Monday, February 27, 2017

Myanmar Motorcycle Epi 13: Into the State of Shan

Rush hour in Maymyo
Shan State comprises about a quarter of the entire nation of Myanmar. It's in the northeast, it's hilly and the people there maintain an ethnic identity of their own. Mind you, lots of different ethnicities live in Shan, but most of them are of the broader ethnic group known as the Tai. This group includes people in Yunnan Province, China, Laos and of course, Thailand. As I left Pyin Oo Lwin, my plan was to spend the next week exploring Shan State. 

Just before the border between Mandalay Division and Shan State, there's a cave called Peik Chin Myaung. Before I left Yangon, on my last
day with my students at the time, I'd explained where I was going, and asked for recommendations of things to see along my route. One student recommended this cave.  Whereas I've seen lots of caves filled with Buddhist imagery on other trips around Myanmar, Peik Chin Myaung did not disappoint. Definitely worth visiting. 

Just east of a town called Naungkio (remember this name; it's going to come up later in the narrative) there's a river canyon cutting a huge gap in the Shan plateau. 80 years ago, the British built a rail bridge over this canyon that is considered to be one of the greatest engineering feats of the 20th century. No pictures of that bridge, still in use today, but I got to experience driving without a bridge.
Get along little doggie. I'd love to ride a water buffalo one day.
The road through the Gokhteik Canyon is one of the most remarkable roads I've ever been on. Trucks need to make their way cautiously and slowly. Me on a motorcycle, I wanted to speed through it. What resulted was a fun puzzle in traffic negotiation. 

Finally, I made my way to my destination for the day, the Shan town of Hsipaw. The owner of the company I work for has lots of connections throughout Myanmar. I knew he had a relationship with a hotelier there in Hsipaw, so I e-mailed my boss asking for a referral. Sure enough, just by explaining who I was and my connection to my boss, I was able to get a $25/night room at Mr Charles Hotel for only $15/night. Connections, baby. 

Interesting decor on the resort grounds.
Thing was, it was a $20/night hotel room. No desk. One electrical outlet in the whole room. No fridge. 80% of the space of the room was taken up by the bed itself. Yeah, fine if you're a backpacker on a budget, but I wanted something nicer. Well, Mr Charles also owns a riverfront resort. I was very happy that even after checking in, they let me upgrade to the $45/night resort on the edge of town with a similar discount to what I was getting at the hotel. I'm too old for cheap hotel rooms. 

Time for a bath, so it's down to the river.
Adjacent to the resort was a traditional Shan village. The cool thing was that these folks, living so close to this busy resort, had become accustomed to foreigners wandering down to take a look around. In most villages in Myanmar, my presence would have stopped everything. Everyone would have just wanted to stand around and stare at the foreigner. As you'll see, I got a chance to look at how these people live their everyday lives. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Myanmar Motorcycle Epic: Part 12 - Pyin Oo Lwin

The friendly hotel security guard
My three nights in Mandalay were over. Time to get back on the road for what turned out to be a really nice ride. The road up into the hills east of the old city was wonderful. A divided highway, 6-lanes at points and very well paved. This was the kind of road that you live for when you're motorcycle touring.
The gentle curves, the wild, scenic hills and just inhabited enough that you don't have to worry about finding gasoline or a cold drink. And at 65km, it was one of the shortest legs of the journey as well.

My destination was Pyin Oo Lwin, a place as beautiful as it hard to pronounce (pi-YIN OO L'win). It's also know as Maymyo, which is much easier to say. This was yet another former capital of Burma, sort of. It's at elevation, a bit over 1000 meters (3500 ft), so the climate is cooler than the valley of Mandalay or sweltering coastal Yangon. 
The British were big fans of erecting clock towers.  They're all
still here. Only half of them work.
Maymyo was the "summer capital" of colonial Burma. I don't know the exact dates of evacuation, but "Summer" AKA the hot season, in Myanmar lasts from early March to early May. During those months, the imperial British would flee Yangon and Mandalay for this cool hill station. 

Nowadays, Pwin Oo Lwin is a popular tourist destination for both locals and foreigners alike. There's plenty of things to see and do up in Maymyo. There's a famous botanical gardens, which I missed because I ended up at the Landmark Gardens.
I've seen these types of parks in Thailand, Indonesia and now here in Myanmar. It's like a mini-Myanmar with smaller scale reproductions of the famous landmarks around the country. It just so happens that as I've now traveled extensively here, I've seen most of the original landmarks being reproduced at this park. I wasn't impressed. 

About 15 miles west of town, there's a waterfall worth visiting. The road down to the falls was pretty tough. It was one of the only times on the trip that I wished I had carried through with my original plan of replacing my little Kenbo 125 with something better. 

Enjoy the video. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Myanmar Motorcycle Epic 11: Mandalay

Before going into the specifics of this leg of my recent journey, I'd like to share a few anecdotes which illustrate how truly remarkable the Myanmar people are. The first of which happened on my first day in Mandalay, which you saw in the previous video. I was carrying my ukulele with me in its case as I explored the ancient capitals. Now the way I had it secured wasn't too good. I had strung the shoulder strap of my man-bag through the handle of the uke case, so it would remain secure provided all the stuff in my bag didn't make its way through the handle of the case. Unlikely.

Alas, as I drove back from Inwa to Mandalay, a good 20 miles, gravity took its effect on the uke case. I was in Mandalay city itself, traveling down a major thoroughfare when another motorcyclist overtook me, said something in Burmese and gestured at my bike and the road. Oh. I thought maybe I had a flat tire, and so I pulled over. Hmm.. the tire was fine, but umm... my ukulele was GONE! It had wriggled its way through my method of securing and had fallen off who knew how far back down the road.

I was upset. Although it wasn't my "main" ukulele, I was fond of this concert uke I'd only bought a few months before and have made my travel uke. I supposed I should have gone back down the road and looked for it, but again, this a very busy street. If it hadn't been runover, it had certainly been picked up

My regret lasted all of ten seconds. A truck pulled up and they handed me my ukulele in its case. I guess they were behind me when it fell, they stopped and picked it up and went chasing after me. Thing is, in a city, motorcycles can go much faster than trucks. We get around the traffic. But these guys didn't give up. After they handed it to me, they insisted I open up the case to check the instrument. What I feared might have been a mangled mess of wood and strings turned out to be nothing of the sort. Not even a scratch.

I thanked my uke rescuers profusely. They didn't have to do that. I don't even think they did it because they recognized me as a foreign visitor, something that would be difficult to tell if you're following a motorcyclist from behind. They did it just because, like 99% of the people here, they're simply good people.

My next anecdote takes place about a week after. On my motorcycle, there's a bracket which secures the tailpipe to the engine. I don't know how it happened, but one of the two screws securing this bracket had broken. This lead to a horrible rattle which it took me days to identify. By the time I got to Taunggyi, I knew I needed it fixed.

Several previous mechanics had refused to fix it, as replacing this particular bracket involved a lot work, essentially requiring removing the engine from the motorbike. Two to three hours work. I didn't care what it cost. I could hear the tailpipe starting to crack. I needed this repair.

Just a block from my hotel in Taunggyi, there was a mechanic's shop. Along with an oil change, I asked the mechanic to fix the problem. I did not enquire what it would cost. I went back to the hotel and couple hours later, came back. It was fixed. How much?

"Thauwn Thaun", I thought he said. 30,000 Kyats. That's about $21. Well, a bit more than I was expecting to pay, but still not that bad for what I had had done. Or so I thought.

Fittingly, the 10K Kyats note pictures the Mandalay moat which you'll
see in the next video.
As I started to pull out the `10,000 Kyat notes, I was stopped and was told again, "Thauwn Town". Oh. Not 30,000, it was 3,000. Two bucks. Parts included. The Burmese words for thousand  and ten thousand sound very similar, so this wasn't the first time I've had this confusion, but here's another example of the extreme honesty of Myanmar. Mechanics worldwide are known for overcharging people, particularly those who don't get an estimate beforehand. I didn't need to because I knew I would get charged a fair price, and when I tried to overpay, by a factor of ten, I was stopped from doing so. I can't imagine many places in the world where this would happen.

My last anecdote comes from near the end of my trip. This one was again a product of my absentmindedness. I was rolling into Mawlamyine, and about an hour before getting there, I stopped at a little rural roadside restaurant, had a coke and rested, something you gotta do every so often while touring on motorbike. Later, in Mawlamyine, I realized I didn't have my smartphone. Uh oh. This was bad. Next to the bike itself, my phone was my most important piece of gear I had on the trip. Although not top-of-the-line, my Samsung J7 ain't cheap. It's worth $300, which equals about 4 months pay for your average working class person here. Maybe I'd left it at the restaurant, where I distinctly remembered pulling it out and checking it. Wouldn't be the first time I'd left my phone on the table when leaving a restaurant. After checking into the hotel, it was back up the road to see if I could even find that nondescript hole in the wall.

I did. They had the phone. They'd even wrapped it a plastic bag and had put it away. Again, they could've claimed ignorance and I couldn't have proved otherwise, and they'd have had something equivalent to months of profits from their little business.
Lying like that, however, just doesn't occur to these people. It's not correct living, and living a correct life is extremely important to them.

The world could learn a lot from the world's most generous nation. Probably not going to happen; I just hope Myanmar doesn't learn from the rest of the world.

Okay, so back to the Epic. In this episode, I visit the world's (two) largest books, an amazing old wooden monastery and I try to cross the moat and enter the military base. At the center of the base was a reconstruction of the old Mandalay royal palace on the site where it once stood. It was destroyed in WWII.

I don't argue with guys carrying an AK-47
Alas, although I was able to impress the first soldier with my Myanmar drivers license, the second one, armed with an AK-47 wouldn't let me do what the locals were doing, i.e, push my motorbike through the city gate (even they can't ride them). Instead, I was barred. Hrrumph.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Myanmar Motorcycle Epic 10: Amarapura and Inwa

The ignore the names on the map. By places I stayed, it went
Mandalay-Pyin Oo Lwin-Hsipaw-Naungkyi-Taunggyi-Loikaw-
Naypyitaw-Taungoo-Kyaikto-Mawlamyine-Setse Beach
Well, it's been a few days now that I've been back in Yangon. I'm still processing this unforgettable journey, but as I slip back into the everyday humdrum of my day job, I look forward to a couple more weeks of making videos of the trip. I get to do this route twice. The map pictured here is a rough representation of the 3300 kilometer (2000 miles) path.  

Back to the story of the trip. After a full week of riding the motorbike to a new city every day, I was happy to reach Mandalay and have a couple days in one place. I got to unpack a bit. Unload the backpack. Get some laundry done. Geographically, I was halfway through my trip, but time-wise, I was on my 9th day of 24. 

Just what I needed. A place to relax and enjoy the sights.
Fortunately, Mandalay, a city which before I came to Myanmar, I had heard of, but only as some Shangra-La-like, quasi-mystical, Oriental city, is actually quite an interesting place. There were multiple days of places to go and see in Myanmar's former capital. 

From under the U-Bein bridge
Amarapura and Inwa were the two I visit in this video, both also former capitals of Burma. The former was only the capital for a decade or two, and the most interesting thing remaining from it's reign is an old teak bridge. 

The latter, Inwa, AKA Ava, on the other hand, was amazing. For 400 years, with several interruptions, this place was the seat of power of the Burmese Empire. No place other than Bagan is more historical than this now sleepy town on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River. There were a few places that I, self-guided on my motorbike, not relying on what the tour guides took all the rest of the foreigners to, could go and see and play my ukulele.  

I've been reading about how orthodox Theraveda Buddhism has been in a centuries long battle with very un-Buddhist
beliefs like astrology. Here we find a pagoda with no Buddha images, entirely devoted to astrology. 

In background, a 500 year-old crumbling monument. In the foreground, the garbage dump of the local villagers. 
; , sans-serif;">  Enjoy the video.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Myanmar Motorcycle Epic 9: On the Road to Mandalay

U Aung Zeya
I said goodbye to the nice manager and staff of the Pyi Shwe Theinga Hotel and headed into the heart of Shwebo, the old royal palace. As I mentioned in the last blog, Shwebo was one of many former capitals of Myanmar (Burma). How and why it came to be so, I didn't know. I learned there at palace which king made Shwebo so important: none other than U Aung Zeya. 

I had read of this man. During a time when Burma was split up into several small minor kingdoms (Ava, Pyay, Bago),
constant conflict existed between the different ethnic groups (Bamar, Mon, Shan), and the country was constantly being raided by the surrounding countries (Manipur in India, Yunnan in China and Thailand), from a humble village of a few thousand, U Aung Zeya secured the allegiance of the surrounding villages and fortified Shwebo. Over time, the people recognized him as the kind of strong, scrupulous, fair leader they needed as king, and thousands flocked to his banner. He deposed the other minor kingdoms, conquered the country, including a town called Dagon, renaming it Yangon, meaning 'end of strife' (where I live today) and founded what has come to be known as the Third Burmese Empire. Remarkable king, and learning all this historical stuff really gave context to what I was seeing. 

I was quite pleased to spot on the Google maps an alternate route to Mandalay, as the most direct route would mean going back down roads I had already come up. I hate doing that. 

Better still, the easterly route took me into hills and forests. Indeed, as I drove through it, considering how close it was to a big city like Mandalay, it was mostly wilderness. Perhaps this explains this sign which I saw at both of my rest stops along the way. 

Eventually, I got to Mandalay! I found a hotel, and went to visit a famous Mahamuni Pagoda. There, I bought some gold leaf intending to apply it onto a Buddha image as an offering. 

The gold cost all of $1.50, so as you might imagine, it was quite thin and wispy. Hard to manage. I'm pretty sure I ended up applying more of the gold onto my own fingers than onto the revered Buddha. 

Knowing that I was going to spend a couple days in Mandalay, I wasn't in any rush see it's many attractions. But I thought sunset at the royal palace might be nice to see. Thing is, the royal palace is inside the moat-surrounded inner city which only had a couple of gates. Also, the inner city is mostly just a military base with very restricted access. Turned out not only had I arrived at the wrong gate for foreigners to pass through...

...but I had also arrived too late. No tourists allowed to enter after 5:30 PM. The soldiers were nice enough, advising me to return tomorrow and at which gate. 

Enjoy the video...

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Myanmar Motorcycle Epic 8 - The Ancient City of Hanlin

These ain't just bricks in the ground. These are the remains
of a building that stood in this spot 2000 years ago.

I’m a bit of an archaeology buff. Not in any trained or formal way, but reading and learning about how we’ve discovered information about how people lived millennia ago has always intrigued me. In my home country of the USA, although there are some sites dating back hundreds of years, were I’ve lived, there haven’t been easily visitable reminders of how the people living where I was were living X numbers of centuries ago. 

Here in Myanmar, it’s different. In Bagan, for example, you couldn’t swing a stick without hitting an 800 year old pagoda. Thing is, Bagan wasn’t the first Burmese kingdom.
Despite their condition, these aren't Pyu buildings.
These are probably only about 900 years old.
Before the Bamar people even came to this land, back when they still lived in Tibet, there was a populous and powerful kingdom here called Pyu. Relatively speaking, we don’t know much about the Pyu in terms of where they came from and what they were like. Unlike another ancient people who pre-date the Bamar, the Mon, there are no people today who call themselves Pyu.  

After all the traveling I’ve done over the last couple years, I’d visited both of the important ancient Pyu cities, but there are more than just two. About 15 miles away from Shwebo, there is the ancient city of Hanlin, and me with my love for 2000 year old piles of rubble, I just had to make the trip to see it.

The road was kinda rough, as it is anytime you get off the beaten path here in Myanmar, but it was worth the trip. 

Standing in the middle of the remains of the city gate, I squinted my eyes and tried to imagine I was in the year 100, a guard at the entrance to the city, questioning a traveller on horseback.  

The entrance to the ancient city of Hanlin

Friday, February 10, 2017

Myanmar Motorcycle Epic 7: Here We Go to Shwebo

We're all subject to routines, to patterns. Even when doing something as unconventional as motorcycle touring, you begin to develop a rhythm. Get up before dawn, ready to leave before the free hotel breakfast buffet has even opened, drive half the day to the next stop on the journey and experience your destination. Have dinner. Upload some photos or a video. Next day, repeat.

By this leg of the journey, Monywa to Shwebo, I had been on the road for seven days, and I was starting to get used to the pattern described above. On this occasion, however, I didn't have very far to go, and the roads were likely to smooth and easy. So I had plenty of time to strike out and look at or for sights off the main road. 

The first of the these was the ancient village of Lezin, which I learned about in a little tourist brochure about Monywa given to me by the nice folks at the tar-smelling hotel.
Impressive looking ancient monuments from the picture anyways. Thing was, the tourist map was very vague as to the place's location, anf Google maps didn't accurately portray these village dirt roads. 

Consequently, it was time to stop and ask some locals for directions. 

Even though I was most definitely in the village that held these ruins, the locals looked at this picture as if they'd never seen the place before. Seemingly, the longer they looked at, the more it would come to the were it was. 
Yeah, it's over there.

No, it's over THERE

They took their time in coming to a concensus, and when they did, one guy stepped up and decided to lead me there. I was very grateful. He didn't ask for any money or anything. Just being helpful to the wandering tourist. 

I'm not really sure the place I ended up was the place described in the brochure, but it might have been. 

About 25 miles east of Monywa, there's a pagoda called Shwekuni. I hadn't planned to visit it, but seeing all the activity around it, I stopped to see what all the hubbub was about. 

I saw this. This is a Buddha image, or at least it was at one point. Watch the video to learn what happened to it. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Myanmar Motorcycle Epic 6: The Monywa Shot

I had gotten to like the Sino-Burmese proprietor of the Hotel Mindat up there in the highlands of Chin. Nice guy. He gave me “guide rate” that local tour guides pay at the hotel when they bring in foreign tourists. So, as I was packing up my gear on the motorbike, readying myself for a ride to the Chin town of Matupi some 150 km away, when he wandered up to chat, I asked him about the road ahead. 

See, I had some reservations about the feasibility of my plan to travel through the heart of Chin. Based on my experience of the roads from Kanpetlet to Mindat, albeit brief, they were brutal. How would my bike, or me for that matter, hold up to hour upon hour of this kind of terrible road? I’ve had legs in previous journeys which were satisfying and rewarding in hindsight, while on them, they were torture.

Forget you, bus! I'm passing on the right to get to this bridge
before you.
For me, it’s mostly about time. Four hours of bad third-world roads is tough. Six hours is traumatic. Anything more than that, it’s simply not worth it. So how long would it take me to get to Matupi? I asked my new hotelier friend. 

“Eight, nine hours” he told me. WHAT?! But on Google maps it says 4 hours 30 minutes. I had even more reservations about the next leg, 220 km from Matupi to Hakha, the capital of Chin. How long would that take? “Umm… Probably about 12 hours,” he told me. 

Oh, hell no.

Fortunately, despite having my reservations, I had no reservations. Bookings, that is. There was nothing binding me to this itinerary. I had no hotel reservations awaiting me, so, if I wanted, I could turn the other way and go back into the safe lowlands of the Ayeyarwaddy plains. And that’s exactly what I did.

Okay, technically, I'm drinking and driving, but I'm not driving
while drunk. One beer every 3 hours is just carbohydrates
to keep me going.
This whole journey I’ve been on has been (still 2 more days left) shaped by a series of adjustments to the plan. First, I decided against trying to sneak through the prohibited parts of Shan, decided on Chin, and then, as you see in this video, I abandon Chin. I’d seen enough. 

They haven't replaced the ferry that sank.
When I I got to the bank of the Chindlwin River, I remembered a story from last year about a horrible ferry boat sinking here in Myanmar. Many died. It had been the ferry connecting me from where I was to where I wanted to go: Monywa. Home to the world’s largest standing Buddha.

Enjoy the video. BTW, if you watch it on YouTube, click the little cog-wheel on the lower right corner and make sure you're settings are for HD.



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 ...