Monday, April 27, 2009

Bagan Morning Market

While dawn should be spent watching the amazing sunrise on the plane of Bagan, the early morning can then be dedicated to wandering around the market. There are actually three towns around Bagan. Old Bagan has few commercial interests. New Bagan and its stately hotel complexes is a bit too high end. Nuang U is the town where backpacking visitors typically stay when seeing the temples. It is a thriving community with numerous guest houses, restaurants and shops, but it's the market that appeals to me the most. While the formal market area has plenty of craft items for tourists, every morning the locals come out in force to buy and sell produce on a dusty patch of ground between the ramshackle buildings making up the permanent market of Nuang U.

The market is made up primarily of women, both buying and selling. The items for sale were pretty much limited to produce but I did see a few handicrafts and you can always count on the neatly stacked tanaka wood with which the women paint their faces.

At first glance, the market seems to be a haphazard affair with folks dropping their goods in whatever free space is available. I assume that certain rules apply to keep the traffic flowing, but I discovered that there is a degree of organization. A rather ordinary woman was going around telling people to move and keeping vendors clear of the bit of road space that ran past the market. I don't the rules for the organization, but there were a few times where she made vendors vacate an area which was then filled by a different vendor. The two sisters shown here were kicked out of their spot soon after they carefully arranged their plants and flowers.

Although there were relatively few touristic items for sale, the locals were well aware of the presence of tourists and what appealed to us. Quite a few had figured out that we love to photograph unusual people. As a result, I found quite a crew of characters hanging out at the market entrance. I didn't make the connection until I lifted my camera and framed the shot. As soon as they saw me do this, out went the hands in an upraised gesture of "give me money." I realized that they weren't simply attending the market, but arrived to put on a show for foreigners and make some money. I'm not opposed to people making money, but I'm not keen on being deceived either. So, I choose not to photograph the old crone with a giant cheroot or the women whose kids have the elaborately decorated tanaka faces. There are plenty of interesting people at the market.

Occasionally, someone in the market really catches my eye. I photographed the woman below several times as I made my way around the market. I hadn't even realized it was the same girl until I reviewed my photos.

While the men are rarely seen inside the market, you can sure enough find them outside the market. Dozens of tricycle bikes wait for shoppers looking for a ride home.

When the morning market winds down, there's still plenty to see as the regular market is right next door. It's full of touristic stuff, but there's also plenty of dry-goods products that cater to the local needs. It's another great spot for photography.

See more photos from the market here.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


A tour of Myanmar normally begins with Yangon (mispronounced as Rangoon when the British arrived). The only way to get to there is by plane. The land crossings are generally closed to foreigners for reasons known only to the Myanmar government.

The heart of Yangon is the gigantic Shwedagon Pagoda, a bright golden spire rising above the city. With its size and all its supporting temples and stupas, Shwedagon is a small town unto itself.

The taxi ride from the airport takes you down double-lane roads past markets and shopping areas and fairsize modern towers. There are a few distinct neighborhoods in the city, but downtown is my favorite area. I am inexorably drawn to its moldering colonial buildings and chaotic street life. Having fallenunder British rule for so many years, the buildings have a distinct look about them. Unfortunately, they have been much neglected over the decades and most of them, including the magnificent governmentbuildings, are literally falling apart.

While Shwedagonis gets all the action, there are other pagodas in the city. Shule Pagoda, right next to the stylish town hall, is a major downtown landmark.

After the decrepit edifices, the thing I found most immediately striking about the city is the numerous tea shops on the street. Instead of “proper” tables and chairs, and maybe watercress sandwiches, the Burmese tea shop consists of low plastic or wooden stools around small tables. You rarely find such a shop indoors; they're almost always right out on the sidewalk. The tea varies in quality, but it's quite inexpensive. It's primarily men who hang out at such places, discussing business and such.

While the tea shops certainly serve food, I prefer a full fledge restaurant – except that in Yangon there are few restaurants that resemble that which we of the West are familiar. No, here the restaurants are street vendors with a few squat stools and tables. The food is usually prepared right out in the open so choosing your meal is simply a matter of pointing to whatyou want. I rarely knew what I was eating, but it was generally pretty good (and most certainly cheap).

Of course, if you want to blow a lot of money needlessly, you could check out a few of the high-end hotels and their bars and restaurants. The two landmark hotels of the city are Traders and the Strand. Dying for a bit of air conditioning one afternoon, I ordered a beer in the Traders Hotel lounge. The place was not particularly impressive, certainly not by Thai standards, and the beer was four times the price of anywhere else I'd eaten. I had a look at the Strand's restaurant. It was quite colonial looking, but the price of a meal would be costly even by North American standards.

Every time I walked past the Strand hotel, I was accosted by precocious kids hawking postcards. They circle the place like vultures, looking for tourists. While they sell them at two to three times the price as you'd find them anywhere else, they're so cheap it's tough to pass them up. Every single kid has the same story though, “Me no money today. No sell. Need lucky money!”

Taxis are very inexpensive in Yangon, but there are other ways to travel. If you know what you're doing, you might take a chance on riding one of the antique buses. These things have been around since the second world war. I'd get on one and see where it would take me because I could easily get a taxi ride back to my guest house.

My absolute favorite way to travel in the city was by trishaw. Where ancient Asia was full of rickshaws, the bicycle version has since taken over. In Myanmar, they have a unique design. It's basically a bicycle with an open sidecar with seats facing forward and back.

What's really odd about Myanmar is that the country is generally considered to be poor, but you can buy any number of gemstones or gold right on the street. There are rows and rows of jewelery shops offering elaborate gold necklaces and bracelets while the sidewalks have vendors selling gems like trinkets. While the gold sells for just above market price (a real deal), the stones seem to be ridiculously inexpensive. Mind you, I know nothing of gemstones, but they sure look impressive.

Although there are plenty of markets in the city, the sidewalks are literally spilling over with vendors on the more popular streets. In addition to gemstones, you can find everything from to weigh stations to secretaries. I forget how many times I saw a woman squatting on the sidewalk with an old bathroom scale carefully placed on a sheet of old cardboard waiting for people willing to spend a few cents to weigh themselves. There were a few areas clustered with people at makeshift desks and old manual typewriters filling out forms. I simply could not figure out what it was they did other than type out information from a form in to the beautiful Burmese script.

Yangon is a sidewalk city. Everything seems to take place out on the street. While there are plenty of umbrellas to keep the sun off, the design of the city buildings help. Most of the North-South streets are very narrow with tall thin buildings. This keeps the sidewalks in the shade for all but a few hours of the day.

I generally tell people that two or three days is enough time to see Yangon, but it really depends on what appeals to you. Having visited the city on four different occasions, I recognize that there are still a lot of interesting back alleys, markets, buildings and neighborhoods to explore.

See more images in my Yangon album.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Daring Attempt to Cross the Irrawaddy

The Irrawaddy is the main river of Myanmar. A great deal of commerce flows up and down the river, usually in relatively small boats. In the dry season, the river gets very shallow, making navigation difficult. Around Yangon, however, it's deep enough for sea-going vessels to dock. There's a regular ferry that traverses the river. There's honestly not too much to see on the other side, but it's worth a look if only to travel to the pottery village of Twante. Although I planned to return to Twante on this trip, there simply wasn't enough time.

I like staying in backpacker guest houses. I frequently meet interesting travelers and occasionally team up for short adventures. Having breakfast one morning, I met Alistair, from England, and Yvonne, from China. Both were quite familiar with Southern China and were happy to give me tips on where to go and what to do. I was able to offer suggestions with regard to Myanmar; I recommended Twante. On my last day in Myanmar, I arranged to meet Alistair, Yvonne and her companion for a sunrise cruise across the river (which takes about twenty minutes). The three of them would then continue on to Twante village by bus and I would return to Yangon to catch an afternoon flight to Kunming, China.

I was up well before dawn and walked to the pier while they showed up a few minutes later by cab. Five years earlier, I had to pay a premium to take the ferry across the river, but it was only a dollar.

As we approached the gate leading to the ferry dock (an old barge), the young man there waved us away; we needed special permission to cross. “So? Give us special permission.” It was simply a matter of showing a passport to an official there, getting a slip of paper, and ten minutes later you were on your way.

The gatekeeper explained that the document could be obtained from somewhere around the nearby Shule Pagoda. We were all keen to see the sunrise from the river so we were in a bit of a rush. I noticed numerous small boats crossing the river from a nearby landing. Instead of the official ferry, perhaps we could hire a boat?

We walked over to the small boat terminal, which is basically a concrete ramp running into the river, and approached a boatman waiting there. He shook his head and pointed to the big ferry boat terminal. We tried every pilot there, but none would take us across. It seems that foreigners are not allowed to use the small craft and there was no way they were going to let us cross with them. I assume that they'd be turned in to local officials if they dared transgress the rule.

I don't know why they don't allow foreigners to cross the river without special permission. The paranoid Myanmar government has lots of travel restrictions in place and this is just one of them. Unlike most countries in the area, the locals tend to follow the law rather rigidly; undoubtedly for their own good.

We did manage to see the sunrise, but from the docks.

At a loss, we piled into a taxi and dashed off to the pagoda. I ran to the first touristic place I saw and asked them where we could get permission to cross the river. The proprietor had no idea. The taxi driver took us to the police station just up the street from the pagoda. Surely they would help us, right?

Walking into the police station was slightly surreal. The the policemen fast asleep at their desks. Now, this is not at all what you'd think; they were not snoozing in their chairs with their heads folded in the arms. These policemen were laying on top of their desks, beneath blankets, still wearing their uniforms and boots. We weren't sure if they were on call all night or simply lived at the police station for days at a time before returning home. Fortunately, one of the men were up and on duty to help us … or not as it turned out.

We tried to explain that we were looking for the place to get permission to cross the river. Speaking no English, the officer struggled to understand us. One of the girls noticed that there was a second police station right beside the first. We're not sure how that worked, but the second police office seemed to be the official station. It even had a sign beside the door: “How can I help you?”

The fellow there was more helpful, but again could speak no English. He pulled out a city map and we pantomimed our desires. He was baffled. I was trying to figure out some way to get him to come to the ferry terminal with us. As we talked, policemen toting antique-looking rifles were coming and going. If I could get an armed police escort to cross the river with us, who would stop us?

Alister was both frustrated and amused by the whole affair. With his translation book and passport, he did his best to get the officer to understand that we needed some sort of document to give to the ferry terminal guy so we could cross the river. I suppose the cop had no idea we needed such a thing and was simply baffled by our request.

Yvonne disappeared for several minutes while we tried, in vain, to explain our situation. She returned with a man who seemed to understand English a bit better, but we were unable to sort out the official river crossing requirements. Yvonne dashed off again and soon produced a professional looking young woman who spoke excellent English. I asked how she found her. Yvonne, being brilliant, just stood on the sidewalk and looked for someone on the way to work who was well dressed and who probably worked at a hotel. It took her no time to
find an excellent candidate!

After much three-way discussion, we came to the conclusion that the office that creates the official travel documents was closed on Sunday morning. Our trip across the river was not to be. By now we were beyond disheartened and were just happy to have reached a conclusion to the whole mess – even though it meant we could not traverse the river. That left only one priority, coffee for Alister and me, tea for the women.

It turned out that the most popular coffee place in the city didn't open until 10AM. We met the owner, a Frenchman, and he agreed to let us relax on the terrace. He later served us some excellent coffee and tea.

I learned that Alister was quite the seasoned traveler and had even written a few travel books. Check out his blog here .For more Yangon photos, click here.