23 Days in Myanmar, Part One: Yangon and Nyang Shwe | ArtSocket Gallery Magazine

23 Days in Myanmar: Part One

By Header image credit: Betty Dai

This is a three-part story about my trip to a semi-closed South East Asian country of Myanmar. Read: part two, part three.

After a busy month of paperwork, vigorous coding and recovery from minor motorcycle accident we departed Chiang Mai International Airport. Due to arrive in Yangon later that day of March 29th, 2016.

It's been over three years since Betty and I have given up our apartment in Toronto and began travelling across Asia. So far we've visited eleven countries. Vietnam was one of our favourites - spent around three months there. China is where Betty's relatives live; we travelled around the western part of it for about six months. Thailand is where we got stuck for the past two years and is kind of our home now. Other than that, Myanmar would be our fourth longest single-nation stay.

The length of our visit was based on fulfilling our volunteering promise, seeing Bagan and getting my legal papers sorted. The latter coincided with the Water Festival which basically shut down the entire nation for two weeks. So we planned to stay in the country until the offices are open again. There was a lot of downtime between the above-mentioned todo's, but it was all to be filled with design, development and business-dev tasks.

Exhausted from our errands at home yet excited for our trip we set foot in the capital of Burma (or Myanmar - same thing).

Yangon

Yangon downtown street

Myanmar did not fail to surprise us in more ways than one. Its thawing dictatorship, mixed with over sixty years of declining civil war (which isn't quite over yet) allowed an increasing influx of Western and Asian tourists over the past decade to see a country that has been off-limits for half a century.

Many surviving traditions, such as Longyi (skirt for men) and Paan (red stuff that the locals chew and spit everywhere) easily set the place apart. Along with typical lack of education and infrastructure evident in most developing nations we were pleasantly surprised at the quality of English spoken (by some). Over the years of living abroad Betty and I have learned to communicate without using too many words, but it was a nice feeling to be able to chat in language we use at home.

There are no motorcycles allowed in Yangon, which lends to crippling city-wide traffic. Those who can't afford to get stuck in their own car would board a local bus which has the doormen chant melodically, presumably the destination of the route.

Also, get this: the traffic direction is right-hand-side (like in US) yet most of the cars have a steering wheel on their left (like in England).

Nyang Shwe

There isn't much going on in Yangon for a typical tourist. Plus, we were on a mission; so the day following our arrival we took off on a freezingly-cold (too much A/C) overnight bus towards Lake Inle. We reached the town of Nyang Shwe early in the morning to be greeted by a van driver who charged us around ten bucks USD for a five minute drive, which was interrupted by a guard that demanded $25USD park entrance fee (per person).

My feet swelled after the bus ride so I spent the rest of the day getting accustomed to our room and massaging my fluids back into the veins.

Village street in Nyang Shew, Myanmar
A typical engine in Nyang Shwe is a very loud, yet slow and janky Chinese-made gas guzzler.

There was a lot of work to do. During the next two days Betty and I were preparing for an eight-day intensive course on the "Effective Business Practices" for the local entrepreneurs.

Day two at Nyang Shwe. I got terrible food poisoning, followed by Betty that made us weak for the rest of the trip. I tried to stay positive but when one can't trust the safety of daily meals, things get a little rough. Restaurants were often located right next to open sewers; the same sewers would flow by the markets where people sell meat in the open during the hot season. Thousands of flies buzzed around, swarming the poultry, pork and fish. Later I learned that locals would often get sick as well. They used very popular herbal medicine that earned fortunes to the person who owned the business.

Local Nyang Shwe girls shopping at the market
Local ladies finishing up their shopping at the market. It's hard to see it in this picture, but both of them are wearing a tree-bark paste on their face that helps against the sun burns and keeps the skin soft - as I was told by one of my students.

Myanmar is not an easy place to live in. So much so that people from this country take on a lot of risks trying to flee and often end up as slaves in Thailand as a result. It isn't difficult to understand how years of internal warfare, corruption and general lack of infrastructure could produce a tough environment. Nevertheless, the people and their culture took some time to get used to.

One could expect feelings of mistrust, resentment and lingering violence in a place like this. But the Burmese turned out to be some of the kindest and most courteous hosts. Most notably, the lack of theft and violence prompted us to feel very safe. Leaving a laptop unattended has never been a problem. At the same time the denomination system forced us to make large payments in cash that looked as if we just robbed a bank: thick stacks of raggedy Kyatts that would not fit in any wallet. No one cared.

On the other hand, lodging, transportation and food were priced unfairly high and there was no bargaining either. Every restaurant menu would have their prices amended by 1.5 - 2x since the time it was printed (likely just a few months ago). Cab drivers would aim to charge at least 2x of what you'd expect in NYC, San Francisco or Toronto. Hotels would cost almost as much as the ones we staid at in Japan. We were expected to be naturally wealthy, and we were expected to dish that presumed wealth in Myanmar.

We spent about two weeks in the city, most of which was occupied by work and preparation for more work. Another unexpected challenge was an incredibly slow and unreliable internet (I'm talking dial-up modem speeds, nation-wide). Not good news for a tech entrepreneur hoping to catch up with some code and design while abroad.

Time out was mostly confined to the walk between the hotel room and the office across the city (about ten minutes away). There was always something going on. So I took my phone and snapped some shots on the way.

Unfriendly boy
A parade in preparation for Thingyan (Water) Festival. That kid was having none of my touristy camera-slinging.
Tourists and locals
Some tourists strolling downtown Nyang Shwe while the locals make their way, loaded in the back of a whatever you call that thing.
Dogs
There were a lot of incredibly friendly dogs around the city. We even befriended two puppies. Unfortunately, we were told that once a year a large number of them would be poisoned to control the population.
Horses
There were even stray horses here and there. Next day we saw about six cows grazing the same patch without their pastor.
Morning traffic
Morning traffic, this is around 8am.
River laundry
A woman doing her laundry in a river that's seemingly much dirtier than my armpit in the 40C heat. I've seen many people bathe in this water as well (naked, in public).
Truck
That incredibly loud horrible engine that they use on their tractors and boats is also used in lorry trucks.
Business students
My students who worked really hard throughout the whole course (a business introductory program I volunteered to teach to upcoming local enterpreneurs). Perhaps the best students I've ever had! They've spent a total of eight full-time days (no weekends) listening to my lectures.

It felt good to pass my knowledge onto people who are eager to receive it and hopefully would use it to better their lives. But it was also a lot of work, so having a boat trip on a beautiful lake as our send-off gift felt very right.

I've got a lot of thoughts running through my head as we cruised down the waterways that I couldn't express at the time. Mostly because the boats were incredibly loud. Like "you would not fucking believe the magnitude of those sounds" kind of loud. So the next day when the ringing in my ears subsided I've uploaded a bunch of photos and a video to Instagram with a hashtag #inleEssay and those thoughts:

Tourist boat pollution
Inle Lake is a beautiful habitat for animals and the locals surrounded by mountains and tropical jungles. Unfortunately, it is being polluted on daily basis by hellishly-loud motor boats. It's almost like living inside a jet turbine. #inleEssay
Inle Lake farmers
On the way to the "floating village" we passed farmers collecting weeds from below. A few years ago fishing was their way of life but from what I've heard, stock depletion has killed that tradition. Those beautiful photos of fishermen from this lake are images of models posing; there is nothing to catch. #inleEssay
Waterway on Lake Inle
There is of course only one way to get to the floating villages: by boat. #inleEssay
Brumese cats
Amongst the places we visited was the Burmese Cat conservation project. As the plaque said, "due to a variety of circumstances the cats were all gone from Myanmar in the early 1900's. The person who started this project imported a few of them back to his country from Australia and started breeding them again." #inleEssay
Fish traps
While the fishing industry and traditional methods of catching it are extinct, there must be a few of them left around the bottom. The clue is this gentleman returning home with a load of traps in his teakwood boat. #inleEssay
Power lines on Lake Inle
There's electricity available to most homes. #inleEssay
Satellite dish
Some homes even have satellite dishes to watch TV. Perhaps they could later be used to connect to the Internet as the country grows its infrastructure. #inleEssay
Inle homes
Not every home can survive the harsh environment of being constantly washed over from below, baked and blown onto from above. But the buildings seem to be constructed in a way that allows for a quick rebuild. #inleEssay
Life on Lake Inle
The most beautiful realization about this village for me was that it is very much alive. It's not a museum or a city that used to be. There are people living their very unique lives going about their business as the tourists like myself sail by. #inleEssay
Floating garden
Not far from the village is a farm, commonly referred to as "the floating garden". #inleEssay

The farmers make their way around the old-fashion way: using the heel of their foot to help push the boat faster. By far this seemed like the most beautiful sight out of the entire trip. I would not be doing it justice with just a photo. #inleEssay

Burning season in Myanmar
Beautiful, unique but definitely not untouched. Obnoxiously loud boats, unregulated visitor numbers, overfishing, deforestation and agricultural pollution from nearby tomato farm are not the only things damaging the serene lifestyle of the people who call this place home. The dry season here and most everywhere in South East Asia is a burning season. A long standing tradition of setting fields and forests on fire in order to clear space for new plantations. We were unfortunate enough to witness it first-hand. The air quality almost continent-wide at this time is deemed unhealthy; but inside the plume that obstructed our way home it felt like hell. Zero visibility, lungs and eyes on fire and a strong feeling of claustrophobia. #inleEssay
Inle people
Myanmar people are some of the friendliest and kindest people in Asia. Their welcoming nature is humbling and their desire to learn and build better lives is inspiring. I sincerely hope they are quick and lucky enough to change the trajectory of their growth towards sustainability. #inleEssay

23 Days in Myanmar, Part Two: BaganMyanmar is a semi-closed South East Asian country ruled in large by military regime. This is a recollection of my experience as a traveller in the city of Bagan.Article