Our Trip to Myanmar, Part 7

Okay, we are almost done with this terrible slog through what happened to us. Two things in this post. First, Mount Popa. Second, our terrible Christmas in Yangon.

Because of her school’s idiosyncratic ideas about pedagogy, Harriet has developed an obsession with volcanoes, which, honestly, are not a concept that should be described to three-year-olds. But because of this Harriet was extremely excited when she found out that there was a volcano – albeit an extinct one – an hour away from Bagan. So we took a taxi out to see Mount Popa. From a little way off, it looks like this:


It is that basically vertical hill with shrines at the top. When you get to the base, there are stairs and then you climb up them. Going up hills to see shrines was an poorly planned motif of this trip.

Mt. Popa is the residence of nats. Burmese Buddhism generally seems to be less inclusive than Thai Buddhism: in Thailand, you see shrines to basically everything and there’s a great deal of worship of spirits that have pretty much nothing to do with Buddha: almost every building in Thailand, for example, has a spirit house, to propitiate the spirits that lived in the land before the building was put up. And there’s also a healthy overlay of Hinduism. You don’t see this quite as much in the parts of Myanmar where we were. But Myanmar does have nats, which are a pantheon of spirits, the thirty-seven major ones of which are people who mostly died violent deaths. Mt. Popa is the home of the nats, so there are shrines to the various nats, and a lot of statues of them. Most of them look pretty grim:


I don’t know if this is an elephant-headed nat or Ganesh hanging out with the thirty-seven major nats:


After looking at the nats, we started climbing all the stairs, which takes a while. We stopped for a bit and had some noodles, which were delicious:


The other thing about Mt. Popa is that it is infested with monkeys, who menace the pilgrims climbing up the stairs and try to take their food. It is a problem. Also a problem is that the monkeys are not toilet-trained, and because this is a shrine no one is wearing any shoes. Every twenty-five steps or so is a step-cleaner; they are waging a Sisyphean war on befoulment which they almost certainly will not win. You try not to think about this too much. Our feet looked pretty awful at the end of the day.


But at the top there are a lot of shrines and lovely views of the countryside.


In conclusion, you should visit Mt. Popa, but it would help if you knew more about nats than we did, because then you’d probably get more out of it.

*     *     *     *     *

We took another overnight bus on the way back from Bagan to Yangon (this was the night of Christmas Eve) and arrived in Yangon at about five, where we discovered that our flight out wasn’t until very late at night and that no one had slept very well. So we spent a glassy-eyed Christmas wandering around Yangon trying not to kill each other. If we had more sense, we would have gotten a hotel room for the day and slept for a few hours, but somehow this did not occur to us. After breakfast at the hotel we’d stayed at before we went to the Botataung Pagoda, mostly because it has a turtle pond:


A couple of things about this turtle pond. First, in Myanmar, they feed the turtles vegetables (leaves and flowers) rather than fish-balls, as they do in Bangkok. This is probably more religious, but it seems like it makes the turtles less ambitious. Also their turtle pond was noticeably greener and more opaque than the one in Bangkok. I think they had less turtles, but possibly none of them cared about being fed and just stayed on the bottom of the pond all day rather than showing themselves. So we didn’t get any good pictures of turtles.

We actually did a fair amount of wandering that last day in Yangon (to the market, to some galleries) but eventually we threw up our hands and decided to go to the park, as there are a couple of large amusement parks in the center of the city. So we got in a taxi and said to go to Funtime Land or whatever it was called, and got taken to a park that looked like it overlapped with Funtime Land on the map. This one was called The People’s Park. It cost fifty cents to get in. It had large displays of plaster fruit:


But that – and some similarly large and tasteless public art seemingly designed for people to take selfies with – is basically all it has. There is a single path that loops through the pretty enormous park and every single shady spot is occupied by lovelorn Burmese teenagers. Also it is hard to progress through the park because everyone is taking pictures of each others. At some point Harriet fell asleep and we were dragging her around and sitting on the ground in the shade of garbage cans because things were that dire.

But then! It turned out that there was a much nicer park next door – what park this was I don’t know – and there was a steady trek of people from the People’s Park through a small hole in the barbed-wire fence dividing the two parks. This certainly appeared to be illicit, but the People’s Park was terrible, and everyone else was doing it and also they thought it was funny that we would be sneaking a sleeping three-year-old out of the People’s Park so they held down the barbed wire so that we could get across. So we left the People’s Park. And the other park was much, much better. It had a large playground for children that Harriet enjoyed:


(that weird rope-and-bamboo tunnel was the only way to get from the bottom section to the top section, so it was constantly packed with children) as well as enormous towers with rickety wooden bridges between them and wonderful views. Also there was a decommissioned passenger airplane. We assumed that we had broken into a much more expensive park than the fifty-cent People’s Park, but it turned out, when we were leaving, that the park we had broken into was free. Myanmar is confusing that way.

I don’t know what all happened after we left that park. Oh right, we went and looked at two more pagodas because we figured we hadn’t seen enough pagodas this trip. One of them had an enormous reclining Buddha:


And it had three sets of bathrooms, for men, women, and foreigners.


After that we went to the airport and came back to Bangkok and that was the end of our trip to Myanmar.

Yet Another Cat Café

Okay, enough nonsense about Burma, back to this blog’s core competency, which is cat cafés when it is not aquatic reptiles. Today we went to Caturday Cat Café. First we were going to go to the rabbit café, but it turned out that they have up and moved to Chiang Mai. The other cat cafés we hadn’t been to seemed like they were a long way from anything. So we decided on Caturday, which is right next to the Rachathewi BTS stop, making it Bangkok’s most easily accessible cat café.


This also means that it’s Bangkok’s most crowded cat café, at least on a Sunday afternoon. Cara Meow, down the street from us, is almost never crowded, which is mostly because it is in the basement of a mall where almost nothing else is open. Maybe Purrfect Cat Café or whatever that other place is called gets crowded, though it’s much bigger than the other two. Caturday is a little smaller than Cara Meow, too small even for chairs, and it is stuffed to the gills with people and cats. Or at least it is on a Sunday afternoon: there was a line out the door and a one-hour limit.

How does Caturday compare? It does have some splendid cats. However, it is so full of people that most of the cats are inaccessible, and I came away with the impression that the cats were probably better than Cara Meow and not quite as good as Purrfect. Also it is a no-pick-up cat café, which differs from Cara Meow, which is more of an anything goes cat café, where you can even bring your own cat. Caturday does have a pretty good cat habitat, though, all sorts of things for them to climb on and a cat terrarium (there is a technical name for this I’m sure but I don’t know it) made out of hollowed-out televisions which is pretty nice.


The food is a little fancier than at either of the other ones, but not that much fancier. Also if you are going to a car café for the food something is wrong with you.

Finally, it is maybe worth noting that one of the cats bit Kim. The parking lot outside did seem to be full of uncommonly friendly street cats, some with collars; possibly they have some kind of open door policy. But what an open door policy at a cat café gets you is bit. Let that be a lesson to all of us


Our Trip to Myanmar, Part 6

Now. Leaving Sittwe was like rejoining the real world. This feeling started basically as soon as we got on the airplane, where there were copies of the Global New Light of Myanmar so we could catch up on what happened in our absence. After taking a break to catch up with the internet at the Yangon airport, we went to the Yangon bus depot to catch our overnight bus to Bagan.

If we had done better planning, we probably would have reserved flights from Yangon to Bagan. But: we did basically no planning for this trip! So all the flights to Bagan were gone by the time we could figure out how to reserve flights. Everyone said good things about the bus; still, we figured that a nine-hour bus ride would basically be terrible. This was kind of the case, as it was a nine-hour bus ride. However: the buses in Myanmar are fancy. They have three seats a row and everything is spaced out so you can recline your seat all the way back. Everyone gets blankets and pillows and toiletry kits. Two hours after the bus left at eight, it stopped for dinner, which we didn’t want; after that, we were all given cans of Coca-Cola and mooncakes. Until well after midnight, Burmese music videos were quietly playing on the enormous screen behind the driver. There are elements of this that seemed not particularly well-thought-out, but it was all well-intentioned. So we arrived at Nyaung U, the town next to Bagan, at five in the morning; a thirty-minute taxi ride later, we were at our hotel, which helpfully let us check in very early. Kim had a nap; Harriet and I went to wander around the pagodas in the dark.

We had done basically no reading about Bagan before we arrived there, and wandering around just before dawn was one of the most pleasantly surprising experiences of the trip. Right across the street from our hotel were a couple of pagodas; by the time we came back to the hotel for breakfast, around seven, we’d probably visited about twenty of them. There are a lot of pagodas in Bagan, and seeing them with only a flashlight (or a phone serving as such) and no one else around is kind of fantastic. My phone functions abysmally in low light, but here are some pictures:






Just before seven, an enormous number of hot air balloons took off to the north of us:


Then we went back to have breakfast and eventually to wake up Kim who was still happily sleeping off the bus ride: Harriet had yet to learn that if you don’t sleep in your own seat in the bus you will be eaten by the Ghost Pig. Harriet was excited because we hired another horse cart to take us around. And so we set off to wander around Bagan.


Bagan is full of pagodas: there are somewhere over 1300 in the area, and when you’re up high the horizon is full of them. What one doesn’t immediately realize is that the vast majority of the pagodas are not actually ancient: they’ve been reconstructed in the last twenty years. Bagan certainly used to have a lot of pagodas; but as they were made of brick, the vast majority didn’t survive a thousand years. So it’s full of ruins of pagodas; and anywhere that ruins of a pagoda was found, a pagoda was reconstructed, according to the architectural whims of whoever was reconstructing it. There are a couple of reasons for this: first, the pagodas are part of an ongoing religious tradition, and building (or reconstructing) a pagoda gains merit for the builders. Most of the pagodas are functioning religious structures with a Buddha image. Another reason for the reconstruction is that it’s a tourist attraction: people want to see pagodas, and the Burmese are happy to comply. There’s also an element of national pride. It ends up feeling – in a way that Mrauk U had entirely failed to prepare us for – a bit like Disneyland.


The other thing that’s different about Bagan is that it’s full of tourists, much more so than any other part of Myanmar that we visited. There’s a whole tourism infrastructure: souvenirs, restaurants, even very mild-mannered touts who guide you among the ruins before trying meekly to sell you their paintings. It’s not overwhelming, but it is very different.


There are a handful of major pagodas that are “authentic,” whatever that means in the context of Bagan: in all of them, it can be difficult to tell what’s original and what’s reconstruction.


It is clear that the profusion of forms was there from the beginning.


It is extremely pleasant having dinner on the banks of the Irawaddy:


Our second day in Bagan we went off to Mt. Popa, but I’ll maybe write something separate about that because that would be confusing here. Our horse-cart driver tried to hard-sell us on more horse-carting (this is something else that would not have happened in Mrauk U where the horse-cart driver seemed rather shocked that someone wanted a horse-cart and probably did something else most of the time) but we declined and decided that we would do what everyone else in Bagan was doing, which was to ride electric bicycles. These do not exist in Mrauk U because the electricity isn’t quite developed enough; but they are everywhere in Bagan. They don’t go very fast; there’s a seat in the back with handles and Harriet wanted to try it. So we let her. An action shot:


They are ridiculous vehicles. I should have said something about my foot-troubles. So we went to the terrible beach at Sittwe, and I ended up carrying Harriet most of the way back to town. But I managed to get a lot of sharp sand between the terrible pair of flip-flops I’d bought just before leaving Bangkok – my good pair had unexpectedly broken & I bought an emergency pair on the street – but as these were poorly designed flip-flops, water made the fabric straps rub the sand into the top part of my feet creating enormous blisters. Then! on top of that I was stung by some sort of ant-bee on the bottom of one of my feet. Here is what happened. We were taken to the ruins of the one Hindu temple in Bagan, which was reasonably interesting but which was populated by some extremely involved touts who wanted to show us everything including where to get the best pictures. It was, really, a bit too much. The one thing they noted before we went into the temple was “watch out for the bees” as there were some kind of bees seemingly living on the floor of the temple near the entrance. They looked rather like termites, and I thought there might have been some sort of translation issue, but no, they stung me on one of my toes on the way out, and the touts agreed that they were bees. The reason I was stingable was because, of course, you have to take shoes off before going into a pagoda; because of my flip-flop woes, I was wearing regular shoes, which are basically terrible for that as you’re constantly taking them on and off. Had there not been touts guarding the temple, I would probably have been irreligious, worn my shoes, and not been stung. But no. You might also think that if the touts were so devoted to having people visit their temple they might move the bees out (or even quietly kill them) rather than having to constantly warn people of the danger of bees. So my toes swelled up and the blisters on the top part of my feet popped and it was a good thing that Bagan was so dusty because the dirt disguised how unfit for human sight my feet were. But new sandals seemed like the best option and so I bought a part of new sandals ($5, I think) that fit slightly differently and everything was much better in the world of my feet.

But then! We took our electric bicycles and went to the Bagan Archaeological Museum, which is kind of fantastic even though it doesn’t allow photographs inside:


(That fountain shows one of the kings of Bagan who saved the city from six deadly animals, one of which was a flying squirrel, which you can see rearing up on the right, and another of which was a wild boar, which seems reasonable, but then between them one of the other deadly animals was a gourd. I don’t understand, but that’s what it said.) Back to shoe trouble. No sooner had we arrived at the Archaeological Museum on our fine electric bicycles than one of my new sandals broke. It was a disaster. In the pagodas, it might not have mattered if I didn’t have shoes, but the museum could possibly have been the one building in Bagan that required shoes. So I attempted to fix my shoe with one of the rubber bands Harriet was using as a hair fastener; but disaster struck again, and the rubber band went flying into a grate. We spent a while with sticks trying to get the rubber band out of the grate; a workman came over and indicated that he could, with great exertion, pull up all of the grating. But we thought that we were looking too dumb even for tourists and we told him no. Kim went off to see if she could find me shoes & I wandered around the museum gardens while all the school children of Myanmar felt sorry for me as I only had one shoe. Things did turn around though! Kim came back with a new pair of flip-flops ($6 model) and they fit perfectly and they are still working.

So we wandered through the museum, which you should visit if you are ever in the vicinity and you have shoes. Then we took our electric bicycles and went all over the place, looking at the major pagodas that we hadn’t seen. You can’t possibly see all the pagodas at Bagan, which is kind of reassuring. Harriet made friends with the local youth:


And we saw a dizzying array of pagodas old, new, or both:




When we got to the last pagoda, an immense structure not particularly close to anything, one of the electric bicycles started to give out; with some coaxing, I could make it go about half the time, but the battery was clearly dying. What you’re supposed to be able to do with an electric bicycle is to peddle if the battery is dead; however, some previous used had clearly ran into something and bent one of the peddles to the point of unusability. So I ended up pushing the bike most of the way back to the hotel, when there weren’t hills to coast down. We did make it back in time to catch our bus back to Yangon.

But that’s enough about Bagan. I have so many bad pictures of pagodas. Count yourself lucky I didn’t put more in here. What am I going to do with so many bad pictures of pagodas?

Our Trip to Myanmar, Part 5

The last time I wrote we had just gotten on the boat from Mrauk U back to Sittwe, where we’d catch a flight the next day to Yangon, where we’d get a bus to Bagan. We took the government boat back because it was cheap and we didn’t have to think too much about it. I think we imagined that it would be a slightly more crowded version of the leisurely and pleasant trip up from Sittwe? It was not that. It was an enormous ferry boat that threatened to sink under the sheer weight of the mounds of cauliflower loaded on to it. Because we had the expensive $7 tickets, we got chairs; however, just before we left the boat, a couple of policemen came onto the boat and chained a prisoner to the seat next to ours. He was a very well-behaved prisoner, and the policemen treated him decently, even if did seem like they were trying to extract a confession from him on the overly long and boring ride. But he got plenty of pan to chew on and they unshackled him for lunch. I’m sorry we don’t have a picture of this; but we thought that might be testing fate. The boat was also extremely cold, but a solid citizen took pity on us and let Harriet borrow a blanket, so nobody froze to death.

We’d barely seen Sittwe when we went through it last time; this time, we had basically far too much time for it. There’s not very much going on in Sittwe! Our hotel was opposite the Rakhine State Cultural Museum, which is pretty good, and though it prohibited photographs, I took a couple so you can see what Rakhine Man Folk and Rakhine Women Folk look like:


Also, here is a diorama of Rakhine wrestling:


There’s also a big market and a vast a smelly harbor which will soon contain all the rocks from the rivers around Mrauk U:


The single most exciting thing about Sittwe – still not really a reason to go there – are the trees on the main street that are absolutely full of enormous fruit bats. In the late afternoon every day the bats are attacked by crows and there’s a ruckus. We were understandably excited and tried to find a good vantage point to watch all of this; so we wandered into the back streets. And that’s where the trouble started!

Here are two bad photographs:



We stumbled across this old mosque, which we thought was abandoned; and without thinking I took a couple of pictures because I thought it looked nice. But! A lady at the food stand behind me noticed this and called over a policeman who had been inside the building on the right. He seemed unhappy with me. He only spoke Burmese, but made it clear that I was being detained. I do not, alas, speak any Burmese and tried to explain that; he did not understand English, not that there was any reason that he should. Reinforcements were called in! A bench was found for Kim and Harriet, who were not being detained. More policemen showed up and I told them I didn’t understand Burmese. Calls were made on telephones; finally, I was asked in English where I was from. “America,” I said, and that seemed to satisfy them because they let me go.

There’s some backstory to this: in 2012, there were anti-Muslim riots in Sittwe and a number of them were killed. The main mosque in town, considerably more splendid than this one, had armed guards around it, so we didn’t photograph that. But there is some sensitivity in Myanmar about the issue, partly because the government denies the riots happened. There presumably are western journalists interested in the story wandering around; however, going after that story with a three-year-old in tow seems like it would be too much work.

Our flight didn’t leave Sittwe until the next afternoon, so the next morning we wandered out of town to the point where the Kaladan flows into the Bay of Bengal:



Harriet played with the local youth:


And then played in the rather unlovely beach:


And we went back to Sittwe where we once again tried to get pictures of the fruit bats. These trees contain hundreds of sleeping fruit bats:


And if you squint you can see a couple of flying ones in this picture.


They are really big. After that we left Sittwe. Next time: Bagan.

Our Trip to Myanmar, Part 4

This narrative of our time in Myanmar is too long, but the last post was getting too unwieldy and I hadn’t even really gotten to Mrauk U proper. So, let’s start at the beginning. Here’s Mruak U as it appeared in 1676:


Mrauk U used to be the capital of Arakan, which was a fabulously wealthy kingdom on the west side of Burma in what is now Rakhine State. This started probably around 300 and reached a high point in the 1400s, before coming to an end in 1785, when Mrauk U was captured by the Burmans, based out of Mandalay; pretty soon after that the British arrived, and that was the end because they decided to move the capital of the province of Arakan to the decidedly less glamorous Sittwe.

At some point in Mrauk U, I picked up a fine book entitled Famous Monuments of Mrauk-U (Useful Reference for Tourists and Travelers) by Myar Aung, which is indeed a useful reference for tourists and travelers, though occasionally more confusing than illuminating. Here, for example, is what it says about how Mrauk U got its name:

As regards the name of the city, i.e., Mrauk-U, there are different assumptions. One is that when the Taungnyo and Kokka hills were being levelled to erect the palace, a monkey was found guarding the golden egg of the pea-hen, signifying Myauk (monkey) and “U”, (pronounced “Oo”) signifying the egg; thus “Myauk-U”. Another theory holds that the site where the city was founded was home to “earth-goddess” Mrauk-U. Still holds another belief that the city site lies to the northward of Laung-kret, the old royal city. (p. 16)

“Mrauk U,” it should probably have been said already, is pronounced something like “mrow-ooh” with the “k” being silent. It is presently a dusty town of about 50,000 people where almost all of the roads were being remade: everyone was smashing big rocks into medium rocks and medium rocks into small rocks and then the small rocks were fitted into the roads. I don’t know why there was such a frenzy of road-building and whether this is constant and a one-time event. The upshot of this is that it’s extremely bumpy any way that you want to get around Mrauk U. We of course decided that the best way to get around would be via horsecart:


Horsecarts basically work with the scale of Mrauk U – nothing is that far from anything else though you’d be a little bored if you were walking. Also all the alternatives are bumpy so a horsecart is not noticeably more bumpy. It’s still pretty bumpy and mostly we did this so because Harriet enjoyed it. Our horse, I think, was an albino, which in Thailand would mean that he would belong to the King, but they don’t have a king in Myanmar so he belonged to our cart-driver who did a pretty good job of taking us around at very slow speeds:


And of course Harriet in a horsecart provided a great deal of entertainment to the local youth:


Mrauk U is basically an archaeological site. But it’s a very different kind of place from what you would see at roughly contemporaneous Mayan or Aztec ruins in Mexico, for example, or the Khmer ruins in Cambodia. In large part that’s because the temples kept being temples: they were Buddhist then, they’re Buddhist now, and intervening rules haven’t interrupted that. But there’s also a different attitude towards ruins: the Burmese way is to rebuild (which will come out in a big way in Bagan), and Mrauk U is a mix of ruined and reconstructed structures. One made merit in Burmese Buddhism by constructing pagodas, which continues today: one can make merit by reconstructing a pagoda. So it can be genuinely hard to tell what you’re looking at.

The pagodas here were mostly made of stone, rather than brick, which has made them hold up better than the brick pagodas of Bagan, but there are some brick additions which are probably more recent. The forms are all over the place:



Some are more obviously the site of current religious worship:


And there’s some pretty obvious (though still stunning) reconstruction going on:


Most of these are out in the countryside, which can be beautiful:


As Mrauk U doesn’t get many visitors, almost everything is open to the public, and you can climb all over everything. Some of the pagodas are solid; some have altars inside, and some have dark passageways that I couldn’t photograph very well with my telephone; a flashlight is helpful, though some of the larger ones have electric lights. The amount of detailing inside varies: some seems original, like this:


and then you have Buddha images like this one that clearly has a much more recent paint job, though it might be a replastered old image. I am not an expert, obviously.


The crypts are fantastic:



And there are some spaces that are more open:



One temple contained thousands of carved Buddhas, exposed to the elements and slowly disintegrating:



There are plenty of goats:



And the structures were generally pleasant to wander around because you never knew exactly what you would find. So many nice details:





The downside to going to such an untouristed place is that in the bathrooms there were some of the largest non-tarantula spiders I’d ever seen. This one, poorly photographed for fear that I would wake her, had a legspan somewhere above six inches:


We also took a trip further out into the country to the remains of Vesali (spelled a variety of different ways; in Wikipedia under the spelling Waithali), capital of the region before Mrauk U, and then to Dhanyawadi, center of the first Arakanese kingdom, now the village Kyauktaw. There aren’t many architectural ruins there, though there are various statues. Dynyawady (as Famous Monuments of Mrauk-U spells the name) was supposedly visited by the Buddha himself, where he had his portrait done, including seven drops of his own sweat. When the Burmans captures Mrauk U in 1784, they took the image (the Mahamuni image) to Mandalay; however, the Rakhines claim that the image that’s now in Mandalay is not the real one, which they claim sank on the way. The Mahamuni pagoda in Kyauktaw does have a Buddha image that is claimed to have been made at the same time, which is the object of much veneration:


Outside there’s a lovely line of monks:


After our trip to the country we went back to Mrauk U for the sunset at the top of a hill:


The mist you see here isn’t really mist: it’s smoke from people burning things or dust from the roads.


The next morning we got on the government boat and left Mrauk U. But that’s next time.


Our Trip to Myanmar, Part 3

Now! When we left off, we had gone to the domestic airport in Yangon to fly to Sittwe. Sittwe (spelled Sittway almost as often) is a city in the northwest of Myanmar; it is the capital of Rakhine State, and you have to go through there if you want to go to Mrauk U. As a foreigner, you can’t get to Sittwe from Yangon on the roads, perhaps because the roads are not very passable. No one has very nice things to say about Sittwe; however, it looked like we would have to stay there for a night to catch the boat to Mrauk U. We did very much want to go to Mrauk U; however, it appeared to be basically impossible to make any kind of reservation for anything happening in Rakhine State before we arrived in Myanmar – emails to places that had emails came bouncing back – and it was only dumb luck that I managed to snag flights to Sittwe. In hindsight, it does seem like the kind of place where we could have shown up at the airport and they probably would have thrown some people off the plane so that we could go. But we didn’t know that ahead of time.

We flew with Air KBZ, which appears to be a bank’s vanity airline; they have between four and six planes, three of which we saw on the runway at Yangon. It was a prop plane, so it was a little slower than such a short flight should have been; however, Air KBZ appears to be very devoted to feeding its passengers. We eventually landed in Sittwe, and got off our plane, the only plane there:


And walked into what was basically a one-room airport which did not appear to have functioning electricity:


Possibly it did. On the flight, we read the local English-language newspaper, The Global New Light of Myanmar, which explained that electrification of Rakhine State had been completed the day before. This was something that would come up as a topic of conversation. Then our plane flew off and we were in an airport devoid of airplanes:


Then we went through customs, which consisted of some officials writing down our passport and visa numbers in a little book; they don’t want to lose tourists in Myanmar.

The big unknown that we had was how we were going to get from Sittwe to Mrauk U. We had the idea from the Lonely Planet that a government boat would leave the next morning; there were also private speedboats. The problem was solved almost immediately when a fellow approached me and asked if we wanted to go to Mrauk U. The price he quoted was more than the government boat ($7/person) but not as extortionate as he probably could have been given that we were somewhere with no idea how to get anywhere. So we said yes, he loaded us and our luggage in a vehicle that was a Burmese cross between a tuk-tuk and a pickup truck called a thoun bein. He drove us to the jetty and put us on a boat. I didn’t manage to get a picture of our boat, but here’s where we left from:


Though we didn’t know it at the time, that boat on the right, the one that looks like it’s about to crumble under the sheer weight of its own rust, is the one that we would use to get back from Sittwe to Mrauk U. The boat we took was much smaller and probably had eight seats total, of which four were occupied. Here it is from the back:


And from the other way:


Traveling by this kind of boat is fantastic. What we were doing was going up the Kaladan River, which hits the Bay of Bengal at Sittwe; the trip probably took about six hours, and we arrived in Mrauk U after the sun had gone down. But there wasn’t a lot of traffic on the river, which was wide and placid; one of the fellows on the boat was a tour operator in Mrauk U and he made us delicious tea. As the sun went down, the light got better and better:


And the sunset was really nice:


Then it got dark. Every once in a while you’d see a light on the shore, but not very often. Mrauk U, it turns out, is pretty remote.

Probably around ten we arrived in Mrauk U, where there was tremendous excitement at our arrival. We were hustled into a thoun bein, and driven to our hotel, the Mrauk U Palace, which, despite its name, is not a palace, but it did have hot showers and seeming twenty-four hour electricity, which is something. It should maybe be noted that Mrauk U gets about 8,000 visitors per year, most of whom appear to be middle-aged Germans out to out-remote each other. Basically we ruined all of their vacations when we showed up with a three-year-old. But it’s not actually that complicated to take a three-year-old to Mrauk U at this point, and the Germans really should up their game. Here we are the first morning fearing for our breakfast:


The breakfast there wasn’t anything fancy but it did turn out to be delicious: fried rice with a topping of fried shallots with a fried egg, plus a coleslaw-like mixture of cabbage and chilis that you could mix in. Also it is cold in the morning in Mrauk U: it’s much further north than Bangkok, and we’d of course forgotten to bring any warm clothes.

Having made it to Mrauk U, we basically immediately decided to go somewhere even more remote. Actually what happened was that the guy on the boat who was a tour guide in Mrauk U suggested that we should go upriver from Mrauk U and see the Chin villages, and as he seemed fine and we didn’t have more immediate plans (plus we had a day more to spend in Mrauk U than we’d immediately thought we would), we agreed, having had, so far, a fine time aboard boats in Myanmar. Also he promised he would have a saloon car to take us to the river: we’d thought they only have saloon cars in India, but I guess they have them in Burma too. Or maybe they don’t: the next morning he turned up with a jeep and sadly reported that he couldn’t find a saloon car on such short notice. So we bounced along with a jeep to a river which was probably the Lemro, the Burmese is လေးမြို့မြစ်, Google Maps calls it the “Lay Myo”.

The boat we took this time was smaller than our previous boat, containing a line of four plastic lawn chairs under a cloth canopy. This was fine because it was a very still river, which also didn’t seem to be very deep. Let me see if I can dig up some pictures. Here’s the place we left from, which is really just a muddy river bank with some boats alongside:


Harriet was deeply pleased to be on a boat again:


There isn’t a lot to say about going up the river, but it was very pleasant. This river was even less habited than the one we’d come up the day before, but you’d occasionally pass boats and you’d sometimes see houses on the bank; people were clearly farming. Here was a fine boat:


The first stop we made was at a village to see the market. I took a picture of a sign marked, in English, “Panmyung Police Station,” though I can find absolutely nothing on a village named Panmyung on the Internet except for a report on anti-Muslim riots in 2012 which quotes a schoolteacher from Panmyung. We did not see any anti-Muslim violence here or elsewhere; our guide did point out a village that we traveled through on jeep as a “Muslim village,” and while we were curious about Buddhist-Muslim relations in Rakhine State we thought it probably wouldn’t be prudent to ask too many questions. Also, the people who had the best English might not have been unbiased, as they were those who were in the business of promoting tourism in Rakhine State. Anyway. The market adjacent to the Panmyung Police Station was basically what you’d expect, though Harriet’s visit was something of a spectacle. Here she attempts to buy some flowers to considerable consternation from the local ladies:


This particular market does seem to be on the tourist boatpath enough that Kim could get a memory card for her camera in it. Also they had a lot of malodorous fish beautifully twisted up that I didn’t get any pictures of. Here are some peppers being dried on the riverbank:


Then we got back in our boat and kept going up the river. Here’s another boat more exciting than ours; I wish I had a better boat-related vocabulary to better describe this:


The main purpose of this trip was to go see the Chin villages. Chin State is a mountainous region to the north of Rakhine State; it’s mostly off-limits to non-Burmese. Chin State is where the Chin people live; there are also Chins who live in India and Bangladesh, though they’re not called Chins. The Chins are mostly Baptists, it turns out. The Chin villages are on the tourist itinerary because of the tattooed ladies: it used to be custom for Chin women to get face tattoos. The Burmese government forbid the practice in 1960s, though it seems to have persisted somewhat past that. But it’s become standard practice for the tourists to arrive at the Chin villages to see the tattooed ladies.

This is, to say the least, a little weird. We did not especially want to take pictures of the tattooed ladies. (A slightly more familiar version of this: on the other side of Burma, which we didn’t get to, there are the long-necked Kayan ladies, familiar from National Geographic, who wear gold rings around their necks.) It doesn’t seem particularly nice to take pictures of people because they look different from you; perhaps we are more sensitive to this because Harriet’s photographed for the same reason on a nearly daily basis. But we were on this boat trip, and so we went to look at the Chin villages and met the tattooed ladies. And it might have been slightly more equitable than the usual visit, because they were all extremely pleased to see Harriet and wanted to take pictures of her. (Even in Chin villages, there are smart phones.) Harriet, of course comes up short in this deal, but the villages were full of baby goats and pigs and chickens and the children were happy to catch them and bring them to her, so she had a reasonably nice time. We bought some textiles from the Chin ladies; our guide gave out candies to the many children in the village, which they seemed quite used to. (With foresight maybe we would have brought them books? I don’t know.)

But the village was pleasant enough, if dusty – it is the dry season:


And Harriet met a baby goat:


And visited the local school:


I did obligingly take a few photos of the Chin ladies, though they aren’t clear enough to be interesting. If you search online, it’s not hard to find pictures of the women we saw, often with self-congratulatory comments about how remote they were. The one thing that might be said in excuse for visiting them: in the first of the two villages we went to (which had more public tattooed ladies), the women had evidently saved all the money they’d made from displaying themselves to the public and used it to build a school for the children. It was a nicer school than the second village, though one does have to respect the women who don’t want to show themselves off to every German who comes up the river.

After the market and the two Chin villages we turned around and went back to Mruak U. The trip back was faster than the trip up, though that didn’t stop Harriet from taking a nap (a nap which continued on to the jeep ride back to Mrauk U: she’s talented). One thing we noticed coming back: a huge number of tiny boats filled with rocks, often with people next to them picking up rocks from the bottom of the river. It was explained to us that they were rebuilding the harbor at Sittwe (of which more later) and that to do that they needed rocks, so people were taking rocks from the bottom of this river. Then at Mrauk U they were loading the rocks from these small boats and putting them in bigger boats and sending them down the Kaladan to Sittwe. This seems like a preposterously complicated way of gathering rocks, but maybe that’s how they do things in Myanmar.


Next time: Mrauk U.

Special Alert: We Are Flooded

Here we were quietly enjoying winter break and attempting to document what we did in Myanmar when bam! the bathroom flooded, and pretty soon our bedroom was flooded and then the living room was flooded too. The astute among you will note that this is not the flood season in Bangkok and also that we live on the fourteenth floor. This is not a rain-induced flood, but a plumbing-induced flood, perhaps exacerbated by everyone still being on vacation for the New Year. The management has moved us upstairs while they attempt to repair the flood damage, whatever that means. So we are now living on the 35th floor of the Chatrium, which does have a better view.