Friday, April 30, 2021

Myanmar/Burma


We flew into Mandalay at night. Peering from the small plane window all one could see of the countryside was a disconnected patchwork of village lights. It looked very primitive. The airport is far from the city and connected by a long highway devoid of street lamps. It wasn’t the safest road I’ve traveled. The taxi drove us to the city through small hamlets separated by huge black voids; evidence that further supported my theory that Myanmar is either sparsely inhabited or spotty with electricity. We were an hour from the airport before the city glow announced the upcoming metropolis. 

First impressions: 

1) Barren and undeveloped. 2) They drive on the right side but the steering wheel is on the right side also… Odd to say the least, and the opposite of everyone else.

Thank you – “Cheesuba”. Hello – “Mingalaba”.  I thought Swedish was composed by a cute 5 year old. Ditto for this place.


The hotel looked as if it was designed with an eye towards communist grandeur 60 years ago.  It was as tired as we were.


Mandalay

Exotic. Loud. Dirty. We promptly rented a scooter and set a most ambitious itinerary in order to see it all. When all the other horns on the road said, “Make a freaking hole!” mine said, “Excuse me please.” We made it out of town and quickly found ourselves lost in what I am calling “Temple Valley”. This was a giant bowl ringed with stupas and dotted with temples.  I called Luang Prabang “Monktown” and I’m referring to Mandalay as “Temple Town”. How did they ever find the time to build a successful space program while constructing all these temples? Oh right… They didn’t.




Ruins galore. This was a giant brick elephant


Begun in 1790. Never finished and ruined by an earthquake in 1839 - Mingun Pagoda

Life Without Cheese

There are plenty of wonderful cuisines of the world. Burma won’t make the list. It’s imaginative but too oily for my tastes. The peasants’ version of Thai cooking maybe? 

With your entree they bring out 10 different condiment components in small dipping bowls. We sampled them with spears of zucchini. I dipped one in and let it drain. It's not like I heaped salsa unto a chip. It was rather liquid so only the scant residue remained. That was enough to send my whole head to Dante's inferno. It may have been the hottest thing I ever put in my mouth. I immediately got a white hot electric flash of coming distress. The beading sweat on my scalp announced the building panic that makes you inhale instead of scream. Your pores know you are in serious trouble even before your taste buds fully register the Scovilles.  This is your body broadcasting the coming agony so you have some reflection time to ponder what you did to yourself and hopefully learn a lesson so we don’t have to live through this again. My thin cruel lips almost swelled to a normal size while the bulbous lips of Alejandra inflated an additional 100psi and threatened the waiter. He asked for my opinion: “this one very dangerous for foreign man. This one very delicious for foreign man. This one very bad for everyone.” I was of course referring to some expired shrimp paste goop. I don't ever want to remember that flavor. I may need counseling. He smiled knowingly.

Mole Hair For People Who Can't Grow A Beard

There is much to catch your eye: The sarongs on men, the tree dust sunblock, the single 3 inch hair blossoming from a facial mole, and as much as the gold buildings dazzle the senses, I find the detailed woodwork of Shwenandaw Monastery even more exquisite. They show their devotion by constantly replacing pieces that rot. The work never ends.


Intricately carved wood

Another pic from Shwenandaw Monastery

The tree dust potion they turn into sunblock.
Very common and I've never seen it in any other country




Bagan

The bus ride to Bagan delivered us to a place of photographic splendor. Put this destination on your bucket list. Between the 11th to the 13th centuries AD the kingdom built over 10,000 Buddhist temples, 3000 monasteries, and 1000 pagodas and stupas in a 40 sq mile area (104 sq KM). That’s a very dense count of aesthetically pleasing edifices with brilliant sunsets and dust particulates that make for some phenomenal photos. While their neighbors were killing each other, they got rich, avoided war and went on a construction spree. Their empire was defeated by the invading Mongol hordes in 1300 but fortunately for us - over 2200 still stand today. They suffered 400 earthquakes between 1904 – 1975 and a big one in 2016 that brought down almost 400 temples in one day. Get here soon!











There is a museum onsite where you are encouraged to wear
the ancient headgear of the nobles.
That's not true - no one was looking and my Instagram account needed a boost

Ngapali

2 planes later we checked into our dump hidden behind the beach resorts. Every colossal edifice is owned by a general (Maybe a little foreshadowing for what was to come). We stayed for a week and upgraded our accommodations slightly but this place is expensive (extremely expensive by SE Asian standards), and the resorts have a lock on beachfront access. It’s a lovely beach but it comes up shy of their marketing statement: “One of the best beaches in Asia”.





Yangoon / Rangoon

The connoisseur's street table of betelnut

Poverty, sickness, open sewers, the mass of humanity begging at your car window. I tried to think of it as training for India. Let’s call Rangoon “India Light”. 


Filth and red spit – As if their contamination and disease rates weren’t already high enough, Rangoon has made your odds of tuberculosis even higher with their city wide expectorant policy. It’s not confined to the male population. Everyone chews betelnut and spits the red juice everywhere. I’ve been to Guadalcanal and this is worse. I found Rangoon to be mildly disgusting and hygienically unsafe. 







Even the tourist attractions were underwhelming and polluted. Its slum adjacent to slum and the best parts look like Chernobyl reinhabited. The buildings are old Soviet era disasters that haven’t been repainted since constructed and the external mold has run amuck in the tropics. The city is a dystopian setting for abject poverty and the decline of Eastern civilization. You should move here immediately, develop a drinking problem and write the great Asian novel of loss and regret. I spent a week and a forgettable birthday here.

One communal cup for street water. How do you think they made out when Covid hit?

The Culture Game

Our hotel in Rangoon... The room service cleaners made the bed with the top sheet on top of the comforter. All wrong. I tried to explain it to them: Polite blank stares. Upon thinking about it later we decided, "of course they wouldn't know, they probably don't have a comforter because they don't have an air conditioner" so the culture game is really a poverty game. I thought I was going to teach something…instead I learned something.

From Hell to Heaven 

The driver wasn’t very proficient with a clutch but he was a master of the horn. It was a very spasmodic loud ride to the airport. If you use your horn 5 times in 30 minutes it’s probably you and not the other drivers. Slow down and get counseling. 

We spent a month in this country and we left it to live on a yacht for the next 40 days as we cruised the azure waters of Thailand. Our lives got immeasurably better but in light of the military coup that the people of Myanmar are now suffering, I can say with certainty that their lives only got worse. And they weren’t great to start with. 

In Conclusion: 

Bagan good. Rangoon bad.

Your spoiled bastard on point,

Captain Bobby








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