasingly muddier and narrow

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Continue reading “Bagan photo roundup 2”

Myanmar travel · Travel

Myanmar travel- Bagan

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One of Myanmar’s most impressive sights is the thousands of ancient pyramidal temples studded across a wide plain next to the Irrawady river. These are the ruins of Bagan, the country’s answer to Angkor in Cambodia. But whereas Angkor lies amongst forests and many of its structures are in a state of destruction, Bagan’s temples and pagodas are all in plain sight and many are relatively intact, thanks to intensive recent renovations. Built between the 11th and 13th centuries when Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, the first to rule over most of what would become Myanmar, the temples initially numbered over 10,000, but “only” 2,000 remain today.

Besides the sheer number of temples, what might strike you is the different sizes and styles, ranging from massive multi-level domed “fortresses” to spire-topped pyramids to garden-shed-sized pagodas. Apparently the larger ones were built or financed by royalty and noblemen, while wealthy people and commoners built the smaller ones. Many resemble pyramids, but with outer levels you can walk around on, while some are square shaped and look like formidable fortresses. Also, most of the temples are clay-colored, but some are white, which I found to be more attractive, even and especially with the very apparent black stains of weather damage.

The weird thing about Bagan is that after its heyday, it quickly declined and became largely abandoned (similar with Angkor in Cambodia), with different theories put forward such as the invasion of Mongols. Whatever the case, it stopped being a city and gradually became a village. If you stay in Bagan, there are actually 3 settlements – New Bagan, old Bagan, and Nguang U, with old Bagan, where the original village used to be, the most expensive and the nearest to the actual temples. However, the other two settlements are close by and are just minutes’ away by car or bike. I stayed in New Bagan and hired a car and driver for the first full day there. You can also hire a horse and carriage and I was tempted to do that for the second day.

Instead, I decided to try an e-bike, an electric bicycle that requires no pedaling and is like a slower scooter. These are very common in China but I’d never ever ridden one before during my time in Beijing. Anyways, I managed ok, despite almost getting lost and almost toppling into a huge muddy puddle when I decided to cut across on a dirt path. Hence I decided to do the same thing for my third day. Riding the e-bike was quite fun, especially as the streets did not have much traffic, and it was much cheaper than hiring a driver. To be honest, two full days is enough to appreciate Bagan’s temples.

How I got to Bagan was quite interesting too. I flew from Yangon on a domestic flight on a small turboprop plane. However, it wasn’t a direct flight. Instead, it flew to Mandalay first, where some people got off and others got on, then it flew to Heho (where you can go to Inle Lake, another of the country’s most popular destinations), where the same process repeated itself, before then flying to another town and people got off and on again, and finally Bagon, my stop. Basically, it was like an air bus.
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Continue reading “Myanmar travel- Bagan”

Myanmar travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Myanmar travel- Yangon’s character and colonial architecture

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As Myanmar’s largest city and most commercial hub, Yangon, or Rangoon, represents the country’s progress, which is most apparent in the tremendous number of cars everywhere on its streets. But while the heavy traffic represents economic growth and modernity, the city’s architecture still shows the country is very much a developing country. It also reflects the country’s British colonial heritage and its cultural diversity.

Colonial-era buildings are everywhere from regular apartment buildings to the gated villas by the city lakes, but the most impressive examples are the early 20th century colonial-era government buildings, cathedral and hotel located downtown near the riverfront. It’s been said Yangon has the most existing colonial buildings in the region, which would be impressive given the competition – Saigon, Phnom Penh, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur etc. Yangon exists specifically because of the British because it was they who built it in the mid-19th century. Yet ironically but also fittingly, the city’s main landmark, besides Shwedagon Pagoda, is Sule Pagoda, very much a Burmese building and which sits at the center of a roundabout. South and East of Sule Pagoda are where the most impressive colonial buildings are, including the Secretariat, the riverfront Strand Hotel and the central post office.

Besides the colonial buildings, Yangon has many different types of religious buildings. There’s a towering immaculately-maintained cathedral, mosques and Chinese temples, and Hindu temples adorned with tall mounds covered with colorful statues above their entrances in the South Indian style. Yangon is also multiracial, with the Burman majority (which the country’s former name Burma was derived from) coexisting alongside Mon, Rakhine, Indian and Chinese minorities. The street where I stayed in when I flew into Yangon was part of the “Chinatown” district and my hotel manager was a local Chinese who spoke Mandarin to me. Even with the Burmese (Burman, Mon, Karen etc) who weren’t Indian or Chinese weren’t homogenous, with there being a wide array of skin tones and hair waviness.

The combination of British colonial buildings, the noticeably multicultural population and the use of English makes Yangon look and feel very different from say, Bangkok, Hanoi or Phnom Penh, and I wonder if it resembles South Asia, given Myanmar borders India on its west.

Besides Shwedagon Pagoda and the colonial buildings, other places of interest I went to included the national history museum, which was interesting but not too well maintained, and whose main attraction was the impressive Lion Throne, a large golden throne filled with exquisite carvings that Burmese kings used to sit on.

I also went to the grave of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last emperor of India who was exiled by the British to Yangon after the failed Indian Mutiny in 1857. But, I did not get to see the actual grave because when I visited the site, I found out it was a shrine and being Friday afternoon, there were services going on. Hence why the site is called a Dargah, an Islamic shrine built over the grave of a saint, who in this case is Bahadur Shah. The guy by the gate was kind enough to wave me in when I told him why I was there, but I saw that the actual grave was in the basement where the women were (men and women worship separately in Islam). I could have still gone right in and played the dumb tourist (I am obviously not muslim) because I was so close, but I decided to let discretion and common sense prevail and walked back out without seeing the grave.

At night, the streets near “Chinatown” are alive with teeming numbers of locals sitting by roadside food vendors having dinner. It might be called a night market except that it is a lot more casual and informal. The downside is that there aren’t much restaurants so I did resort to eating fried rice from these vendors which came up to something like 50 cents US. When I came back to Yangon from Mandalay, I stayed on the other side of the city in the east where there were more formal restaurants.
I had a very good lunch at an Indian restaurant featured in the Lonely Planet, but I had worse luck when I had a mediocre dinner at a relatively modern restaurant. To top off the not-so-good experience I was given water, then charged for it, with a service charge on everything, and the waitress pretended not to understand English when I asked her about this. I learned my lesson- sometimes fancy restaurants in underdeveloped countries are often not worth it (I’ve had better experiences in Phnom Penh and Hanoi).

I have to say Yangon is not the most attractive city and a lot of its buildings are in need of a good scrubbing. Even some of its most grandest colonial buildings were abandoned or rundown. The ones that were maintained look fine and remind me of Trinidad, which was also a British colony and has some decent colonial buildings albeit in a more tropical climate.
In general, the city lacked the charm and the attractiveness of even Phnom Penh, which boasts a nice riverside walkway and clean, tree-lined roads with not as much traffic, and I certainly erred by spending almost four full days there.
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Dargah of Shah Bahadur, the shrine above the grave of the last Mughal emperor of India. The grave was in the basement which was accessed by the stairs in the middle, covered by the small roof.
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Abandoned Secretariat, which housed ministers’ offices and parliament
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St. Mary’s Cathedral
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Sneakily-taken photo of my dining spot for two nights. The food was cheap and tasty, but not sure I’d have dined there twice if there had been more choices.
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Myanmar travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Myanmar travel- Yangon intro and Shwedagon Pagoda

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Last September, I went to Myanmar (Burma). As most people know, the country is famous for opposition icon (and likely future national leader) Aung San Suu Kyi, who was put under house arrest for decades by the military regime. For decades, Myanmar was one of the most closed and repressed nations in the world. But things changed a few years back as inexplicably, the nation’s rulers moved to reestablish relations with the US and the West and open up for business and tourism. As a result, the country has become one of the more intriguing choices for travel.

There is a possibility that as tourism becomes more popular, it may no longer be as exotic but that will still be a long time away. For now, it is in an ideal state of not being overcrowded with tourists but having a convenient tourism setup and infrastructure like hotels, overnight buses that you can book online, etc.
Mind you, September is actually one of the worst months for tourism in Myanmar because of the infernal heat so there were many occasions during my trip when I was the only or one of a handful of foreign tourists in a place. At times I wished there were more tourists so that I wouldn’t be “targeted” by vendors or freelance guides at various attraction sites.

My first (and last) stop in Myanmar was Yangon, formerly called Rangoon. As the colonial and post-independence capital of the country, Yangon boasts a certain prestige that can still be seen in its status as the country’s biggest city and business hub.

Almost right away, I got a sense of how “exotic” Myanmar was when I saw local women at the airport with very noticeable brown layers of what I thought was some kind of religious powder dabbed on their cheeks. It turned out that it was thanaka, a type of local sunscreen worn by women and kids. I would see this on almost every woman in the street. I’d also see men wearing long skirts tucked into their waists. This was the longyi. A lot of women wore long, form-fitting skirts too which were beautiful. It made a lot of women, even older ones, look quite enchanting as they strolled the streets in these skirts. It’s really interesting to be in a country in which Western fashion like jeans, skirts, trousers and regular makeup wasn’t dominant, but as Myanmar develops, this may not be the case anymore.

But to counter this, I quickly encountered a very Western and modern form of phenomenon – vehicular traffic. On the ride from the airport to my hotel in Yangon, what surprised me were the many cars on the road and the heavy traffic, which seemed more appropriate for a more developed or prosperous nation. Part of this is because of the country’s recent economic opening up which has seen an influx of cars being imported and relaxation of car ownership restrictions, as well as a strange rule that bans motorbikes and bicycles from being ridden in the city. I say strange because motorbikes are a common sight in many Southeast Asian cities. Indeed, when I later went on to Bagan and Mandalay, I would see a lot of motorbikes.

As my taxi drove into the city, past the “highway” and Yangon’s scenic urban lakes, one of which Aung San Suu Kyi lived by, the many colonial-era buildings came into view. The British influence could be clearly seen in the building architecture and the straight street layouts, as well as the large houses with gardens and fences by the lakes. It even reminded me a little of my native Trinidad, itself a former British colony. Yangon had an impressive collection of colonial office buildings which I will highlight in another blog post.

The city’s most famous attraction is Shwedagon Pagoda, which features a massive gold Buddhist stupa surrounded by dozens of smaller stupas, ornate shrines and halls. It is Southeast Asia’s largest such Buddhist stupa and the city’s premier tourist attraction. In person, it didn’t disappoint. It was large and beautiful, covered with various sculptures featuring legends from the past including King Okkalapa, a Burmese ruler who ordered the pagoda built.
Shwedagon Pagoda is said to have been built over 2,500 years ago (that’d be in the BC era, though modern archaeologists think it’s much less older) by the Mon, a Myanmar ethnic group which has a very long and illustrious history. Since then, it has been rebuilt and repaired.
The pagoda stands on top of a short hill with four stairwells leading up to it. At the ground, you have to take off your shoes, a common requirement when visiting the country’s temples, and then go up the stairs with vendors on both sides.

At the top, freelance guides will approach you asking to give you a tour for a charge. One guy actually said US$20 which I politely declined, but had to hide my annoyance. I declined others as well, but in general I didn’t mind if they were upfront about the fact they were guides. I even had a short, decent talk with one guide after I declined him.
In Myanmar, especially Yangon, a lot of people spoke some English such as these guides. Unfortunately I had a slight run-in a little later when a bespectacled gentleman in his 50s came up to me and offered to show me something along the stupa. He then led me to a giant bell and I realized he was a guide. I politely tried to leave him but he then told me to give him a dollar. I refused and while the amount isn’t much, I get annoyed when people come to talk to you or show you things, then try to charge you money. I experienced this in Cambodia as well at Angkor when people would approach you in temple ruins and offer to show you specific parts of the ruins, then demand money.

I was struck by the number of locals relaxing or strolling around the complex. Inside the shrines or halls, they’d be sitting in groups or even lying down. As a result, I felt awkward going inside the shrines though the people didn’t seem to mind and I’d often just step in then come back out quickly.
Guidebooks suggest visiting the pagoda in the evening when it shines brightly but it is also just as attractive during the day.
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Myanmar travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Overview of a Myanmar trip

I just returned earlier this week from a trip to Myanmar. After a disappointing summer where I had to cancel all my China travel plans due to aggravating my foot, I was glad to finally be able to do some traveling, the quitting-my-job kind. Myanmar, formerly Burma, is a country in Southeast Asia that has a mystical reputation due to its sudden opening up a few years ago politically. This means that it went from being one of the world’s most closed and repressive nations to a burgeoning democracy (elections will be in November) and another potential SE Asian tourism hotspot.

I had mixed thoughts about Myanmar, where I went to Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay.
First, the positives – the people, especially service staff, are very polite, the streets felt safe as pickpocketing is not a problem (especially for tourists), and the public toilets were generally clean, which was very surprising and a big positive (the worse one was comparable to an average toilet in Beijing). Interestingly, food places were also clean, whether it be restaurants or roadside stalls, though I noticed the streets often had litter and I saw people toss things like food wrappers onto the ground. As it was the rainy season and very hot, there were hardly any tourists, even in Bagan, and there was a lack of Chinese tour groups. I saw two NLD (National League of Democracy, the opposition party that Aung San Suu Kyi leads) processions as well as numerous cars with NLD stickers and scarves, a nice sign of political liberalization.

However, there were a few negatives. It was very hot and the sun was devastating (I got very dark sunburn on my arms and face), sometimes I got glares from people (the drawback of it being the low season for tourists), and whilst the people are courteous, I experienced a few dishonest and irritating interactions towards the end. The worst was being ripped off by a taxi driver at the Yangon bus terminal after I arrived on the overnight bus at 6am who lied by claiming it was more expensive since it was in the morning, and another annoying one was being charged for a bottled water at a restaurant which I thought was free. Also, while it was amusing when it happened and looking back at it now, being hassled by vendors and “guides” at every temple I stopped at in Bagan was really annoying. I was really polite, perhaps too polite, and perhaps I could have ignored them.

There were good and bad things about the places I went to, but I’ll touch on them in specific posts.

All in all, I found Myanmar, especially Yangon, to be quite interesting. It was more bustling than Cambodia and the people in general had decent English ability, especially taxi drivers. Bagan was just as impressive as Angkor, which it is sometimes compared to. However, I didn’t “fall in love” with the country like some people do, and I didn’t like it as much as Vietnam which still remains my favorite SE Asian country.

The itinerary
I flew from Taipei to Kuala Lumpur, then flew from there to Yangon, formerly Rangoon and the former capital, then flew to Bagan and spent 3 full days there, moved on to Mandalay by minibus. I did a daytrip to places around Mandalay like Sagaing and Inwa and spent a further half-day going around Mandalay itself. I then took an overnight bus back to Yangon again.

The highlights

Yangon
-the numerous British colonial-era buildings and diverse places of worship including churches, mosques and Hindu temples
-Shwedagon Paya, the country’s most impressive and sacred Buddhist site featuring a giant golden stupa

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Bagan
-the temples, which come in an interesting variety of shapes and sizes
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Mandalay
-the surrounding places like Inwa, Amarapura and Sagaing, which feature religious sites, a teak bridge, and rural villages
-Mandalay Hill, which gives you a great 360-degree view of the city, the neighboring Irrawaddy River, and the mountains in the distance
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