30 May — 23 June, 2004
Myanmar (Burma) was where I spent monsoon June. What a magical country! Steeped in tradition and culture the country is as beautiful as Southeast Asia gets.
While in Myanmar, I visited Bagan— the famed ancient Buddhist landscape with over 4000 temples and stupas, Inlay Lake (quite possible the most serene and chill place on earth), Mandalay— but no Mandalay Bay (sorry Las Vegas) and Yangon— the green and peaceful capital. One great thing about a fascist government: Horn honking is punishable by fines, making Yangon the quietest capital city in all of Asia! I wish others would heed Myanmar on this issue— noise pollution outweighs all other types in Asia.
I guess my only complaint about Myanmar was its food. It was terrible, worse than what the communists serve up in Cuba! Even George Orwell states in his 1927 novel Burmese Days that the food is “hideous.” The way I understood it, oil (cooking oil) is viewed as a sign of wealth, and they would pour and fry and sizzle that grease so much it would make Shalimar (the Pakistani restaurant in the Tenderloin of San Francisco) seem like eating a green salad. The hygiene was terrible too, worse than India, I dare say. We all got hit, even the 48-year old Austrian who hadn’t had diarrhea since 1985 suffered a bout. Then again, I guess you could say Myanmar primed my stomach for what was next to come… India. Well, at least there is Burma Super Star back home on Clement Street in SF where I can enjoy California-cum-Myanmar food in air-con luxury. Can’t wait to eat that Mandalay salmon again!
Wednesday, 2 June — Yangon
Yangon is one of the most exotic places I’ve been. I guess when you have a place that is the meeting and mixing grounds for cultures as intense as Chinese, Indian, and SE Asian, you are going to have a bizarre place. Throw in a fascist government that squanders cash and doesn’t repair any public works, and a bit of rain during rush hour and you have complete chaos. The sanitary conditions have been terrible, at best, to say the least, but locals don’t seem to notice. Everything is always wet. Nothing dries (at least during monsoon June.) At the same time, the vibe is quite nice with some of the most charming people this side of Kampala.
Friday, 4 June — The all-night bus
It may look like nothing special, but the receipt below represents a memory from the BKK→YAN→DAC→CCU series of flights on beloved Biman Bangladesh Airlines. Being an open ticket, Biman requires confirmation of each subsequent flight more than 72 hours in advance. I decide to walk over to the the local Biman branch in Yangon to confirm my next YAN→DAC flight segment.
“How can we confirm your onward ticket without proof of a Bangladeshi visa?” asks a well-dress Biman clerk sitting behind a desk whose contents include pictures of exotic destination where Biman flies. He hands back my passport and papers.
The request is fair so I walk outside, hail a taxi and head to Bangladeshi embassy. I clear security and enter the simple yet elegant visa services room. Several Bangladeshi diplomats sit behind a desk. There is no queue so they luckily see to my business immediately. I eagerly explain my situation.
“We need to see your confirmed air ticket before we can issue you a visa.” calmly explains one of the diplomats as he hands back my passport.
Thinking I will have a better chance convincing Biman to confirm my ticket, I roll back to the airline office in the same taxi. The same Biman clerk listens to my dilemma.
“Then you are not flying to Bangladesh,” the clerk counters. “The airline will be fined if you fly there without a visa, and you might have to fly back here, where you also would not have a visa. And I might loose my job.”
I am dismayed, but the airline has a valid issue. I taxi back to the Bangladesh embassy. As downtown Yangon rolls by, I ponder how to present a convincing case. I would much rather be outside touring the exotic city of instead of managing the red tape of airline versus embassy.
The same consular chaps are in the room when I arrive. There is still no queue so I immediately present my case.
“It is forbidden to grant a non-Myanamar citizen a Bangladeshi visa in Yangon without proof of air travel.” proclaims the same man I spoke to earlier.
Frustrated, I challenge the embassy staff. The man offers me a cup of tea and a chair and we chat for a while about America and my travels. Suddenly the man proposes a 10-day Bangladeshi visa will be granted, at the cost of USD $100. I happily fork over the dough. I will have to pick up my passport later in the day, but I am given a receipt to show Biman Airlines proof of my visa. I head back to the Biman office where the clerk subsequently confirms my next flight.
I have a few hours to wait before I can pick up my passport so I head to the Yangon Gems Museum and witness an outstanding collection of rubies, sapphires, topaz and other colorful precious and semiprecious stones. Some are as large as a watermelon. In the shop, I buy a small but clear topaz. Around 4pm I return to the embassy to collect my passport. On page 19, I find my full-page Bangladesh 10-day visa. I am happy.
I grab my bags, leave my hotel at 3:30pm and take a taxi to the Aung Mingalar Highway Bus Station where I board the Yè Thu Aung Express bus in window seat 18. We leave Yangon at 5:00pm and begin the long drive to north Mandalay. I paid extra to reserve my seat but unfortunately the guy sitting next to me has taken on the terrible habit of chewing betel nut on the bus. He is spitting out maroon-dyed saliva in a bag hanging on the seat handle on the back of the seat in front of us. The bag, half full with his colorful, menthol smelling saliva, is bouncing around with the bumps of the bus. The saliva is getting shaken up and bubbling and I am worried the bag might fall onto the floor and spill the disgusting discarded saliva all over the place. I seldom get motion sickness, but the thought of it all begins to greatly nauseate me, so I give up my premium seat and move away as far as possible to the back of the bus.
At one point a cheerful attendant passes out a cherry-flavored moist towelette; he is unaware of my earlier predicament and I decide not to complain.
We take a midnight stop at a busy makeshift, road-side stall. There are many people standing about, smoking cheroot, chewing betel nut, and drinking tea. My guess is we are near a town called Aungpan. I sit down and order a well-deserved noodle soup. It tastes outstanding. The local ambiance adds to the flavor. We leave our stops after thirty minutes and head north. The bus pulls into Mandalay sometime around dawn. I collect my luggage walk with a group of travelers that I meet on arrival and we find a local guesthouse. I check in and sleep until noon.
Saturday, 5 June — Mandalay
Mandalay is a place where magic happens. I wanted a draft beer and water, so I point to both on the table next to me. My waiter takes my empty H2O bottle to throw away, but moments later, returns with it full of beer. How funny! But what a great idea! The back alleys of Mandalay are outstanding. There are wooden houses everywhere and stupas and loud speakers blasting exotic music or highly reverberated speech. The food is terrible. Really nothing to repeat here. Burma Super Star in SF is a rare case where the is better in the US that where it originates from. The people though are so cordial; whenever they give something, they use both hands! I love them.
Monday, 21 June — All night bus
At 11:30pm I grab my bags and wait at the main junction in Nyaungshwe. The Yè Thu Aung Express bus arrives around midnight. I board the bus and take seat 16. We arrive to Yangon the next morning and I head back to the Okinawa Guest House.
Tuesday, 22 June — Yangon
During the day I visit the Biman Bangladesh office to collect my final ticket. Later that night my hotel staff informed me I had a visitor. To my surprise it was the staff member from Biman earlier in the day; he comes by to take my out and show me that Yangon does not—contrary to popular belief—have a boring nightlife. We visit some elite hotel clubs and bars, watch an excellent Filipino bands play the latest pop hits, and drink good beer. At one of the hotel clubs I see some American marines dancing to the music. I can’t believe the hospitality of the airline.