Tag Archives: Myanmar

The Unique World of Burmese Driving

Some of the world’s drivers are used to sitting on the left side of the car and driving on the right side of the road. The UK and most former British colonies are used to sitting on the right side and driving on the left side of the road. Switching from one to the other takes some adjustment but, as Sandeep can attest from his Indian driving experience, it’s not that hard.

But how about having right hand steering and driving on the right hand side of the road? Myanmar has the distinction of having this split personality.

Myanmar was a British colony until 1948. The cars had right hand steering and drove on the left side of the road. In 1970 all traffic was moved to the right. I asked several people for the cause of the change and there are two commonly held theories, both of which point to the eccentricities of General Ne Win. One theory is that Ne Win’s wife’s astrologer said that the country would be better off driving on the right side of the road. The second is that the General had a dream that the country should switch directions. Either way, the General called the shots and traffic was directed to move sides overnight.

Despite the lane shifts, virtually every vehicle in Myanmar has right hand steering. Many vehicles are very old, and those that are considered modern are second hand imports from Japan. It isn’t just the cars that have to catch up. One can still see old traffic signs in downtown Yangon facing the wrong direction.

I would think all of this would increase accident rates and confuse drivers. However, Myanmar drivers appear orderly, within the cities as well as the countryside. Whether they are in two, three, four or eight wheelers, drivers stick to the right side of the road and, despite logistical challenges, take-over without any negative consequences.

There is one anomaly we found to the right hand driving set up. The boats in Inle Lake still stick to the left when they pass each other. Perhaps time has indeed stood still in some parts of Burma.


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Layers of Temples In Bagan Myanmar

For the 230 years leading to 1287, Burmese kings commissioned over 4,000 Buddhist temples in the plains of Bagan. The building fest was triggered by the region’s shift from Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism to Theravada Buddhism. At its height, Bagan was a vibrant religious and cultural center. The exact cause of Bagan’s decline is contested, but a combination of invasions and natural disasters (most recently a 6.5 Richter scale earthquake in 1975) compromised original structures and drastically reduced the population. Many of the temples have now been reconstructed, although historians claim with minimal respect for authenticity. The government relocated all remaining inhabitants of Old Bagan in 1990. Despite these controversies, Bagan remains what Marco Polo described as “one of the finest sights in the world.”

What makes Bagan so breathtaking is that thousands of temples lie in an area of just a couple of square kilometers. While each individual temple is less grand than the striking white and gold pagodas seen elsewhere in Myanmar, taken together the old brick structures for me rivaled sites such as the pyramids of Giza or Angkor Wat. Moreover, since Myanmar is still relatively new to mass tourism, it’s easy to explore the temples at a slow and leisurely pace, generally without the interruption of other tourists.

Bagan isn’t that far from Mandalay, but rather than fly the distance we opted to take the boat down stream on the Irrawaddy. There are local boats and tourists boats that make the journey. Usually we opt for local service, but in this case it meant adding another six hours to the ten hour journey so we went the tourist route. The trip was so comfortable that Sandeep set up is own home office, complete with coffee service, while I oscillated between a lounge chair on the open deck and stuffing myself with fish curry in the dining hall.

The trip down this portion of the Irrawaddy may lead one to believe that there are no people in Myanmar. Once out of the Mandalay area, the riverbank is isolated save for a few shacks and the occasional pagoda. Life on the river itself is pretty quiet, and we passed another boat every 10 minutes or so. Most of them were small row boats, each carrying one or two fishermen.

We approached Bagan at 6 PM, just in time to catch the sun setting over the temple town.

We only had one day in Bagan so got up early (as in 4:30 AM) to catch the sunrise. Cycling is the best way to explore the ruins but cycling in pitch dark back roads was a little more adventure than we planned. Many of Bagan’s quieter temples are either closed or have compromised structures, so it can be a challenge to find one to climb and watch the sun appear. Fortunately, we had a guide who knew of just the right temple, unmentioned in our guidebook, and led the way as we followed in the early morning darkness. The temple was deserted and steep stone internal stairs echoed ominously and smelled of bat droppings. But the view from the top was entirely worth it. As the sun stretched higher into the sky it revealed layers and layers of temples.

We decided to make the most of the early morning cool and cycle to some other temples. Luckily, at our first stop I befriended the ‘watch woman’ who had a daughter Kayan’s age. She also happened to hold keys to the gate of the internal staircase. For 1000 kyats (about $1) she was happy to unlock it. We had the temple to ourselves for an hour and made the most of its various vantage points. This particular temple was completely built from red brick, with the exception of the golden umbrella on its stupa.


Most of Bagan’s temples are quiet ruins. The few that are active temples hold fascinating relics such as dozens of miniature Buddha statues at Ananda temple. Every temple is an exploration sight, particularly for those who can brave the narrow and dark staircases and alleyways.

We continued our journey through side roads, catching glimpses of local life, such as this goat herder.

After cycling around some more the sun set in and we turned back to our hotel, where I treated my legs to a one hour massage for 4000 kyats ($5). Rejuvenated, we hopped on the bikes again to catch the sunset. We had cycled to the turnoff of a pagoda that Sandeep’s brother had recommended. When we got there, we realized the back road was too sandy for our bikes. With the sun threatening to set at any moment, we dropped the bikes and started running to our destination, yelling something about how this felt like a scene from Amazing Race. In the end we had to settle for watching sunset from a field. Not our plan, but breathtaking none the less.

Slightly defeated, we started our slow peddle back home. It quickly became faster as it got darker and we realized this time, without our guide, we didn’t have a flashlight to lead us back. We spent a total of six hours cycling around Bagan in one day. The bike rental from the hotel cost 3000 kyats ($4). Even though our bodies (well, maybe just mine – Sandeep seemed ready to cycling through the night) were signaling shut down, we still think that cycling is the best way to explore the lesser visited pagodas of Bagan. Our flight out of Bagan was at 7:50 the next morning, so we were able to catch one more sunrise before departure.


Filed under Myanmar, Religion

Ava and the Ancient Kingdom

When we were expecting Ava we didn’t know her gender. We were prepared with a boy’s name and the name Ava for a girl. The name selection process was intense. We wanted either Indian or Persian (my mother’s heritage) roots, yet something that would be easily consumed in America. We scoured online name dictionaries and settled on Ava, which in Farsi means angel of water. What we didn’t realize what that the year our Ava (pronounced like lava) was born, Ava (with the a pronounced as in able) was one of the top five most popular girl names in the U.S. So despite our best efforts to pick a name that is easily understood, Ava will spend her life correcting the way people say her name.

Regardless, we still love the name and love it all the more after visiting the ancient upper Burmese capital of Ava. Legend is that the British, who couldn’t pronounce the Burmese name Inwa, renamed the capital Ava. Inwa meant city of gems, fitting for our jewelry obsessed Ava.

Ava is an island about an hour south of Mandalay and is only accessible by boat. Once on the island, one can walk or take a horse cart. Since the route is long and dusty, we opted for the latter. After years of war and a severe earthquake, what is left of ancient Ava are ruins of original pagodas, remnants of palace structures and a reconstructed watch tower. Most of the remaining palace was shipped to Mandalay when the capital moved, and even unwanted teak was taken off the island and used elsewhere in the country, such as on U Bein Bridge.. What has since grown are some small farming villages and new pagodas. I’m convinced that there is one pagoda per capita in Myanmar. We were warned of ‘pagoda fatigue’, but somehow I can’t seem to get enough of the structures.

Instead of getting carted around, we gave our horse a break and explored some of the island on foot. This pagoda complex is one of the few left from the ancient kingdom. As much as we like off the beaten path places, sometimes it’s wise to stay on the horse cart. We realized we went a little too far when, as I snapped this picture, a snake rustled through the greenery just in front of Sandeep.

As usual, it’s hard to take a picture in Myanmar without a combination of pagodas, monks or pink-robed nuns in the background.

What we loved about Ava was the quiet. The island is very rural and, apart from us tourists, farms, pagodas, and a few monasteries provide all the action. What our daughter Ava would love about the kingdom Ava would be the pink nuns and the gold pagodas.

It’s easy to find quiet spots in Ava to explore the ruins and meander through serene farmland. Just keep a stick to announce your arrival if you plan on getting off the horse cart. While our decision to name Ava had nothing to do with the ancient Burmese capital, her name has more meaning for us after our time here.

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Off The Tourist Path in Kyaiktiyo Myanmar

I have had a mystical notion of Burma (now Myanmar) for years. The fact that it has been difficult to reach, generally closed and politically tumultuous intrigued us even further. The timing of recent government reforms was perfect for us to include it on our itinerary. We decided to do Myanmar without Ava and Kayan as we were advised that the medical facilities and infrastructure are challenges. In hindsight, we could have taken the kids, but going without them enabled us to do a few off-the-beaten path things like trek and stay in a monastery. Our travel partners were my parents and this gave us some time to bond with the generation ahead of us. Meanwhile, Sandeep’s parents were on baby duty back in Kerala.

One of our first stops in Myanmar was Kyaiktiyo, about 130 miles northeast of Yangon. Kyaiktiyo is home to the Golden Rock, a 25 foot boulder precariously teetering on a cliff. Its position is said to be possible due to a single enshrined strand of Buddha’s hair, which allows for just the right balance. Private vehicles are not allowed in the area, and the ride up from the base of the mountain is only possible in the back of an open air truck, efficiently outfitted with seven benches, each seating six people.

I embarrassingly admit that to being ‘that tourist’. The one who takes pictures of an entire family on motorbikes, people hanging out of trucks or clinging onto the back of buses. This was our chance to experience what it’s like to be ‘those people’. Even though our rears took a beating and the truck huffed up like the little engine that could, it was wonderful. During the half hour ride, we had the opportunity to literally get up close and personal with locals and in touch with nature.

Our hotel was a 10 minute uphill walk from the designated drop off point, and we recruited porters to help us carry our bag. They must not have been used to carrying 20 kgs at a time, because an intense negotiation ensued about which one would be brave enough to take the bag up. Finally one hardy gentleman agreed, and hoisted another back on top for good measure.

My mother, who doesn’t have the lung capacity to walk uphill, was ported up by four men in what looked like a very comfortable sling chair.

The official statistic is that Myanmar welcomed only 300,000 tourists in 2011. However, our experience is that we all seemed to be after the same targets, and tour buses galore followed us wherever we went. Since we were told that most foreign tourists don’t visit Kyaiktiyo, so we imagined getting some peaceful time with the boulder. However, the Golden Rock is a pilgrimage site and draws Buddhists from all over Myanmar as well as the rest of the world. Some pilgrims believe that three visits to the rock in one year will bring wealth and recognition.  (That’s a great marketing technique if I’ve ever heard one…). Unfortunately, only men are allowed to touch the rock, so I suppose the women search for their wealth and recognition elsewhere. As a tourist, the experience was somewhat anticlimactic due to the crowds. The boulder itself is quite a sight and I would have loved to enjoy it in serenity. Luckily, the camera is able to ignore crowds.

Determined to find a peaceful spot, we decided the following morning to take a walk to a monastery that we were eyeing across the valley from our hotel. The entire night, we heard monks taking turns reciting prayers and we wanted to walk to the source of the readings. The monastery was not on the tour bus route. It requires climbing half an hour of continuous steps to reach. During the early morning trip, we saw a village waking up and collecting water.

At the top we found the peace we sought. The quiet view from our hidden monastery of the Golden Rock in the distance was almost more rewarding than the view of the Golden Rock from its own platform. When we found ourselves jostling herds of tourists, we initially thought that the trip to Kyaiktiyo was a mistake.  However, with some adjustments, and off-the-beaten-path adventure we were able to experience a slice of the Myanmar of our imagination.


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We’re Happy to be Blogging Again

A minor diversion is back after a brief hiatus. This wasn’t because we were in what has been a closed country (Myanmar) and unable to blog. Rather, the site was hacked into due to open servers and free communication (and a small dose of my own stupidity). It’s rather ironic that this happened while we were in Myanmar, with minimal internet access.

There has been a bright side to this. First, our journey is supposed to be a learning opportunity, and now words like “domain”, “hosting”, and “malware” are no longer a scary foreign language. Second, the issue made us realize that our blog is part of many readers’ daily routines. Some of you kindly let me know that the site was experiencing issues. Others wrote in various states of panic. We are touched that we play any role in your lives.

We’re glad our blog is back in action. Thanks for rejoining our journey.

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