July 16, 2003

Yangon, Myanmar
Kittens Jumping Through Hoops

This is my last night in Myanmar. I'm gonna try and cover the final few days and get that out of the way before heading off for Cambodia.

We hired a taxi to drive us from Bagan to Inle Lake. I'd had it with agonizing 12 hour bus rides and wasn't going through it again. I told Tom he could take the bus himself if he wanted, but I was getting a car.

The taxi option turned out to be only slightly less awful. No matter what you're riding in, the roads are still the roads. They're downright treacherous here. No one's getting any sleep when the potholes send you airborne at least once every few minutes. Reading isn't much of an option either. And while the buses may set new standards for reduced legroom, imported Chinese rice wagons like the one we rode in aren't much of an alternative.

In an attempt to manage some degree of comfort, I tossed my bags out of the rear storage area and scrunched in there myself, using some Indian pillow covers I bought as gifts to shield my head from the exposed metal plates. My back is still paying for that dumbass idea.

One benefit of the cab ride is that they stop at Mount Popa; an extinct volcano jutting some eight hundred meters above the surrounding plains, with a sprawling monastery built into the mouth at the top.

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Aside from hiring a car, there's pretty much no other way to get there.

The volcano is home to what is considered to be the most powerful nat in Myanmar. A nat, as near as I can figure, is some kind of god-like spirit being whose good side you generally want to stay on.

The big draw for me on Mount Popa was, of course, the monkeys. The volcano is literally crawling with them. They live there in semi-domesticated bliss, fed by the offerings of karma-seeking visitors.

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I went a little sick with the monkey pictures.

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This last picture got me in some trouble. I got pounced on for moving too close to the infants and earned myself a cut on the arm.

Lesson learned.

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Not a monkey, but still cute.

Here's an example of how crowded public transportation gets in Myanmar.

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Kind of makes me feel like a jerk for complaining about the car ride.

We saw some people cutting stones on the side of the road with crude tools and hauling them back and forth. There's a description of this activity in the guidebook, and I'm not sure it's what we witnessed, but if it was, the people were working as forced labor for the government. They get paid nothing more than food money for their backbreaking efforts. It's slavery under a different name.

On our arrival at Inle Lake, we discovered that in ten solid hours of driving, we'd covered just over two hundred kilometers. Those are some seriously rough roads.

We had dinner at a nice Shan restaurant. Shan cuisine is apparently the best in the country, but I was in no mood to try it. I wasn't able to eat much of anything.

We talked to the restaurant owner, who was unusually forthcoming, and learned that much of Shan state, not to mention the rest of Myanmar, is off-limits to foreigners. The reason is difficult to say conclusively. The official line is that the government can't guarantee the safety of visitors. I'm sure there's some truth to that, but I suspect it also has something to do with the massive amount of opium that's grown throughout the countryside.

A lot of the opium is controlled by bandit groups, who are especially active in the Shan region. There are large areas where the government has absolutely no presence or control. I have a hard time believing, however, that the government's hands are entirely clean. They don't have a lot of friends, and there aren't many ways a government like Myanmar's can earn money. The most reliable option is to do what North Korea does and supply boatloads of drugs to more respectable neighbors. Another thing that makes me suspicious is the state-run newspaper, which offers daily stories on the military's heroic seizure and disposal of opium shipments. As a rule, a good way to find out what corrupt regimes are up to is to read what they claim to be combating in their state-run newspapers.

My guess is there's a silent war going on between the army and various drug-funded rebel groups for control of the opium trade, and there's no one around to report on it.

It's all so goddam exciting, isn't it?

I've read that Myanmar exports an estimated 700 million methamphetamine pills to Thailand each year. I have no idea what methamphetamines consist of and whether it's related to opium or if they're producing some other substance as well. I don't keep up on this stuff. I've also read that a lot of heroin goes through Mandalay on its way to China. I think heroin has something to do with opium, right?

Whatever. It's all bad and Myanmar is up to its neck in it. Inle Lake is about as far east as you can go before people start pointing guns at you. And in typical Myanmar fashion, it's an utterly beautiful, innocent, and peaceful place that seems untouched by violence or vice.

Actually, I can't say that for sure as I didn't get to see very much of it. I spent most of our time at Inle Lake chained to the toilet in our hotel room. After nearly five months of travel, my stomach has finally given up. It liquidated all its assets and declared bankruptcy. It is no longer open for business.

Food doesn't interest me anymore. There's hardly any point in eating it. I'm like a garbage can with a hole cut through the bottom.

By the way, I've shot past 'gaunt' and am approaching 'scrawny'. Since the start of my trip, I've lost 40 pounds. Since arriving in Myanmar, I've lost ten pounds in as many days. That's not good. That's just scary.

Losing weight hasn't worked out the way I hoped it would. I still have a gut, I've just lost everything around it -- which actually looks kind of worse than it did before. It's like that episode of The Monkees where they find the monkey's paw that grants them wishes but they always turn out to backfire somehow.

I'm going to serve time in obscure reference prison for that one.

And I miss my old ass. Sitting hurts now and I used to be able to do it with much greater comfort. It was like a seat cushion that I carried around with me. It was a useful adaptation and I want it back. Keep the ass, lose the gut.

I don't expect to keep this weight off. If I were near a Taco Bell right now I'd gain half of it back in one go. The thought of a Burrito Supreme makes me weak in the knees. I'd kill a man for a Chalupa. By the end of this trip, after driving across the super-sized United States, I will no doubt be back to my fighting weight and carrying an even more padded seat cushion.

Anyway, with me in my condition, I sent Tom out with my camera to explore Inle Lake. He came back with some nice pictures.

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Of course, my favorite one is from the Jumping Cat Monastery.

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Ya see, it's a Buddhist monastery, but the gimmick is that they teach cats to jump through hoops. That helps to set them apart from other monasteries, where everyone is just meditating all the time.

Brilliant idea, if you ask me.

I'm reading "Around the World in 80 Days" by Jules Verne and I absolutely love it. Phileas Fogg is my new role model. Aside from the fact that he's flawlessly punctual, magnificently affluent, unswervingly sagacious, unbearably tenacious, and in every way the model of a perfect English gentlemen -- aside from those things, he and I have a lot in common. For example, we both enjoy "securing passage" on "vessels".

I'm seriously considering a similar undertaking at some point in the future.

To make things interesting, I'll avoid air travel -- unless maybe a blimp, hot air balloon, or something equally whimsical proves necessary to bridge a gap between arrival and depature points. But planes are definitely banned.

I should still be able to do the trip in the allotted number of days and have time left over to actually visit some places. I won't be leaving from London, so I'll have to alter the route. I'll sit down at some point with a globe and a piece of string to try and work it out.

Another difference is that I'll do the journey with as much frivolous gadgetry as I can stuff into my luggage: laptop, digital camera, GPS device with speed indicator and vector headings, maybe a cell phone, and of course the most essential item: my GameBoy Advance. I'll do up an elaborate web site too with all sorts of tracking info. It'll be fun.

I'll need a lot of money, though. And I'll need to not have a job or any kind of serious obligations. It might have to wait a while.

We met a guy in Shan who practiced a martial art called Shan fighting. They use bamboo sticks in place of knives and whack the crap out of each other. I correctly identified it as having been featured at the start of Rambo III, which yielded a deservedly condescending look from Tom. The guy showed us the hole where his tooth used to be after losing it in a recent match.

Oh, Mom, the hotel we stayed in happened to be nextdoor to the local Save the Children office. I went inside, and introduced myself, and name-dropped that you work there. It was a little awkward. They didn't know what to do with me and I had nothing to say other than, ya know, "way to go with saving all those children," and "keep up the good work." Anyway, it was interesting to see.

The guy in the office was Burmese and he had the weirdest facial hair I've ever seen. It was these two tufts of long black hair coming out either side of his neck, around where Frankenstein has his bolts. I didn't know people could grow hair there at all, much less six inch clumps. I guess it's the local fashion.

We're running low on time before I've got to be in Mongolia for the start of my trans-Siberian train trip. We both want to squeeze Cambodia in, so we decided to hightail it out of Myanmar. That meant booking a plane flight from Inle Lake to Yangon in order to avoid the eighteen hour (no kidding) bus ride.

The flight was great. It only cost $70, and it left from He Ho airport, which up until recently had the distinction of being, at 12.5 meters, the narrowest ATR landing strip in the world. I'm not sure exactly what that means or how big of a deal it is, but it's a moot point now cause they fixed it at the end of last year. No entry in my record book. Bummer.

We flew on a twin-propellor plane that ran the circuit from Inle Lake to Mandalay to Bagan to Yangon all in a couple hours. It flew at low altitude, so we got a great view of the Myanmar interior. It was thoroughly worthwhile.

Flying back to Yangon also meant that in the course of one week, we'd traveled by bus, boat, train, bicycle, car, plane, and horsedrawn carriage. That's the kind of thing that I get very excited about.

We're back in Yangon now and once again on a very tight budget. We can't get money out of our bank accounts until we leave the country, so we live and die by the money Kristin wired to the US Embassy here (thanks Kristin!). We have to buy another pair of plane tickets in the morning and we're not sure how much it'll cost, so every dollar is vital. After checking my email tonight, I had to walk the four miles back to the hotel instead of spending a dollar on a cab.

July 12, 2003

Bagan, Myanmar
Careening Through Pagodaland

Today didn't turn out quite as planned. We left the hotel shortly before noon to grab an early lunch/late breakfast before heading out on our rented bicycles to pagodaland. That's what Bagan is all about. It's Pagoda National Park. There's some 2000 of them dotting the open landscape along the Ayayerwady river, dating as far back as the 9th century AD.

We went to an Italian restaurant. Actually, it was more like an "Italian" restaurant. No, come to think of it, it was an "Italian" "restaurant," as real restaurants usually have walls, but at this point I'm not all that picky. After a few tight-budgeted days in Yangon, I came to the conclusion that Burmese cuisine isn't really all that good. They use a pungent array of flavorings that are immediately revolting to the untrained nose. I'm done screwing around with trying to eat it. Like the English, I think they're well aware that their food isn't all that good, and have wisely looked abroad, when feeding tourists, for more suitable culinary options.

I ordered pasta, which was a mistake. Pizzas they can handle. Tortellini is a little too delicate.

Tom and I discussed our plan of attack over lunch. This being our second day, we were going to skip past all the pagodas in our immediate vicinity, having seen the best of them yesterday, and head inside the ancient brick walls of Old Bagan a few kilometers away, where we would engage in a non-stop pagodathon.

That was the plan.

See the thing is, Tom isn't very good at riding a bike. To be fair, he gave me plenty of warning, but there really aren't many other practical options for seeing the sights here, so I told him he was going to have to manage. "It's easy," I told him. "It's just like riding a bike."

I wanted to stop at the post office before we headed out so I could send a letter. I advised Tom that we were going to take a turn-off just ahead and ride down to the end of that street. I pulled out of the restaurant first. It took Tom a little longer. It's sort of a slapstick routine the way he gets going; like watching a rodeo clown.

I got to the turn-off about 100 meters down the road, not realizing how far behind me Tom was. I stopped and waited for him, then watched him careen obliviously past me as I shouted his name.

That was the last I saw of him.

I wasn't about to go chasing after him. He'd missed the turn and I assumed he'd figure it out eventually. I waited by the side of the road for twenty minutes, smiling at little kids as they rode past on bicycles, waving back at old men on horsedrawn carriages. This is a beautiful town. Anyway, no Tom.

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It's hot here and I got sick of waiting, so I went to the post office. It was just past noon by then, and they'd closed up while I was waiting. At that point I decided the best thing to do would be to ride back to the hotel and wait beneath the cool breeze of my ceiling fan for Tom to show up.

That was four hours ago.

Incidentally, I have the map, the camera, and the guide book. I can't imagine what he's up to.

Yesterday was loads of fun. We spent the whole day pagoda-hopping. We'd show up at one pagoda, get blitzed, hit on some Buddha statues, get thrown out, then crawl on over to the next one.

Okay, it wasn't like that at all. It was a quiet, somber experience. This is a fascinating place.

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Part of the marvel of it for me is that I've never heard of Bagan before. I had no idea it existed. And really, there's not that much to be known about it. Much of the history has been lost. The people and their origins are largely a mystery. Even a lot of the names of these places have been forgotten. The British did a half-assed archeological study a hundred years ago, but their most significant contribution was plundering a lot of the best stuff and sticking it in their museums. Recent studies have yielded more, but really most of what's known comes from the frescos and shrines. The Bagan Empire apparently didn't bother to write much down.

Going inside the pagodas is exciting. It's all dark and ancient-like and I get to play Indiana Jones. The giant wall paintings tell elaborate stories about Gods and kings, but they're chipped, faded, and to me at least, entirely inscrutable.

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This temple was tricky cause there was a camper with a rocket launcher and quad damage up on one of the ledges. I picked him off with my railgun, so it wasn't a problem.

Almost all the pagodas have a garrison of souvenir merchants stationed at the entrance, which seems ridiculous considering the best sites get maybe half a dozen visitors each day. They follow you inside yelling "Souvenir! You look! You look! No money today! Give me sale!" I feel like a pinata filled with money and everyone's standing around waiting for me to explode. It makes the whole experience a lot less pleasant.

I left Tom at one point so he could hang around inside one of the pagodas and photograph the frescos. They don't sustain my interest nearly as long as they do for him, which makes sense, seeing as he spent years studying Buddhist art history and all. I lay down out front near the souvenir stalls. The sellers pestered me for a while, but eventually realized it was useless and went back to entertaining themselves as if I wasn't there. They pulled out a ball made of woven strands of wood and played a game that was immediately recognizable as monkey-in-the-middle. They invited me to play, and we had a gay old time for about half an hour.

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Tom joined in too.

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There was juggling and making faces and laughing and it was all really great.

When we got ready to leave, everyone instantly returned to their designated roles. The kids begged and pleaded for us to buy their postcards, the women thrust random handcrafts in front of us in the hopes that we'd thoughtlessly take one in our hands and then feel obliged to pay for it. It was a little disheartening cause, ya know, I thought we'd had something there. But I guess that's just how it is.

Tom, having more of an appreciation for local art, was a lot more susceptible to the handcraft sirens than I was. Here he is getting lured away by their call.

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On the way to another pagoda, Tom put the map in the little container on the front of his bike. A gust of wind caught it and it flew up into his face, blinding him and causing him to ride into a brick wall.

I'm not the right guy to have around when things like that happen. I'm not one of those who rushes over to make sure everything's okay before doubling over with laughter. But come to think of it, Tom wasn't all that helpful when I fell in that pile of shit either.

Fortunately, everything was, in fact, fine. Nothing bruised or broken.

Later that night, after returning to the hotel and having dinner, I decided to make use of the full moon and take a ride on my own through the ancient city. There was no one for miles – just me and a couple thousand Buddhas. The massive spires lining the horizon; the skyline of a dead metropolis, and then the moon and the stars and the clouds. It was something. It was one of those moments.

There's so much we can do on this planet. It's all right there and there's nothing stopping so many of us. I don't know how to fix the things that are wrong about the world, and I'm rarely compelled to try, but one thing I can do is make use of the privileges I'm given. At the very least, I know how to do that.

The Burmese are great about lighting. The best of the structures here are boldly but tastefully illuminated throughout the night, for the benefit of no one in particular. You can ride right up to them and walk inside and it's as bright as day. It's pretty spooky, actually. Standing amidst floodlighting in the middle of nowhere, you feel like someone's there, but you don't know where. It makes the places seem haunted.

Here are some happy kids.

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I'm getting to the end of this entry, and still no sign of Tom.

So that's pretty much all I have to say about Bagan. It's not the most wildly exciting stop on my trip. I tend to go for places where the interesting stuff is happening now, rather than a thousand years ago. But if you're looking for a relaxing, dare I say bucolic little archeological wonder, you can't do much better than here.

You do need to know how to ride a bike, though.

July 01, 2003

Yangon, Myanmar
Alien and Sedition Act

So we're in Myanmar.

It's a beautiful country. Not at all what I was bracing for. It's filled with contradictions and surprises.

The first surprise came as Thomas and I stepped out of customs. They make every visitor change $200 US into their make-believe tourist monopoly money called FECs. It's one of the only ways the government has of getting their grubby hands on actual real currency. In return you get some sheets of paper that are theoretically worth $200, and which all the hotels in Myanmar are obligated to accept. You can't use them for much else, though. What everyone really wants is cold hard US dollars. Anyway, we knew we were going to have to do that, but what we didn't know is that they only accept Visa and American Express. The nation of Myanmar doesn't take MasterCard.

MasterCard cleared out of here five years ago. This is a problem because both my bank card and credit card are covered by MC, as are Thomas's.

I unleashed Civis Romanus on the guy at the counter: We're stuck in your backwards little country, we'd be happy to give you money, but you won't accept it, so what are you going to do with us?

Many doubt the effectiveness of this approach, but it actually works with many cultures. After a lot of nervous staring, the guy pulled out a notebook and asked me to fill in my name and the nature of my complaint. Once I did that, he handed me my passport and sent me on my way. Thomas did the same.

So we got out of having to buy funny money, but we still had a serious problem. Wiring money isn't simple here. Western Union has 20 million branches in 187 countries. That leaves 4 countries in the world that aren't represented. Myanmar is one of them.

Fortunately Thomas, God bless him, had about $200 worth of cash and traveler's checks on him. So we're living off that at the moment. We went straight to the US consulate in the city, where they explained how we could wire money here from our bank accounts. We're in the process of arranging things now, and hopefully it'll go through in the next couple days.

If it doesn't, I guess we'll be on the next bus to Thailand.

That will suck, cause money issues aside, our experience so far has been wonderful. I was prepared for this place to be like North Korea. But it's not. It's not really like anywhere that I know of. It's clean, uncrowded, and modern. The people are friendly and sweet and helpful. It's great.

I met a Buddhist monk on the street today who invited me to speak to his English class tomorrow. They just want an opportunity to practice their conversation and hear American accents. Normally I'd think the offer was dubious, but the guy was a monk. Those threads have cred. I'm looking forward to that.

I'm sure I'll discover the dark side to this place sooner or later. It's a country with serious problems. But at the moment I'm still stunned by how non-bleak and oppressive it is. I'm writing from a spotless new internet cafe on a brand new machine running WinXP. Granted, almost all of the internet is blocked, which is kind of a pain.

It's also, I think, the only place in the country where it's legal to access the internet. I'm not kidding. The only other option available is sending emails from hotels at $1 an email. The government has a complete stranglehold.

Also, the going rate for international phone calls is $6 a minute.

All commercial web mail companies are banned, so I can't get at my email through normal means. Fortunately, the government hasn't gotten around to banning wherethehellismatt.com yet, so I'm able to get at it through there.

Actually, while I have the opportunity, I'd like to perform an act of seditition against the government from within its borders:

FREE SUU KYI!!!

Yippee, that was fun.

Mom, don't worry about the money problem. Wheels are turning. Everything is fine.

More later.