Saturday, December 10, 2016

Burma Now Myanmar

Map picture

Our last 3 days have been a frenzied blur of almost constant activity. Today, Friday, December 9th, we finally find ourselves with a day at sea, and hence an opportunity to get ourselves put back together. Trying to condense into one email everything that has occurred is almost impossible, so let me simply share with you in a condensed manner what our experiences have been.

You will recall that when I last wrote our ship had just entered the country of Myanmar where it took immigration officials 6 ½ hours to clear the ship. That was a record for this season, and you would think that would be enough in the way of immigration requirements. After clearing into the country, we continued to cruise North eventually entering the Yangon River where we finally docked at the former capital of the country, Yangon. Yangon was formerly known to the world as Rangoon. If you are wondering what is up with all the name changes, it dates back to the colonial period when Burma was under British control. After the country obtained independence, there was a movement to erase everything British, and hence the name changes. But, back to my story. We reached Yangon where the ship had an active schedule planned only to have the officials once again mess up our schedule. First, we were not allowed to dock at 7am as planned, but rather our arrival was delayed to 10am, and our dock assignment was changed from the one nearest to town, to a little further down the waterfront. Then when we finally were tied up alongside, twenty-six (26) officials boarded the vessel, and then proceeded to spend 3 hours completing additional paperwork. I personally went to look in on the clearance process, and I observed the 26 people all neatly dressed and extremely busy passing papers back and forth with their hand stamps flying. Talk about bureaucracy at work!

Since our morning plans were canceled, we eventually were able to go off the ship on our own, and so I decided I would walk into town. Sadly, I don’t walk so well anymore, and it was all I could do to reach the gate at the docks where I was met with a solid mass of road traffic of all types and a cacophony of sounds. Cars, busses, bikes, scooters, rickshaws all were buzzing every which way. I stood at a traffic light and could never figure out that anyone was paying any attention to it. I managed by the skin of my teeth to cross the first four lanes of traffic to the relative safety of a small grass strip where I huddled in fear. I had yet another six lanes to cross in order to reach the other side, at which point I decided that perhaps I had walked enough, if you know what I mean.

Later that afternoon all of the passengers were taken by bus to visit two of the country’s most famous attractions: the Reclining Buddha and Shwedagon Pagoda, after which there would be a traditional dinner buffet and show.

In spite of the extreme delays at getting into the country, once here we were treated like royalty. Our bus caravan had a police escort, which helped us greatly in getting through traffic. We learned that under the former Military Regime cars were way too costly for ordinary people with even a simple vehicle costing over $50,000. Today the civilian government has made cars easily affordable to everyone, and suddenly Yangon is overrun with nearly 6 million cars in a city where the roads were laid out in the 1800’s. It is gridlock unlike any I have experienced. Commute times for most people average 2 to sometimes 3 hours. After 30 minutes or so we reached the Chaukhatgyl Buddha Temple, home to one of the largest reclining Buddha figures in the world measuring 217ft. across. At any temple or pagoda, we were required to remove our shoes before entering, and so I had worn my water shoes because they are easy to remove. Little did I know what was to come! Anyway, we spent perhaps 30 minutes walking around the Buddha figure and taking some pictures of course, before once again boarding our bus for yet another 45 minute drive to Shwedagon Pagoda.

This Pagoda, above all others, for me defines the wonders of this mystical land. It is reputed to be over 2,500 years old, and within it are enshrined strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics. The almost 400 foot high monument stands gleaming in its covering of gold, not to mention that it is encrusted with over 4,500 diamonds, the largest of which is 72 carats. Once again, shoes must be removed before entering, and once up on the Pagoda platform, I proceeded to walk completely around the monument, a process that took a little over two hours. Sadly from a photographer’s viewpoint, it was not a sunny day, but none-the-less some of the pictures are spectacular.

When I returned to put my shoes back on, I discovered that the bottom of both big toes were a bloody mess. It seems that my walking shoes had blistered my toes, and in the two hours walking on hard stone, my toes were stripped of their skin. Since I have neuropathy in my feet, I am not able to feel injuries like this, but I guarantee you that when I finally got things cleaned up and put on regular shoes, my feet hurt like--well let’s just say they were uncomfortable.

By this point, Lisa and I were so tired, and I needed to tend to my toes before they became infected, that we took the offer to return directly to the ship and skip the dinner and show. We had a quiet meal on board the ship before turning in for the night early.

The following morning we set out for our drive to the ancient city of Bago. Normally the drive would take 3 hours, however with our Police escort using their sirens for us, it only took two hours. Upon our arrival our first stop was the Bago Monastery where we were treated as much honored guests by the monks. Officially named Kyaly Khat Wai Monastery, it appeared to be home to well over 100 monks. We were invited to attend the daily blessing by the head monk. As the monks arrived, they carefully lined up their sandals outside before entering the sanctuary and sitting cross-knee on the floor with their back to the head monk. We were invited to sit also, and the head monk then read the day’s blessing to us all. Afterwards we toured the kitchen, and then we were invited to feed the monks as they lined up for their daily meal. It was very colorful as all of the monks, including the novitiates lined up in a precise order, a group of five coming forward at a time, stopping and opening their bowls for us to dish up a large bowl of rice for them. What we did not know because of a breakdown in communication was that we, too, had been invited for lunch and several tables had been set for us. Of course, we would have had to sit on the floor to participate. Some of our expedition staff learned of this as we were leaving, and they stayed behind to eat so as not to offend our hosts.

A short drive brought us to the Shwemawdaw Pagoda. To my shock and surprise, it turns out that this Pagoda is in fact the tallest in Myanmar, although it is in no way as massive as the Pagoda in Yangon. Still, it took me an hour to walk all around it and the pictures are wonderful. Now if you are wondering how I managed to walk with my bum feet, our tour company was able to talk the authorities into allowing me to walk in my stocking feet. It was a big deal, but finally they agreed. I had my toes bandaged with antibiotic cream so keeping my socks on gave me some protection from the dirt.

Then a lunch break, but to tell the truth even though the food looked good, I got off to a bad start when I had to dump the dead bugs off my overturned plate, and then to blow off the six dead ones I found under my coffee cup. So a little rice and a diet coke was about all I could stomach.

After lunch we stopped at the Kanbawzathadi Palace. To tell you the truth, this did not do much for me. It is a reconstruction completed in 1992 of a palace which was built here in 1556 but which burned down in 1559. Yes, it was beautiful, but devoid of any furniture of course, and, well, it just did nothing for me – sorry…. I did have one heartwarming experience however. While in the palace, a small group of teenagers kept looking at me and both smiling and giggling. Eventually a young girl approached with her camera phone and indicated she would like to take my picture. Flattered, I nodded assent, and before I knew it, everyone had to have their picture with me followed by several group photographs. By this point, I had everyone laughing, so a good time was had by all.

Our drive back to the ship somehow seemed quicker even though we stopped off to make a quick visit to a war memorial and cemetery. After a quick shower, we managed to enjoy a wonderful dinner with the Hotel Director Stephen Crimes, which made a perfect ending to two long days.

Originally scheduled to depart early on the 8th, we were allowed to delay our departure in order that we could complete the program as originally planned. For us that meant an excursion across the river by local ferry to visit Dala Town, a small local village not yet completely impacted by the many changes happening in the country. Merely the ride over was an experience; boarding the ferry was a mass of moving humanity with hawking vendors moving freely among the throngs of people. Once the ferry was full, the gates were closed on the oncoming mass of people trying to board, and we started across the muddy silt filled river. Once on the other side, each of us was assigned a tri-shaw and driver. That is essentially a bicycle with a side cart holding just one person. So for our entire group, I am guessing that we had a caravan of around 80 tri-shaws stretched out in a long line. Now immediately one little problem reared its head – the chair in which the passenger rode was built for only a small person. I could not even squeeze myself into the seat, and just so you’re not laughing too much, believe me I was not the only one in this predicament! The drivers had a way of getting around this, sort of. They would keep piling on cushions until they were high enough that we sat up above the sides of the chair. That left us a little unstable, and as the cushions sank, eventually we were riding on the chair arms, a not too comfortable experience.

As with everywhere we had been in Myanmar, the people were warm and friendly. They were excited to see us. WHOOPS!!! That last jolt was pretty violent! I had been trying to write while we blissfully sailed into the edge of a nearby cyclone that was supposed to be moving away from us as we sailed back south towards the Andaman Islands. The motion of the ship has been getting progressively worse to the point that I am missing more keys than I am hitting. Finally with that last jolt I have decided to give it up, take bonine and lie flat on my bed.

And, so I did, starting at 2pm and remaining there until dinner. The elevator had been shut down for safety and a pretty good percentage of the ship was under the weather and not at dinner. Truth be told it was pretty bad. At time the entire bow of the ship would rise up and come crashing down with a resounding “thunk.” The worse part was when that maneuver would not just end with a loud “thunk” but the entire ship would corkscrew at the same time like a dog trying to shake water off itself. Lisa even came up with a name for the event, a “coyote.” Lying flat on our bed was an active experience because the roll of the ship threatened to roll us right off the side. We had to constantly hold on and tighten ourselves down just to even lie flat. I have experienced worse events at sea, but this one was pretty bad.

So, let me return to our last day in Myanmar. We had gone across the river to the Town of Dala, where each of us was assigned a tri-shaw. Once precariously settled, the long caravan set off down the narrow roads of Dala. This small town did not have cars on its narrow streets, but only people walking, bicycles, and scooters. So how stupid did we look when our long line of basically souped up bicycles was proceeded no less by a police escort on a motorcycle?

The people once again were warm and friendly. They live in small cabin like structures surrounded by trash and standing green water. Trash and sewage all went into the ditches and waterways from which we saw people hauling out large containers of water and carrying it into the village to sell. Which reminds me – I heard that the mosquito problem is so great in this area that the Captain has forbidden the crew to be off the ship after 8:30pm.

Our first stop was to a large Buddhist monastery. This monastery, however, was very different than the one we visited earlier. Here there were a small number of monks, I believe I heard 10 who were maintaining a school for local children, especially orphans and refuges. It was a very large facility, and we were warmly greeted as you can see by some of my pictures when I post them probably tomorrow.

Afterwards, we had time to walk around town on our own before returning to the ferry and rejoining our ship before it left Myanmar on the way to our next port of call, Port Blair, India which is located in the Andaman Islands.

I hear it is rather cold at home, 11 degrees F, while here we are experiencing warm temperatures and humid days. So, we hope everyone is well, and until next time: Ciao.


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