In the morning we can’t explain to the monk that we will not use a bus but regardless he takes us to the bus stop at the main road and we leave Kyuangon. We walk by the road and half an hour later a cistern takes us for 50 km. They leave us at a gas station 20 km. before Yangon.
Then a bus with Burmese who live in USA and Australia takes us. People have come back here on a vacation. While we talk we hear someone speaking Chinese and it turns out they are Chinese born in Myanmar. They are very happy that we can communicate in Chinese. We stop at the outskirts of Yangon and they treat us to lunch with Indian food and milk tea. Finally they leave us in the central part of the city next to Sule Pagoda.
Here we are in Yangon that is not the capital of Burma as all (including us) think. The new capital is called Naypyidaw and is located between Yangon and Mandalay, but it seems as though no one visits it ever. Yangon is the former capital and the biggest and most important city in Burma and it’s doubtlessly very interesting.
Arriving at Yangon
What makes us quite an impression in the beginning is that there are many Muslims here. It seems to us that all of Bangladesh and Bengal is here. At one side of the big golden pagoda, that is the most central part of the city, we see two quite big mosques. Every second street vendor wears the typical Muslim hat and a beard. The architecture is quite different from the other parts of Burma we have visited so far – Chinese style blocks and perpendicular streets.
There are so many street vendors everywhere that the center resembles a big bazaar. Finally cheap fruits and vegetables! I still don’t know why the same fruits cost four times more in other places than here in Yangon. People here don’t bargain – they tell you a price and stick with it even if it is high. We take advantage and buy tons of fruits.
There are many kinds of street foods too – all kinds of noodles, rice with thousands of curries, fried vegetables, hot pot (vegetable or meat soup cooked in front of you) and what we like most: Bangladesh batters and Indian dosa (pancake with vegetables). There is even yogurt which is usually absent from the far East cuisine – as well as all dairy products.
Burma is one of the places that give you the idea where the name Indochina comes from. Indian influence is obvious – milk tea is served for breakfast for example, they sell pakoras (vegetables fried in eggs and breadcrumbs) everywhere, rice is served with curry, etc. Then the clothes: many women wear long skirt (longyi) that is almost the same as the Indian one. The Chinese influence is easy to be noticed too – every meal is served with green tea without sugar, long batters are sold here and there, bao dzi (stuffed steamed bread) is a typical breakfast. Quail and duck eggs are sold at every corner, noodles and rice soups with MSG (monosodium glutamate) also come from China. That said, the myriad meat and fish curries have their unique local taste that resemble a little the Chinese cooking style. Another interesting fact is that people here eat with sticks (the noodles), forks and spoons (they use the fork to put food in the spoon though) and some things are eaten with fingers.
The way people dress is also a mixture – the part from the waist below is Indian style and above is Chinese. Women wear slim fit blouses (women from the villages though prefer wide checkered shirts) with the typical Asian cut and sharp pointed knitted hats as well as flip flops. They don’t wear many jewelries contrary to women in India. The way people communicate with each other is typical for South Asia.
Young people are very open minded, smiling all the time and peaceful. Though here we are always met with a hint of lack of understanding and a distance even if people are warm and very hospitable. For example with Indians we always feel very well and we know all the time what is in their heads. But people here differ also form the Chinese – they are not so closed and concealed as the Chinese and are the most caring and helpful people in the above mentioned region.
After the market we head to a neighborhood in the outskirts where we intend to stay at the Buddhist temple Thabarwa – first set up as meditation center and then converted in organization that builds villages for poor people. Nowadays nearly 10 000 people live here and everyone is welcome to meditate or help with anything. Joan the Spanish recommended it to us and a guy from couchsurfing.org also told us to go there. We plan to spend 4-5 days here, to meditate and issue our Thai visas. At the border they usually issue two weeks visa, but we think this is too short of a period so we want to get (if possible) at least one month visa at the embassy.
We travel for two hours with a bus. The driver is driving like crazy and I still wonder how we didn’t crash. In the bus there is a caller on the door who announces the name of the stops and helps people get on or get off because the bus doesn’t stop it just decreases its speed when it comes near a stop. They take us off at 15 min. walking distance from Thabarwa Center. When we arrive we see there is a union at one of the halls where monks and people from the villages are discussing.
An Italian nun receives us at the entrance. There are also several other westerners as well as a French girl who is just visiting the place like us. The Italian girl smiles at us and shows us the rooms. But here comes a small problem – men and women sleep in separate buildings that are across the street. We don’t like the idea of being separate. We want to be together, cook some food and do some healing sessions for my sinusitis, which I caught after I washed one time my hair with cold water.
We explained we will feel really uncomfortable to sleep in separate buildings and we asked if we could pitch our tent somewhere since the center’s area is quite vast. But for a westerner rules are rules and can never be broken. Compassion and unconditional help (as said in the center’s brochures) are the most important, but the Italian Samaritan knows better – one can do good deeds only if one follows the rules.
She said we are too pretentious and added several times one should oblige the rules of the place where one is. We apologized for causing her trouble and said we will not bother her. The nun said that we have to sleep outside of the center’s area because if something happens to us the people here will be the ones responsible. Then she added that sleeping outside in Burma is dangerous and actually forbidden. Obviously she hasn’t noticed the thousands of Burmese who sleep in tents on the roads everywhere or the fact the up to now every monk we have ever asked accepts us unconditionally and we have always slept both in one room. When we told her this she said that most probably the monks couldn’t deny us and explain us how strictly we have to follow the rules.
To the French girl it was explained that here nobody eats after 11 a.m. The Italian nun then elaborated further saying that she knows how difficult this is in the beginning. At the end her heart softened and she gave the French girl some biscuits. For reasons we don’t know yet the Italian nun wanted everyone to adopt at once the monks’ way of life by force regardless of what brings people here – if they are just curious or something else.
I recall now how in every monastery we have been up to now, regardless of the hour they have accepted us and we’ve even slept one time in one room together with a monk and many children. They have always offered us food because they care more about the other’s person needs not their own. And they have never told us what and when to eat or do.
Finally the nun gave us an ultimatum – sleep separated or go away. We had to leave the center where anyone is welcomed “unconditionally” – as it says on the brochure. I am sure that if we had asked a local monk he would have found a some solution, but unfortunately they were all at the union.
So here is how our expectations for staying in Thabarwa were destroyed. This makes me think again that we have to stay away from western spiritual people. This happens to us for the third time now: first were the “spiritualists” who chased us away from the temples of Shiva in Dharamsala , then the Krishna girls from Vrindavan who refused to accommodate us while telling us how dangerous it is to sleep outside (we were attacked the same evening by the hooligans on the other side of the river). Now this western Buddhist from Myanmar reasserted our opinion that it is better to not count on such people.
Here we are now, it’s 9 p.m., we are exhausted, hungry and dirty, walking the streets. Around us all is in buildings. All monasteries are locked down and we can’t ask them for shelter. Walking on the street we see a stupa and Mr. Shushtari goes to see what is in the back. It turns out there is a monk school and an orphanage. The monk hadn’t even waited for Mr. Shushtari to finish his question and had said “yes”. Monks here are the opposite of the military-like monks in Thabarwa. They all have cigars in their mouths, with many tattoos on their arms and accept us with wide smiles. One of them even introduced us to his wife and daughter. How different the real Buddhist world is from the perverted notion that is in the head of the poor Italian nun!
13 – 16.12
Nights of misery in Yangon
They accommodate us at the classroom that looks like a closet that had never been swept. The floor is so dirty that we can’t even pitch our tent on it. The monks gather several desks and we set our bivouac on them. It is quite uncomfortable, but they accommodated us so no place for complaints here. The front wall is actually a bar wall. They give us a key and bring us water.
My sinuses are pulsating with pain and our heads feel heavy from the exhaustion. All of our clothes and the sleeping bags smell terribly because we haven’t had time to wash them these days. The night is very foggy and drops start falling on the iron sheet roof. The noise is killing us and combined with the exhaustion drives us hysterical. We put cotton in our ears, but this doesn’t help much. Hours pass by and we can’t fall asleep and our frustration grows.
Monks come to wake us up at 6 a.m. because it is time for pupils to start their classes. Our hope that this is unused closet fades. We get up feeling even worse than yesterday. We can’t take a bath here or wash our clothes and sleeping bags. The monk and a lady treat us to mohinga (the noodles that always make me sick), cake and tea. Then we head to the center.
The monk feeds his hens
We sleep for some hours at the park next to Sule Pagoda and then we go to an Internet café. It is Sunday today so we can apply for visa as early as tomorrow. We prepare everything: an agency makes us free airplane ticket reservations for us (needed for the visa application), we draw money and in the evening we go on the streets feeling positive that any monastery will accommodate us for the night. The reality anyway doesn’t agree with us.
We receive negative answer four times in a row at different places and all tell us to go at a hotel. Obviously the monasteries at Yangon don’t accept foreigners. It gets dark, there is no public transportation anymore and streets become empty. We are feeling desperate and miserable. We are so dirty and exhausted, my head and sinuses hurt, and we barely walk in the garbage that covers the streets.
We had a plan B that is to hide in some park. Unfortunately there are almost no parks at Yangon. We head to the only place that looks appropriate – a small park near to Kandawgyi Lake. We catch the last bus for a few stops and get closer to Bogyoke Park. Then it turns out we are at one of the most luxurious neighborhoods in Yangon: five star hotels, luxury restaurants and bars surround the lake. Everything is behind fences and there are guards everywhere. We walk around for half an hour and finally we manage to sneak in a secluded dark part of the park near a restaurant’s parking lot.
The alleys are well kept and we have to be fast in order for the guards to not see us. We climb a hill and we pitch our tent among the trees. This night is even more painful than the last one. We have small holes in the tent that an army of ants had made several nights ago and now new battalions of small black and evil ants enter through them and stat biting us. Mosquitoes also enter and bite us too. The night is very hot and we sweat a lot. I cover myself with the sleeping bag to protect myself from the mosquitoes, but then I overheat.
The smell of the sleeping bag, the mosquitoes and the heat kill me. At 3 a.m. guards discover us. They direct their powerful lanterns towards the tent. They calm down when they see we are foreigners, but nevertheless tell us to go away. We tell them we will leave at 5 a.m. and they leave discontented. At 6 a.m. they come to see if we are still here. There are many people around jogging in the morning mist. The golden peak of the palaces shows itself in the lake. We gather our stuff and leave swaying to look for breakfast.
Our favorite “fat” bananas
On the streets there is only mohinga and I prefer to stay hungry. We leave our baggage at some people and head to the embassy to apply for visas. They will be ready tomorrow – the moment they are we are out of Yangon. We spend the day at the center treating ourselves to ice-cream, cafes, batters and fruits in order to compensate for last night.
We sleep at the park, visit an Internet café and see no one has accepted our requests in couchsurfing.org. In the afternoon we go back to get our rucksacks. The day is beautiful but we know the agony of the night is coming closer. We have decided to try to sleep in another corner of the park, far from the luxury area. We will survive this night – it is our last. It gets dark and we start searching for a place, but we don’t see any.
We ask some gardeners if we could stay next to their huts, but they tell us one word: hotel. We are becoming desperate again and then we see some trees behind a barred wall that separates the main road from the lake. There is some garbage but no guards close-by.
Youngsters come here to neck secretly. We sleep lightly worried that anyone could come. Thanks God the night is not so hot and there are not so many ants so we rest. We gather our tent early and stay on our sleeping mats under the trees. There are many young couples kissing and voyeurs with binoculars watching them. Later we go to a nearby monk school to take a shower and wash some clothes.
Teachers are very kind but the headmaster is not so happy to see – we understand other travelers have come here before us to ask for shelter. We calm them down saying we are leaving. Our visas are supposed to be ready at 1:30 p.m. We go to buy lunch. Then we ask what time is it and they tell us 2:40 p.m. (not what our watch is showing). The embassy works till 3:00 p.m. and we are 30 minutes walking from it.
We catch a taxi and arrive at the last moment. Facing the possibility to spend another night in Yangon we are ready to pay any price to dodge this. The moment they give us two months visas for Thailand we are overjoyed. We are free again. This is the end of our suffering in big cities. We will probably not stay in any big city anymore unless we have a couchsurfing host.
Morning at Yangon
We go back on foot, take the rucksacks from the monk school and start going out of Yangon. First we take a bus to the center, then second one to the outskirts and then third to the main road. We travel for three hours on end.
We travel maybe 30 km. with the last bus and they charge us just 150 kyat (10 eurocents). The ticket seller wants to take us off all the time, but we are firm and tell him we will get off at the last stop. We enter a small village and then hit a dirt road. We see endless fields around us. Near one of the irrigation canals we see some trees and we hide there. While we are walking we pass through some mud swamp and we are covered with mud all over, nevertheless happy to finally go out of Yangon. Finally we sleep well but get up early in order not to stress local people.
In fact Yangon is quite interesting and pleasant city (though we had some rough time there). Landmarks are a few but here is the most important for Myanmar pagoda called Shwedagon – it is huge, golden and very old. The price for foreigners is 8000 kyats (6 euro) so we saw it only form outside (though one can enter for free we heard, but didn’t know how). We were very preoccupied with our survival so we couldn’t think of sneaking in the pagoda at that moment. There are also several big cathedrals, many buildings with colonial architecture, a synagogue and 3-4 other interesting pagodas.
In the morning villagers discover us but treat us really nicely. An old man brings us whole bag of cake, apples, oranges and mineral water. Then we take a shower at his house and start hitchhiking.
We head east to the border with Thailand where we plan to visit Kyaiktiyo – the Golden Rock. This is one of the most sacred places in Myanmar. It is a golden rock with a pagoda on top of it. It stays in such a way that it seems it will roll down the abyss. The legend says that in it there is hair from Buddha’s hair – but it is just a legend.
First a truck stops us and takes us to Bago – a town famous for its historical pagodas. We enter one and then head on foot to the exit of the town. The next truck takes us do Kyaikto where is the fork to the rock. A car takes us and drives us to Kin Pun Village. Here is the base camp from where pilgrims start climbing through the forest (11 km of walking) of take a special truck adapted for transporting people. We continue up the road hoping someone will take us because our rucksacks are quite heavy.
Pagoda at Bago
We pass by a barrier and leave the village. Aside we see a small pathway and then a shelter perfect for pitching the tent. It is the night already so we go to sleep immediately.
This night we sleep even better, but a long day awaits us. We start climbing and to our surprise only trucks with pilgrims pass by us and occasionally some motorbike. Soon we understand cars are not allowed to enter this road unless they belong to the monastery. We will have to walk on foot for the next 15 km. The road is steep and the sun is burning hot though it is the cool season now.
There are three seasons in Burma – hot (February-May), rainy (June-September) and cool (October-January). So during this so called cold season the temperature is around 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit), but at night they fall to 18-20 (65-68 Fahrenheit) and everyone keeps saying how cold it is and that one can take a bath just once a day. In the tropics you are covered with sticky sweat all the time so people usually take baths two-three times a day.
Trucks with pilgrims
We continue slogging up, but trucks cost 2500 kyats (2 euro) per person so we have to keep on. At noon the situation is unbearable and we sit under a big tree. We decide to rest instead of torture ourselves. Since we took a break at Napali Beach we haven’t stopped and we imagined things will be easier in the mountain since they weren’t so in Yangon, but obviously our suffering will continue forever.
Golden Rock – mission impossible
We want to sit by some river and do nothing all day, but the damn Golden Rock is so close now that we want to see it. A group of boys with a truck pass by us in the afternoon and stop without us even lifting a finger. Then they stop a truck and tell the driver to take us up for free. Finally we reach the place and Pun to the rock.
Some hundred meters before it we see a ticket office – foreigners pay 6000 kyats (4,50 euro). We can’t afford to pay this so we leave disappointed. We go back to the village below hoping we will buy some food, but everyone tries to cheat us with triple prices and we give up. We continue down the asphalt road and 2-3 km later it ends at some waterfalls surrounded by street vendors.
We are exhausted and desperate. We go back and after the first bend we pitch our tent on a small platform that could be seen by the road. We don’t care – we just want to cook something and sleep. We set a fire and locals pass by on motorbikes. Luckily they just smile at us. One of them even comes back and brings us cake and water. People in Burma are really nice, though later there is a surprise coming.
At 10 p.m. we have just prepared our meal when a dozen of silhouettes emerges from the dark. It is a group of policemen coming to check us because someone told them there are foreigners near the road. They are worried that we plan to sleep outside and said we have to move to a hotel. They say here is very dangerous (the usual Asian “safeness paranoia) 🙂
We tell them we don’t have enough money and we will be gone in the morning. All the hotels in Burma belong to the politics and the cheapest one is 15 USD per night. The ones here in the village are at least 60-70 USD. One of the policeman then says: “No problem. You will sleep for free”. We don’t have a choice and start gathering our stuff.
They call one of the trucks and we head back. The truck stops before the most luxurious hotel in the region “Golden Rock Hotel”. We are flabbergasted. The manager of the hotel confirms he will not charge us money and puts us on a wooden table on a terrace to finish our dinner. They treat us like some really important guests. We haven’t had such crazy experiences since India. Then we are registered and we go to our room. We take a warm shower for the first time in months. A very amusing experience that helps us rest well.
At the resort
The staff calls us for breakfast – eggs, bread, butter, jam and coffee. Then we leave. We didn’t ask how much the prices here are, but we heard the cost is something around 120 USD per night. We start going down to the base camp. We manag to see the rock from below and it doesn’t seem so interesting. Walking down is easy, the temperature is OK and we go down in no time. We stop near a spring before the village to wash our sleeping bags because they stink terribly.
There is a hermit monk who lives next to the spring. When he sees us he invites us to lunch at his benefactors who have a small shop for baskets on the road. He speaks English and tells us about his daily activities that consist mainly of Vipassana meditations and practicing mindfulness in every moment. He says he gets up at 3 a.m. to meditate and then goes to Kin Pun to gather food. It is a tradition here in Myanmar for all the monks to go our bare footed to gather food in some special earthen jars they carry. People put inside them what they can afford to give. It is considered here a blessing and a joyous experience to give food to the monks
Lunch with the monk’s students
While we wait for the clothes and the sleeping bags to dry the monk show us the place where he lived before.
The river pool and the cave (upper right)
It is what we dreamed of – a small beach next to a deep river pool and a cave close by. In the evening a group of Burmese comes to bathe and drink beer but they leave soon. We have three days left till our visa expires so we have to hurry up because we still have 300 km. left to pass.
Our bivouac next to the river
We walk the remaining three kilometers to Kin Pun and then a car with two fashionable boys takes us to the main road. First they tell us they are a taxi, but then say they will take us for free. Then we continue to Hpa An, Kayin State. Then we change several trucks till we finally arrive.
On the road there are fields with watermelons everywhere and we buy one that weighs 4 kilos and costs 0.70 eurocents. We will have to carry it till we eat it someplace. After we enter Kayin State the scenery becomes very beautiful – small separate hills show themselves near the horizon. The ethnic minority Karen live here, most of them escaped Thailand and they live in refugee camps.
We arrive at Hpa An in the late afternoon and decide to stop here. We buy some provisions because Burmese cuisine terrifies us now and we prefer to cook our own food. We head to the outskirts. What we didn’t expect is that the town was endless. We walk and walk by the river and we don’t see any places suitable for us to stay. We start feeling tired and frustrated by the fact we are still in another town after sunset.
Bicycle with a side-car at Hpa An
We decide to try our luck at a monastery. We enter one and we see a monk in it with absentminded look and red from the betel lips. In front of him sits an old woman with a piece of cloth in her mouth and looks at us inquisitively. None of them speaks English and the monks is just laughing obviously not understanding what we are asking him. A group of people show up and manage to translate. The monk refuses us saying we are a couple, but suggests we ask in another monastery 3 km. from here.
We are desperate now, lift our rucksacks and continue walking. After this negative answer and the ones we also got in Yangon we now wonder how they had allowed us to sleep in the other monasteries. We ask a passerby for the direction and it becomes obvious we have to walk at least 5-6 km. more till we get out of the town. We continue walking on autopilot. Twenty minutes later we reach a big monastery and sit on one bench at the yard.
Last monastery at Myanmar
Mr. Shushtari goes to ask though we doubt they will agree. The abbot tells him “yes” and soon we are pitching our tent in a hall next to a Buddha statue, accompanied by a dozen of monk boys who bring pillows and blankets running. Later two boys bring us mineral water, juice, chocolate milk, cakes, waffles and bananas. We haven’t eaten lunch today so we feel overjoyed. Burmese hospitability could be staggering at times.
Our bivouac at the monastery
Early in the morning they call us to have breakfast at the dining room. The monks have just finished eating and are going “hunting” as we call it – namely to gather food on the streets.
What terrifies us most is the Burmese breakfast. This time they serve rice with several meat curries with a lot of oil. There is also a bowl with strange smelling boiled green leafs which we eat together with some rice. After breakfast we go to thank the abbot who sits surrounded by a bunch of kids who help him roll his betel. We get our rucksacks from our room, which has now become monk school, and leave the monastery. At the entrance two of the boys from yesterday meet us and give us a cup with ice-cream and a box with rice, but there is pork meat in it so we give it back.
(Video: how betel is prepared)
(Video: how betel is prepared part II)
We walk the remaining few kilometers to Hpa An and we start hitchhiking. We stop 10 km. before the border town Myawaddy because we want to rest before entering Thailand. Today is our last day in Myanmar so we want to enjoy it and prepare psychologically for the new country.
The terrible (for us) breakfast
One of the dishes of the breakfast
Another dish (dried fish)
The truck stops at a gas station and we get off. There are several houses and a gorgeous golden pagoda on the road. We enter its yard and lie in a wooden pavilion. In the pavilion next to us lie three construction workers. The yard is huge with palm and banana trees and at the back we see two-three wooden huts – the dwellings of the monks. No one comes to bother us and we sleep some hours in the heat. Then we cook food on the kerosene stove and read books. I make use of the serenity here to finish the book “Burmese days” by George Orwell who had lived here in the twenties of the last century and served as a policeman in the British Imperial Police. This is the first book he has written and in it there are some pretty vivid and realistic descriptions of the colonial age.
Nobody except the workers comes around and in the evening we ask an elderly monk if we could pitch our tent at the yard. The monk shows us immediately a wooden bed near one of the houses. We pitch the inner layer of the tent that serves us as protection against mosquitoes and prepare to go to bed. Our last day and night at Burma are very well spent.
In the evening a musician from a dancing group that practices the traditional dance pwe and also stays at the monastery comes to talk to us and brings us a giant papaya and water. The only thing we regret is that we couldn’t communicate well with people in Myanmar because those who know English are a small percentage.
Medicine and herbs
The month was not enough for us to immerse properly in the local culture, but we will come back some day. We really want to visit Shan and Kachin states, but they can’t be reached on land at the moment. There very interesting people live : the tribe Enn whose members have black teeth which they consider to be extremely beautiful and that’s why they chew a lot of betel and perform other practices to turn them this color. In another tribe women put metal rings on their necks till they make their necks extremely long with the years – also to become more beautiful.
I can say that we spent a very interesting month here and a certain feeling arises every time we think of Burma. Thousand golden pagodas in the scorching haze of the heat rising above the palm and banana trees, women wearing tanaka face packs, red lips from chewing betel, straw bamboo huts, terrible dishes, earthen jars full of water put in small shelters everywhere on the roads, monks with red robes and the pure hearts and goodness of the Burmese people… these are part of the pictures the wander in our minds when we think of this amazing country.
There is a thick mist in the morning, as usual. Red silhouette of a monk hides behind a frangipani tree. Black thin dogs run around the huts. Monks call us for breakfast in a hall at the back of the yard. We sit around a low wooden table and the plastic lid which covers the dishes is risen . My stomach clenches in convulsion, but alas we have to eat our last Myanmar breakfast. There is a bowl of white rice, a fruit cut in pieces that float in water, some brown liquid full of chili, smelly fermented shrimp paste and a dish with dry fish. We eat some rice and I secretly think of the wafers and the papaya we still have in our backpack. We leave the monastery.
A jeep stops the moment we start hitchhiking and we arrive at the border. The border town Myawaddy is quite big with untypical for the country brick buildings. There are thousands of shops. We exchange our last kyats for bhats (Thai money) and we are ready to cross on the other side. We spent a month here and we couldn’t spend 70 USD in total, mainly because of the peoples’ hospitality and low prices.
Traditional medicine made of hoofs and centipedes
The immigration authorities stamp our passports and here we are walking on a bridge passing over a small river that separates Myanmar from Thailand. We enter this new country and a brand new world beckons to be known.