Their description of the museums in Burma is dead on. I went to the National Museum and it was crazy the way that the antiques were just scattered everywhere and there was no protection or anything. In fact, only two or three floors even had air-conditioning. It’s just another example of how much there is to do there, and how far the country has to go before it is in reasonable shape on any front.
I often get emails from friends and friends of friends asking about traveling to Burma. So when I saw this, and I have seen a few of these and the ones I haven’t, I have heard are wonderful, I thought I would share.
I highly recommend seeing Burma as it changes and transforms but with a couple of caveats. First, it is not a country well set up for tourists, especially those who can’t, or don’t want to spend a fortune. There is no backpacking mentality, very few great small hotels and it’s difficult to get around on your own. This new site might also help some.
Also, I highly recommend buying and using Lonely Planet no matter what your budget is, it’s well-regarded as the best around.
I am writing almost all day every day on the book, so precious little blogging taking place. But here are some photos of a stop in Taungoo and a visit to the Elephant Camps.
It’s illegal to ride a bicycle or motorcycle or scooter in Yangon. The rumor on the motorcycle ban is that a General was driving through Yangon a few years back and his car was hit by a motorcycle.
So they were banned.
But it might have been a scooter, the General was in the back seat I guess and he wasn’t sure, so they banned them too, just in case.
No one knows why bicycles are banned, the word for bicycle in Burmese is “set bein” or engine wheels, so maybe it was too close to a motorcycle. But they are banned as well.
Which makes Yangon a funny town and very much unlike Hanoi and its 3 million scooters or Phnom Penh with its seemingly 3 million bicycles, here it is cars and nothing, except me, now on a new Trek mountain bike.
However, the law is never applied to foreigners really, in this time of democratization of Myanmar, or at least, it’s never been applied to me, as I am the only foreigner I have seen on a bike. There is a distinct reticence on the part of traffic cops to do anything to foreigners so I ride my bike everywhere.
I find it refreshing, charming and more than a bit fun in this day and age, to be in a place where being a Westerner on a bike in the middle of the day can create such delight in people, even those same traffic cops, who should be stopping me, but instead often just take off their helmets and when I yell hello, smile and wave me through.
I am careful to only speak English at that moment.
I really enjoy riding around town, through the cars, dodging people, potholes, and new drivers. Despite the 100 degree heat and 75% humidity which I am almost completely immune to now, I can ride my bike and not even sweat anymore.
Imagine being in a tattered old city of a million people, and you’re the only person on a bike, that’s me. But riding during the day, as good as it is, it’s nothing compared to riding at night.
I first learned this riding with a group of twenty or so Burmese who met at the bike shop where I bought my bike; they take off around 10:00 pm on Friday night and convoy through the darkened city. They ride till around 11:30 pm, stop in a tea house for chatting and something to drink and then make it back by midnight.
Yangon at night is a very dark city, with few lights, and even fewer cars. The night markets are lit by single light bulbs and candles, the main streets totally deserted. As the group, or if it’s not Friday, on my own, you can fly down the main roads, twisting and turning around Shwe Dagon Pagoda, which is the one thing always lit up bright in the sky at night.
On your bike at night, you hear the flocks of parrots that still roost in the trees and you have to pay more attention than usual to avoid the massive breaks in the streets and the people walking who can’t see you and you can’t see them.
On your bike at night, you see the underside of the city more at night, the people sleeping in the parks, picking through the trash. I ride down by the river, through the center of town, I often swing by 35th Street where my father’s office was in the 1950s.
I stop and buy water from usually a somewhat shocked small store keeper as this tall sweaty American pulls in on a bicycle. It’s 35 cents for a large bottle of water; I usually go through two a night. When it’s 95 degrees or more during the day, the nights are relatively cool.
I circle the lake, I climb the road by the Pagoda, I cruise down the other side by the Army’s park. Sometimes I stop and say hello to the folks at my favorite restaurant. Sometimes I just pull to the side and listen, to the city as it starts to sleep.
When it’s time to go back to the hotel, I go slowly. I watch the people eating in the streets in the outdoor restaurants, smelling the curries and stir-fry being prepared over the open fires. I pull into the driveway and up to the house. I am staying at a small b&b on Golden Valley Road. The lone night watchman welcomes me back and then watches as I lock the bike up, leave my helmet hanging over the handlebars and head in for a shower.
The cops will all be happy now, all foreigners are off the streets, and safely home.
Things are changing here, some faster than you realize, some not quite as fast as some people would like. Maybe there will be a time when the street are crowded with bicycles, maybe they will crack down and stop even foreigners from riding the few that are around.
But for now, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to ride and see and listen and be the one man in Yangon on a bike at night.
I have made many new friends here, but none funnier than K, a wonderful bundle of energy and charm and humor. He and I might do some business together and I am thinking it’s a good idea just because we would be rich in laughter if not gold as well.
We agreed to go to lunch on Sunday when I stopped by his shop last week; he wanted to take me to the nice hotel downtown. I told him I could do Monday or Tuesday as well, if that was better for him.
“Oh no no no. I like the Sunday lunch best.”
And Sunday it was. We were standing by Mr. K’s very nice new car.
“You come over and you can drive okay?” He smiles at me.
Me I wonder to myself, the steering wheels are on the right side here but you also drive on the right, there’s terrible traffic and few stop lights.
“My nephew is gone for weekend and I can’t drive.” He stops as I laugh and tell him:
“I am not going to drive in Yangon K, no way, it’s crazy here. You have this brand new car and you don’t know how to drive!”
He shakes his head vehemently. “Never, never ever drive. I pick you up. Taxi.”
So at noon on Sunday, he shows up indeed in a taxi and not his beautiful new white car and downtown we head for lunch, to be joined by his friend Errol who is Burmese but I later learn was named Errol in boarding school.
“For Errol Flynn, the actor” he tells me over lunch.
I tell Errol the story of the car and driving and then learn the truth as my friend explains more.
“Police are terrible here, they would be very mean to me and get me upset, it would not be good.”
Then I understand. To stay on the right side of the law, to never have to answer too many questions about his business and his work, my friend has made a strategic decision.
Because no driving means there’s never even the chance you’ll get stopped while driving. Never getting stopped driving means never having the chance of a problem with the police. So no matter how nice your new car is, and how good you might look behind the wheel, you never ever drive.
Yes, indeed, K is funny and cordial beyond words, but he is also savvy, which is a skill many have needed here to survive. I am equally sure he well knows how to drive, it’s just well, not something he can risk doing here.
K tells the story without bitterness and he certainly is not complaining. He’s just a man who figured out long ago that driving was something that would never, ever be worth the risk.
When you consider it, closely, with fresh eyes, on a bridge in Paris one evening, the ability to forecast the weather is a remarkable gift. I mean, not how one does it now, with computer models and Doppler radar, but before, when men, and women I suppose, could just look at the sky or the sea, and say:
It feels like rain.
Or snow, or wind, or whatever is coming over the horizon towards you but is of yet unseen. Once upon a time, I suppose, if you could do that, and be right more than wrong, you were powerful, dominant, the talk of the town, or village, or valley, or wherever you happened to be.
I stopped on the bridge over the River Seine, on the way to meet a friend for coffee, I stopped not because the view was new to me or especially unique for Paris, no, I stopped there because the sky was darker than it should have been if one considers the time of day it was, early.
I also stopped because not only was the sky darker than I thought realistic really for four in the afternoon, but the despair of the sky itself stopped me, the torment it was enduring and sharing with anyone who thought to stop and look.
The sky was frothing in anger, churning a multitude of shades of black, twisting, turning, spinning, seemingly out of control and liable to collapse at any moment into a fit of rain, thunder, lightning. Hail was not out of the question.
And yet, in the middle of all that torment, the sky also wanted to share the thought, hold on, there is hope my fellow traveler, it will not always be this dark, this twisted this way, let me show you, look over there to the South, the perfect bright white light, it is coming your way.
Pause if you must a moment to admire and ponder but keep walking as soon the light will be here and all will be calm again.
My half-brother Stuart told me of an old quote, “a life unexamined isn’t worth living” he wasn’t sure who it was from but we both liked it. It seemed to be the right motto for my journey.
But what they don’t tell you is the process of examining stirs up storms, in you and others. I should note, as I like to, to make sure no one feels sorry for me, crossing the bridge in Paris in the afternoon, I find that highly unlikely, but just in case, this is something I have chosen and I am blessed to do it.
Nevertheless, Paris turned into not so much into calm moments of reflection and getting deeply re-introduced to the book and the characters within, but a time to walk headfirst into storms on top of storms, wind blowing, rain in my face, cold, dark, lonely.
I ended up having far too many legal letters, far too many lawyer calls, tossing and turning worrying about my children and life, and my ex-wife. For three or four days, I didn’t really sleep at all, removing much of the charm of the City of Lights. I would lie in bed, playing positive outcomes to all that was running through my mind, hoping for sleep and peace.
It rarely came.
Mercifully, there is a wonderful yoga studio in Paris, owned by two new found friends. I met a wonderful young American woman living in Paris with her French boyfriend. I had friends visit both weekends and that made it bearable, but barely so.
Which is a shame, after all, it is Paris, but then again, the chance to examine, make right, clean up, ponder, walk, wonder, is a remarkable one. So now, tired, worn out, drained again by life and challenges seen and unseen, unsure whether it will clear, or continue to storm, I am leaving again for Burma.
I will keep moving, walking, I will look and love the storms and their colors and their anger, almost as much as I will love the light when the wind blows it my way.