A Travellerspoint blog

Burma 3

Bagan was once a city but is now a hot dusty plain scattered with hundreds of ruined temples, most about a thousand years old. It's sublime. The plaster and gold that covered them have long since disappeared; only the brick structures remain, housing Buddha figures, the remnants of frescos and nesting birds, slowly dissolving back into the red earth of the plain to complete their cycle of existence.

Hmm... have I been around Buddhists for too long?

It's an eerie place, despite the blazing sun. There's no life, apart from lizards and a few goats, and you can go for hours without seeing anyone if you choose. The temples are sometimes mirage-like, a faraway shimmer, appearing and disappearing, size and distance unguessable. The bigger ones were often better viewed from afar, when the distance lent a mystique that evaporated close-up. Actually this is true of Burma in general.








Posted by mountaingoats 02:33 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Burma 2

Mandalay is one of those evocative place names, like Samarkand, Kathmandu or Astrakhan, that epitomises the mystical east, instantly conjuring exotic visions of mysterious faraway places. Getting there involved the worst train journey we've ever experienced; getting away involved the second worst. The city itself is a grimy charmless dump, and most of the unfortunately long time we spent there involved being rather ill and/or very annoyed.

We left from the vast central station in Rangoon, something like a small town in its own right, with a considerable resident population of destitute families, including small thin children in filthy clothes wandering the tracks to beg or sell stolen fruit, and babies crawling around on the platform. In a bizarre small-world moment, our cabin-mate was someone I knew from a previous job, years ago - she was the head of the college where I worked as a lowly library assistant in the mid 90s (ie I remembered her but she didn't know me from a bar of soap). Dorothy, for that was her name, was excellent cheery company - just as well as the journey would have sheer misery otherwise.

The Burmese railway, the only beneficial legacy of British rule, is in a pitiful state of neglect. The ancient trains are decrepid, dirty, noisy and painfully slow, the tracks utterly knackered. While seated you bounce up and down in a comical fashion, food and drink never quite reaching your mouth properly, conversation shouted over the grinding and squealing of the wheels. When lying on the narrow rock-hard bunk hoping to sleep, for it was an overnight train, the bouncy becomes less amusing as you are violently thrown around, your whole body in mid-air, slamming down on the accursed 'bed' or against the wall over and over again. After several hours of what felt like being in a tumble dryer, in the heat and noise and darkness, aching all over, knowing that morning and our destination were many many hours away, I found myself for the first, and so far only time on this trip thinking 'Why on earth are we doing this?' My shoulders, back, hips, knees and head were sore for days after...and this was in the handsomely priced "upper class" carriage.

Ariving in Mandalay should have been a blessed relief. It wasn't. Mandalay station is a worse abyss of misery than Rangoon. The hotel was miles away and there were no taxis, only a drunk and and a babbling idiot offering us lifts. Caroline, who had been feeling distinctly peaky during the journey, promptly threw up. We walked to the hotel through long, hot, dusty, ugly streets. Our tiny grubby room was covered floor to ceiling in hideous bathroom tiles, the bathroom was a thriving mould farm with a large rusting contraption hanging off the wall, supposedly a shower, and generators roared day and night outside the window - odd as there was rarely any electricity to be had. Welcome to Mandalay.

The hotel was located in the market area which along with a thriving open sewer scene also hosted the city's dried fish trade. Actually we were in a fragrance-neutral street of monk equipment suppliers, next to a shop specialising in robes and begging bowls, which provided a little respite from the olfactory assault. But walking to and from the hotel it was impossible to avoid a route we affectionately referred to as Gag-Reflex Boulevard. Open sewers are to Mandalay what canals are to Venice and run along most streets, giving the city its defining ambience. The mingling of eau de sewer with the aroma emitted by sackfuls of dried fish would have been quite enough; the finishing touch was the pervading stench of a snack beloved by market traders of grilled dried squid, the mere recollection of which makes me retch.

Which brings me on to Burmese food. It's absolutely bloody awful. The market in whose midst we were lodged was piled high with all sorts of fresh fruit and vegetables and herbs and spices, none of which actually seem to be used in any kind of culinary activity. The primary ingredient of every meal was oil, usually stale, or a slimy puddle of MSG if we were really lucky, accompanied by a lump of unwarm rice. It was inevitable then that the month we spent in Burma was accompanied from beginning to end and beyond by considerable gastric unpleasantness, of which you will be spared the details, but suffice to say we both felt pretty rubbish much of the time. Not only was the food horrible, there was hardly anywhere to eat, much like the two elderly ladies in a Jewish nursing home (via Woody Allen I think): 'Such awful food here' 'Yes and such tiny portions'. Despite being devout Buddhists vegetarianism is a surprisingly alien concept to the Burmese and finding suitable fare was harder here than anywhere else.

The reason for visiting Mandalay was not to soak up the splendours of the city or its fine dining, as you might have gathered, but as a jumping off point for other destinations in the region - one the plain of ruined temples at Bagan, and two others for family history reasons (these will be the next/last two posts). If Rangoon had the most terrifying bus service I've ever seen, Mandalay's network of pickups also deserves a mention. Pickups are what passes for public transport here, small flatbed pickup trucks (something like a light ute, Australians) driven by psychopaths, with narrow benches along both sides and a canopy, sometimes with storage above, which more usually serves as additional seating. We took one which was piled with crates of beer inside and on top - none of which happened to come loose despite being driven at ridiculous speed down a steep hill around innumerable hairpin bends. About six people can squeeze onto each bench, a few on the floor in the middle, a dozen on the roof, a couple in with the driver and a few daredevils hanging off the back. They are an enjoyable way to get around, if you have accepted your mortality and the transient nature of your existence and don't mind a few bruises. Burmese people, normally quite reserved, would always helpfully make sure we got on and off at the right place, and were quietly amused by the sight of foreigners using the local transport.

We took a pickup to see a big bridge over the Irrawaddy river built by my grandfather, who worked in Burma in the 1930s as a railway engineer and was in charge of that side of things on this project. True story: just before the bridge was due to open, three Buddhist monks came to tell him that the bridge had made the river spirit angry, and advised him to cancel the opening. Not really the sort of man to indulge this sort of nonsense he naturally gave them short shrift and sent them away. The next day there was an earthquake. True story!


And the journey back to Rangoon, the second grimmest in our considerable experience of grim long-distance rail journeys. Twenty hours on a wooden bench, the same bouncing and bruising, this time with a non-stop cacophony of bellowing hawkers trolling up and down the train selling snacks and tat. Caroline's extremely heavy bag fell off the luggage rack onto the heads of an elderly couple. Two hawkers had a fight. A bony old man parked his bony old feet in my lap. The official train food menu included fried sparrow. The train was four hours late, arriving at 2am by which time we were locked out of our hostel and had to find somewhere else to spend the night. But at least we weren't in Mandalay anymore.


Some miscellaneous photos making Mandalay look more interesting and attractive than it was:






Posted by mountaingoats 01:35 Archived in Myanmar Comments (1)

Burma 1

View Asia 2012 on mountaingoats's travel map.

Before we set off on this trip, if anyone asked me which country I was most looking forward to visiting, I would answer without hesitation 'Burma'. And now here we were. I was nervous.

The scent of incense wafted into the taxi as we drove from the airport into the centre of Rangoon (a rare moment of olfactory pleasure during our stay here), passing the giant golden meringue of Shwedagon Padoga, Burma's biggest temple, and massive crumbling colonial-era buildings. It all felt pleasingly exotic. Walking round the city streets the next day we were captivated by its visual richness and busy street life.

Rangoon (Yangon if you prefer) was the capital of Burma (Myanmar if you prefer) until very recently, when the government suddenly decided to build an eerie new capital in a dustbowl in the middle of nowhere. It's a sprawling city of about seven million people and still looks and feels like a capital, even if the government has moved its machinery and employees out. If you like crumbling abandoned buildings, and I most certainly do, a pleasing consequence of this exodus is the amount of abandoned government buildings now quietly crumbling in the city, mostly large ornate Victorian specimens.




This type of costly whimsy is typical of the military regime and its mad generals. A highly superstitious bunch, they have also for instance ordered the cancellation of all banknotes with certain serial numbers, on the advice of an astrologer, wiping out many people's savings overnight, and also reconfiguring the currency into unworkable units of nine, on the recommendation of numerologists. Less amusing instances of their delusional caprice include torture and indefinite jail terms for thousands of political prisoners, total censorship, no travel within the country without permission, checkpoints on every street, nightly curfew and police checks of every house, deliberate daily power outages, rejecting election results that didn't go their way and of course putting the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for over twenty years. Much of this has been lifted in the last couple of years, and life in Burma is changing very quickly. I don't know how long it takes to undo decades of repression of thought and expression though.

Most of our time in Rangoon was spent wandering the streets, absorbing the sights - some beautiful, some surreal, some sad. Apart from Shwedagon, there are no particular must-sees, so most visitors leave the city as soon as they land to complete their sightseeing tick-list. We had a week of just walking around, and could have happily carried on longer. Rangoon doesn't look or sound like anywhere else, although it smells just the same as all the southeast Asian cities we've visited, namely a heady blend of drains and rotting garbage with topnotes of dried fish, the prevalence of open sewers here giving added intensity to the general miasma. The architecture in the downtown area is a delightful mishmash of Victorian redbrick and art deco/mid-century modern, dotted with mosques, Buddhist temples, Hindu temples, Chinese temples, synagogues and churches. When you walk around the streets, everything you see is falling apart - buildings, roads, pavements, vehicles. Nothing works properly, everything is old and broken and filthy and in a mess - this applies to Burma in general, but Rangoon in particular. Here's Rangoon's railway ticket office, and a suburban train, for example.



Shwedagon is pretty immense though.



What else? There are bookstalls selling second-hand and hand-produced books and pamphlets everywhere, and people reading everywhere. There are red-robed monks everywhere. There are people crouching on the street selling stuff everywhere: just about anything you can think of, as well as the legions of street snack stands and tea sellers, women equipped with just with a wok and a small charcoal burner or tea urn. (Add a couple of plastic stools and you have a pavement cafe). Shops, workshops and family businesses don't close in the evening, they just revert to being the family home - you walk past a shop selling saucepans by day, and walk past again at night and there are beds and mats out amongst the pots and pans and the family are all sitting eating and watching tv. There's a bit more kindness to animals here than anywhere we've been hitherto - dogs get fed, and there's a nice tradition of hanging little bunches of seeds in trees and on balconies for birds. Western visitors are still a novelty so people are curious but very friendly: children like saying Hello (although Mingalabar! the Burmese greeting is much nicer) and older people in particular stop to talk to us. There are uniquely terrifying buses, rusting rattling hulks driven at ferocious speed, with a conductor hanging out of the door bellowing randomly. When the bus slams to a halt, his job is to haul people on to the bus, usually done with considerable violence such that dislocated arms must be a frequent occurence amongst regular bus users. Hauling is required as the step onto the bus is bizarrely high up, a good couple of feet. He is also responsible for getting alighting passengers off the bus, which when you're sitting on the bus looks just like reluctant parachutists being pushed out of a plane. Our hostel appears to have been designed after Gaudi, M C Escher and Heath-Robinson all did acid together, a bewildering mosaic labyrinth with even more bewildering plumbing.

Despite everything being so shabby and dysfunctional, the city has an appealing faded grandeur and quiet gentility behind all the noise and mess and plastic. A new addition to our list of favourite cities.





A couple of unique experiences made our stay in Rangoon all the more special. The Chinese New Year celebrations reached their finale the day after we arrived, and an old lady in a cafe tipped us off that there would be a big dragon dance display in the street that evening, so we went along - as did hundreds of others people. The acrobatics were breathtaking. Just as exciting was that until last year, public gatherings of any kind were illegal - 2013 was the first year that Burmese people could take to the streets to celebrate the new year, western or Chinese.


The second was an evening spent with a group of young Burmese people, talking about their country and their lives, absolutely a high point of our time in Burma. Much of Burma is closed to foreigners, so that all visitors, including us, all go to the same few places and see much the same things. So this was something completely different and special. The group was six bright, articulate, funny, thoughtful 19-20 year olds who had all been in the same class at college and had recently graduated, and we met them at the home of their English teacher. They cooked an amazing spread of delicious vegetarian dishes, easily the best food we had in Burma, and answered our questions with candour, and with some unexpected responses. Biggest surprise - Aung San Suu Kyi is not universally revered in Burma, as the western media would have us believe. The kids didn't think much of her at all in fact. I won't detail all the reasons here, but leave a comment if you'd like to know more.

Rangoon was a joy, despite the heat, noise, filth and terrible food. The rest of Burma was also hot, noisy and filthy, and the food was even worse. Next: night train to Mandalay - sounds like the romance of exotic travel epitomised, actually the worst train journey we've ever experienced...

Posted by mountaingoats 01:08 Archived in Myanmar Comments (4)

Cambodia 5

View Asia 2012 on mountaingoats's travel map.

The four day funeral of Cambodia's extraordinary demi-god-king Sihanouk took place while we were in Phnom Penh, the capital. Crowds gathered in front of the royal palace to burn incense, lay flowers and say prayers. Everything was closed and roadblocks kept all traffic from the city centre - so we saw teeming, hectic, traffic-choked Phnom Penh blissfully peaceful and silent. The roadblocks unfortunately also made it impossible to watch the funeral procession, a giant golden juggernaut lumbering around the city followed by hundreds of chanting monks and nuns, soldiers and marching bands. Although we were a minute away from the route, we had to content ourselves with watching it on tv as roadblocks penned us in the street where we were staying and the ultra-officious police manning the barriers would permit absolutely no-one to pass. Naturally when we were allowed out, we were not allowed back in again.

King Sihanouk embodied all Cambodia's paradoxical through-the-looking-glass absurdity. He was king twice, abdicated twice, and assumed the role of president, prime minister and head of the army at various other times as the mood took him. His great achievement was gaining independence for Cambodia. A king who gave his support to the ultra-Marxist Khmer Rouge, he disastrously helped Pol Pot take power. Many of his reigning years were spent in exile, mostly self-imposed when things were a bit messy at home, and once for plotting to kill the prime minister. He is revered not only as the father of the nation, but as a deity. Make of all this what you will.


The funeral allowed us to savour the city streets (once our street was un-barricaded), to enjoy the wonderful modernist architecture, to walk at leisure without being accosted by tuktuk drivers every few steps, to have a conversation without shouting to be heard above the traffic, to not risk life and limb crossing the road. The second time we visited Phnom Penh happened to be Chinese new year and also happened to be my birthday. Again the city had closed down (for the former event rather than the latter) so strangely silent streets again, and nothing open again - apart from a very good absinthe bar. Oh well, if we must. There is much else to like about Phnom Penh. The centre was full of life and interest, the armies of NGO staff there mean there's a good range of restaurants and bars, there are bright, busy congenial city people here, and there is a ubiquitous warm yellow colour to the buildings, which looks lovely at dusk.




We also saw the worst sights here. Tiny children, maybe four or five years old, selling trinkets late at night in the tourists bars; even younger children helping their mothers sift through piles of rubbish at night; a white middle-aged man 'befriending' a pretty young teenage boy selling books; endless overweight, badly-dressed white middle-aged men with slender sad-looking young Cambodian women on their arms.

By far the worst of all was the Tuol Sleng museum, also known by its Khmer Rouge codename S-21. A high school in a quiet suburban street, converted to a secret Khmer Rouge interrogation centre, where thousands of people were imprisoned and tortured before their final journey to the mass graves of the killing fields. Three three-storey classroom blocks facing onto a grassed square with a wooden gym frame, shaded by trees. A normal looking school, except the classrooms were prison cells and the gym frame was a gallows. Nothing here is what it seems, yet again.


The absurd Kafka-esque un-logic of the Pol Pot regime was embodied in S-21. If the secret police had ordered someone's arrest, the line went, they must be guilty because the secret police do not make mistakes. Prisoners had no idea what crime they were supposed to have committed and neither did prison officers. The only way to find out what a prisoner was guilty of was through interrogation and torture, so the most horrific methods were applied until a confession was made. The 'confessions' are sheer nonsense: every other prisoner an agent of the CIA, and/or the KGB and all sorts of other impossible activities - anything to make the torture stop, presumably. But they validated the government's paranoid belief in infiltration at all levels by spies and saboteurs, and justified the escalation of massacres and purges - and while the government wanted massacres and purges, S-21 provided the victims. The logic and methods of the medieval witch-hunts reigned.

The cells for the unimportant prisoners were not long enough to lie down in - a classroom partitioned into forty or fifty tiny filthy boxes, leg irons locked to a metal shackle in the floor. The politically significant prisoners had a room with a metal bed, blood spatters still visible on the walls and ceiling, and nameless permanent dark stains on the floor. As in the Nazi concentration camps, each new prisoner was photographed, numbered and documented with meticulous care, bizarre considering they were all about to die. The endless rows of prisoner photographs are exactly although coincidentally the same as those we saw at Auschwitz, everyone numbered and tagged. There are old women, small children, schoolgirls and mothers with babies in their arms - all there as enemies of the revolution. People looking terrified, bewildered, blank, defiant, full of fury. As at Auschwitz there are stockpiles of the victims' clothes and shoes. A terrible deep coldness descends when you enter, and doesn't go when you leave.




I realise it may appear from this blog as though we spent our whole time in Cambodia immersed in horror and misery. As I've tried to highlight, Cambodia is country of extremes, like nowhere else we've experienced. So by way of balance, I should add that we spent our last days here on an idyllic island in a blissful haze. We lazed on the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen, Caroline went snorkelling and saw amazing exotic tropical fish, incredible coral and all sorts of curious sea creatures, and then we celebrated my birthday in a gorgeous hotel in unapologetic luxury. I know I've dwelt on horror and misery more than fun and joy here, but I make no apology. This blog helps me process what I've experienced, and Cambodia was overwhelming. Also I want to tell what we've seen and learned about the desperate suffering and misery this country has endured in recent years and still endures, much of it thanks to the west. And in any case someone else sunbathing and drinking cocktails on a perfect tropical beach just isn't that interesting. You have to be there yourself.



Posted by mountaingoats 18:52 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Cambodia 4

The kaleidoscope of fractured impressions began to take more coherent form thanks to a few days spent in the excellent company of Caroline's old schoolfriend Esther and her friends Janice and Geordie. The time we spent in Battambang (pronounced Battambong for no obvious reason) with people who have lived and worked in Cambodia for a long time were invaluable in helping us begin to get our heads around this baffling place. It also opened our eyes to some of the realities of life under a highly corrupt de facto dictatorship, in a totally dysfunctional country in the grip of profound long-term collective psychological disorders.

Esther is a doctor working in Battambang's hospital in a voluntary capacity. My perception of a deep nihilism at the heart of Cambodia seemed to be borne out, and in fact writ large in her disturbing anecdotes of callousness, apathy and greed within the healthcare system. Cambodians are fond of the saying 'No money, no life' - ie life is nothing without money - which is apparently taken to a whole new level by doctors and nurses whose interpretation is 'If you're too poor to pay us, your life is not worth trying to save'. We also heard of some delightful cultural attitudes towards women amongst western NGO workers and medical advisors. One is left wondering how the country is ever going to develop if development is in the hands of people advocating that Cambodian women should not be encouraged to do anything other than make babies and look after the home, and that their husbands will have to beat them if they start questioning gender roles. For tales of medical horrors arising from wilful negligence, with generous sprinklings of mind-boggling sexism, check out Esther's blog.

The lack of tourists in Battambang was a pleasant relief after the Siem Reap hordes. It's a nicely shabby and very likeable town, with much to see. It has a stunning peace sculpture, a naga (multi-headed serpent-witch) made entirely out gun parts and ammunition; a nineteenth century town centre of elegant Chinese shop-houses; a derelict 1950s Pepsi bottling plant full of dusty old bottles; cool modernist theatres and cinemas closed down by the Khmer Rouge and never reopened, good places to eat and drink, and lush (for Cambodia) surrounding countryside.


But the 'bamboo railway' is main reason most people visit. This is the only working remnant of the country's railways, a small stretch of track running through rural northern Cambodia. There are no trains, the rail network having been dismantled under Pol Pot. But locals came up with a way to continue to use this surviving track by fixing a small petrol engine onto something like a bamboo raft on wheels, which could then be driven up and down the tracks transporting people and goods between towns. Mostly it's now just tourists on the 'train' and it's touted as a big regional attraction.


We gave it a miss. Why? It seems to me to mock the tragic lack of rebuilding that has taken place since Pol Pot plunged the country into medievalism in the 70s. Under the Khmer Rouge no movement was allowed without permission, public transport was abolished, and all private property including cars and bikes were confiscated. Cambodia's entire population of engineers and all other technical experts and professionals were put to death and the consequences of this loss of knowledge are still evident. Battambang's railway station is a shanty town, the derelict buildings sheltering innumerable families, cattle grazing where tracks should be, fires and piles of rubbish everywhere. The bamboo railway was a graphic reminder of the Khmer Rouge abolition of modernity and freedom, and how much had been lost, and how much Cambodia has never recovered. I couldn't see the fun in it.


So that's what we didn't do in Battambang. We did do a lot of quality drinking-and-talking. And we saw the Battambang killing field. It was small, just a little patch of grass by a village. A memorial in the middle commemorated the murder of 10,008 people on that ground, killed in the most primitive and sadistic ways possible, some of their skulls forming the monument. It was a quiet neat littlle village under shady trees, with a pond in the middle, the epitome of rural tranquility. The pond is where the corpses were dumped. Again, nothing here is what it seems.


Posted by mountaingoats 20:17 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

(Entries 6 - 10 of 29) « Page 1 [2] 3 4 5 6 »