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MAY 11-21, 2015
Please don't use my experiences in
Myanmar in May of 2015 as any kind
of tool in planning your own visit.  
The place I visited doesn't exist
anymore.  I've never been anywhere
that is changing so quickly.

On my visit, I saw craftsmen,
fishermen and monks going about
their daily business in a way that
they and their forebearers have been
doing things for the past thousand
years.  I also saw teenagers on the
streets of the cities that were as
oblivious to the world around them
as any child of the same age you'd
encounter at your local galleria.

Example No. 1:  The United States
didn't even recognize Myanmar until
2012.  Now, for some reason, we call
it "Myanmar (Burma)". In the past
three years, the American dollar has
become the preferred method
exchange for transactions.  Some of
this might have to do with the
elections that are coming up in
October 2015. It's hoped that the
country will continue in the
direction of democracy, but if it
doesn't, people want to have hard
cash.

Example No. 2: Prior to October 1,
2014, anyone in the country who
wanted a cell phone had to pay the
equivalent of $5000 US for the
service.  That's about what the
average citizen makes in 2-3 years.  
However, when private phone
service was introduced last fall,
service plans fell to about half the
price of what they are in the US, and
the quality and quantity of service
exploded overnight.  Now, you can't
avoid obnoxious cell phone users
there any more than you can in
America.

Those are just two aspects, but
there are many others.  The biggest
trend I suppose is that young people
are moving to the cities and leaving
the rural areas to their more
traditional parents.  Something
important is being lost in Myanmar,
but you can't blame the people for
wanting a better life any more than
you can blame anyone else for the
same thing.
I didn't go to Myanmar with "a" group.  I went with this group, and I got to know some of them really
well.  Of course, I already knew my cousin Sue Pitt (in white, standing in front of me), Sally Nungesser
(far right), and tour group Janice McDonald (in the green blouse, looking surprised).  The picture was
taken at the Pindaya Cave in the Shan State, home to 8000 images of Buddha.

There were, however, three new friends who deserve to be singled out.  They are (left to right) Sue's
roommate Joyce.  They bonded immediately and kept an eye on each other throughout.  Mary (center)
who became everybody's favorite when she bought us a round of drinks one night, and Dorothy, our local
guide.  Dorothy clearly was an expert on Myanmar; she was just kind of cagey about releasing the
information.
So the first questions people ask about Myanmar are:  1) Where is it? and 2) Why don't they call it Burma anymore?

Myanmar's neighbors include India to the west, China to the north, Thailand to the east and Malaysia to the
south.  Clearly, it occupies some rather important real estate in the world.  In recent months, there's been a lot
in the news about refugees from Myanmar fleeing to Malaysia.  While technically true, it's somewhat misleading.  
Most of the refugees headed for better economic prospects in Malaysia are originally from Bangladesh.  They just
traveled through Myanmar to get to the coast to find transportation.  (Think Hondurans traveling through Mexico
to get to the US.)

As for the name, as usual, you can blame the British.  (Just kidding--but not really.)  The name Myanmar means
"union of the ethnic minorities".  There are 37 of them in Myanmar--one of the largest being the Burmese.  When
they were administering the colony, they gave the name Burma to the whole country.  That's sort of like calling
the United States "Texas"--fine for the Texans, but not so much for everyone else.  When Myanmar claimed
independence in 1948, the move began to change the name to reflect the whole country and its people.
You will see hounds in Myanmar--
lots of 'em.  And they're not all as cute
as this guy.
In addition to 23 hours in the air going
to Myanmar and coming home, we
caught six flights within the country
and used almost every kind of
transportation you can think of:

Busses...
Trains...
Ox carts...
Horse carts...
Boats...
Oxen  (OK, in this case, the ox is
going around in circles.  What's he
doing?  He's helping to make peanut
brittle.  (I am not making this up.)...
...and on one particularly wet
occasion, Myanmarians themselves.  
Some of us had to be carried down an
unbelievably slippery mud slope on a
rainy day to get to a ferry.
What is now Myanmar has had five capitals in the past thousand or so years.  The only one we didn't visit is the
one that's used now--Naypyidaw.  It's a new city--built along the lines of Brasilia or Canberra (or Washington,
DC) for that matter, for the specific purpose of providing center of government far from the influence of the
mobs and/or bankers in Yangon, Rio or Sydney.  
Our first stop was Yangon, perhaps known more familiarly as Rangoon.  And the first stop anyone should
make in Yangon is the magnificant Schwe Dagon Pagoda.  It's the best known building in the country.
On each of the eight sides of the pagoda, there is a shrine to days
of the weeks.  For reasons that are still unclear to me, Wednesday
morning and Wednesday afternoon are counted as separate days.  
Depending on the day you were born, you're supposed to honor
Buddha at the shrine for your day.
I was born on Sunday, so when I got to the Sunday shrine, there was a very nice gentleman who spoke
excellent English who said he was a retired history professor.  He led me through the process of pouring
water on the Buddha.  I poured three cups of water for a better love life, three cups for prosperity, three
cups for health--and then I repeated the process for family and friends. (You're welcome.)
Our next stop was a train ride around Yangon to get an idea of
what life is like for many people in the city.

We saw mountains of garbage, people selling everything (including
these odd fried rings that looked pretty tasty), and people
sleeping in garbage bags on the side of the track.

Some of the folks on the tour weren't crazy about the experience,
but it was certainly an eye opener for me.  

I can't say that my seat-mate was particularly chatty (see
"Trains..." at far left), but I did get a chance to take what's
become my favorite photo of the trip--the little kid at the top of
this page.

Finally we got to eat lunch at a restaurant called the Green
Elephant (where Janice and I sent good thoughts to famous
Wyoming Green Elephant Paul Vogelheim.  The restaurant was
across the street from the former home of Nobel Prize winner
Aung San Suu Kyi.
After lunch, it was time to go to the market, specifically the
Scott Market--Yangon's biggest and most diverse.  

We didn't have a lot of time to spend there, so Sally had a
bright idea to hire a "personal shopper"--the girl in the photo at
right.  Sally told her what she wanted to buy, and the kid took
her to some of the better places to get them--owned by
relatives, I'm sure, but still....

Later in the evening, we went to the Night Market, where the
city shops for vegetables and other things vaguely resembling
food.  In addition to the chickens at right, we saw fish and
vegetables we'd never seen before, fried crickets....you name
it.
The next day, it was time to go to Inle
Lake in the Shan State.  The highlight of
the trip was a visit to the Pindaya cave,
home to 8000 images of Buddha.  The
name Pindara means something along the
lines of "escaped from the giant spider"
and refers to an ancient legend about the
cave which speaks of two sons of the king
seeking shelter in the cave during a
rainfall and being sealed into it by a giant
spider.  This rather questionable story
explains the presence of the large spider
(left) at the entrance.

A wild tale like that is practically begging
for a stupid photo-op like this one.
And the cave did not disappoint.  

The photo at right, and the group photo
near the top of the page give a hint of what
it's like.  Even though I took hundreds of
pictures, it was difficult to find one that
captured the immenseness of the place and
the riot of motifs in it.  You could google
"Pindaya Cave Myanmar" to see more images
if you're interested.












And once again, we were encouraged to
make an offering to Buddha.  As the day he
was there was his birthday, it would have
been an insult not to do it.  At right, Janice
is peeling a small patch of gilt onto the
central stupa at the center of the cave.
Later that day, we arrived at what would be my favorite stop on the trip, Inle Lake in the Shan State.  Travel on
the lake is conducted in long narrow boats that seat as few as one and as many as a dozen or more.  You can see
Janice at left in the five-seaters we used to get to and from our hotel and around to the various sites of the area.
Happily for dolts like me, it's practically impossible
to take a bad picture on the lake.  I particularly
enjoyed the light in the sky and watching the
fishermen plying the craft the way they've probably
done it since there was a lake and men to fish it.
And of course there were temples on the floating
villages of the lake.  One had the coolest party barge
I've ever seen (above).  It's used to haul the Buddha
around the lake on festival days.  

Another, for reasons that are somewhat lost to me,
is famous for its cats (below).  They looked like
regular cats to me.
Shopping at the lake was unique.  We saw the
famous long-necked women (photo at the top of
the page) spinning silk.  Even more remarkably, we
saw women disassembling lotus flowers to make
threads from which they made cloth that was a lot
like silk.  (The only lotus item Sally and I could
afford was a necktie for Darryl.)
A note about hotels--the tour company did a great
job of picking hotels for us.  We had great
accommodations everywhere.  Our favorite was the
Pristine Lotus resort at Inle Lake, where each private
unit looked like a boat jutting out into the canal and
had great views of the cows (ringing cowbells) across
the way and the mountains in the distance.
For many, the highlight of a visit to Myanmar would be
Bagan, capital of the country in the time of Kubla Kahn, and
the highlight of the visit in Bagan would be a hot air balloon
ride over the area.  (It's really not a city) to see the
hundreds of pagodas, stupas and temples that dot the
landscape.  (It looks something like this.)  However, we
were there on the cusp on the summer/monsoon season,
when hot air balloons just can't get off the ground in 104
degree heat.  

To the relief of the citizenry (if not us), we brought the
monsoon to Bagan with us.  It's said that it rains ten days a
year there, and it rained all three days we were in town.    
(Again, you're welcome.)  That's why a lot of these photos
(including our "official group photo" below is kind of hazy.
But there were still things to see.  In addition to the ox cart ride pictured at
left, we went to the "big temple" in Bagan, Ananda Temple, pictured here.   I
don't know if it's as big as the Vatican, but it's pretty big. At left, Leigh from
our group poses with Sally and me at one of the four great Buddhas of the
temple. Above right, Sally and I are reverting to form and ringing the bell for
good luck.

All along our trip, we were never far from the great Irrawaddy River.  It's
impressive, even when it's mostly dry.  At Bagan (below) there's a marker
commemorating all those who died in the battles fought to control it over
the centuries.  The text at right is the English text on the plaque at left.
So finally, our road led to Mandalay, one of the five capitals.  
Even though we were all in some state of "temple fatigue" by
this time, we were most impressed by "The World's Biggest Book"
(right), a somewhat misleading name for 729 individual stupas, each
of which contains one letter of one of Buddha's sayings.  

We were even more impressed by a 5 a.m. visit to the Shye Kwim
monastery, where we took up a collection among ourselves to buy
breakfast for the monks of the monastery.  We also served it and
shared it with them.  (It was chicken curry and some fruits and
vegetables.)  Here's one of our group, Beth, dishing up some rice
for of the younger novitiates.
Afterward, the abbot (head monk) did his best to provide some
enlightenment to justify our getting out of bed at 4 a.m. to feed
his monks and staff.  The gist of his comments was, "May you do
many good deeds before you die, and may you have many mango
trees."  

I was impressed, but I have to admit that I didn't get as much out of
the abbot's comments as others in our group.  I was, however,
inspired to do at least one good deed that morning.  As it was May
21st--Red Nose Day--I took the opportunity to model my nose on
the steps of the monastery.  Not much, but still...

Then it was back to the hotel to get ready for the long, long trip
home.  We'd seen a lot, done a lot, shopped a lot and ate a lot--but
more importantly, we'd met some new friends and seen some things
that most people wouldn't believe.
We'd been told that Myanmarians (?)
were camera shy and that we should
be judicious about taking their
pictures--and that we should always
ask them before we did.  (Seems like a
good rule of thumb for everyone, but I
digress.)

Turns out, they're all a bunch of
hams.  I only heard of one instance in
which two little girls were too shy to
have their pictures.  Often, they'd
come to us and request a picture.  
You can see several of them on this
page, and here are a few more:
Relax, Louisianians!

Tobasco is available in better
restaurants.  This particular
restaurant, oddly enough, is
attached to a Mercedes-Benz
dealership in Mandalay.
On one of our shopping stops, we
watched lacquerware being made.  As
it happens, "original" designs are
created by the men and copies of
patterns are traced by women.  I'm
just sayin'.

Speaking of original, how would you
like to have a lacquer table and chairs
that matched your dishes?  
To Janice, Carol and probably others whose terrific pictures I plundered from Facebook, thank you!  
(I assume you wanted me to show them to others because you put them there in the first place!)