Thursday, December 23, 2010

277. Christmas in North Myanmar

DRAFT TO SUBMIT TO TRAVEL STORY CONTEST

PERSONAL SAFETY
"Is it safe to tour Myanmar?" many Singaporean friends thought I was insane when I made arrangements to visit Central and North Myanmar in late 2008. The local newspapers seldom market or advertise tours to Myanmar in the past 10 years and so most Singaporeans do not visit this country of 50 million people. "The planes there are not safe," one veterinarian's wife surprised me with her comment on air safety. Yet there have been no news of airplane crashing in Myanmar for at least 10 years.

When a bomb exploded in a tour bus in Israel some 15 years ago, a few of the Singaporean pilgrims backed out of the Bible Land tour organised by my ex-National Service officer who became a pastor. I was a non-believer but I toured with him to visit Bethlehem's Church of Nativity where Jesus was said to be born in a stable surrounded by farm animals and related Christian sites, making my Sunday School lessons of some 50 years ago alive.

So, should I go to Myanmar with my family during the Christmas holidays and endanger the safety of everyone? Fools rush in where angels fear to tread? An old Myanmarese friend assured me: "Myanmar is a safe country for tourists. The government prohibits tourists from visiting certain regions which are deemed not safe for foreigners." After talking to other Myanmar nationals, I decided that there was no concern and embarked on an unforgettable journey whom I got to know more about my family members as well as the culture of the Myanmar nationals, one of whom was my veterinary assistant.

BEST SEASON TO VISIT MYANMAR & TOURIST ATTRACTIONS
October to April is considered the best period of time to tour Myanmar as it is the dry season and the tourist does not get drenched and travel on muddy track roads in visiting rural areas.

TWO TOURS IN 2008
From Singapore, we boarded a Silk Air plane to Yangon in September for an 8-day travel to Central Myanmar. A tour guide met us at Yangon and we toured using local airplanes and a tour bus to visit Mandalay, Pyin Oo Lwin, Lake Inle and Kyaikhtiyo before going back to Singapore via Yangon. In December for 14 days, from Yangon, a tour guide went with us. We took internal flights to North Myanmar's city of Myitkyina. Then we took two cars to travel over 7 hours on bumpy roads and broken bridges to Lake Indawygyi. Then we drove back to Myitkyina and took a plane to Bagan, by coach to Mount Poppa and then Pyin Oo Lwin before going back to Singapore.

LUXURY ACCOMMODATION
"The Racing Manager must be corrupted. He and his family stayed in Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok for their holidays," one strictly religious Turf Club Security Manager remarked to me when I was a racehorse veterinarian some 30 years ago. Staying in a 5-star hotel in Singapore is still very expensive but the rates would be much lower in Bangkok, Thailand and affordable for many Singaporeans. In Myanmar, we could afford to stay one night each at the luxurious Strand Hotel, Myanmar and the Governor's House (rebuilt) in Pyin Oo Lwin to experience the ambience and the history of the British colonialists who designed and built both buildings.

KILL ALL SPIDERS AT GOLDEN ISLAND COTTAGES HOTELS, INLE LAKE
On checking in at the Golden Island Cottages villa built of bamboos over the Inle Lake, spider cobwebs lined the walls and several spiders scattered on top of the mosquito nets over the beds. My wife was not happy. The hotel staff rushed in with Bayon spray cans. "No need to kill the spiders," I stopped the staff from blasting the rooms with insecticide spray. "Just catch the spiders and put them outside. Sweep away the cobwebs with a brush and broom."

Arachnophobia from a veterinarian's wife? Well, one James Bond's movies had shown a tarantula crawling onto a sleeping person and killing him with painful bites and this could have caused arachnophobia in city dwellers like my wife. Now, I had a problem. How to resolve this? The tour guide had already booked the hotel. Yet, the fear of spiders should not be dismissed away. We went on the boat ride to visit a hut where local women weaved lotus fabric and on the way, I saw Myanmar Treasure Resort Hotel and got the guide to book the rooms for us. It was a luxury hotel type. There was not a cobweb in sight in the bedroom. This solved my problem!

EXPOSURE TO LIGHTNING, THUNDER AND STRONG WINDS, KYAIKHTIYO
"I don't want to be electrocuted by lightning," I said to myself as four men carried me on a palanquin 11 km up the steep hill from Kinpun base camp to the mountain top where the Golden Rock Pagoda and Hotel were located. Heavy showers erupted just as we reached Kyaikhtiyp by coach. I remembered that a golfer was killed by lightning in a Singapore golf course and the advice was to stay away from open areas during thunderstorms. Here I was, fully vulnerable, damp and exposed to the elements. The four men on each end of the pole walked in tandem, switched positions of the pole swishing their slippers as they carried the tourists past boulders, shrubs and trees. Black skies flashed yellow as if I was in a air bombing battlefield. It was too risky to drive up the mountain and the accommodation was booked at the top. So all of us had to pay to be carried uphill like what British officers were during the colonial period. It seemed like an eternity. I was more worried that my camera and shoes would get wet as I wrapped them with plastic bags. It must be one of those unforgettable moments for my family as the fear of being killed by an act of God was too real and time to reach our destination was an eternity.

At the hotel, we no dry clothes as the guide had left our luggage at the bottom of the Mountain. So we purchased some sarong. I thought it was fun. But not for the others. The manager told us that electricity would be switched off after midnight as there was this thunderstorm. At 4 am, the bedroom was as dark as hell. I could not even see my finger. Where was the bathroom? "Grope the bedside," I said to my wife. "Feel the wall edges and then slowly glide your hand towards the direction of the bathroom door." This was worse than my national service military exercise past midnight. At least I could see the starlight then. Here, I was blind as a bat. The next morning, I discovered that the hotel had torch-lights hanging on the wall. Well, the manager or hotel notices did not inform inexperienced travellers like us about the presence of torches in hotel rooms.

HARDSHIP ACCOMMODATION AT LAKE INDAWGYI
Cracked WCs, no hot water at the Lakeside Guest House in Lake Indawgyi in North Myanmar. "This is acceptable to the backpacker," my wife declared to me two years later as she recalled the visit to Lake Indawgyi. She was no more the young spirit who would sacrifice comfort to see the world. No electricity at dinner too? This was upsetting. Candle-light for dinner at Lake Indawgyi's small restaurant was romantic, I thought. This was hardship dinner. I appreciated the boat tour of this clear and beautiful lake and the pagoda where pilgrims walked to pray during the season when there was no water. "The fish was good," my second son recalled. "As for the rough bathroom amenities, the national service training had accustomed us to such situations."

TOILETS BEHIND THE BUSHES ON THE WAY FROM MYITKYINA TO LAKE INDAWGYI
The 7-hour car ride from Myitkyina to Lake Indawgyi was hard on the backside of city dwellers. It was worse when it came to bathroom facilities. Once my wife had to go behind some low shrubs while her sons stood guard as she had to pee. On the visit to the gold-mining area 2 hours's drive from Myitkyina, she could not stand the stench of the public toilets. My guide had the brains to persuade a monk to let her use the bathroom of the monastery. Well, no more Myanmar rural tours for her if there are no good bathrooms with fresh air.

COMMUNITY TOURISM
I would like to see the how the six bigger groups of ethinic minorities live in their communities. These are the Shan, the Karen, the Kachin, the Mon, the Rakhine and the Chin. Tourism revenue helps to improve the standards of living of a community and my travel may make a very small difference to the local people as it provides some employment for the hospitality staff. Bagan with its archealogical and historical heritage was busy with Caucasian and Asian tourists during my visit there. There were worries that the pagoda floors would be worn out by the footsteps of such large numbers of tourists.

ECONOMICS
Stunning beauty of the interior, cultural heritage, gentle people
Oil, minerals and natural gas resources are abundant. Myanmar is of vital strategic value for its rich resources. Between two emerging giants, China and India. I would like to visit the jade mining areas of North Myanmar but my guide said it was not possible at that time.

STREET PHOTOGRAPHY, MILITARY & PROVINCIAL CHECK POINT

BACK-UP CAMERA, CAMERA SHAKE AND RAIN

CULTURE
Novice monks and nuns, ear boring.

FESTIVALS

WET MARKET

ART AND THE FLOWER GIRL


POLITICS AND TOURISM
INDEPENDENCE HERO, General Aung San founded the Burmese army. His daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced as "Awn Sun Sue Chee") was under house arrest in 2008 and was released in late 2010. Now she is said to support tourism.

1962 coup by army. Burma is called the Union of Myanmar.
1988 Demonstrators fought the military.
1990 NLD won national elections. Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 out of past 21 years in Rangoon (Yangon).
1990s Western government imposed economic sanctions on Burma. Suu Kyi supported the sanctions by discouraging tourism.
2007 Saffron revolution by monks.
2009 An American Vietnam War veteran said he was on a mission from God swam to her lakeside home, thereby extending her house arrest
2010 Elections held and Aung San Suu Kyi is free from house arrest after the elections.


BUDDHISM
Over 85% of the population are Buddhists. Philosophy of nonviolence.

INTERNET ACCESS in hotels - None or poor connections in 2008 except for top hotels in Yangon.

BROWN OUTS. Power failures do happen in shops and small hotels in bigger towns and cities but generators are available to restore the electricity in 2008.

ART - Art galleries yes. I bought a painting at the Bagoyoke market for my surgery.

VET HOSPITAL - none in Yangon in 2008.

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