Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Myanmar Motorcycle Journey 2: Nyapyitaw to Kalaw

At the time of writing this, I am finishing up my 8th day on the this trip, trying to think back to what it felt like on the 2nd day, the subject of this blog, my first day driving on the motorbike, from Naypyitaw to Kalaw. So much has happened since then that it makes it hard to remember, but I think, in a word, that first day on the road was one of exhilaration.

My motorbike, with luggage

As I've mentioned in previous blogs, I have been anticipating this. I've been in Myanmar nearly two years now, and as I've always wanted to do anywhere I've lived, exploring the place, on my terms, at my own pace, stopping when I want to stop, going where I want to go is how I want to travel. You can't do that on a tour or with other people. You can only do it on your own. Now that I own my own motorbike, I can do just that.

Joko, stop now. 
Most don't understand. It's been asked why would I needlessly subject myself to re-injuring my back just two months after I had major surgery? (Answer being is that I had the surgery so that there wouldn't be any chance of re-injuring it) The few Myanmar friends I've explained this trip to sort of understand it, but at the same time, think I'm weird. Driving a motorcycle isn't fun; it's just a means to get from one place to another. Certainly, they think, there's nothing enjoyable in a 200 km motorcycle ride. Okay. Agreed, to some extent. Riding a motorbike IS fun, albeit 200 km of it can be trying, I'm buoyed by the thrill of seeing lots of new stuff I've never seen before. See, I'm a foreigner. Everything I see here is new and interesting.

Maybe some of my motivation is that I need to prove to myself and others that I'm still a young man. I can tame the iron horse and go where none of you have ever been. A mid-life crisis, if you will. I dunno. All I can say is that I'm having experiences, compiling memories and learning about myself and the world more than I ever did during my years just grinding it out working in Amerika.

Lots of what's interesting on the road here I actually have seen before, here, many times, and if you follow me through this trip on this blog and my videos, you'll see many times too. Ox carts on the highway. Roadside pagodas. Flocks of goats and cows. Vehicles piled high with the most amazing combinations of people and goods; all of this you'll see in this series of videos. Even though I've seen them all before, it still gives me a thrill to be driving along and run into something quintessentially Myanmar.

And don't wear feet. 

This video also taught me a few things about using my GoPro Camera, things which I've applied in continued shooting. First off, camera angle. In that vid, it was too low: too much road, not enough surroudings. More importantly, holding my head steady, something I didn't do in these shots. Normally, when riding a motorbike, your head is in constant motion; checking the sideview mirrors, you gear and speed on the dashboard, what's coming up around the next turn. That leads to jerkiness in video. I'm shooting better now. 

I'm in the second half of my vacation now, which is mostly beach time. Time I can work on new videos too.  

Road Report:
Distance: 221 km
Time: 6.5 hours
Road Conditions (see the key): Excellent 5%; Good 65%; Fair 30%

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Myanmar Motorcycle Journey 1 - Yangon to Nay Piy Taw

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Your humble blogger and traveler
When heading out on a long vacation with multiple stops, I think it's inevitable that there will be some hiccoughs along the way. Things don't always go as planned. Mistakes are made. Maybe it's best to get the near disasters out of the way at the start, as there are a finite number of problems that can occur, having them at the beginning of the journey ensures smoother sailing down the road. Right?

My bus was leaving for Naypyitaw at 10:00 AM from the Mingalar Aung Highway bus station which is way on the outskirts of northern Yangon, perhaps 15 miles from my home. I was advised to be there at 9:30 AM. I left at 8:30 AM. One hour to get across town seemed reasonable. 

I hailed a taxi and he wanted 6000 Kyats. I was thinking 4 or 4 and a half. I knocked him down to 4500, and off we went. Err.. Off we went very slowly through the horrible traffic of the Hledan-Pyay Road intersection. After 10 minutes, we'd gone 2 blocks. I could have walked faster, and I probably should have, but I figured I had plenty of time.

In a flash, as I was reviewing in my head what I had with me, it occurred to me that I'd forgotten to bring my bus ticket! Doh! Stupid! I gave the taxi driver 1000 Kyats, thinking I'd run the two blocks back to my apartment and start over. He asked me if I needed to go back home, I said yes, so he whipped a U-turn, and we went back the two blocks in 30 seconds (the traffic is all going one way). Back to the apartment, got the ticket while the taxi waited and off we were again. Traffic was okay; we kept moving, but again this was a long journey.

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Then we hit gridlock. Stuck at moving 1 mph. This went on for 20 minutes, and when Google maps told me I was still 4 miles from my destination at 9:50 AM, I knew I was going to miss the bus. Oh well. I was resigned to it. There are dozens of buses from Yangon to Naypyitaw every day, and the fare is about $5.00, so although I was anticipating an inconvenience, it wasn't the end of the world.

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My amazing cab driver
My taxi driver asked me when my bus was leaving. I told him 10. He vocalized a grunt of disappointed understanding, and after going through me forgetting my ticket, he seemingly had something at stake to get me to my bus on time. When the gridlock finally cleared, he drove faster and leaned on his horn. Meanwhile, the bus company called me to inquire about why I hadn't shown up yet. They didn't speak English, so I handed my phone to the taxi driver. There was an excited conversation as the taxi driver continued to speed towards the bus station. After he hung up, he told me in fairly good English (I'm continually surprised by how well some taxi drivers speak my language) “You go on bus at street”.

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The taxi driver hailing a bus

Even though we got there at 10:07 AM, I got on the bus as it was leaving the station. I gave the driver a 5000 Kyats note, and along with 1000 I'd already given him for the detour back to my apartment, he ended up with the 6000 originally quoted. Worth every penny for me.

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Me, stoked I caught the bus
I sit here now writing this 5 days later. I'm in the middle of the trip and it's been great. One story at a time, however. 

The video below details the rest of the first day. I wanted to see what the camera angles on my GoPro looked like on the helmet. I wanted to see much I could increase the speed of the footage. Much better and interesting video to come as I get into the voyage. 


Monday, December 14, 2015

Vacation Anticipation Syndrome

One of the best things about my job here in Myanmar is the amount of time off we get.  Work eight weeks, get a week off. Work another 8 weeks, get two weeks off. We get a month off in April. Unfortunately for me, certain circumstances have prevented me from enjoying my breaks to their fullest here in 2015.

In April, I was doing a challenging training course. In July, I hurt my back halfway through my journey through Penang.  In October, my time off was used to get back surgery. Now comes the December holiday break, and I am so looking forward to my upcoming motorcycle tour which starts a week from tomorrow.

I've already written about my plans on a previous blog, and although they've changed a bit, I won't go into detail about the itinerary. Suffice to say I can't stop thinking about it! Will my motorcycle hold up? (Of course it will; it's brand new)  Will I hold up? (Less certain) What happens if I run into trouble? (I'll deal with it) There are some nagging fears that in some ways make the trip more exciting. If I were entirely sure I'd be safe the whole time, it wouldn't be as interesting!

This trip is new for me in my disregard for planning. Normally, here in SE Asia, I book all my accommodation online beforehand, so I know where I'm going to be and go. This time, I've only done that for the first three nights of the 14 day adventure. Yeah, I still want to have the security of knowing where I'm going and knowing there's going to be a reserved room for me when I get there, but I can do that on the road too. I want the flexibility to change my plans as they go along. I want to be able to stay an extra day somewhere if I love it there even if that means changing the plans down the road.

Some people travel with no plans or reservations at all. Some people meticulously plan out every detail ahead of time. I'm looking for a happy medium between those two strategies.

In any case, I can't wait for it to start!

Yesterday, I bought something specifically for using on the road. I got myself a GoPro. It's my 8th video camera in the last 8 years. Going to mount it on top of my motorcycle helmet and bring you video like you've never seen before from my ongoing travel video series.

I had to test out the new camera today, and although the GoPro isn't the better at recording ukulele videos than my previous camera, it provides a unique point of view.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Basketball Obesity

The year was 1988. I was 18 years old, just finished high school and about to head off to college. My parents had bought a new home up in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. I'm not exactly sure what was going on in terms of the real estate buying-selling process, but me and my folks were up at the house on Old Ranch Road being greeted by the outgoing residents who were showing us around their home which was about to become our home.

I can't remember the guy's name, but the patriarch of this outgoing clan was a really tall, lanky guy who was in his golden years. One of the unique things about the homestead on Old Ranch Road is that it had a basketball court. Also coulda been used for badmitton, volleyball or futsal; I think the real estate term woulda been a sportcourt. I was a teenager; basketball is my favorite sport, so I went down to the court and asked if I could shoot. A ball was produced, and for the first time in too few many occasions, I practiced shooting.

After a bit, I was joined by the old guy selling the house. Maybe this was the last time he shot; certainly so on the court he'd installed. I found out later that this old guy had been a college basketball star (he was about 6'6”) back in the day.

It's somewhat likely that that time shooting hoops with me on what was still HIS court, was the last time this lifetime basketball player practiced the sport he loved. Like I said, he was in his golden years, and I don't think many retirement homes have basketball courts.

Even if I lose 70 pounds, I will never be the basketball player I once was. Even into my late 30's, I could go out and play against the very best in the community basketball scene. Younguns in their 20's; no problem. Now, I've gotten fat and have chronic back problems.

Thing is, my mind doesn't reflect my body. In my head, I can still make all those moves I made in my prime.

Yesterday, I went out to the one and only basketball facility in Yangon. It was a tremendous 3-court covered pavilion next to a Chinese Buddhist temple. In my life, I've spent thousands of hours on the basketball court. Yesterday, was the first time I'd hoisted it up in over two years. As regards to the back, I felt fine. Later that night, it was sore, but not horribly so. Right now, I feel fine.

Back when I played a lot, I occasionally played against guys in their 50's and 60's. I endeavor to do that too. I love the game too much not to. Besides, even after 2 years away, just practicing shooting, I can still nail the 3-pointer and I've got a deadly mid range jumper.

From back in Seattle..

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Chinese Beds and Myanmar Carpenters

About six months ago, I was very happy to buy, on the cheap, a nice queen-size mattress from a colleague who was leaving the country. I also bought a queen-size bed frame from a local retailer, as a nice mattress shouldn't just be laying on the floor.

Last week, as I was sitting on my bed, eating and watching TV, I heard a crack and then suddenly, the middle of my bed was slumping downward. I heard the sound of metal clanging. When I found the piece of metal that had made the noise, and looked under the bed, I realized what had happened. One of the bed frame's mid-mattress supporting legs had broken off.

I felt disappointed, but not surprised. See, this 6-month-old bed frame was the latest of dozens, if not hundreds, of products I've bought here in my time in Asia whose quality has proven to be utter shit. Here in Myanmar, as well as in Thailand, I've bought so much luggage, furniture, computer accessories, clothing, what have you, almost all of which has broken, failed or collapsed well before I'm accustomed to. Why is this?

Although there are no laws here that a product must be labeled "Made in ____" like there are in America, I'm pretty sure most of this crap is made in China. Okay, you may note, China exports lots of products to the USA, and it's not that bad. I suspect that Chinese exporters have two levels of quality control: stuff that's going to America or elsewhere in the developed world, and the junk they send to other Asian countries.  That's what I get. I know I'm a heavy guy, and maybe the designers weren't expecting there to be weight on only one side of a queen sized bed, but still, there's no reason why the welds on a bed frame should fail after six months! Bed frames should be really strong and last for decades!

In America, I woulda gone back to the store where I'd bought the product and complained. Here, that doesn't happen, so I thought about how to fix it.

Here's a picture of the mid-bed support near the head of the bed that's still intact (although you might notice it's already starting to bend)

Here's the bed frame at the foot where the leg broke and you can see that it's sagging.

Well, this didn't seem like it would be too difficult for me to fix. I figured that all I needed was a piece 4"x4" cut to just the right length, and I could just shimmy it under the support beam and all would be fine. Back home, I'd just go down to the lumber yard and ask for such a piece of wood and I'd be done.

Problem is, I've never seen a lumber yard here in Yangon; there's no Home Depot or Lowes in Myanmar. Despite living here for 20 months now, I had no idea how to get a simple chunk of wood.

I drew up a draft of what I wanted, asked my landlord if he knew of a carpenter (which he did), and then asked if he'd please pass the draft on to the carpenter so that he could make this support for me. I explained it was for my bed. Eventually, I heard back from the carpenter that he wasn't going to do this until he looked at my bed and saw the problem. Okay. Fair enough.

Now, in America, if you have a tradesman come to your home to inspect a needed repair, you're adding $100 to the bill just for him to knock on your door. Not so much here. After inspection, the carpenter suggested multiple supports, drilled into the metal of the frame, for which he was going to charge me 7000 kyats to produce and install, i.e., $5.38.

Seemed a reasonable price to me.

Off they went. They measured and then cut the new bed legs out on my balcony.

Then came the installation process. Although I originally thought of doing this repair myself, and I'm perfectly capable of doing so, these guys had power tools. In the semi-permanent existence of an ESL teacher in SE Asia, we don't own power tools.

I had to laugh after they installed the first leg. The new wooden middle support lifted up the back two corner legs half an inch off the floor. Hilarious. I thought for a sec that he'd need to remove the wood support, shave a bit off the bottom of the leg and then put it back on. After a bit of thought, I understood that the whole frame had bent a bit while not being supported, and once the mattress was put back on and particularly with my 230 pounds lying on top of it, the edges of the frame would bend back to the ground.

The carpenter's solution to the one corner being off the floor? A little different. It's ironic as this solution is what I had thought to use for the problem as a whole at the start: a shim.

I don't know how long this solution is going to last. Unfortunately, my bed is not the site of lots of rigorous activity.  I do want to change that.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Holiday Plans

So who's got travel plans for this upcoming holiday? Where you going? Who you going with? Have you been there before? Has anyone been there before?

 Obviously, I have an exciting trip planned, otherwise I wouldn't be starting this thread. I had such a good time doing the Mae Hong Song Loop 6 months ago, that I've been pining for another epic motorcycle tour. For the short time I was stationed in Naypyitaw, my favorite thing to do was to get out on the bike and tour the surrounding countryside. As I won't have a need for a visa run this upcoming holiday, I decided to spend it here in Myanmar, on the road, boldly going where (perhaps) no other motorized tourist has gone before.

First step is a bus up to Naypyitaw where my motorcycle has been parked these last 6 weeks. I got a friend who's starting it up and running it on occasion as well as pimping it out as a rental to short term visitors (he's made me $20!).

First stop: Kalaw, an old British hill station known for its scenery and cool climate. Then, off to Inle Lake, one of the most picturesque places in all Myanmar. Next, Loikaw, capital of Kayah State where I expect to see lots of women with really long necks. Back over the mountains to Taungoo, an ancient capital of old Burma. Then, Pyay, previously known as Prome, where 1500 year-old ruins are to be explored. Over the mighty Ayerwaddy River and the coastal range into Rakhine State to the town of Taungup. I don't know if I can ferry my motorbike over to the island of Munaung, but I hope so. Either way, this place is about as unexploited by tourists as you can get when it comes to little islands on the Indian Ocean. Not Phuket 30 years ago... more like 100 years ago. Back to the mainland to the glitzy and expensive resort town of Ngapali. Kanthaya and Gwa have beautiful beaches but little development. Finally back to Yangon where I'll park my bike in a yet-to-be-determined location (motorcycles aren't allowed in the city of Yangon).

Monday, November 2, 2015

Going Back to Work

It's been two and a half weeks now since I had spinal fusion surgery. I'm feeling fine; I'm like 95%. I'm ready for light duties at work and I haven't taught a class in three weeks. Since I only get 10 days sick leave per year, I had to start thinking about going back to work else I'd risk getting my pay docked.

Now, I got a doctor's note that excuses me from work for 30 days, so I didn't have to go back, but frankly, sitting around the house reading, playing uke and watching TV is fine for a few days, but eventually, it gets boring. The fluctuating daytime voltage recently here in Yangon means my aircon rarely works, so I've spent the last couple weeks sweltering as well. So, a couple days back, I e-mailed work and told them I was coming back today. Thing is, due to the schedule driven nature of language schools, I have classes to teach.

What do you do with a teacher who doesn't have any classes?

In the teachers' room, on the whiteboard, there was a note: What should Joko do?

Number one on the list was "laminate and organize commonly used learning activities"

Okay! In the steady air-con of the office, I got to chat with colleagues and learn all about lamination. Fascinating machine, the laminater. I got to use the paper cutter for hundreds of chops. I put it a good 5 hours sorta working.

In any case, it's good to be back. Recovering from surgery can be a boring thing.

Friday, October 16, 2015

I've Had Back Surgery

If you've been a regular reader of this blog, you know I've been struggling with a herniated disc in my back these last 16 months or so. Seems like every third blog these last couple years has been about my back. Well, hopefully, this will be the last 'back blog' I'll be writing for the foreseeable future. See, I've gotten it fixed.

I left Naypyitaw at noon on Friday. Six hours to Yangon by bus. 90 minutes to go 2 miles in Yangon traffic from the bus station to the airport. International flight to Bangkok, and I finally got to my hotel near midnight. As I was checking in, one of Thailand's notorious ladyboys barges in the lobby, humongous tits hanging out, and proceeds to buy 3 condoms and a bottle of lube from the other clerk at the desk and sashays on out again.

I picked this hotel because it was an inexpensive 2-star hotel near the hospital where I was going to be treated. What kind of hotel had I checked into?

My 5 nights at the Atlas Hotel in Bangkok were weird. Yeah, the hotel was in the heart of (one of) Bangkok's party zones, but it was comfortable enough and it was walking distance to the hospital. My friend Anthony came to visit me from Northern Thailand, and he stayed with me while I got the preliminary stuff done before the surgery. It was great seeing him again and we had fun on Sukhumvit. We did a little bit of touristy stuff and he helped me make a uke video for the Seasons of the Ukulele.

On Saturday, I had an MRI and an examination, but not from the main back surgeon guy, the one recommended for me in Yangon. Nothing was decided on Saturday except that there were two possible surgical options for a ruptured disc: repair, i.e., shaving off the extruded part of the disc so that it no longer impacts the spinal cord; second, disc extraction and fusion of the two discs.

On Monday, I came back at met with Dr Verapan Kuangsongthem. We looked at my new MRI, and wow, even though I wasn't in any particular pain at the moment, my problem had gotten a lot worse since my last MRI in 2014. I had practically no disk left between the L5 and S1 vertebrae!  All of it had burst out into my spinal column. Dr Verapan made no bones about it; I needed the fusion surgery. He called it a permanent fix, but it's a more intensive surgery requiring a longer recovery time. 4 to 6 weeks. We scheduled the operation for Wednesday.

Well, I was scheduled to teach again next Thursday! I'd need to do something about the class I'm teaching in Naypyitaw. I wrote to my company telling them what's going on and my need for extended rest. I proposed a couple solutions.

Tuesday was tough. By the afternoon, my insurance company still had not sent their guarantee of payment to the hospital. There'd be no surgery without that letter. I know asking them to turn around and approve a $20,000 surgery in one business day is a lot to ask, but they had received a preliminary cost estimate, my full medical history and had already agree that surgery was a medical necessity. They said they would expedite their assessment procedures. By evening, the guarantee still had not come, and the surgery was postponed.

More bad news from my employer. Given the length of my recovery time, they were sending a new teacher to Naypyitaw to finish the class I was teaching. I'd be doing my recovery in Yangon, returning to teaching in mid-November. Well, I suppose that's for the best in that it gives me the full recovery time, but I liked Naypyitaw. I wanted to go back there in November and finish up the course. I'm going to miss it. I'll be going back there in December to sell my motorcycle. I'm also worried that they're going to try and dock my pay for the time off; I've been reviewing out paid sick leave policies carefully.

Very surprising to see this blatant
criticism of Thailand's military junta
At the same time, if I'm going to be just lying around doing light rehab, I'd rather do that in Yangon. I liked the environs of NPT better; but I liked my apartment in Yangon more than the dinky hotel room in NPT. There are some things I look forward to getting back to in Yangon.

By Wednesday, I didn't know what was going on. How long was this insurance approval going to take? The hospital wasn't just going to let me make appointments for major surgery and then postponing them. I couldn't continue to stay in the relatively expensive hotel near the hospital. Anthony went back to Chiang Mai, and I checked into a hotel further out. Back to the Nasa Vegas Hotel a bit more on the outskirts of town. It was like returning to an old lover. I've stayed several times at the Nasa Vegas; it's where my adventure in Asia began some 2 1/2 years ago.

AS I checked in, good news. The insurance approval came in; I was going for surgery on Thursday morning.
Checking in

I've never had real surgery before. I've never been put under anesthetic. I've never spent a night in a hospital. This was all new to me and I was a bit nervous.

Bumrungrad International Hospital is a world class facility and visited by people from all over the world. Lots of Arabs, Caucasians, Indians and Asians fill the hallways of this busy hospital.  I got a private room, and it was nicer than most hotels I've stayed in!

12th floor. Quite a view!

They put a mask on me to loosen up the phlegm in my smokers' lungs so that I wouldn't cough during the surgery. OMG... This was actually happening.

The last thing I remember was the anaesthetist saying, "you're going to sleep now..."

Waking up five hours later, I was groggy, disoriented and in a bit of pain. Not much, but a little. Eventually I got sent back to my room where I spent a night on lots of pain killers, fuzzy headed and unable to either stay awake or stay asleep.

By Friday morning, I was feeling better. I wanted a shower and a cigarette.

They see us rollin...
Now, it's Saturday, I'm able to walk around pretty well with a back brace, and I'll be checking out soon to return to the Nasa Vegas for a couple more days of recovery before returning 'home'.

They gave me a card to show at the airport when I set off metal detectors. I was actually quite surprised to see how big these screws were. Those are going to be with me the rest of my life.

One good part of this was that through the battery of tests I was given in order to prove that was healthy enough for surgery, I found out that I don't have any heart or kidney problems, my blood sugar levels are normal, my blood pressure is okay and I have neither HIV nor Hepatitis. These are good things, but still, I feel more inspired to get more fit. I lost about 20 pounds when I first moved to Asia; I've gained all that back. The doctor told me that the disc above the one removed is showing some initial signs of deterioration and if I didn't lose some weight, I'd be back having the same procedure in another 5 to 10 years.

I endeavor to do so.  
Here's my post-op x-ray. Look at the size of those screws! They even gave me a special card to show at the airport when I set off the metal detectors.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Taungdwingyi Loop

I've been hooked on motorcycle touring ever since I was in Thailand. Riding a motorbike through the roads of a developing country can be tiring at times. Perhaps even a little dangerous. It's worth it. Getting away from where the foreigners usually are allows me to see the country more as it really is, as opposed to how it's presented.

As I've said before, having the motorbike has been the best part of moving to Naypyitaw; motorcycles are banned from the city streets of Yangon. My travel companion Chris and I were planning our first multi-day journey. The goal was to visit Taungdwingyi, a small city about 100 miles west of Naypyitaw, visit the ruins of 2000 year-old city called Beikthano, get a hotel there and then drive back via a different route the next day.

I was interested in the ruins, but the real thrill was going to be the drive itself. You can see the route we'd planned on the map above, but let me expand on it by explaining a bit about the geography of Myanmar. As you can see on the topographic map, the country is bounded on either side by tall mountain ranges.

 The center of
the country is a big valley, but the lowlands themselves are split down the middle by a range of hills. They're not that tall, but we were expecting them to be scenic. Naypyitaw sits in the eastern half of the valley. Taungdwingyi is just on the other side of the hills in the western half, the Ayerwaddy River valley. The cool thing about this trip was that we had a boundary to cross; an obstacle to overcome.

We left early in the morning and as soon as we got out of the sprawling metro Naypyitaw area, the beauty, the intense greenness all around, and eventually, the rolling contours of the Bago Hills just had us smiling ear to ear. This is why we're here: to explore a new country.

The people we passed, sat with in tea shops and interacted with were very curious about us. Full of smiles and often dumbstruck when we appeared, this was obviously just as new for them as it was for us. If you think about it, Myanmar has been closed to outsiders for 45 years before opening up in 2010. Up here in the capital, most of the foreigners here are older than Chris and even I, so on the whole, they're not the kind who go out and adventure. Our Taungdwingyi Loop certainly isn't on any tourist guidebook or website. Despite being close to a
Was that a caucasian driving by?
UNESCO World Heritage Site (the Beikthona ruins), Taungdwingyi doesn't have a page on, isn't mentioned at all on TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet. Even ignores it. It's certainly within the realm of possibility that we were the first westerners the hill-dwelling locals had ever seen in their entire lives.

Myanmar is a nation of lots of different ethnic groups. One of the largest is the Karen people who mostly live in the mountains on the east side of the country as well across the border in Thailand. I found it interesting that I noticed lots of Karen-style costumes on the people of these hills. After looking at a map of the ethnic groups of Myanmar, I saw that these hills west of Naypyitaw are inhabited by Burmo-Karen people, i.e., a mixed ethnicity. The woman in the picture above has very Karen-like facial features, but her grandson is wearing thannaka, a wood-based facial sunscreen that is traditionaly Burmese.  

My friend Chris had recently purchased a new toy: a GoPro video camera. These miniature cameras record in HD, are rugged and durable and come with a variety of accessories that allow you to do things like attach it to the top of a motorcycle helmet. I so want one. 

The video I made uses clips from my camera as well as new perspectives made possible by the GoPro.  I'll share some screen grabs before the video. Please watch and comment on YouTube!

The Bago Hills had a big sky.

Getting to ride on the top of a truck and seeing foreign tourists in your area for the first time makes for a happy occurrence. 

We filled up three times on our journey. Up in the hills, this is a gas station. 

Funny framing on this one. Toddlers now available in convenient plastic containers!  

Rush Hour on Myanmar's Highway 2.

The gas pumping committee.

A lovely young lady whose job was to collect the toll for the road to Taungdwingyi. Mind you, the toll was 100 Kyats, i.e., 8 cents. 

I was worried about the roads, this being the tail end of the rainy season. We've been foiled by ruds-turned-to-mud before. There was only one small stretch of that on the journey to Taungdwingyi. 

And here's the video:

PART TWO yet to come...

Friday, September 18, 2015

Healthcare and Motorcyclecare in Myanmar

I've had an interesting (to me, anyways) last couple days, and so I thought I'd take a little time to journal a bit. Record some details from my life here in Naypyitaw, Myanmar.

My morning class didn't go so well. The curriculum I'm teaching to my government employee students includes a lot of case studies and role-playing activities, which I think is great. These kinds activities are excellent learning tools. It gets the students communicating and being spontaneous in the use of English while at the same time can be designed to focus on target language.

When they work, role-plays are great. When they don't, they really crash and burn. In other words, student-led activities are a bit risky. Yesterday's role play didn't work at all. The students went off on tangents, sat there talking to each other in their own language or just clammed up, stunned.

It's on me, really. As Sun Tzu said: if the troops don't follow orders and the orders are unclear, it's the leader's fault.

Fortunately, my work day is only two hours long, and that torturous class ended at 10 AM.

Time to take care of some personal matters. About a week ago, I noticed this weird blister thingy on my eyelid. Some kind of growth, an irritation of some kind, growing just above my left eyeball. It didn't hurt or affect my vision in any way, so I just hoped it would go away on its own. A week later, it hadn't. It had even gotten slightly bigger. Well, the eye is nothing to mess with. It was time to go find a doctor here in Naypyitaw. I didn't think the problem THAT serious, so my initial thought was to go the market area and look for a clinic or GP.

Me with wind-visor-sunglasses-thingy
I'm driving down the main road and I needed to stop because I'd dropped my wind-visor-sunglasses-thingy. When I stopped, the bike died, and when I tried to re-start it, nothing. It wouldn't turn over. No power, no lights, nada. Hmmm. What to do? I supposed I needed a mechanic. I called my teacher liaison and gave her the phone number of the dealership I've only owned the bike for 3 weeks, so I figured they needed to take care of this. I wasn't in the middle of nowhere, but pretty much anywhere in Naypyitaw is a long way from somewhere. I wanted the dealership to send a mechanic to my location. It was really hot (95F/32C). There was little shade. There was some back and forth via text message as the dealer wanted to know exactly where I was, and during this, I thought to myself I can try to fix this.

I've owned motorcycles my whole life and have done several basic repairs myself, but none since moving to Asia with its abundant and inexpensive bike mechanics.

The bike came with a little toolkit, and so I began to undo the screws for the battery cover. I figured the problem was obviously electrical and so the battery would be the place to start. Presently, a truck pulled over and a good Samaritan jumped out, offering to help. Through gestures and my basic Burmese (I know how to say this doesn't turn on), I conveyed the problem. With the help of gestures again, he replied Have you thought about using the kick-starter?

Oh. Right.

It's got a kick start. I forgot about that.

Gave it a kick. Turned right over. Crisis averted. My eye problem took a back seat as I set off for Pyinmana, the neighboring town where I'd bought the Kenbo motorcycle.

I pulled into the dealership, showed them what was wrong and they all nodded their heads as if it was a simple thing. It was. It was the fuse. They replaced it in a minute and off I went. I wondered why the fuse blew; I hadn't been doing anything unusual.

Bike repair done, I was off to find an eye repair place. I reconsidered looking for a small clinic. I didn't recall having ever seen one in and around any of the commercial districts, so I decided to visit a hospital instead. Best of all, they're all clearly marked on my phone's Google Maps app.

I stopped halfway back to NPT from Pyinmana and checked my phone. Aha! A hospital was very close by my location and so I headed towards it. I spent 20 minutes circling the hospital campus never finding the entrance. I'm sure one of the road signs said “hospital this way”, but they're all in Burmese, so there we are.

I gace up. I had noticed on the map that the Naypyitaw General Hospital was near my hotel, so I went there instead. Found it easily enough too. I couldn't miss the entrance as it was quite busy. Hundreds and hundreds of people (I hesitate to use the word peasants, but that's probably the most illustrative) were hanging around in the shade of the trees in and about this very large (1000 beds a sign at the entrance proudly proclaimed) multi-building hospital complex.

Again, all the signs were in Burmese, which I can't read. Now, the medical profession, anywhere in the world, requires a knowledge of English, and so I knew if I could find a nurse, any nurse, I'd be directed where to go. So, I parked the motorcycle and walked into the nearest building which was marked with a sign that said simply 'medical ward'.

As I mentioned, there were lots and lots of ordinary people all around, and the sight of a foreigner visiting the 'people's hospital' was an extraordinary thing in their eyes, so I was drawing a lot of stares.

I found a nurse and she directed me to the emergency room. The ER? Really?
So many buildings here are painted this
light green color, including the NPT GH.
Okay, I'll go where I'm told.

The lobby of the ER was packed. Dozens of people waiting. Many more assumedly hale family members in groups looking distressed. There was a large group of very worried looking people clustered around one of the doorways out of lobby; there must've been something quite serious happening beyond it.

I got to the triage station and said “eye problem” while point to the pustulant growth on my eyelid. They gave me a check-in form.... again, all in Burmese. I mean, I am in Burma, after all. They helped me with “name”.. “Family name” (wait, I wrote my full name in the 'name' box')... address... also address... they stopped there.

Immediately, I was lead into the treatment room. However much I sometimes complain about differential treatment I suffer as a foreigner in Asia, just as often, if not more often, that differential treatment is in my favor. No waiting for the white guy!

The treatment room was intense; so much going on! A little kid with a broken arm crying here. A nearly comatose looking guy hooked up to an oxygen mask and a heart monitor there. Immediately next to me, in a place that as I sat on the examination table I just had to look at, was a guy who had been in what was most likely a motorcycle accident.

He had road rash all over him. Because of the many body X-rays, which were hanging on a stand right next to me, I saw he had two broken legs. Worst of all was his face. His nose was nearly gone. His forehead was so swollen it nearly covered his eyes, and in the midst of that swollen forehead was a huge gash that must've gone all the way down to the skull. At least his skull wasn't cracked as I could see from his X-rays.

It seemed a silly place for me to be with a little blister on my eyelid.

After some time of me watching my neighbor writhing in pain, his family members holding him down and a doctor attempting to stitch up this massive head wound, Myanmar George Clooney approached me and introduced himself.

Dr. Aung McDreamy
He was 6'3” or so (a giant by Burmese standards), stunningly handsome, very well spoken, and of course, a doctor. His features showed that he was Indian by descent which along with being at most 25 was probably why he was working at 'General Hospital' and not someplace nicer. Anyways, the George Clooney of this ER looked at my eye and told me that I had an infection at the base of my eyelash follicle. It should be drained, but the eye surgeon should be the one to do that.

Eye surgeon? Sounds serious, I told him. He explained that the instruments for doing this were very delicate and one needed a very steady and experienced hand to use them. That made sense. I didn't want anyone poking around my eye with a knife who wasn't sure what they were doing. Dr Aung McDreamy wasn't perfect; he didn't have the necessary steady hand.

10 minutes later, handsome doc came back and said the eye surgeon couldn't come because he was in the theatre. The theatre? He's watching a movie? What the heck? Then I remembered that 'theatre' is British English for 'operating room'. He told me he'd give me some antibiotics but to come back tomorrow anyways.

I sat another 15 minutes or so watching the poor guy next to me getting his face put back together, and then another emergency occurred. Two guys got rolled in on gurneys, both pretty messed up (again, I'm guessing motorcycle accident). The second of them was being attended to by a swarm of medical staff, which made me think he was on death's door. There were no empty spaces in the ER at this point, and so they were working on him in the middle of the room.

Umm... I'm just waiting on some meds. I don't need to be here. Oddly, no one came up to me to express this. Again, differential treatment; no one would dare tell a foreigner to fucking move it! So I got up and stood next to nurse's station. They immediately moved the guy over to my vacated corner and began hooking him into the heart monitors and stuff.

I dunno what happened to him, but I hoped he lived.

Eventually, Dr Aung McDreamy came back and gave me my script. I asked where the cashier was, and he kinda shook his head and said, “No, no, no. This is a free hospital”.

A free hospital?

Myanmar is the second poorest country in all of Asia (only Afghanistan is more destitute). The military government here has never really been known for always having the best interest of their people at the front of their mind, but they have free healthcare. I'm a foreigner, and they even gave me free medicine.

In America, I've heard of things like free clinics in some areas, but never would there be a free General Hospital. Good for you Myanmar and the government here. The hospital may have been second-rate, but it was free.

I went back out to the parking lot, hit the electric start on my bike and got nothing. Dead. Again. The new fuse had lasted a couple hours.

* * *

Day two.

Today is Friday and my morning teaching went much better. This class is the most advanced of my three groups, and they understood my instructions, although after yesterday's fiasco, I took things slower.

After class, back to the free hospital. I got directed to the optical department and once again was confronted with a waiting room of 100+ people. I walked to the front, gave them my medical file and was immediately let into the secondary waiting area.

15 minutes later, I was in the examination area and was asked to do a vision test. An eye chart, but the letters on it were in Burmese. Fortunately, the alphabet here is based on incomplete circles with openings on one side or another, and so I just had to identify which side the opening was on. When I got to the doctor herself (one doctor to help so many people), she didn't think the infection needed to be drained, reinforced that I take my meds and prescribed hot towel treatment over the effected eye.

Again, my charge for this treatment was zero.

On my way back to my hotel, the rain poured down. One of the things I've liked about NPT is that although it's still the monsoon season, it rains maybe 1/4th of what it does in Yangon. Today, that quarter caught up as it poured all afternoon.

There was a break in the late afternoon, and so off I went to Pyinmana to get the fuse on the bike replaced again. Halfway there, the skies opened up.

Drenched, I pulled into the dealership and said the fuse had blown again! Something must've been wrong. The mechanic said that the rain had gotten into the ignition and that had caused the fuse to blow. But..But..It hadn't been raining when the fuse blew the second time! That was yesterday! Unfortunately, the language barrier prevented me from explaining that. Besides, non-waterproof electronics is still in no way acceptable on a brand-new motorcycle!

On the way home, the thunderstorms started again
forcing me into a roadside restaurant. Good BBQ!
Can you see the bump on my left eyelid?
Tomorrow, maybe the next day, I suspect the fuse will blow again and then it's time to bring in an interpreter to complain properly.

Well, that was eye-health and motorcycle-health last couple days. I said they were interesting days, but not so unusual. Most days here are interesting.

A few days ago, my friend Chris and I went on another bike trip. $10 isn't a lot of money, but it's the principal of the thing. Maybe since I got the free healthcare, I can go back and cough up the entrance fee to the National Monument Park.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Exploring Naypiytaw

Last weekend, Chris and I went on another journey on our motorcycles that proved to be very challenging.  Twice we got stopped by roads that were 'impassible during the rainy season'.  Even though it hasn't rained that much here recently (at least as compared to Yangon), the roads were simply mud pits. It was really hard to navigate them, and even harder to give up and realize that we couldn't go any further.

Now, this weekend, my touring buddy was out of town, so I got to do something I like to do: go museuming. Is that a word? Anyways, visiting a museum is something people should do on their own time. This exhibit really interests me; this other one I could skim and just glance at.

Today I visited the newly opened Myanmar National Museum. Mind you, there's already a National Museum in Yangon, but from what i've heard, it's rather dingy and run down. Not so for the Naypiytaw version! Interesting. Very well presented. Interactive and educational. Even the signs were done well; the English was perfect.


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Myanmar Roads

There's so much I'm enjoying about my new home of Nay Pyi Taw. More than anything it's about having the freedom of my own vehicle. Yangon had a lot more places to go, but as I either needed to walk or take a taxi, I didn't do as much.

Here, particularly since I've made some new friends who also enjoy getting out of town and seeing the countryside, I'm loving life, exploring this foreign country and recording lots of neat footage to make videos out of...

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Settling in in Naypyitaw: The Search for the Three Kings Monument

  Well, it's been nine days now since I've moved to Naypiytaw (NPT), the capital of the Union of the Republic of Myanmar. Time to write some stuff down about how I'm finding this strange and interesting town. Perhaps, more importantly for how I like to share stuff, post a video letting you see what I'm experiencing here.

   When sharing my trip up here last week, I said that this place reminded me a bit of Disneyworld, but government style. Actually, a more appropriate comparison for the 'Hotel Zone', my first destination on arriving here, would be the Las Vegas Strip. But without the people. Or the gambling. Or the fun. Kinda plastic and fake; purpose built to impress, nothing organic about it.

   I've discovered there's more to this town than the mega-hotel filled hotel zone, the sparse and mysterious government zone or the Orwellian residential zones. There's a bustling outdoor market not 2 miles from my house. There are many good restaurants. There are regular people here just trying to make a living and have nothing to do with the government.

The Hluttaw Building - The Myanmar Parliament
   When I bought my new motorcycle on Monday, I had to go to Pyinmana, the next city over. See, Naypyitaw was created in 2005. Before it was built, this was marginal scrub land with a little agriculture and that's it. Pyinmana was the biggest city for a hundred or so miles in any direction, and it's NPT's sister city. Older sister. You can really tell when you leave and NPT and enter Pyinmana: the streets shrink from 18 lanes to 2. There's the normal (for Myanmar), ramshackle chaos of shacks, crumbling poured concrete buildings and busyness I've come to associate with Myanmar cities. And, since it's a rural outpost, you still see things like horse-drawn carts and cattle on the sides of the roads. Anyways, I'm writing about NPT, not Pyinmana. Suffice to say, there's a big chunk of real Myanmar just on the outskirts of town.
Pizza waitress, traditional Myanmar style

  One thing I found difficult to deal with when I first got here was how I'm treated by the people. At first, it was because I'm a guest at a hotel which strives to adhere to the highest standards of hospitality. Everything is “Yes, sir. Very good, sir” People open doors for me. They carry things for me. I get treated with the utmost respect in every interaction. At the place where I teach, a government ministry, it's even worse. I can't carry anything out of the classroom. Someone has to do it for me. They bring me everything and treat me like a god. Coming from middle-class America, an egalitarian society which kind of rejects the idea of any sort of aristocratic reverence, this obsequiousness rubbed me the wrong way. No, I don't want to be treated like royalty; that's not how I was brought up and it makes me a bit uncomfortable.

   Well, I've gotten used to it. I realize it's a cultural thing. I'm not putting on any false sense of superiority. It's just the way they treat teachers here, particularly nearly-middle-aged ones like myself. I have to set aside however much it makes me uncomfortable and just let them do what makes them feel more comfortable.

  As mentioned, I've bought a motorcycle. A Kenbo 125cc Chinese-made model. Brand new, under $600. It's the first time in my life I've ever purchased a brand new vehicle (excepting my first motorbike when I was 7 years old, and my parents helped with that). I'm loving it. Share my first significant ride by watching the video below. I set off to find the “Three Kings Monument”, some ways out of town and in a possibly forbidden zone... Do I make it?

Monday, August 17, 2015

Am I Staying in a Haunted Hotel?

On the Road to Mandalay
I've now been here in Naypyitaw, Myanmar for about 24 hours. Unfortunately, the negotiations with the Hilton fell through, and we weren't able to get the rate we wanted... or something like that. In any case, I'm NOT at the Hilton as promised, instead another place which although not as nice, is more conveniently located. It's across the street from BOTH of NPT's only two malls. Given the sizes of the hotel grounds and the roads here, I can zip over to the supermarket and back in under 30 minutes. So, the place has its good points.

It's a toll dog
Unfortunately, it's also kinda small, not a lot of room for my stuff and well, it's not the Hilton. The shower head was clogged. There's no bedside lamp(I bought one). Perhaps, however, the oddest peculiarity showed up at about 3 AM when I woke up to go pee. The window was wide open. I had no recollection of having opened it. What was going on?

See, Naypyitaw has a reputation for being haunted, which is kind of strange for a city that is only 10 years old. None of the buildings are older than that, but certainly the land is. Land that people used to live and farm on and had taken away when they started creating this capital. I've got two friends who've visited here and had spooky experiences. In both cases, their showers would turn on mysteriously in the middle of the night. All on their own.

This was running through my mind as I stared at the wide open window.

This morning, I mentioned this along with the couple other issues I have with my 2nd-tier hotel room to the head of our corporate department, the lady who coordinates our outside work (not the incredibly cute girl in the video below). This afternoon, on returning from my first teaching session at the Department of Labor, I got a series of visits from the hotel's maintenance crew. New shower head: installed. All the wet bar stuff in the fridge I won't use: gone. They even sent a guy with a screwdriver to tighten up the latches on my window.

Unfortunately, no witch doctor appeared to exorcise the spirits for me.

Here's some clips from the "Death Highway" - AKA the Yangon-Mandalay Road. There is a video there. Just click it. It's not showing a thumbnail because of copyright issues...


I thought I was going to retire there. I was the senior staff member. I'd been there longer than anyone. It. Is. Not. Fair.  But on the ...