Travels with John Smith
Chapter 46 year 7 (2018)
Birthday Moon and Myanmar
- Snow Day
- Blue Moon, Blood Moon and Eclipse Birthday
- Cowboys in Bangkok
- Hotel like home
- Credit card blocked
- Can’t change our money
- Life on the train in Yangon
- Buying a ticket isn’t easy
- The beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda
- Don’t call it Burma
- thankaka cream and other market discoveries
- Orwell’s Burma Days
Travels with John Smith
Chapter 46 year 7 (2018)
Birthday Moon and Myanmar
January 31st. It’s my 62nd birthday and I am celebrating by inviting a few friends over for a bite and a trip outside to the sports track to watch the ‘Super Blue’, ‘Blood Moon’ Eclipse in below zero temperatures.
A couple days ago, it snowed and actually stayed on the ground, which is extremely rare for here. The carport outside our window fell from the weight of the snow on the Saturday morning. Miraculously it did not damage any of the cars below it but it became quite a production when the truck came to lift the roof off of the cars so they could move them to a safer spot.
While the neighbours inspected the fallen roof, some were standing under the other carport which was also heavily laden with snow, so we shouted at them to get out in case it fell on them.
Our 13 year old neighbour, Dawn Marie, taped her phone to the glass balcony doors of their apt, facing the the carport. She left it filming, hoping to catch the moment when that one fell. She had finally given up and turned the phone off, when it crashed down, luckily missing the people who had just been under it.
The fields and parking lots were covered with virgin white snow. Mine were the 1st footprints across to the gate and the tiles beneath the snow were so slippery, despite my caution, I wiped out. John took his bike out to the track and also wiped out on his way around.
The roads everywhere became extremely hazardous and Wuhan came to a halt. Buses and cars were sliding on the ice into one other and it was pretty chaotic out there so Monday, school was cancelled. A snow day! John said when he was teaching in Saskatchewan, where it snows all winter, he never once had a snow day. It felt like an early birthday present.
My friends and I stand outside on the side of the sports track waiting for the moon to eclipse and turn red. We are all bundled up in our best winter clothing plus blankets, taking silly pictures to keep our spirits up. We have been outside for a couple of hours and it is about -10 C but feels like -40 because of the humidity added to the biting cold. According to John (and science) a blue moon happens when there are 2 full moons in the same calendar month.
The blood moon, the blue moon and an eclipse only happen once in a very long lifetime all at once, so we keep reminding ourselves of this to be able to stay outside longer. It feels like a magical thing, for it to be happening on my birthday and to be sharing it with some very special people.
'Cockatoo-the only ladyboy bar in Soi Cowboy! Ladyboys-the world famous Suzie Wongs! The Dollhouse! Cowboy 2!'
These are the giant signs we see on the street we are walking down. We are back in the gateway city of Bangkok. This street is lit in neon red, lined with bars and restaurants, packed with mostly men, drinking and eating. There are some beautiful Thai women and ‘ladyboys’ in small groups laughing and talking. We noticed the giant Cowboy sign from the 4th floor of the Terminal 21 mall a couple of years ago but never checked it out, until now.
There seems to be a fascination with cowboy shops in Thailand, where they sell cool cowboy paraphernalia (from leather bags to turquoise jewelry, cowboy hats, boots and gun holsters), so we hoped to find something interesting. I guess it’s not that kind of cowboy street. We walk up and down the street and go back to our hotel.
This is our 14th? (not sure any more) trip to Bangkok and we are back in our favourite hotel, The Adelphi Suites. It always feels like we are coming home when we come here. The same people have worked here for many years so it is nice to see their friendly faces and they always say “Welcome home!” I have also mentioned how vibrant this street is, with all the things Bangkok has to offer, good and bad, depending on your individual taste.
We know how to get there easily from the airport and it is very convenient. We have already spent a couple mornings by the pool on the rooftop, we’ve shopped in the Chatuchak Weekend market, ate some wonderful Thai food and rested in preparation for the next part of our journey . We will come back to Bangkok a couple times during this trip so we are able to leave things in the hotel to bring back to Wuhan at the end of our trip.
It is around midnight and we just arrived at the lovely Chatrium Hotel in Yangon, Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma. We tried to change some Chinese money at the airport but they said they would only change American, Thai and a couple other countries. Luckily we had some American dollars and some Thai left over from Bangkok, so we were able to change that into kyat (Myanmar money) to get a taxi to the hotel. Normally, John books the hotels we stay in, on Agoda (a hotel website) and we arrive with the hotel already paid, but this time he wasn’t able to pay it online.
The desk clerk asks for a credit card to pay our week in advance, he hands over the card he usually uses but it’s declined. He presents another card and the same thing happens. John makes a Skype call to his bank to see why this is happening. They check to see if there is a block and see that it isn’t his card that’s blocked. It’s the credit card company that have blocked their cards in 5 countries they consider to be dangerous. Myanmar is one of them.
I offer to pay with my Chinese money but they said I will have to wait to change it at the bank in the morning. They tell us not to worry about it tonight and we go to our room, a little embarrassed, to discuss our options. This is a problem. I have loads of Chinese money with me, as long as they will change it but who knew there were places you can’t actually use your credit card!
We look out the window at the colonial style wooden arches that frame the view of a lush green landscape, filled with palm trees. We can see the golden Shwedagon Pagoda lit up and shining like the beacon of the city in the distance. We hope we don’t have to find cheaper accommodation tomorrow!
I present my wad of Chinese cash to the cashier at the small bank inside the hotel. She shakes her head and says she cannot change Chinese money. John is beginning to get irritated. He tries to change an American 100 dollar bill and she won’t change that either as it has a microscopic tear on it. He leaves the small window in a huff and I ask them where I can change the money. They say I can change a small amount in the gift kiosk down the hallway. I’m thinking they won’t be able to change enough to pay for the entire week here so we go back to the front desk and I try to pay with my Union pay card (Chinese debit card). They say they can’t take it because it doesn’t have a chip.
We ask to see the manager and explain the situation. He repeats what the others have already said and I say, “We have no other money so what do you suggest we do?”. He thinks for a moment and agrees to take the Chinese money. We hand over the cash and then make a plan on how we will spend our week here without the luxury of a credit card. Luckily the 2nd leg of our trip to Bagan is already paid for so we only need to worry about day to day expenses, tours, etc. It is an odd feeling. One I have had many times when I was younger, but not for a while.
Fruit sellers get on and off every time the train stops. They carry laundry baskets on their hips or large flat trays on their heads, full of different kinds of fruit; grapes, oranges, apples and some fruits I’ve never seen before. They walk the lengths of the carriage, yelling out the names of their wares, single bills folded like a fan in-between their fingers.
The train is pretty basic and in a sad state, the seats are like benches against the wall facing each other. The ones with padding have stuffing and wires hanging out of them, or in some cars just plastic and not very comfortable. There is no air conditioning and it’s pretty hot but the windows are open and when the train is moving, it’s bearable. I drink the bottled water we bought at the station, sparingly as there are no washrooms.
There are no other foreigners that we can see here. The locals check us out with suspicion but return our smiles in a friendly but shy manner. Some people try to strike up conversations but most leave us to ourselves. The train is packed with people going somewhere-most are dressed in longyi’s which is the long cotton saraong-like material covering their legs. Women have their shoulders covered, like most other Asian countries. Many of the women, children and some men have what looks like a beige or yellow paint on their cheeks. I make a mental note to find out what this is and what it is made of.
I take a couple sneaky pictures but feel uncomfortable taking anything obvious as it feels like we are intruding into people’s lives. I notice a sign above the window with pictures of what is not allowed on the train; Throwing trash, smoking and 2 people kissing.
Looking out of the window, it reminds us of the train in India as we pass by some poor areas-many shanty towns with corrugated iron rooftops, held down by a single rock. There is laundry hanging and garbage scattered beside the tracks. The green lush vegetation; palm trees and brightly painted concrete buildings. At the stations, street venders have set up small cafes and tea shops under umbrellas to protect them from the hot sun.
At the hotel they told us this train, built by the British in the 1950’s is a good thing to do, to see the ‘Real Yangon’, that it is not expensive (about 20 cents) and it is a circular route going around the city to the outskirts and back.
We found our way to the train station and at the ticket counter there was nothing written in English, so we asked the guy collecting tickets at a gate where the train was leaving from and he directed us to the platform. We tried to pay him but he said something like pay later. The train was about to leave and we didn’t see anywhere to buy a ticket so we jumped on it, lucky to get a seat. We assumed he meant we could pay on the train. The conductors come through the car and I offer money to one. He says something that sounds like “I’ll come back”. Everyone seems to be watching us and I feel embarrassed.
It’s now been 1 hour and 1/2 since we 1st got on and the conductors have not returned. We don’t feel like we are seeing much more than what we saw in the 1st 1/2 hour so we decide that we should get off and go back the way we came.
There is a woman across from us that I overheard speaking English who gets up to get off the train. We get off too and I ask her where to go to get a ticket back to the centre of the city. She points to a small building on the other side of the tracks and begins to take us there. She says “You should have bought a ticket before getting on the train. It’s not good to ride the train without paying.” I try to explain that we thought we could buy one on the train but she seems determined to believe we did it on purpose. She keeps repeating that we need to buy a ticket so I give up and thank her for telling us this.
We are standing in front of the gleaming gold, bell-shaped Shwedagon Pagoda. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Yangon and one of most beautiful and impressive Buddhist sites I think I have ever seen. Our guide says it is one of the most sacred places because there is a strand of Buddha’s hair inside. We are told it was built in 600 BC and the complex looks like a small city of stupas (the spirals that rise above the centre of the buildings). There are 4000 images of Buddha in various forms, sizes and colours around the main pagoda making it an impossible place to photograph, as everywhere you look, it’s stunningly beautiful and impossible to get into one photo.
The main stupa (the pointy, tall bit that rises elegantly up from the middle of the bell, is covered in gold and right up at the top (which we only get to see in close up photographs taken by the only guy lucky enough to go to the top), there are thousands of diamonds and rubies, etc.
Yangon ( formally known as Rangoon) was a British colony until WW2 and was the capital of Myanmar until about 10 years ago. Our guide says the people of Myanmar do not like to be called Burma because it was the British name for the country and according to our guide it was because they didn’t know how to pronounce Myanmar or Yangon).
Our guide is informative, talkative and very proud of his city and country. We go to the market and he helps us negotiate the aisles filled with gorgeous wooden carvings, the elegant lacquer work that Myanmar is famous for and the colourful embroidered longyis.
There are women trying to sell us the beige coloured paint/cream that we saw on the people on the train (and most of the women and children we have seen since) so we ask about it. It is called Thankaka, it’s made from a tree bark and usually sold in a paste or powder. This cream has been used for over 2000 years as a sunscreen but it is also meant to remove acne and be good for your skin. People usually wear it as a round or square patch on the cheeks but sometimes they make designs, like stripes or leaves on their cheeks or the bridge of their noses.
There is a bookstall where they are selling the most popular books to read while in Myanmar so I buy the one written by George Orwell called ‘Burma Days’. It is meant to be an accurate portrayal of what it was like when the British were here. Orwell was in Burma as a policeman and he became disillusioned with the way things were run and he wrote a book about it.
The people of Myanmar respect him for telling the truth so they want people to read it and understand what it was like at that time. I have already downloaded a book on to my IPad, called ‘The Glass House’ which also takes place here in Myanmar. It also takes place in Malaysia , where we are going soon, so I will have plenty of extra reading to help me understand the country.
Our guide is helpful, informative and friendly but he says the stories of the ethnic cleansing that is taking place with the Rohingya people in the north of the country, are not true. He denies it is happening . He says they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who do not try and fit in with Myanmar way of life. Myanmar is close to 90% Buddhist and the Rohingya people are Muslim.
We can see that he believes what he is saying and decide not to go any further with this conversation as we are guests of his country. Our driver is also very proud and tells us he was in the army before becoming a driver. His English isn’t great but that doesn’t stop him from prattling on (John reckons all the drivers in Tourist destinations are wannabe guides). It is difficult to understand him and I start feeling ill from the strain of listening to him. Every time I go into a washroom, he slides up to John and starts telling him stuff, repeating what the ‘real’ guide has already told us.
He is wearing a T-shirt with Aung San (known as the father of Myanmar)’s face on it. Aung San was responsible for Myanmar’s independence from the British but was assassinated 6 months before they actually became independent.
Aung San is also Aung San Suu Kyi’s father. Aung San Suu Kyi is now something similar to a Prime Minister. She is famous for getting the Nobel Peace Prize and for being a political prisoner with 15 years of house arrest (in the 21 years between 1989 and 2010).
In the times when she was not under house arrest, she was told she could leave Myanmar but would not be allowed back in. I remember seeing a Luc Besson movie about her a few years ago, called ‘The Lady’. She is loved and seen as a sign of hope for people of Myanmar.
We are told we can go see her house (where she was incarcerated), so we go to a road where there is concrete fence and barbed wire and a picture of Aung San (her father) above the gate and a sign with some Burmese writing that we cannot read, outside the gate. We can’t see the actual house so we don’t stay long.
We go for lunch in a traditional Myanmar cafe and even though my tummy isn’t great today, I am determined to try the local food. It is like a cafeteria and we point at the various dishes we think we want up at the counter, our guide translates and adds a few of his own dishes. We have a good mixture of lamb and chicken curries, loads of vegetable dishes with delicious dips and tart salads made from a fermented tea leaves on the table. Everything comes in small dishes so I take only small amounts to try everything as we are sharing with our guide. Every time a dish is finished it is replaced with more of the same. Our guide says they will keep doing this until we say stop and it is at no extra cost.
We visit the giant reclining Chaukhtatgyi Buddha. He is beautifully painted with white skin, gold and silver robes. His face is quite pretty with red lips, blue eyeshadow and black eyeliner. His eyes look quite real and are made from a special Japanese glass. There is a monk lighting incense and praying in front of the Buddha and he is tiny in comparison to this impressive 65 metre Buddha. The monk is the size of one of his eyes. The soles of the Buddha’s feet are painted red and gold, with 108 sacred Buddhist symbols carved into them.
We are driving through the centre now, going back to our hotel, where we will relax by the gorgeous L shaped swimming pool because we are tired now. John pays the guide with our American money and tries to give him a tip (the total price is $50 for the guide and 70 for the driver and car). The guide refuses the 100 dollar bill that has the small rip in it.
I see a lovely scarf in the small kiosk beside the elevator. This is the place the hotel bank told us we could change Chinese money. I ask her if she will take Chinese money for the scarf and she says “no problem”. I buy the scarf and as an after thought, ask if she will change some Chinese money into kyat for the trip tomorrow. She says no problem. So a little kiosk in the hallway of the hotel will take Chinese money but the bank won’t and the hotel won’t (without some arm twisting). Mingla ba! (Thank you in Myanmar)
The heat from the blast of fire above us is keeping us warm. The early morning air is crisp and clean and we can see the red sun through the low fog on the horizon. There are hundreds, if not thousands of temples, stupas and monasteries scattered like odd shaped pebbles on the red earth below us and we can see for miles in every direction as we are about 6,000 feet above the ground. The Fifth Dimension’s (a fav 60’s group of mine) song comes to mind and I sing into the wind “Up, up and away, in my beautiful, my beautiful balloon".
Our pilot (or balloon operator) is German, and has taken thousands of balloons up so we are feeling quite safe and exhilarated at the same time. We are standing inside a sturdy square basket along with 6 other passengers (4 on each side of a partition). The basket arrives slightly above the waist and we have been instructed on a ‘landing position (kind of crouching down low, hanging on to the side) as the basket will surely tip on landing and we do not want to be deposited onto a field while it is still moving.
We hear intermittent crackling from the walkie talkies the pilot is using to communicate with the ground crew who are following our trajectory. They will meet us when he decides where to land and grab the ropes that anchor us when we land. In-between the loud blasts of the fire and heat that keep the balloon inflated, there is a beautiful silence. This is my birthday present from John and it will be hard to top this one.
We are in Bagan. We got up this morning at about 4:30 so the balloon people could pick us, and a few other people, up from our hotels to take us to the field where the lift-off happens. We were fed a continental breakfast and put in our groups, mostly 8 in each basket. It is possible to go up alone or in a couple but much more expensive. The people with us are mostly German and all couples. We get to know them a little during breakfast and they are all interesting young people.
Our pilot takes us down a little lower and we see a couple cows looking up at us. I wonder what goes through a cows mind when he or she sees a huge balloon with people in it, drifting towards them. We have been up in the air for about an hour, so it’s time to land soon. The pilot says we will try and land in the field below but if he changes his mind, we will go back up. We assume the landing position and when we touch the ground, he says nope and we go back up. We just miss a couple trees and move on to the next field. We see a small group of maybe 5 or 6 kids running towards us, like a greeting party. They wave and smile and touch their heads.
The ground crew come running through the bushes from the other field, completely out of breath but are soon grabbing the ropes. We continue to hang on and the basket rocks in both direction as if it will spill us forth from the basket. The kids are still yelling and smiling at us and I realize they want our hats (the ones we were given this morning that say Golden Eagle on them). We are given another breakfast and for those who want it, Champagne to celebrate our flight. John and I have a Sprite. The kids sit quietly on the ground watching us talk while the ground crew flatten and roll out the balloon and carry it across the field. We wonder if the kids will end up working for a company like this later on.
We get driven back to the hotel and spend the rest of the day by the pool. We really love this hotel. It is very quiet and the lobby is gorgeous. It is filled with colonial looking furniture, large pillars, carved trunks and lots of red wood. It is completely open/no walls. There are puppets dressed in traditional costumes hanging from the trees and statues of water nymphs holding the shower head by the pool. Ornate, detailed wooden sculptures with intricate scenes from the stories of Buddha’s life are scattered around the walkways of the hotel. Beautiful.
We are in the back of a tuktuk driving through a red cloud of dust, past red temples of every size. The lovely young man that is our driver and guide has recommended a few choice places to visit as it will be impossible to see them all in the time we have. It really feels like we are in the countryside. Gift and souvenir sellers erect their stalls under the lacy branches of the acacia trees outside some of the busier temples but otherwise, there is a kind of green and red desert of land and trees and temples as far as the eye can see. It is a peaceful contrast to the bright whites and gold temples in the busy city of Yangon.
Our driver takes us to a village where we are shown around by a delightful, tiny middle aged woman (who looks like she is in her 20’s). We learn how to chop corn feed for the animals with a machine that she operates with bare feet. I find it painful through my sandals and I only do it for 1 minute. We see huge straw vats of peanuts in the sheds which explains why the peanuts everyone is offering us here are so delicious. They are fresh and crunchy in a way that can’t be resisted (we are grateful we don’t have a peanut allergy). We go to a hut where the women are sitting on the ground, each doing a different task. One is rolling the traditional cigars we see many women smoking here. They are made from corn leaves and don’t appear to have anything else in them. She wants us to try them so John lights one up and I have a puff to taste it. It is quite smooth but luckily, I have no cravings or need to continue.
We watch the sun slide down behind the horizon. We pass the silhouettes of temples and horses pulling buggies of tourists through the dusty twilight to the ‘centre’ (a small cluster of wooden structures with large clay pots outside).
We feast at a wonderful Vegetarian restaurant on a kind of avocado dip with home made papadums, vegetable curries and spicy papaya salads, finishing with homemade coconut ice cream. It is the most delicious meal we’ve had in Myanmar and the flavours of it and this beautiful country will stay with us for a long time.