Conclusion – To Myanmar (Burma) via China and Thailand

I’m back home in Newport, Rhode Island, now.

As I reflect on my recent winter sojourn through parts of China, Thailand and Myanmar, I recall some of the special people I encountered along the way. Following are photos of a few of them.

Faces of China

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Faces of Thailand

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Faces of  Myanmar (Burma)

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Travelogue by Merrilee Zellner

 

Categories: Asia 2014 | 3 Comments

Adventures in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar

IMG_4884In Pyin Oo Lwin, the summer capital of the former British colonial administration of Burma, the air is fresher and much cooler here than in nearby Mandalay. This is no surprise considering the British chose it as their “hill station” to get out of the heat of Mandalay. It was founded in 1896 and is situated on a plain at the highest point in the area (3445 ft).IMG_4731

I arrived by train with two travelers I had met earlier in my journey, Anja from Germany and Rita from Hong Kong. We hopped on an antique horse drawn carriage and headed for a lovely, inexpensive hotel in the town’s garden district. IMG_4943

The garden district is where many colonial mansions were built during British colonial times. Some of these century-old homes have been turned into unique hotels; some are still used as fine homes by Mandalay’s new rich. One huge colonial building is now a high schoo. (see photo)IMG_4839

We frequently ate surrounded by locals at one of the many traditional tea shops around town. Most tea shops in Pyin Oo Lyin appeared to be owned or managed by Indians and had delicious Indian snacks. The presence of Indians in town made it easy to communicate due to their English speaking skills.IMG_4734IMG_5000

I often visited Pyin Oo Lwin’s large, colorful public market. One afternoon I asked a tailor to iron one of my US$50 bills in hopes of eliminating enough wrinkles to make it acceptable to a bank in exchange for local currency. (see photo) Several banks had rejected this bill numerous times because it was wrinkled, a problem many foreigners face in Myanmar when trying to change money. ATM machines were not accepting my cards, so cash was my only source of money. Success! A bank finally took it.IMG_4855

We hired a bike one day and cruised around a small lake to the beautifully manicured National Kandawgyi Gardens. These botanical gardens which are said to be among Southeast Asia’s best, were founded in 1915. Ladies, dressed in their finest with large hats framing their faces, were strolling and looking for the best backdrop for a self portrait. In the garden parking lot we met a friendly group of young nuns (female monks) from a monastery located in another part of the country who were currently on a week-long excursion. We exchanged smiles and took photos. Anja and I watched as they all squeezed into the back of a small truck with their belongings piled on top. IMG_4807

My last adventure before leaving Pyin Oo Lyin (and Myanmar) was a trek to a nearby deep ravine where sparkling waterfalls plunge. Rita and I hiked several hours that day in the blistering heat. We were rewarded with a dip in the splash pool in the icy waters on the valley floor next to a small picturesque pagoda.

Categories: Myanmar (Burma) | 1 Comment

Train Ride over the Gokteik Viaduct, Myanmar

IMG_4583A highlight of the slow, day-long train ride between Mandalay and Lashio is the dramatic Gokteik Viaduct which spans a deep gorge in an otherwise mildly rolling landscape. I caught this train in Hsipaw two hours outside of Lashio as it was heading south for Mandalay. IMG_4680

As the train lumbered along we passed fields of green and quaint villages, many with traditional houses made of adobe brick. At one point several adobe factories came into full view with smoke pouring out of them as bricks were being fired. (see photo)IMG_4512

At many remote stops along the way, local villagers carrying baskets laden with food for sale rushed up to the train’s open windows where people were peering out. Money flowed. At the stations where we stopped for a few minutes, several vendors were usually seated with their foodstuffs attractively displayed in front of them. IMG_4540

One traveler I met on the train who was from Switzerland had a tatoo emblazoned on one of his upper arms. It was of Aung San Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner under house arrest for 15 years and a recent Nobel Peace Prize winner. He displayed it proudly to anyone who asked about it and announced his support for her for president. IMG_4464

Inside the train food was abundant. Many people brought food. In the early afternoon, vendors walked up and down the isles of the 2nd class cars selling delicious traditional hot noodles from a tray balanced on their heads. I bought one serving which was promptly placed in a plastic bag and handed to me with chopsticks. IMG_4572 IMG_4575

As we approached the Gokteik Viaduct, the train slowed down to a crawl and some passengers leaned gingerly out of the windows, camera in hand. The deep Gokteik Gorge which was straight below us was breathtaking as the train lumbered over the bridge which was 318 ft. high and 2257 ft. across. It was constructed in 1901 by the Pennsylvania Steel Company and was the highest bridge in the world at this time.IMG_4587

Two hours later the train made a quick stop at Pyin Oo Lwin, a mountain town outside of Mandalay. I jumped off, my backpack slung over my shoulder, ready for my next adventure.

Categories: Myanmar (Burma) | 2 Comments

The Full Moon Festival of Hsipaw, Myanmar

IMG_4267Hispaw’s Full Moon Festival is a multi-day festive event, especially each year in April. It takes place in and around a Buddhist temple a few miles outside of town. A German traveler from my hotel, Anje, and I went to it together late one afternoon.

The dirt fairgrounds which surrounded the temple were packed with people of all ages. Men and women from various hill tribes were dressed in their colorful traditional dress.IMG_4258 IMG_4264

The friendliness of everyone towards us was heartwarming. Rows of vendors were selling such things as traditional clothing, some of which was hand-made, and thanaka, a yellow paste worn by many Myanmar women on their faces as a combination of skin conditioner and sun block. IMG_4372

Beautiful flower arrangements, available for purchase by worshipers, lined both sides of each temple entrance. Prepared food stalls, many serving traditional local foods, were scattered throughout the fairgrounds.

Amongst all these stalls was a large area set aside with a Buddhist person of authority who was receiving written prayers from worshippers and reciting blessings. (see photo) IMG_4246

Anja and I stumbled onto an area which was set up for villagers from a particular hill tribe to gather and socialize. Many were seated in traditional dress on the woven mats which were spread over the dirt ground. Free food and drink were available for them.

As the sun set, the gold stupa of the temple which loomed over everything, was soon ablaze with lights; bare bulbs lit up vendor stations; and the full moon which was now high in the sky cast its beautiful white light over the fairgrounds. The transformation in light was magical.

IMG_4376Piles of thongs and sandals were scattered about at the temple entrances, a common practice for people visiting Burmese places of worship in Myanmar. In the interior open space general chaos prevailed. In one corner young people were playing chinlon, a popular Myanmar sport in which a circle of players attempt to keep a rattan ball in the air with any part of the body except the arms and hands. Children romped. Families and friends were seated on tile floor in small groups socializing. Deep inside the temple people were gathered to pray in front of various Buddhas.

Soon after dark Anja and I headed back to Hsipaw in the back of a tuktuk, a truck configured to transport people with two rows of seats in the rear compartment. The locals seated next to us were charming. It was a fitting way to end a delightful day experiencing our first Myanmar Full Moon Festival. IMG_4366

Categories: Myanmar (Burma) | 1 Comment

Trekking in Hsipaw, Myanmar

A bus dropped me off early one morning at the lovely historic town of Hsipaw after a night ride from Inle Lake. Hsipaw, a plateau town on a meandering river, was once home to Shan princes. The Shan are the second largest ethnic group in Myanmar after the Burmese. The town is a favorite destination for independent travelers to go on hill-tribe treks.IMG_4351

After exploring Hsipaw’s large central market, I headed out on an afternoon trek through some nearby villages with a local tour guide and several international guests from my hotel. IMG_3958

On the way out of town we passed a few large, walled Chinese residences. They acquired their wealth mainly from the gem trade, we were told. The oldest part of town had a charming “Little Bagan” of historic brick stupas and two old teak monasteries (see photos). Buddhist monks in their flowing robes moved around the courtyards. IMG_3964

Between villages we trekked on dirt paths through sprawling green fields of well-tended crops. Along village paths some tall, slender trees were dripping with ripe papayas. Friendly people of all ages waived at us from glassless windows and over the top of rustic fences. We were served some delicious traditional Shan noodle soup for lunch at a villager‘s home. IMG_4184

We were introduced to some local cottage industries taking place in wood frame houses with woven bamboo walls. One young lady perched on a dirt floor was making traditional sweets using a wok over a wood fire (see photo). She came to this village from central Myanmar to live and work because she is able to make double the money here. We passed women sitting outside in the shadow of their homes rolling cheroots, mild Myanmar cigars. Our guide told us that workers of these cottage industries typically are paid 2000Bhat (US$2) per day. IMG_4080

We stopped at a colorful nat (spirit) shrine under a clump of trees. An elderly lady approached it, lit some incense, and then bent over in front of the shrine with hands clasped together in prayer. (see photo) IMG_3947

A nearby female monastery of young nuns (female monks) was a beehive of activity. Many were departing from the monastery forever, having spent up to a month there. A heavy sadness was in the faces of the young ladies who were staying behind, some of whom were Shan orphans from the separatist skirmishes in the eastern border areas of Myanmar. Inside a few of the youngest nuns were focused on their studies at long wooden tables. They giggled as I looked through some of their books with them. IMG_4098 IMG_4106IMG_4123

This trek in the Shan countryside was one of the highlights of my month-long travels in Myanmar.

Categories: Myanmar (Burma) | 2 Comments

The Jade Market of Mandalay

IMG_5275Mandalay is Myanmar’s second largest city and is the commercial and transportation hub of the northern part of the country. Much of the city’s wealth is based on the jade trade and most of the world’s supply comes from Myanmar. Domestic trade of jade is booming at the Mandalay Jade Market where thousands of people gather everyday to cut, shape, polish and deal in the precious stone. IMG_5370

Passing through a sea of motorbikes I came to an unsecured gate at the entrance of the Mandalay Jade Market with a sign requesting foreigners to pay 1000baht (US$1). At the entrance cut-up boulders were spread out on a mat. Potential buyers were examining them carefully.

Large quantities of jade were in site at every turn in the labyrinth of narrow lanes and walkways in the market.

IMG_5278Most deals are made in the morning with Chinese vendors, I was told. It was early afternoon and plenty of activity was still taking place. Independent buyers sat at tables as sellers moved around carrying sacks of presumably, the semi-precious stone. I followed the sounds of humming machines and found skillful stone-cutters and polishers at work. One English-speaking trader explained to me about the various colors and shades of jade and the affect of this on the price.IMG_5358

The smell of spicy cooking filled the air. A beetle nut vendor was busy with male customers. A mild stimulant, beetle nut chewing is a popular Burmese habit.

IMG_5331People were gathered at various traditional tea shops nestled among the other stalls. Occasionally I noticed piles of money neatly stacked on a table surrounded by a few men. By the time I took a second glance, it had always disappeared. IMG_5261

I tried to take photographs inconspicuously, especially when a line of chanting Buddhist nuns (female monks) glided gracefully by me in their flowing pink robes. Each was balancing a large wicker tray on her shaved head with an empty alms bowl in the middle. IMG_5288

A few shops presented the finished product in the form of stones and finely crafted jewelry. Prices ranged from a few dollars to thousands. I bought a few bangles, trusting they were made of jade. Because this is not a government-sanctioned market, there were no guarantees that my purchase was the real thing.

Once outside the market I flagged down a trishaw (three-wheeled rickshaw) driver to take me back to my hotel.

Experiencing this jade market helped bring the history and culture of modern Myanmar to life for me.IMG_5254

Categories: Myanmar (Burma) | 1 Comment

Bagan, The First Burmese Kingdom

Ancient temples of Bagan on the horizon with horse drawn carts in the foregroundThe remains of more than 3000 Buddhist monuments, including temples, stupas and monasteries, are scattered across the plains of Bagan, the first Burmese Kingdom.  Between the 11th and 13th centuries the Burmese established their greatest capital on the banks of the Irrawaddy River in present-day Central Myanmar.  Burmese are Tibeto-Burma people who migrated from the north and China-India borderlands up to the 11th century AD.

A rather bumpy north-bound overnight bus ride from Yangon brought me to the bustling river town of Nyang U.  This small, dusty town was recommended as the best place for independent travelers to stay who were visiting the nearby ruins of Bagan.     The makings of thanakha paste in the market

Down the street from my guesthouse was a busy marketplace.  Street vendors along the way offered a colorful array of traditional prepared food.

Specialty street food of Bagan
The selling of thanakha paste (see photo on right) was a mission of many young ladies at the market. This natural, yellow substance, which is traditionally worn by many Myanmar women and children on their faces, is a combination of skin conditioner and sun block. I couldn’t resist letting them apply it to my skin. It felt refreshing.Vendor in market with thanakha paste on her face

One morning I ambled down a dirt road to the waterfront to watch the river trade activity. I passed friendly people in front of their lovely teak-framed homes with woven bamboo walls.

Lady in front of her teak and bamboo houseSome children who were playing around an old wooden boat seemed as intrigued with me as I was with them. In my case it was especially because of the comfort they expressed with their thanakha-painted faces. They squealed with delight when I showed them the photos I took of them.Children playing on an old wooden boat

The river activity I observed harkened of a by-gone era. Men and women wearing “longyi”, traditional sarong-style lower garments, were hauling heavy cargo from wooden boats on their shoulders and heads. No machines were present to help them with this heavy labor.

Male and female laborers on the waterfront in Nyang U

The main reason I came to the Bagan area was to catch the highlights of the temple-studded plain of the ancient Burmese kingdom.

I spent a leisurely day’s walk on the meandering road where most Buddhist ruins could be viewed or visited. Tourists on bicycles, “e-bikes” (electric powered bicycles), motorbikes and horse-drawn carts passed by me all day. An occasional café along the way offered some refreshment and shelter from the blistering sun.

One of Bagan’s old temples with souvenir hawkers at the entrance

The temples, stupas and monasteries in various degrees of renovation were fascinating. Some structures stood majestically in groups together. I followed a dirt path through the brush when I saw something on the horizon which inspired me to explore further. I was often rewarded with a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. At sunset I hitched a ride on a horse-drawn cart back to my hotel.

At dawn one morning I left for Mandalay on an all-day riverboat ride with several international travelers. As the sun rose over the winding river, Bagan gradually disappeared behind us. It was a fitting way to leave such a special place – slowly – etching intriguing Bagan in my memory forever.View of the banks of the Irrawaddy River from my riverboat

Categories: Myanmar (Burma) | 3 Comments

Inle Lake, Maynmar – Floating Gardens and Villages on Stilts

View of Nyaung-shwe, the village where I stayed on Inle LakeI awoke to a knock on the door of my hotel room early one morning where I had been staying in Nyaung-shwe, a charming village on beautiful Lake Inle in the heart of Myanmar. I was surprised to hear a voice on the other side of the door call out to me, “your boat is ready.”

The hotel manager had just found two guests who were looking for other travelers to join them on a day boat trip exploring the villages around the lake and recalled I had expressed interest the night before.Passing floating gardens on the way to a stilt-house village

Within an hour Nick from France, Barbara from Nevada, and I were in a long motorized canoe with our guide passing houses on stilts and plowing through marsh. Through the morning mist that hovered over the lake we could make out several fishermen standing on the back edge of in their traditional flat-bottom skiffs. Fisherman maneuvering his boat with one legThey maneuvered their boats in the silky- smooth waters by leg rowing with one leg wrapped around a paddle. The grace and balance shown by their movements was mesmerizing.

Inle Lake, which is 13. 5 miles long and 7 miles wide, is nestled in a valley in central Myanmar surrounded by lush green mountains. It is dotted with floating gardens, water-bound temples, monasteries and villages with wooden houses on stilts. Shore-bound markets attract people from various ethnic groups who come down from the surrounding hills on market days. Travelers explore the lake mostly in motorized canoes. Cottage industries found in some of the villages, such as lotus plant weaving and silver design, appear to thrive on this tourism.

Boat full of tourists gliding through a village on stiltsA highlight of my day was a visit to the picturesque village of Intheim. We glided through an narrow canal, disembarked from our boat and followed a narrow dirt path to a dusty clearing. A bustling market greeted us on the edge of this field. Tribal women dressed in traditional dress at the Inthein marketMaking our way past local foods and tribal women in traditional dress, we crossed over a wooden bridge where children were frolicking and women were bathing below. We climbed a steep path to reach a fascinating group of crumbling, ancient pagodas, many with carvings of mythical creatures.A weather-beaten, ancient pagoda found in the village of Inthein

Later we stopped for lunch at a restaurant on stilts that felt like it was hovering over the lake. I ate a delicious broiled lake fish prepared in a local traditional style smothered with fresh vegetables.Enjoying lunch with my boat-mates at a lakefront restaurant

In the afternoon we visited Nga Hope Kyaung, a picturesque monastery on the eastern side of the lake with an expansive wooden meditation hall and collection of ancient Buddha images. Just outside local students and monks were fascinated with the height of several Western tourists. Excitement ensued as cameras clicked as everyone jockeyed for position next to the Westerners.Hand-weaving fabric made of fibers from lotus plants

Upon alighting from my boat at the end of the day, I followed signs to a rooftop café for dynamic views of the surrounding area. Meandering canals below opened to the placid lake where I had just spent a marvelous day.Water-bound temple

Categories: Myanmar (Burma) | 5 Comments

Introducing Myanmar, The Road Less Traveled – Part 2

Introducing Myanmar (Burma) through its two major cities, Yangon (formally Rangoon) and Mandalay.

(Move your cursor over each photo for caption/description, double click open to view larger image. Then use “back” button to return to this page)

Transportation, Myanmar style     A head shave in preparation to becoming a monk

Fashionable women of Myanmar     Market selling fabrics and ”longyi”, a traditional sarong-style lower garment worn by women and men of Myanmar

design being applied by hand to fabric used for “longyi”, a traditional sarong-style lower garment worn by women and men of Myanmar     Lacquerware handicrafts for sale at a market

A traditional tea house     Dealing in precious gems at a traditional tea house

A fisherman’s family relaxing in their home     Fields of crops in the outskirts of Yangon

Categories: Myanmar (Burma) | 2 Comments

Introducing Myanmar, The Road Less Traveled – Part 1

Introducing Myanmar (Burma) through its two major cities, Yangon (formally Rangoon) and Mandalay.

(Move your cursor over each photo for caption/description, double click open to view larger image. Then use “back” button to return to this page)

Shweddagon Paya in Yangon, most sacred of all Buddhist sites for the people of Myanmar     Sule Paya, a pagoda in the geographical and commercial heart of Yangon

Praying inside a Buddhist temple     Monks receiving a donation of food from a local merchant

Street market     Street side containers of free drinking water

Transportation on the Yangon River     Fish market along the banks of the Yangon River

Open air restaurant serving traditional Myanmar food     Snacks for sale in front of parked motorcycles

Invitingly displayed coconuts & bananas for sale on a street     Electricity, anyone?

Categories: Myanmar (Burma) | 1 Comment

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