Chillin’ in Bagan

Greetings all,

I’m in the most relaxed mood in a while today, for a few reasons. First, after a lovely but way too long 15-hour slow boat ride from Mandalay to Bagan, I got a decent night’s sleep last night. Second, I managed to change my flight so that I’m leaving this Saturday, on the 17th, on the same flight as Marjan. Third, Bagan is the most relaxed place I’ve been in Myanmar…and we just had the first decent meal in like 2 weeks (believe it or not, fresh pasta with fresh tomato sauce). But most of all, this morning I got a reassuring phone call from the US consulate in Yangon.

It seems that one Andrea DiCastro McGough had been inquiring with her about my possible whereabouts, and she’s been calling around to look for me ever since. She finally tracked me down at the New Park Hotel here in Bagan, where she left me a message to call back. Of course, my first thought (while the woman in the hotel was trying to get through on the phone) was that something terrible had happened to one of YOU. Hehe.

When I finally got through, she was great. “I figured you were somewhere upcountry trekking and having a wonderful time,” she said. And she was right! She told me that things are pretty much back to normal in Yangon. The guest houses and most of the rest of the city have electricity back. There’s no food or water shortage in the city. It’s most expensive, but that’s pretty much it. I told her my travel plan and she said I’d be safe. So I feel better, and I hope you all feel better as well!

So, my final Myanmar plan:

Now-Thurs: Bagan

Thurs afternoon: bus from Bagan to Yangon with Marjan (arrive Fri am)

Friday – arrive Yangon; hang out in Yangon for the day

Saturday 8:30 am – flight to Bangkok, arrives around 11 am Bangkok time (12 hours ahead of NYC, so around 11 pm Friday night NY time)

I’ll send a text message to Zoe and Drea when I land in Bangkok.

OK. Enough about that. Let me say *something* about this country! It’s wonderful and strange and difficult to communicate and dirty and hot and the food sucks and the people are ridiculously, over-the-top, knock-you-out friendly and helpful and incredibly cheerful. In its “Dangers and Annoyances” section, The Lonely Planet travel guide says: “Most travellers’ memories of locals grabbing your money are of someone chasing you down because you dropped a K500 note (about $0.50) in the street (‘you dropped this sister’).” That’s no exaggeration. Everywhere we go, people say hello and “Where you come from? America?!? That’s a very good country. And you very beautiful.” They sometimes follow up with “You need something? Trishaw? Taxi? Some guest house? Buy some postcard?” – but not that often. (A trishaw is a bike with a two-seated side saddle. The “driver” pedals and you sit in the tiny seats. It’s a popular form of transport for short distances.)

In Mandalay, we befriended a trishaw driver called Tin Nyit who took us around for cheap (“I need business, so I take you for K2000,” he replied, when we told him we were going to Mandalay Hill, 4 km away, on a hot day.) And then we were stuck with him. He appeared early every day out in front of our guest house and stayed there until late at night, in case we needed a ride somewhere. We need a taxi to take us to a few ancient cities outside of Mandalay? He had a younger brother with a taxi. We wanted to go to the famous Moustache Brothers show? He could take us, and knew a great place nearby to eat dinner. Sure, it got annoying after a while. And sure, between what we paid him and the commission we’re sure he got from the places he took us, we gave him some good business. But we would have paid other trishaw and taxi drivers for the same services, and Tin took care of us. We needed a travel agent to see about flights, and he know a great one near our guest house. We had a question about anything, and he would answer or find the answer.

Anyway, he’s just one example of how people in the tourist industry here go above and beyond to make sure you have everything you need, and they’re extremely rarely sleazy about it – trying to trick you into taking an expensive trip somewhere, etc. Other people are simply curious. They want to interact with us, but don’t seem sure what to ask…thus the endless shouts of “Hello!” and delighted giggles when we answer back.

There’s so much more. Where do I start? Men in skirts (or rather, longyis), and shoulder bags. No Coke or Pepsi signs! (Though yuo can buy Coke that’s been imported from Thailand.) Cities reek of diesel. Ancient Mazdas and other cars held together with duct tape and wire. Horribly broken, pot-holed roads (even pre-typhoon). New computers stacked as cargo in the last few rows of the passenger bus from Yangon to Kalaw. Burmese “pop” music with accompanying karaoke videos played at top volume for most of the 12-hour bus journeys. “The government owns the land, the sea and the air,” said Robin, our guide for our trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. “The people just lease it for 99 years. And if the government wants to take the land, they can do it at any time.”



Should I stay…?

The Big Question that’s been percolating in our minds over the past day, as we hear more news from y’all, the internet, and by asking questions of locals here: Should we get the hell outta Dodge? My first inclination was (of course) to stay – to finish most of my trip, and then to try to help if I can. Then I read a lot of alarming (and possibly alarmist?) news & advisories, and started to consider leaving immediately. Then I spoke with quite a few people here, and calmed down a bit.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to do. I know many of you are extremely concerned, especially after seeing the Katrina-like conditions in the delta region that was hardest hit. But up north here there seems to have been *no* effect whatsoever, other than taxi drivers blaming the higher cost of petrol and food on their inability to give us a lower price. People are rather blithely going about their daily lives as if tens of thousands of their countrymen hadn’t died, and as if tens of thousands more weren’t in danger of dying of disease and starvation. To compare (roughly) with Katrina: Fearing for our safety up north here is like a New Yorker fearing Katrina looters.

On the other hand, 99% of the exits from the country require that we go via Yangon, where there *are* food and water shortages. The only other two ways to get out of the country are to either fly from Mandalay to Chiang Mai, Thailand, or to fly to a border town and cross by land to Mai Sai, Thailand. Neither are appealing options, and both are rather complicated to arrange. Right now, Marjan has a ticket from Yangon to Bangkok on Air Asia the morning of the 17th. I’ve got the same flight booked three days later, on the 20th. So yesterday Marjan and I went to a travel agent to explore our options. The extremely helpful agent made reservations for each of us to fly directly from Bagan to Yangon the day before our respective flights to Bangkok, thereby avoiding overland travel. He gave us the name of a reliable hotel near the airport, so that we wouldn’t even have to go into the city at all – we just arrive in the evening, sleep in the hotel for a few hours, and then fly out at like 8 am the next morning. So Marjan is scheduled on that Air Bagan flight from Bagan/Yangon on the 16th and I’m on the 19th. If either of us choose to not use the tickets, we get a full refund.

All that said, the travel agent assured us that things would be fine in Yangon by the 17th. “There are many rich men in Yangon,” he said. “They are already paying to bring water, electricity and food.” He assured us that we would be perfectly safe. In fact, he seemed amused at our concern. For my part, I just don’t want to be in the way in Yangon, eating food and drinking water that could go to someone who really needs it.

Obviously, we’ve also spoken with the few other travelers we’ve met, to see what they’re doing. Everyone else seems either as conflicted as we are, or completely unconcerned. No one is making a panicked run for the border. In fact, yesterday we met 4 people (two Americans and two French people) to actually flew *in* to Mandalay on the 5th, after their flight had been delayed by the storm. One of American guys has been here 6 times, and doesn’t seem at all concerned.

Another consideration, of course, is all of you. I don’t want to torture you with worry for 10 days while I wander around some dusty ancient pagodas. I know that we are safe right now, and I haven’t seen any indications that the situation will change in the next 10 days or so. Yes, I know about the forecast for rain down south next week, but that’s pretty normal – the rainy season starts in May. I feel like as long as I don’t go to the delta region, I’ll be fine. (A few of you have sent me email intimating that flights out of the country could get canceled or something. Can you please send details of where/from whom you heard this info? I can’t find anything about it on the net.)

Marjan and I will make our final decision on what to do when we get to Bagan. Right now we’re leaning towards spending our last few days in Bagan, and then each taking the flights I described above. (This means I would be alone for 3 days in Bagan, rather than Yangon, for 3 days. I’m now thinking I might change my flight to Marjan’s, if there’s room, as I just read that Air Asia is not only NOT canceling flights, but letting people change flights for free.) We want to see what it’s like on the boat we’re going to take there (it’s perfectly safe – a huge slow ship going down the Ayerwaddy River hundreds of kilometers north of the typhoon region). We leave tomorrow (Sunday) morning at 5:30 am and it’s scheduled to arrive around 3 pm local time. Note that local time is 11.5 hours ahead of NYC time.

I *had* wanted to write a post about what we’ve actually been *doing* here. But your worried emails prompted this post instead. Please rest assured that I am completely safe and easily continuing my trip as planned. The internet cafe I’m in is filled – half with tourists and half with locals playing games or looking at photos or chatting on Google Talk. It’s strangely and completely normal.

I may post again later.

Safe & hot w/aching butt in Mandalay

Here we are in Mandalay after a long (9-hour), bumpy bus ride on painfully hard seats. For the people here, it’s as if there was no cyclone/typhoon. It’s hot and sunny and there’s electricity and (painfully slow yet working) internet.

As I mentioned in my brief post yesterday, we really had no idea how big the cyclone was until yesterday morning. Saturday night was the last night of our trek – we stayed in a Buddhist monastery. The head monk told us that he had heard on the radio that there was a large storm in Yangon, and that about 300 people had died. I figured such a small incident wouldn’t even make the news in the US. To be honest, at the time we were much more interested in the storm’s effect on the rest of our trek. Saturday had been an unseasonably wet day, which meant we had to walk 24 kilometers in huge ponchos with heavy sticky clay mud collecting like concrete blocks to our Tevas. In fact, I did the last few kms barefoot like the locals. Squishy and slippery, but at least I didn’t have 5-kilo weights attached to my feet.

On Sunday we arrived at Inle Lake and stayed at the friendly Remember Inn in Nyangshwe. There we found that the typhoon had knocked out electricity in the area, and this time the casualty count was 3000. Again, we were more concerned with its effect on our much-needed hot shower…though of course we were also sad and curious about the extent of the damage. Of course, no electric and no internet meant no info. And there’s no English-language paper for sale in Myanmar outside of Yangon and Mandalay. So we were informed only by the rumors we heard from locals. We didn’t know if their source of info was the unreliable Myanmar media or the BBC. So we took the growing numbers with a large grain of salt.

Monday we spent the day mostly in our room, recovering from the exhausting trek and the nasty diarrhea Marjan (we had it much worse) and I had been suffering since Friday. (Yes mom I’m drinking plenty of fluids.) By Tuesday the news of casualties had risen to 9000, so we started to worry that y’all were worried. But again, we had no way to get in touch. Then yesterday morning we heard almost 100K dead, so we were eager to get to Mandalay and send word that we were fine. But we managed to luck out – I poked my head into a “Cyber Cafe” in Nyangshwe and saw a woman using the internet. I asked if we could use it, but she said “it’s on a shared generator that they will turn off right now.” I begged her for just 10 minutes, she agreed, and that’s the story.

As for the typhoon itself, I’m still going to try to read up on it on the internet – the newspaper I bought today is from the 5th, before the extent of things was really known. We know the elections scheduled for the 10th were postponed (at least down south) so we’ll keep an ear to the ground about that. Marjan’s leaving a few days before me, so I might try to spend my last few days in Bago, near Yangon, because I hear UNICEF is looking for volunteers. But of course I’ll make sure it’s safe first.

As of right now, here’s our itinerary:

Thursday – Mandalay

Friday – day trip to ancient cities around Mandalay

Saturday – either Mandalay or the nearby town of Pyin U Lwin

Sunday – boat to Bagan

Monday – Wed – Bagan

Thursday – Marjan takes the bus back to Yangon, arriving Friday, to fly out Saturday. I may take the bus to Bago and stay there until I leave on Tuesday the 20th. But that bit is still up in the air. I don’t know how safe it is down south, and if I’d have access to safe water and food. So I’ll get more info before making that decision. If it’s really unsafe, I can always stay up north here and then just fly from Mandalay to Yangon and then out to Bangkok. But I don’t think it’ll come to that.

In any event, it seems that the internet is working up north here, and that most internet cafes have various solutions to getting around the govt’s attempt to limit access to email, etc. So I won’t be as cut off as I feared. So I’ll keep everyone informed about my plans as they come together.

I’m fine

I’m sorry to have you all worried. The internet was spotty anyway, and with the typhoon everything got knocked out. I was trekking in the hills at the time. Now we’re in Inle Lake, heading to Mandalay this evening. Up north here there was only rain. So we’re safe and completely fine. We didn’t even hear about the full extent of things until just this morning. We heard 100K dead? We have no idea.

I’m on borrowed generator time right now, so I’m gunna run. I’ll try to send more later.

Rain rain, so we’re going away

Well! Thanks for, greetings from Yangon, where it has been raining for 3 days, and rain is forecast for the next 3 months or so. It’s a shame, because the giant puddles and general nasty conditions are stopping me from seeing what I can tell is a city I would love.

We arrived this morning at 8:30 am local time (we’re 11 1/2 hours ahead of NYC). The Yangon International Airport was as big as you’d expect….but ours was one of only two planes on the tarmac. The other was an Air Bagan plane – for domestic flights. But the wide empty tarmac was just the beginning of the rather spooky airport. I entered the arrivals hall expecting grit grime and dilapidation. Instead, I was greeted with sleek, modern steel and glass. And completely silence. No announcements. No bustle. No other passengers competing for a place in the immigration queue. Just a giant, Logan-worthy arrivals hall with a few sleepy foreigners and many sleepy Burmese. (As we were leaving the airport I checked the arrivals screen – the only flights I could see arriving today were from a few from Bangkok, one from Taipei and one from Singapore. )

I had been planning to stay at a “mid-range” hotel here, but at the luggage carousel we were greeted by Zin Minn from Motherland 2 guest house (a great cheapie option, according to Lonely Planet). He offered us free transport to the city, so we decided eff it – we’ll go with him. I’m glad we did. Zin (who’s sitting right next to me right now printing out welcome notes for tomorrow’s arriving guests) and the rest of the staff here are extremely friendly and helpful. They just helped us book a bus ticket to Kalaw for tomorrow. We had been planning to spend another day here, but the rain is awful and Marjan is not happy. (I’m starting to worry that she’s very negative and suspicious, which will make traveling with her – especially in this nutty place – quite difficult. I hope I’m wrong!) So anyway, we’re heading north to the cooler and hopefully drier hills.

I wish I had the time and capacity to write about my first impressions of Myanmar and Yangon, but I’m exhausted from the long day and I have to get up early tomorrow. I have a 18-hour bus ride to look forward to. My poor ass.

Hope all’s well with everyone out there. I’ll log on again when I can.

Bangkok is hot, loud and dirty

I arrived at the Suk 11 (heh heh) hostel in Bangkok at 2:30 am…early Thursday, I guess it was. It’s a quiet, teak, traditional-looking place tucked away down an alley next to a 7-11. The sleepy security guard had me register, wordlessly handed me a bottle of water, and pointed up a steep staircase. In the delirious state I was in after 24 hours of nonstop travel, I’m shocked I managed to find my room.

Sleeping in a real bed was pure luxury, but I had to get up fairly early to go get my visa to Myanmar. Despite what I thought were careful preparations, the process of applying took a lot longer than I thought – evidently the forms had changed somewhat, so I had to fill them all out again. Interestingly, the new forms required far less than the old ones – the old forms included a CV-like work history (to weed out the journalists, I suppose) and full travel details. I was extremely surprised at how polite, friendly, and helpful the officials were. They happily photocopied my passport for free (I was supposed to have brought a copy) and even provided paste to glue my passport photos onto the new forms. The whole experience, which took place in the usual bland, dreary bureaucratic setting, was a great contrast to my experiences in, say, Eastern Europe, where officials seemed to take malicious glee in torturing the form-filling challenged. But I’ll hold off on final impressions until I actually have my passport back with a visa attached. 3 pm today.

After applying for my visa, I went to the Hua Lamphong train station to buy a ticket on an overnight sleeper to Chiang Mai for tonight (Friday). Mid-April in Chiang Mai is a “dangerous” time – not only does the forecast say 105 degrees, but April 12 is the beginning of Songkran (Thai new year) festival, celebrated most vigorously in Chiang Mai and the highlight of which is The Pouring of Water Festival. Evidently, for the four days of Songkran youths patrol the streets with water guns (or just big vats of water) and soak anyone in their path. I guess if I go out I’ll have to leave my camera behind, or at least store everything in plastic bags.

After getting my train ticket I decided to wander around in nearby Chinatown, which is much like Chinatowns anyplace else: businesses selling cheap knock-offs and strange dried and fresh food spilling out onto narrow streets, forcing pedestrians off the sidewalks to dodge motorbikes, etc.

I normally have a great sense of direction, but it simply is out of order here in Bangkok. I can’t tell you how many times I had to stop, whip out a map or my guidebook, squint at the road signs, and try to figure out where I was and which direction I was going in. And every time I stopped, a tuk-tuk driver would come up to me to offer his services….usually leading to a conversation about wherever he could get a commission. One guy even tried to tell me that Chinatown was “all closed because holiday” so that he could take me to a shopping strip he knew.

After wandering about in Chinatown for a few hours I was very overheated – I’ve never needed a/c so bad. So I found my way back to the train station and hopped on the fairly new metro, which links to the awesome Skytrain – all with a/c, and all of which avoid the nightmare of Bangkok traffic – back to the Suk 11 for a cool shower and a nap. (I’m not quite over the jet lag.)

All told, I’m excited to get the hell out of Bangkok. Maybe under different circumstances I’d enjoy it more, but right now I want some peace!