Tag Archives: Myanmar travels

Faces from Myanmar

People travel for various reasons – adventure, landscape, food, history, culture. Myanmar offers travelers many of these things, but what stood out the most to us were the people. For a country the geographical size of Texas and with the population the size of Ukraine, Myanmar is remarkably diverse. Myanmar has had various countries stake its claim on its lands. It has also been a significant trading port, and been caught in the middle of wars not its own. This history has brought with it the influence of many cultures. Even within the country, there are over 100 ethnic groups, some of which have been heavily involved in one of the world’s longest civil wars. Outsiders such as us who spend only a few weeks here cannot begin to understand the various subcultures. However, on the surface I was able to get a glimpse of the vibrant faces of Myanmar.

One of the first things we noticed when we landed in Yangon was thanaka, a sunblock paste, on nearly every woman and child. The paste is made by rubbing the bark of the thanaka tree on a stone block in circular motions. Add a little water and out comes sun block.

Burmese mothers seem to take particular artistic liberty in applying clown like thanaka patterns to their children’s faces.

Kayan has not quite mastered the art of photography. When he sees a camera he gets behind the lens to see his picture, not realizing that he first has to stand in front of the lens. His shortcomings aside, it seems universal that kids around the world love getting their pictures taken.

Burmese children, particularly in the villages where digital cameras are not common, get very excited at seeing their pictures. One of our most memorable experiences from Inle Lake was stopping at the local elementary school. The kids greeted us as our boat pulled into the floating playground, each child wearing green pants or skirts and white tops. The uniform is common for every child in a government school in Myanmar.

Myanmar remains a majority Buddhist country. In addition to the fact that one apparently can’t turn anywhere without seeing a pagoda or monastery, the faces of Buddhism can be seen in the monks, nuns and novices that make their daily alms rounds. In Thailand, we had to get up at the crack of dawn to witness monks seeking alms, and we did not see any nuns at all in Chiang Mai. By contrast, Burmese monks, nuns, and novices (monks in training) make alms rounds throughout the morning and, particularly in the north, nuns are a very common sighting. Alms rounds are a way for the monastery or nunnery to receive food as well a for Buddhists to make merit in their donation. Most Buddhist households prepare the morning alms for the monks before preparing the meal for the family. I love the sight of monks in saffron robes, but had never before seen Buddhist nuns dressed in elegant baby pink.

Monasteries and nunneries serve as centers for education and social welfare. Many young novices come from poorer families, some others are orphaned. They are brought to the monestaries and nunneries to be cared for, fed and educated. Once they reach adulthood, they can determine whether or not they want to remain in their orders. Once a week the novice nuns leave the nunnery to collect alms with the older nuns. We saw this little girl running across the street in Yangon after collecting alms from a restaurant.

While trekking between Kalaw and Inle Lake, we spent time in minority villages. We met friendly basket weavers and fieldworkers.

As we saw in elsewhere in Myanmar the women are out doing fieldwork while the men do ‘patient’ work, such as weaving.

By the end of the trip, I was integrated enough into the Burmese way of life that I mastered thanaka application and used it liberally myself.


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Scenes from U Bein Bridge in Myanmar

Despite U.S. and European sanctions against direct importation of Burmese teak, the industry is thriving. Teak, and particularly Burmese teak, is prized for its durability and size. The wood bends, but resists breaking, making it ideal for construction. It resists water and insects, and certain varieties exhibit a glorious a red hue. Teak, along with precious gems, are major sources of revenue for the Myanmar government. One can find teak everywhere in Myanmar, from monasteries to bridges.  We passed teak forests on the way from Yangon to Kyaiktiyo. Along the Irrawaddy River in Mandalay we saw caravans of cargo ships piled with teak logs.

The ancient Kingdom of Ava (yes, a striking coincident to our daughter’s name and even pronounced the same way) built its palace compound out of solid teak. When the capital was moved to Mandalay, unwanted teak made its way to other purposes. One of the resting places became the U Bein bridge, located in Amarapura, about half hour south of Mandalay.

The bridge is 1.2 km and, as one walks from Amarapura to the other side, the scene from the bridge gets increasingly bucolic. Each teak log is magnificent on its own, and taken together the span looks like a page book from a bygone era. Local life seems to resume as it has for decades, with fisherman casting nets in the water and people farming the fields on the banks.

What I found just as fascinating was watching the morning progress beneath the boards. Women worked fields.

While some men took a break near their bullock cart. Incidentally, a trend I have noticed in Southeast Asia is that women work hard and men generally assigned to calmer tasks, such as fishing. This may be a global phenomenon, but it does seem more overt in this part of the world.

If you find yourself in Mandalay, cross the length of U Bein Bridge, then relax (particularly if you are a man) over a cups of tea in one of the tea stalls under the bridge and watch yesteryear yourself.

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Exploring Mandalay on Cycles

Travel websites, visitors to Myanmar, and even our Burmese friends told us that Mandalay was avoidable. The city, after being razed to the ground most recently in World War II is a new metropolis of wide multi-lane roads and buildings. Despite its name conjuring up exotic images, Mandalay is on the surface another city in an emerging country. My parents were keen to see the surrounding areas, so we spent a couple of days in Mandalay. While they went off to the hill station of Pyin Oo Lin we decided to rent bikes and discover the city. One of our first observations when we arrived was that it appeared very bike friendly. To us New Yorkers, who fear for our lives every time we get on bikes, it was an opportunity to hop on cycles.

Before we wheeled in, we spent an hour observing the rush hour crowd, most of them on bicycles. They all appeared to be riding at a leisurely pace and in a very orderly manner. No one wore helmets.

Cycling in Mandalay, more or less without any destination, was easy. The roads are generally smooth. The cycle lane is only shared by motorbikes, who respect cyclists and don’t move too much faster than cycles themselves. It was much less stressful than riding a bike through the streets on New York City, even without a helmet.

Experiencing Mandalay on a cycle rather than a car made a big difference to our appreciation for the city. We were able to wind through little alleyways where locals spin sugar into jaggery, pound metal for pots and carve wooden boats. We even crossed a local teak bridge above an Irrawaddy River tributary.

Since we cycled outside of the city, we were also able to enjoy a quiet lunch perched over the Kandawgyi Lake at Secret Garden Restaurant.

Our post lunch entertainment was being caught in the middle of a Shinbyu, an initiation ceremony of Burmese boys into a monk order. Most Burmese boys spend some time in their youth as novices in a monastery. The occasion is one of joy, and includes a colorful procession of the dressed up boys on horses, several animals, loud music and plenty of dancing. The entourage encouraged us to join, and we briefly did before starting the return trip home.

We wound back through a settlement alongside a canal that ran the length of the lake. Each house had a bridge driveway leading to its door.

Our final stop was at a longyi stall. Longyis are wrap around skirts worn by men and women. I was so intrigued by my fellow cyclists’ ability to ride in them that I had to try it out.

We’re happy to have had our day in Mandalay. Cycling gave us a feel for the city and we can now look back on it as a city with its own soul, rather than just a launching pad to its outskirts. It also allowed us to take our time and speak with the people of Mandalay. Sandeep made a quick friend at the end of our cycling day. This man came up to him and proclaimed, “You’re going to look like me when you get older!”

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