I have been home for a little over a week now after an amazing three weeks in Myanmar. My favorite region in the world is Southeast Asia and my trip to Myanmar only strengthened my bias. Tourism is in its fledgling years. The history is rich. The scenery unique. The people were some of the most friendly and trust-worthy in all of Southeast Asia. I could literally do another ten blog posts on the experiences and sights from my trip to Myanmar. But I need to get back to plants at some point. When thinking of a way to wrap up my trip in one more post, I decided to go for the off-the-wall stuff that stood out and was most memorable. You can read about all the more familiar stuff in travel blogs or guide books. So here are some curiosities from the trip.
Thanaka. No trip to Myanmar would be complete without learning about Thanaka. It is certainly a distinctive feature of Myanmar, having been used for over 2,000 years. Practically every women or girl you saw had it applied to their face and sometimes their arms. Even men and boys would wear it occasionally. What is it? Thanaka is a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from the ground bark from a few trees (most commonly Limonia acidissima). When applied to the skin, Thanakha paste acts as a sunscreen, tightens pores, controls oiliness and actually helps prevent wrinkles. Thanaka also has proven antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It is said that it takes a Thanaka Tree 35 years to reach the best age from which to make the paste.
While taking a break from the heat while touring the ancient city of Mingun, this beautiful girl came by to sell some souvenirs. She loved America and reminded us that President Obama was in Myanmar during our trip. Pretty much every Burmese person we told that we were from the United States reminded us of this fact. They sure loved Obama.
Drunken Guide. One of the must-see locations in Myanmar is Inle Lake. And to see the lake, you really need to hire a guide for the day. Walking back to our hotel on the first night at Inle Lake after drinking too many Myanamr Beers, we stumbled upon Moe Thu (pronounced ‘mow two’) and his wife eating dinner at his guide service office. Moe Thu had a charismatic personality and we had some great laughs that night. He was hired to guide us on the lake for the following morning.
The first four hours of the trip were great the next morning. Moe Thu was born and raised at Inle Lake and has seen the beautiful, sleepy retreat turn into the rapidly growing tourist trap it will become. He dressed like a Burmese Elvis and most of the locals on the lake knew him well. Then we stopped for lunch…and this is where our tour quickly turned into a comedy of errors. It seemed our good buddy Moe Thu really enjoyed rice wine, the moonshine of Myanmar. So much so that he decided to enjoy it while we were at lunch. The next four hours were long, yet included many Moe Thu highlights such as: 1) Falling on the floor in convulsions in what we at first thought was a seizure only later to realize were the effects of too much rice wine. 2) An almost fistfight with a monk that instead ended with him punching a trashcan, causing his hand to bleed. 3) Walking around the inside of a temple close to 20 times looking for one painting that ended up having no story behind it once found. 4) Throwing a cat into the air numerous times to try and get it to “jump” at the Jumping Cat Monastery. 5) Climbing onto the bow of the boat to pull off a Titanic pose. 6) Having to wipe my face countless times from betel nut being spit on me while listening to slurred stories. 7) And finally, passing out on the boat 30 minutes before we got back to the dock. We would leave the boat with Moe Thu sleeping like a baby.
The following day I wanted to close out the Moe Thu adventure on a good note because I knew it would really eat at him that he let us down. Later that afternoon my cousin and I walked by his office and saw he and his wife eating lunch. His wife was so upset with him, she made him stay home that day. Moe Thu was embarrassed and overly apologetic. I told him it happens to the best of us. Deep down inside I knew Moe Thu was a great guy and when not drinking rice wine, an exceptional guide that would come highly recommended from me and my cousin. Thanks for the memories, Moe Thu!
Aunty Noung. It isn’t often you can go to a place thousands of tourists have been but be one of the first to experience something. This was the case for us while visiting Inle Lake. Having grown tired of Myanmar food, my cousin and I set out to find something different. Not an easy task in such a small town. As luck would have it, just a few blocks from the hotel and down some no-name side alley we found Aunty Noung and her Real Nyaung Shwe Restaurant and Bakery.
Aunty Noung’s Real Nyaung Shwe Restaurant and Bakery is a family run business. Her husband works the grill and her son does all the baking. The kid is a gifted baker. Everything Aunty Noung has on the menu is made from scratch, whether it is the pizza dough, the hamburger buns or even the ice cream. Craving a hamburger, we each ordered one. As it turned out, we were her first customers to order the hamburger. The next day, the pizza. How did Aunty Noung learn everything to start her restaurant and bakery? She hired a well-known baker to come stay with them for a few weeks to teach them. To find out what westerners like to eat, she watched the Food Network. My cousin Tony is a hobby chef so she picked his brain on a few things as well.
We ended up eating there on three separate occasions. My cousin Tony added her to Trip Advisor and at last check she had seven 5-star reviews already. I love seeing kind, hardworking people succeed. Way to go, Aunty Noung!
The Golden Rock. No trip to Myanmar could be considered complete without a trip to the Golden Rock. This “pilgrimage” comes highly recommended by most who visit. So how could we pass it up? The trip starts out with a 4-hour drive by taxi from Yangon to the foot of Mount Kyaiktiyo, which included stops around Bago. Once there, the real adventure for us began. First off, this Southern California guy is used to the 70s and low humidity. It was 90 degrees with extreme humidity and I was only four days into our trip, so I had yet to acclimate. So there I was, sweating profusely, waiting for a truck to take us up the 45-minute drive to the summit of the hill so we could begin the 20-minute walk to the Golden Rock. This truck had maybe 8 rows of benches, with seating for 6-8 on each row. The loader refuses to give the driver the OK to start the run until it is completely full. So 20 minutes into sitting in my seat waiting for the truck to fill one last occupancy, I had completely soaked my shirt in sweat and my patience was thin. I offered to buy the last seat but the loader pretended to not understand. At 30 minutes I was getting pissed and a bit lightheaded. People kept coming up to the truck, but they were in pairs, so they went to the next available truck while we waited for a single passenger. At the 45 minute mark I was about to kick some Buddhist butt; mainly the young, smug loader who was ignoring me when I was giving him signs to get the truck up the damn hill. Thank goodness a few locals who were tired of the wait and feeding off my frustration began yelling and pointing fingers at the loader. At last, we were off and I avoided Myanmar jail.
Our high-powered, open-air, diesel truck was driven by a Burmese Mario Andretti. As we found out later, it turns out all the trucks were. If you have been on the Star Tours attraction at Disneyland, imagine that live with 50 people jammed on with you. The heat, thick jungle air, smell of betel nut and BO, screaming kids, coupled with a roller coaster ride of high speed twists and turns made certain I would battle vomiting until the ride came to a complete stop. That was the trip up and the trip down. It was quite a surreal experience and one you would never enjoy in a westernized country.
Once we were herded off the truck at the top, it was a 20-minute hike to the Golden Rock with our backpacks. The rock itself is nothing impressive. The fact it is balancing its great weight so perilously on the edge of a cliff is. Legend has it that it is kept in place by a single hair of the Buddha himself. We spent a few hours at the top. The day was foggy and the views and lighting were not ideal. So we decided to not wait for sunset and we headed to our hotel…
OK, you thought the adventure was over. So did we. Turns out the Golden Rock Hotel Kyaikhtiyo has some fine print that the hotel reservation staff forgot to read us. Their hotel is a 45-minute walk down the hill! Imagine asking some local that barely spoke English every 5 minutes, “Mingalaba. Which way to the Golden Rock Hotel,” only to be looked at curiously and answered by each person we asked with a hand motion signaling “down the hill.” At one stage we thought we were part of some elaborate inside joke with the locals, who whenever asked about this hotel would just point downhill until your victim finally reached the base of the hill 6 miles away. But alas! It was only 45 minutes down the hill. A hill with 25% grades. With our backpacks. On a hip less than three months post arthroscopic surgery. I love third-word travel. I really do.
Corona. Mas Fina. Wanting to enjoy a familiar meal one night while in Mandalay, we headed out to a western restaurant. Halfway through our dinner a young local boy and his mother sat at the table next to us. From out of a bag he pulls a Corona like a rabbit from a hat. A disinterested waiter stops by and opens it with a bottle opener. Finding it all a bit odd, I had to investigate. Was this really just a man who’s pubertal hormones failed him or was it just a young boy enjoying a Corona with his mother, as I surmised. “Mingalaba. How old are you, may I ask?” “Twelve,” he replied. I proceeded to commend him on his taste in beer and congratulate him on his ability to even find a Corona in a country in which I would never see one again.
Parenting by electronic device. Just outside Scott’s Market in Yangon we found this cute little guy below. Turns out that even parents in Myanmar find electronic devices make for great babysitters while trying to work. This little boy’s parents were street food venders and trying to handle the lunch rush. While they cooked, he played Angry Birds. He flashed me a peace sign before going back to calculating the best angle to launch his bomb bird.
Sunset crowd. We were warned well in advance that if you wish to see the famous sunset from the Shwesandaw Pagoda while in Bagan, you would need to get there early. So off we roared on our baby blue electric bikes a good hour before sunset. I have since learned that the French might be late to dinner but they are always early to limited seat engagements. Tony and I managed to grab a small sliver of real estate on the top terrace when a young french couple went to get their photo taken together. Upon their return they found two scowling Americans where they stood just seconds before. Sorry, but you snooze you lose, and we certainly did’t hear “seat back” when they left. Plus I have no doubt they would have done the same to us.
No crowds at all. I have traveled all over Southeast Asia. There is one thing that is common throughout. The beaches are popular and almost always crowded. With just a short 1.5-hour flight from Yangon and a 30-minute drive from the airport, you can find a sleepy little area called Ngapali Beach. It is a throwback to what the beaches would have looked like in Thailand or Vietnam 20-30 years ago. We finished off our trip to Myanmar by staying at the Amata Ngapali Beach Resort. After battling crowds much of the adventure, it was a great way to just quietly unwind. We almost passed on coming to Ngapali Beach but in the end I am glad we did not. It would have been a grave mistake to skip the chance to go back in time and experience a Southeast Asian beach before the tourists flock to it and the corporations build their temples that require 30 floors and hundreds of rooms.
So there they are. Just a few off-the-wall highlights and observations from my trip to Myanmar. If you have ever wanted to visit Myanmar, I can not emphasize enough the need to do so sooner rather than later. Myanmar is in a rapid transitional stage and with each passing day it loses a little something; just as Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia before it. The French are already coming in large tour groups. The South Koreans arrive from of one of the many flights each day from Seoul. It won’t be long before the Chinese, the rest of Western Europe, and North Americans arrive in great numbers as well.