Myanmar – Change in a Society of Shortages

The all-purpose engine – a banger near Pindaya

Until this very day Myanmar is a poor country. But need is the mother of invention! Ever since I came here for the first time more than forty years ago, I have admired her people’s talent for improvisation. Take those rattling engines (Made in China), which delight our hearts and ears – not only at Inle Lake. They are not boat engines, but general-purpose ones. Of course there are boats with modern engines on the lake. Indevi company e. g. offers boats on which guests can even chat! However, they are four times as expensive as the usual bangers. Not everyone can or wants to spend that much. But the use of these stinking air polluters is by no means limited to boats. They offer almost unlimited options: they drive rice mills and pumps as well as those ubiquitous transport vehicles cobbled together by local workshops (see picture) that can be seen in the countryside. The variations are almost as unlimited as the amount of hazardous substances they’re emitting …

Mazda-600 taxis in Yangon
1940’s buses on the road

But there have always been ‘real’ cars in the country, too. In addition to rickety road cruisers there were a few English Morris Minors and Japanese Mazda – Made in Burma! With no less than 360 or even 600 cc displacement. But without a rotary engine, of course. The huge majority of them sported a sky blue varnish (hence the name blue cap!) and resembled the East German Trabant pickup (Trabbi). The Burmese called them lay bein (four wheels), because there were three wheelers, too. The latter resembled the 1950’s Borgward Goliath, made in Germany. The lack of two-wheelers was striking. As we heard later, they were banned in Yangon! The buses were sensational: Bedfords and Chevrolets from the 1940s! Converted military trucks from Canada with wooden bodies! The destinations could not be read, as everything was written in pretzel script. And people were sitting in those bangers as if it was the most common thing to do in this world. Until then, I would have considered those buses more of a fairground attraction.

A gate made of marston mats in front of a shop in Pyin Oo Lwin
PVC-pipe shop – a designer’s dream come true
Children in a stainless steel workshop in Pyin Oo Lwin

I have divided the development of the last forty years in Myanmar into three phases:

1. The Marston mat phase
2. The PVC pipe phase and
3. The stainless steel phase

For me, these materials have become icons of their style epoch.

A fence made of marston mats in Anawrahta Str., Yangon

A Marston mat is a device for recovering stuck vehicles and for building runways at field airports or short stretches of road, especially on bridges. These are thick perforated plates made of sheet metal, about 2 m long and 60 cm wide and 3 to 5 mm thick. They can be interlocked with each other on the long side. Placed on a flat surface made of sand, earth or the like, a large area can be made available for use by aircraft and heavy equipment within a short time. So far so good. But that does not explain their omnipresence in this country. They were to be seen on every corner and used for all sorts of purposes.

Mostly for fences. But garden benches, doors and other utensils were also made from it. Outside of Burma they are relatively rare and so I always wondered where on earth they all come from. At first, I thought they might be leftovers from the war, but that seemed increasingly unlikely given their huge numbers and good condition. Moreover, it is an item that is rarely seen in the hands of private individuals. I tend to associate them with the military. To this day I haven’t been able to find out where all these things are coming from.

Screens made of PVC-pipe and cellophane in a restaurant
Arbour made of PVC-pipe in a Hindu temple (detail)
Flower bowls made of PVC-pipe in the temple

Marston mats were ousted from their top spot with the rise of the No. 2 style icon: the light blue PVC pipes. Those, I believe, are imported from China. I happen to know them from my career in the plumbing industry, where we used them mostly for drain pipes. But they were always grey in order to make them as invisible as possible. But maybe the Chinese are proud of them and want to show them off? They are mainly used for water pipes (both inflow and outflow). Which is not a problem in this country because the water pressure in Myanmar is low and most of the pipes work according to the principle of connecting tubes. In developed countries these contraptions would simply fall apart at the glue joints due to the water pressure. For the operation of washing machines etc. you’d have to install a pump in this country.

In addition, they can be used in a variety of ways. In the wake of the Corona crisis you will find them often as part of a protective shield. You go to a restaurant for a romantic dinner with your wife, with whom you live day and night. There the ‘screen’ made of PVC pipe and cellophane foil is placed in the middle of the table. However, you can sit next to each other, then you don’t need a partition!

Moreover, PVC pipes offer undreamt-of possibilities: as a table frame, as a clothes line, as a picture frame – to name just three. The imagination knows no limits. I’ve even seen them used as pillars for building huts. Probably cheaper than bamboo! And more durable. For me the most beautiful use was found in a Hindu temple in Pyin Oo Lwin. The entire garden decoration was made from this material. Incredible and beautiful at the same time (photo). Old car tires were also used there as flower stands.

Modern age meets the past: a stainless steel workshop proudly shows its products in front of a fence made of marston mats
Stainless steel from China is the latest hit! This stuff is unbeatably cheap: a 6 m long pipe with a a one inch diameter costs five dollars. Presumably the Chinese have exhausted their quotas in their overseas export markets and are now dumping the stuff on the Burmese market. Since labor costs are also low, you can make the most amazing things out of it. It also glitters a lot nicer than the PVC pipes mentioned above – and they’re more stable too. Railings and beds are often built from them, as well as tarpaulin frames for pickups, but also prayer chairs (see photo). Basically there is hardly anything that cannot be built with it … I had a pool heating system built out of it: 40 meters of ½ inch pipe with 20 windings cost me 70 dollars. And I probably paid way too much … Now everyone might ask: Why don’t they use wood? Doesn’t teak wood originate in Myanmar? The answer is simple: wood is much more expensive than stainless steel!
The latest rage – a prayer chair made of stainless steel
Sink unit at Pyin Oo Lwin station combines stainless steel, PVC-pipe and perforated L-steel sheets
A signal giver made of rails at Pyin Oo Lwin station

Burmese Railways (Myanmar Meeyahta) is also very creative in this regard. In front of Pyin Oo Lwin’s (Maymyo) station stands a complete large stage (picture) built from railway tracks and Marston mats. On the platform, a short section of rail serves as a signal giver. When the train comes, someone hits it with an iron rod – you can’t miss it! The charging station for cell phones is made of the proven stainless steel pipe, as is the wash basin set up to fight the corona epidemic.

A festival stage made of rails and marston mats in front of Pyin Oo Lwin station

A surprising discovery in Maymyo

A surprising discovery in Maymyo

Since I moved to Maymyo (Pyin Oo Lwin) a year ago, I have been fascinated by the religious diversity in this town: Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians of all shades have built their houses of prayer here. Not to forget the animists. After all, Pyin Ool Lwin ist the home of the famous Nat Ko Myo Shin. The Lord of the nine cities. I cannot imagine that there is such diversity anywhere else in Myanmar.

But even here there are always new surprises. During one of my excursions in the vicinity I came across the Gumba Temple. Designated as a Buddhist temple on Google Maps. I was expecting a Chinese temple or a Burmese monastery. And what did I find? A Tibetan temple! A Mahayana Buddhist place of worship, in which the Tibetan version of Mahayana is cultivated. Tibetans in Myanmar? Well, this country certainly has a colorful mix of people, so nothing surprises you so easily. But it is not Tibetans who run this temple. It is run by Tamang people. They come from Nepal, where they now make up around 6% of the population (around 1.5 million). They are one of the largest groups of highland peoples in the country.

Little is known about their history, but they are certainly among the earliest peoples who have migrated from the Tibetan plateau into what is now called Nepal. That happened probably more than three thousand years ago. The Tamang have their own cultural traditions and language (Tibetan-Burmese language family) as well as an alphabet that is derived from the Tibetan alphabet. 90% of the Tamang people are attached to Tibetan Buddhism. Their calendar is based on the Chinese one with its twelve-year cycle. Like other hill tribes in the country, they are reduced to a subordinate role in Nepal. Most of them are farmers in the mountains others working in the trekking business. If a porter identifies himself as Sherpa, he might actually be a Tamang. Others joined the British army and came to Burma as soldiers. That means, not every Gurkha belongs to the people of the same name and is a Hindu. He might be a member of another of the numerous tribes of Nepal! Such as the Tamang! In Myanmar, there are about 350 Tamang households, almost half them in Maymyo (Pyin Oo Lwin). Oddly enough, the Tamang sometimes call their temple ‘Gurkha temple’ themselves, adding to confusion. Even though the Gurkhas are definitely Hindus, not Buddhists …

The temple/ monastery is located in the north of Pyin Oo Lwin. It is the largest of its kind in the country. There are other, smaller ones, e.g. in Myitkyina and Yangon. The one in Pyin Oo Lwin was founded by a Tamang guru named Sri Nathung who came to British Burma in 1933. The monastery was built two years later and today it has grown into an impressive complex. The original wooden building still exists but is no more in use. It was replaced by a brick building. The formerly humble temple now looks quite impressive. Ven. Yang Lama, the monastery’s abbot, told me that he is planning to surround the temple with 108 prayer wheels. There are currently five monks and one novice living in the monastery. The faithful travel from all over the country to the great festivals. To the right of the temple are a number of chortens (Tibetan stupas) with prayer flags.

The temple's courtyard
Shrine of Sri Nathung w. planetary posts
Bhavacakra
Tamang horoscope
Main shrine entrance
Main Shrine w. Tibetan gods

Happy Thingyan!

Thingyan 2020 will definitely be remembered for a long time to come. For some (especially the elderly) it must have come as a blessing in disguise. No blaring music, no drunkards in the street. But it certainly was a big disappointment for the youngsters. And for those who make a lot of money with grand-stands and trucks during the festival. Musicians and dancers also suffered. However, I wish all of you a happy new year 1382 Burmese Era. The thekari’ era has been used widely in South East Asia, but nowadays Myanmar seems to be the only country where it still holds some significance. It is used to mark traditional festivals. Some of you might have wondered why the festival dates in Myanmar are constantly shifting. One year Thadingyut is in October, the next year in September. New Year, however, is always on 17. April. The reason for this is that the Burmese are using a lunisolar calendar. The months follow the moon calendar, but the years follow the solar calendar. Therefore, a leap month (called 2nd Waso) has to be added regularly.

So, what exactly happens on Thingyan? The Burmese word is a corruption of the Sanskrit word Sankranti, which means transition. On this day (approximately) the sun enters the house of Aries. As you all know, the festival starts on 13. April. Not too long ago, the Thingyan holidays might have lasted for ten days. Nowadays it has been shortened in order to adapt to modern times. But don’t worry: the ‘missing’ days will be added to other festivals.

On 17. April Thagyarmin (Sakka), the king of gods and ruler of Tavatimsa comes down from his heavenly abode in a beautiful chariot. It is driven by Matali, who carries two books. One with a golden cover, the other one with a cover made of dog leather. One contains the good deeds of the believers, the other the evil ones. You may guess which book is for which deeds. Then Thagyarmin will reward those who behaved well and punish those who didn’t. The photo shows the entrance of a ruined temple in Indein (Inle Lake). On the left hand side you can see Matali writing something in his book. On the right hand side you can see Thagyarmin with a vase holding the nectar of immortality (amrita, ambrosia). You can see his statue on the platform of Shwedagon pagoda at the planetary posts, too. He’s the one standing behind the Buddha statue holding a conch in his hands. From this conch he’s pouring the nectar of immortality over the Buddha statue.

Of course, there are various legends regarding the water festival. One of them tells the story of the Red Brahma (Athi). He made a bet with Thagyarmin, claiming that the week has eight days. The winner would have to chop off the loser’s head. From the Burmese point of view he was right. But that didn’t help him. So, Thagayarmin reluctantly severed his opponent’s head. But in order not to kill him, he sent out a sage and told him to bring the head of the first creature he encountered. This happened to be a golden elephant. Since then he is known under the name of Maha Peinne (great delight). Because a human saved his life, he’s fond of them. He is identical with the Hindu god Ganesh. The Burmese regard him as a nat. (see photo of Maha Peinne statue from Mt. Popa’s nat shrine). However, that didn’t solve another, even bigger problem. Athi’s severed head was so hot, that it would have burnt the earth if it touched her. So Thagyarmin gave it to seven goddesses for safekeeping and they take turns in handing it over to the next one, which happens exactly on Thingyan. In order to cool the head during this process they are splashing it with water as much as possible. Originally, the purpose of spilling water might have been the ablution of sins that have been committed in the old year. Another reason might have been the prayer for rain in the upcoming agricultural season. Very often, the first rainfall after the hot season (thingyan rain) coincides with the water festival.

Another legend is based on Thagyarmin’s promise to the Buddha Gautama to take care of mankind. Especially in the second half of the 5.000 years that the Enlightened One’s doctrine would last. This time span was granted on Thagyarmin’s special request. Originally, it would have lasted only 2.500 years. Therefore, he comes down to earth every year during the water festival for a check. Apart from that, he will only come if his throne heats up. This indicates that something went wrong in the human abode. Looking at the world today, I really wonder if he has any time left to spend on his throne at all… According to Buddhist teaching, humanity came down from the upper echelons (bhumi) of Mt. Meru after the destruction of the last world. In the beginning they were ethereal beings, free from the three inauspicious roots (akasamulas), i. e. greed, wrath and ignorance (lobha, dosa, moha). All their needs were gratified by the padetha pin (Sanskrit: kalpavriksha, wishing tree) that was located on the northern continent (Uttarakuru). (see photo from Pawon temple, Java, 8. Century A.D.) We may assume that it left nothing to be desired as it was 15 yuzanas (about 300 km) wide. However, there was one condition: it was not allowed to take more from the tree than one needed. But humanity was overcome by greed (lobha) and started hoarding the fruits of the tree. As could be expected, conflicts ensued and fighting (dosa) erupted. The tree withered away. Then the ethereal beings ate from the sweet soil and became physical. Consequently, they lost their luminous power and became afraid of the dark. Out of pity, Thagayarmin asked the gods of the sun, the moon and the constellations to make themselves visible to humanity. Since then they light up day and night. (Please note the similarity with Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise).

But the wishing trees are not gone for good! Every year they pop up at the festival of Kathein in the lunar month of Tazaungmon (October/November). Then pyramidal wooden structures (padetha pin) can be seen everywhere in the country. The believers decorate them with presents for the monastery. Originally, only monk robes were donated but nowadays all kinds of goods can be seen. Thus, even poor people have a chance to gain merit by hanging a little item on that tree. Even money is donated, even though that is contradictory to the monastic rules, as monks are not allowed to touch it. When the ‘tree’ is full it is brought to the monastery with a lot of ballyhoo! Other activities comprise weaving contests that are held especially on the full moon night of Tazaungmon. Women from various villages compete with one another to be the first to finish a monk’s robe.

A pot made of platinum

A pot made of platinum

Before I moved to Maymyo, I sometimes treated myself to a buffet dinner at Sule Shangri-La. There I always chose a table at the window so that I had a view of the old Dagon Hotel (formerly called Orient Hotel). It was located right next to the brick building that still houses the Myanmar Bible Society today. And why? Pure nostalgia! I used to stay there during my visits to Yangon when I couldn’t afford a better place. The hotel was located on the second and third floor of the building. It was one of seven in town that were open to foreigners. The ‘rooms’ were partitions made of plywood, furnished with a bunk bed, a small table and a chair. But I guess for five dollars you couldn’t expect much more. There was also a deluxe room. For a long time it was unaffordable for me. The bathrooms (one per floor) were in the hallway, as were the toilets. That was the case with most of the rooms in the Strand Hotel at that time, too. Where the Sule Shangri La stands today, there were many beautiful old houses. There was a cinema and the ‘People’s Patisserie’. With a bit of luck you could get the ‘Working People’s Daily’ there.

Then I kept thinking about a story that happened on a beautiful December day in 1980. I had finished my midday nap, had a shower and had descended the steep stairs unscathed. As well as the meeting place of Rangoon’s drunkards on the first floor. Downstairs in the bakery I had enjoyed a fancy cake and a cup of tea. I was heading towards Sule Pagoda to meet my Tamil friend Victor, a reliable black market money changer. To cover up his illegal business he did a little window dressing, selling spectacles. His business was located near the famous Diplomatic Store (nowadays: Sule Plaza), a forbidden paradise for the ordinary Burmese. I had just crossed Anawrahta Street, when a well-groomed Burmese man in his early 30s approached me. He was wearing a green longyi, a blossom-white shirt and the usual slippers. The inevitable Shan shoulder bag hung over his shoulder. After a rather flowery and long-winded introduction in excellent English, during which he looked around nervously, the man finally came to the point. He told me that he was the son of a rich family. Due to the mismanagement of the socialist government they had become completely impoverished. Everything had been taken away from them, even the bicycle. It was only through an ingenious trick that the greatest family treasure could be saved: a bar of platinum! They had melted it down and turned into a vulgar cooking pot – but a rather special one! To camouflage it, they had blackened it. And what the man secretively pulled out of his shoulder bag, really looked like an ordinary cooking pot. It was amazingly heavy. Among all the people in the busy street he chose me, the shaggy hippie with the fuzzy beard and striped shirt as prospective buyer. He told me that the value of the pot was more than twenty thousand US dollars. However, due to the extraordinary circumstances he would sell it to me for a mere five thousand! What a bargain! And what did I, the narrow-minded traveller who was in Rangoon for the sixth time in his life, say? ‘A platinum cooking pot – that’s really the biggest nonsense I’ve heard in my life.’ And might have missed the deal of a lifetime! I laughed at him and parted with the man.

But I should have known better! Hadn’t the Bodhisatta* himself, the later Buddha Gotama, traded a very similar pot (made of gold) for worthless junk and a few copper coins? At least this is what the Serivanijan-Jataka** tells us. The story can be found at Ananda monastery in Bagan. And I even had been to that place! But, of course, I didn’t understand the meaning of the murals then. Here is the story: once the Bodhisatta was incarnated as a dealer in pots and pans in the city of Serivan. Together with a colleague he roamed the villages in the area and sold his goods there. When the two of them arrived in one of the typical one-street villages, they split up. One of them worked the houses on the right side of the street, the other one the left side. Then they had a cup of tea together on the roadside. Afterwards both of them worked the other side of the road.

So it happened that the Bodhisatta’s colleague, a greedy fellow, on his tour passed a poor house where an old woman lived with her daughter. Both had been rich in the past but had lost everything due to unfortunate circumstances and lived in poverty. Only an old, dented, soot-blackened cooking pot had remained from their former life – and it had become quite perforated, so that no food could be prepared in it. When the pot dealer came by, the old woman invited him in and showed him the pot with the request to exchange it for a new one. ‘An old pot for a new one? Why should I do that?’ he asked. The old woman began to cry and so he stooped himself to take a closer look at the pot. He scratched the bottom of the pot and turned pale – the pot was made of pure gold! But he didn’t let on about it and said to the woman: ‘All right, I’ll exchange the pot for a new, smaller one, but you have to give me three more copper pieces!’ – ‘Lord, we have no money at all! Be merciful, take the pot and give us a new one – we haven’t eaten something warm for three days now!’- ‘It’s only three copper pieces! You can borrow them from your neighbors! I’ll be back after a while. Get the money in the meantime!’ was the harsh reply. And off he went – of course with the firm intention to take the golden pot with him later. The two women stayed behind crying. But the deceitful merchant had reckoned without his host. Not much later the Bodhisatta passed the house of the women. They poured out their troubles to him and out of pity he also had a look at the pot. He scratched the bottom and came to the same conclusion as his colleague: the pot was made of pure gold! ‘My dear lady’, said he, ‘this pot is made of pure gold! It is worth far more than all the goods plus the cash I have on me. I’d be a swindler if I agree to this barter!’. ‘Sir, have mercy, please!’ pleaded the old woman and after much back and forth the Bodhisatta changed his mind. He handed over all his wares and all his cash to the women. They gladly allowed him to keep some money for the ferry ride across the river. He took the pot and went home without waiting for his colleague. It did not take long before the greedy man came to the women’s house and asked: ‘Well, did you manage to get the money?’ – ‘You rascal!’ screamed the old woman! ‘Your honest colleague was here and told us the truth! Get out of here before I chase you out with my broom!’ Furious, the swindler threw his goods and all his money on the floor and stormed away to confront his colleague. When he reached the river, he saw the Bodhisatta midstream on the ferry! He screamed and shouted his name obsessively and summoned him to come back. But his colleague ignored him. The evil man’s heart ‘became hot, blood rushed out of his mouth and his heart broke like the clay on the bottom of a dried-up pond…’ Only in passing, it should be mentioned that the crook was later incarnated as the archenemy of the Enlightened One, Devadatta. Out of greed he tried to assassinate the Buddha several times and failed. Consequently, he descended to hell. If I would have known this story then, I’d probably be a rich man today. But to be honest, I didn’t have five thousand dollars on me then either…

*Bodhisatta (Pali, Bodhisattva/Sanskrit) means ‘enlightenment being’ on the path to Buddhahood. They can take the form of humans or animals. Usually, they have made a resolution to become a Buddha and have received a prediction or confirmation from a living Buddha that this will be the case.

**Jataka (lit. birth stories) are the canonical stories of the previous existences of the historical Buddha. In these existences he is called Bodhisatta (Pali, see above). Traditionally there are 547 canonical existences. Some jatakas are rather short, others of epic breadth. The first is the Apannaka –jataka. It tells the story of two traders who travel in the desert. The first one meets a miserable death while the second one (the Bodhisatta) arrives safely at his destination – thanks to his wisdom. The last jataka (No. 547) tells the story of king Vessantara, who gives up all his possessions (including his wife and his children). He acquires so much merit that he is consequently reincarnated as Gotama (Sanskrit: Gautama), the historical Buddha. That doesn’t mean, however, that this number embraces all the previous existences of Gotama. There may have been countless others. According to the Burmese tradition there are three additional ones, bringing the total to 550. One of them is the hermit Sumedha. His image can be seen in many temples.

 

 

 

 

Yangon – now and then

One day in October 2016 I arrived at Yangon‘s Mingaladon Int’l airport and took a taxi to my downtown destination. While driving down Pyay Road with its brightly illuminated, glittering facades, the high rises and the new flyovers, it crossed my mind how it was when I landed in Rangoon back in 1977. In those days there was one daily flight from Bangkok to Rangoon, operated by THAI and sometimes additional ones operated by Burma Airways. Today, dozens of international flights land and take off from Mingaladon every day. And even at night.

20. August 1977, 1930 hrs, Rangoon, Burma

A light blue Buick Super 51 Sedan (built in 1946) dashes through Burma’s capital Rangoon with dim low beam lights. The old banger is rattling and squealing all over. But that doesn‘t seem to bother the driver at all. Just as little as the fact that the windows can be ratcheted only half way up and the rain is pouring in. The old boneshaker is on its way from the airport to downtown. It’s pissing heavily and it is pitch-dark. Sometimes, there’s a flashing on the roadside: a neon lamp, a candle or an electric bulb. Occasionally, a car is approaching or we’re splashing a passing rickshaw. Aboard are three hippies, among them the chronicler. And they wonder: Rangoon is supposed to be a city of two million people. However, since we’ve left the airport, we haven’t seen a single soul! What’s going on here? Where are the millions? The driver is an Indian who introduced himself as One Eyed Joe. A fat, scruffy man. He’s wearing a sarong, flip flops and an undershirt soaked in sweat. And he is rather talkative. Since we boarded his sorry transport he’s trying to talk us into selling our treasures to him at a bargain price: three bottles of Johnny Walker Red Label and three cartons of Triple Five cigarettes. We fob him off with a knowing smile – we‘ve heard about this scam before. Tomorrow we’ll get twice as much for it! Besides, we do have Burmese money! In Penang we’ve bought some from an Indian money changer at a rate of 20 Kyat for one dollar. Three times the official rate!

Finally we arrive at the Thamada-Hotel, among the best of the seven hotels that have a licence to accommodate foreigners. We found it a little run-down! Later we realized that it had been the highlight of our trip! We were about to see much worse … We submitted our passports and money forms and checked in. Our rooms were modest – but with air condition. Rangoon’s dining scene was quite straightforward: besides the hotel restaurants there were only two more that were considered ‚safe‘ by the small expat community: Red Ruby in Bo Aung Kyaw Street and Burma Kitchen in Shwegondine Road. Both have survived to this very day. The first one under its old name, the other has been converted into a Japanese restaurant (Furusato) a long time ago. So we chose the hotel’s restaurant, located at first floor. It was here that I first saw the menu that was identical in all government hotels in Myanmar. It would become a trusted companion during my travels in Burma. Rangoon was the only place where one could get lobster thermidor, even though it was mentioned in every city. The waiter was surprisingly well-dressed: he wore black trousers, his cleanest dirty white shirt and a bow tie. Noblesse oblige! In an ambience that reminded me of East Germany. He was even sporting a pair of black shoes! He served our dinner in the most professional way. I was especially impressed by the way he balanced the peas from the platter onto my plate. For a long time I couldn‘t help but feel that Burma was some kind of tropical East Germany. And I loved it! After dinner we went back to our rooms and while in bed, I reviewed the events of the day. And quite a day it had been!

It started at dawn after a short but lively night. I was just lying in bed with in my room at the ATLANTA hotel with my little Thai girl friend named Nit, when suddenly someone knocked violently at my door: ‘Open up! Police!‘. If I would have worn boots, my heart would certainly have been in there. I wrapped one of the worn out Atlanta towels around my hips and opened the door. Two Thai coppers stood in front of me, pushed me aside and entered the room. They ignored the girl that was sitting fearfully on the backboard of the bed, the blanket up to her nose. They lifted the mattress and saw the traveler’s checks I had reported stolen the day before. In my mind’s eye I saw myself in jail, the notorious Bangkok Hilton (see photo). To my relief, they lowered the mattress without saying a word. Then they searched my luggage: a backpack and a crocodile-leather attaché that my friend Robert Weide had given me as a pawn for 70 DM he had borrowed from me the night before. They looked around the room and took their leave. Only a drug bust! Lucky me! After getting away with the fright we laid down again and cuddled a bit. At 9 a.m. we went down for breakfast. There we met Robert Weide who was supposed to give me back my money. As could be expected he hadn‘t been able to procure it. Thus I became the owner of his case that matched quite well with my US Army rucksack. A few weeks later I swapped it in Delhi for a big bag filled with crocheted cotton lamps. They laid the base for my ensuing business career that led me from Berlin’s flea market to a shop on Berlin’s fashionable Ku’damm all the way to another one in the Zoo Palast cinema, venue of the famous Berlinale film festival.

Our flight to Rangoon was scheduled for late afternoon. So we spent the time at the hotel’s swimming pool. Then we boarded public air con bus no. 11 to Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport. We (my friend Yves, a Belgian guy named Philippe and myself) had booked a Burma Airways flight from Bangkok to Kathmandu with stopover in Rangoon. We had heard about the whisky-and-cigarette business from other travelers. So every one of us bought a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label and a carton of 555-cigarettes. So far unbeknownst to me but it seemed to be extremely popular in Burma. According to rumours, one could finance a complete week in Burma from the proceeds. Except for hotels and flight tickets – needless to say. Burma Airways‘ plane did not exactly inspire confidence: an old Fokker Friendship, merely capable of transporting 52 passengers. When we tried to store our hand luggage in the overhead compartments we were in for a surprise: no space! All were filled up to the rim with Johnny Walker and 555-cartons. The pretty attractive stewardess asked us to store our things under the seat. And who would turn down a pretty lady’s request? Especially, as it was only a short flight, a little more than one hour. They even offered a meal: every passenger got a white box. When I opened it, a big cockroach walked out of it. Hard to believe, but true. However, the cake was wrapped in plastic and so I ate it. The orange was o.k. as well. When we arrived, it rained heavily. Workers holding umbrellas escorted us to the immigration counter. The airport was rather small and we were processed quite quickly. The most difficult thing was the completion of the ‚form‘. We had to register all foreign currency in our possession.

These could be converted into the national currency. Everything transaction had to be made in Kyat. Whenever we spend money (tickets, hotels), we had to enter it in this form. If one didn’t have enough money on his form, he had to change money again. Rather complicated and in reminded me of East Germany. In fact, there were quite a few parallels with the communist state. But contrary to the GDR the people here were of overwhelming friendliness. When we stepped out of the arrival hall we were overrun by hordes of touts and taxi drivers who wanted to take us to our hotel at completely exaggerated prices. Hey, find yourself another fool! We bargained One-Eyed-Joe down to one dollar and off we went!

Before our first visit to Burma we had hardly any idea about where we were going. Those days the country was even more unknown, than it is today. 20.000 visitors (and I guess only a fraction of them tourists) visited the country in 1977. Probably, many potential tourists were put off by the fact that they were allowed to stay for only one week. For us it was o.k., as it was just a stopover on our way from Bangkok to Kathmandu. Little did I know that this week was about to change my life forever. My friend Yves and I had covered about half the distance of our great trip from Bali to Sri Lanka (most of it overland). In Penang we considered for the first time to make a stopover in Burma.

The next morning we took a stroll through Rangoon’s downtown. We got rid of our goodies in no time: 300 % profit, not bad! These items were truly status symbols! We saw them in many places next to family photos and bric-a-brac. When the bottle was empty, it was refilled with tea in order to keep up the good impression. They were also used as semi-official measure of capacity, e. g. for gasoline. In some places they are still in use. One Eyed Joe had told us that May Hla Mu pagoda in Myauk Okkalapa was an absolute must for every tourist. A highlight, if there ever was one! Good for his wallet, too. It felt like a jungle excursion. In the afternoon we toured Shwedagon pagoda in the rain. There were hardly any cars on the city’s wide roads. The few we saw were either old U.S. street cruisers or British Austin limousines. Plus a few locally made cars. The blue ones had four wheels and resembled East German Trabant cars. Then there were three wheelers that looked like a 1950’s Borgward Goliath. To our surprise we saw no motor bikes or even bicycles. Later we were told that those were banned in Rangoon. The buses were a real gas! Bedfords and Chevrolets from the 1930‘s! We could not read their destinations as it was all in pretzel script. And the weirdest thing: the passengers were traveling in these vintage cars as if it was most normal thing in the world! Until then I‘d had considered them more like a fairground attraction.

In the evening we paid a visit to Tourist Burma at Sule pagoda and bought tickets for the train Mandalay the next day. We concluded the first day in Rangoon with a stroll through the alleys near Sule. It was a magical atmosphere: teenagers were sitting in the streets and sang with guitar accompaniment. When we walked past they give us a big hello and an even bigger smile. It seemed that foreigners were a curiosity here in Rangoon! And still no cars in sight! Ground floor dwellers were sitting in their flats that had no walls to the street but only shutters. So we had a chance to see how the people in Rangoon lived. And suddenly we saw cars – they were parked inside the flats! We’d been wondering for quite some time why there were ramps leading from the streets into the flats. As it seemed, cars represented an enormous value in Burma and had to be protected against thieves at any cost. And so the people were sitting behind their shutters by the lights of their neon lamps and their candles, listened to the radio, chatted – or maybe admired their cars. Television didn’t exist in Burma those days. It was introduced only ten years after my first visit. It was obvious that the people of Rangoon had an urgent need for security. Not only ground-floor flats were secured with iron shutters. Everybody can see the need of this. But even windows in the third floor were heavily secured with window grilles. And this hasn’t changed in more than forty years! Burma seemed to be a dangerous place…

The train to Mandalay departed at 6 a.m. Rangoon’s central railway station looked like it was time-warped from the 1930’s. It was dark and people were lying on the platforms, many of them wrapped in blankets. We were not sure if they were waiting for their train or had no place to stay. I had entrusted my attache case to the hotel’s store room. It came as a bit of a disappointment when the train was dragged into the station by a diesel engine. I’d have preferred (and expected!) a steam engine. Wide swathes of countryside were submerged in water. In some places the track was invisible for miles. But the engine driver seemed to know his way! And it was great fun! We arrived in Mandalay at around ten p.m. Much to our surprise, we were ‘welcomed’ – by the staff of ‘Toyota-Express’. These people organized trips for hippies in Upper Burma. Up to ten passengers were squeezed into the back of a Toyota pickup truck, their luggage on the roof. Only sissies would pay more for the right to sit in the driver’s cab. Mandalay-Bagan-Inle-Mandalay in four days. Definitely not for the faint-hearted. And absolutely not recommended! Instead, we followed a tout to a dump called Mann Shwe Myo (Mandalay Golden City).

On the next day we went sightseeing and saw the usual attractions. Mandalay Hill with the giant guardian lions made a lasting impression. If I’m not mistaken, we paid a visit to the Mahamuni-Buddha, too. But I don’t remember it. Our favourite was the Irrawaddy river side. There was a pile village in front of the levee and it was teeming with life. The absolute highlight was a place called Kywe Zun where gangs of water buffalos pulled heavy teak logs out of the river and up the levee. Some old lorries were in action, too. If they couldn’t make it up the levee on their own, a few water buffalos were harnessed with yokes and iron chains and they made all the difference. A remarkable sight were the children on the levee. Very friendly and whenever they saw a foreigner they made the V-sign with their fingers and shouted ,peace, peace’. No idea what that meant. Most probably it had been introduced by some hippies…

From Mandalay we flew to Bagan. We stayed at the Moe Moe guest house – only three dollars. Two years before our visit, a devastating earthquake had struck the plain of Bagan. The ancient city looked like a giant construction site. A rather imposing one! With some luck and skill and a little tea money we managed to get flight tickets from Bagan to Rangoon. I was totally fascinated by Burma and I vowed to myself that this was not my last visit to Burma. But little did I know that I would be back in less than three months…

Axel Bruns

Gurkha temples in Pyin Oo Lwin

Since I have arrived in my newly adopted home town of Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo) I was fascinated by its multicultural society. The city was founded in 1885 by the British as Hill Station, with Colonel May (5. Bengal Infantry) playing a leading role. If you add the Burmese word for city (myo) to the colonel’s name, you get Maymyo. It’s that simple. It served as the British governor’s summer residence during the British colonial era. From this time, numerous colonial buildings have been preserved that give the city its special charm. In 1990, the city was renamed Pyin Oo Lwin, which was the name of a Shan settlement that had been there long before Hill Station was founded. Although the city is located in the Shan Mountains, it is a part of Mandalay region. Today it is largely shaped by the military academy, cadets in uniform can be seen everywhere. Pyin Oo Lwin could almost be called cosmopolitan. To this day members of many minorities live here, who played an important role during the British colonial period. First among them are of course Indians from all corners of the subcontinent. I am only at the beginning of my research here and have so far mainly dealt with the Gurkhas (Nepalese warriors), besides with Hindu temple festivals (see my article Deepavali).

Most of the Nepalese in Myanmar are the descendants of soldiers who served in the British colonial army. A number of Gurkhas also served in the Burmese army after Myanmar’s independence (1948). About 8.000 Nepalese live in Pyin Oo Lwin today. Probably it reminds them of their homeland. It is cooler than in the hot Myanmar plains and there are even a few hills. So far I have found three temples in the area that are frequented by the community: the Pashupatinath temple in downtown Pyin Oo Lwin, the Kartikumar temple about 6 km from the city center on the Mandalay-Lashio Road and yet another in Anisakhan, a small town about 12 km from Pyin Oo Lwin.

Pashupatinath temple

At the southern end of Aung Zeya Road is a temple complex belonging to the Nepalese Gorakha (Gurkha) community. It is usually called Pashupatinath temple. Which is not entirely correct, because strictly speaking there are two temples: the large Durga temple and the smaller Pashupatinath temple. The former is dedicated to the goddess Durga, whom the Burmese worship as Nat under the name Durga Maedaw. The smaller Pashupatinath Temple has an interesting history, although it is not very old. It was founded in 1964 by King Mahendra of Nepal (1920-1972) during a visit to (then) Burma. The king was considered a patron by the Nepalese living in Myanmar. However, the monarchy has been abolished in Nepal since 2008. The temple is dedicated to the god Shiva, who is worshipped by many believers as the overlord of Nepal. Here in his form as Pashupati, i.e. ‘Lord of the beasts’. This is a very old incarnation of the God, as a similar deity was the object of worship already in the Indus culture (3rd millennium B.C.). In front of the temple stands a statue of the bull Nandi, Shiva’s mount and one of Hanuman, commonly known as the ‘monkey god’. A somewhat crude simplification.

The prototype for this temple is its world-famous namesake in Kathmandu Valley, one of the most important Hindu pilgrimage sites in the world. It is situated on the banks of the Bagmati River, a tributary of the Ganges, and is said to have existed since around 400 B.C.! The temple in Pyin Oo Lwin itself is unspectacular by comparison. Two donor’s inscriptions (one in Burmese, the other in Nepali) tell the story of its establishment. Behind the temple is an interesting labyrinth. In its center stands a round temple that contains a shivalinga (often simply referred to as a phallus symbol). The labyrinth is made of bricks (I suspect) covered with marble slabs. A total of 64 marble shivalingas are erected on the walls of the labyrinth at irregular intervals. Unfortunately, nobody in the temple was able to explain to me what the labyrinth was all about. I was told that it was built on the model of a similar structure in the Pashupatinath temple in the Kathmandu valley. However, I am not aware of such a building there. Even friends who know that place better than I couldn’t help me. Behind the labyrinth is a smaller temple with the nine planet deities (navagraha). These differ significantly from their Burmese counterparts, e. g. the northeast is dedicated to Shiva in the form of Ishana (see Isan/Thailand), while in Myanmar the eagle (Garuda) is its symbolic animal.

In this temple I witnessed the Shivaratri (The night of Shiva) festival. It is one of the most important for the followers of this God. They are called Shaivas. It always falls on the night between the 13th and 14th day of the Hindu month of Phalgun and symbolizes the victory of light over darkness and the end of winter. In popular belief it is interpreted as the wedding of Shiva and Parvati. Unlike most Hindu festivals, this one is celebrated at night. It lasts for three nights, the highlight being the last night. Thousands of oil lamps are placed in the temples. Everywhere offerings, mostly fruits, can be seen. There is fasting, meditation, prayers are said and the mantra OM Namah Shivaya (OM is the name of Shiva) is recited non-stop. That day I saw a procession in the labyrinth for the first time. Many women with children walked through its narrow alleys and milk was poured over the shivalingas. A number of believers left clothing there as offering. It was an incredible evening with hundreds of believers, many of them dressed in festive robes. Some performed their pious deeds there, others just stood and talked. Many believers had gathered in the festival hall and listened to the music.

The balloon festival in Pyin Oo Lwin

Taunggyi’s balloon festival (near Lake Inle) has become world famous. And big business! In a copycat society like Myanmar it was only a matter of time until another city would pick up the idea. For quite some time now the city of Pyin Oo Lwin (aka Maymyo) organizes its own balloon festival. The city fathers wanted to boost international tourism. So far the city is more or less a summer resort for local visitors who want to escape the heat of the lowlands. Thus, there are many, many hotels with a long off-season.

The balloon festival in Pyin Oo Lwin takes place around the full moon of Tazaungmon (October /November). It coincides with the one in Taunggyi. It takes five days if I have been informed correctly. The climax is on full moon day. The launch site of the balloons is located about 10 km east of Pyin Oo Lwin’s city center (Purcell Tower). The majestic, brightly lit golden Maha An Too Kantha Pagoda is clearly visible from there and certainly not a bad place to see the balloons rising up into the air. At the launch site the festival’s organizers have erected a large grandstand. It’s not worth the money they charge. During our visit the balloons disappeared from the sight of the spectators on the grandstand quite quickly, due to wind conditions. As in Taunggyi, the hot air balloons are equipped with firework gondolas. The fireworks start when the balloon has reached a certain height. At least, that’s the plan! However, it happens quite frequently that the launch is delayed or the wind blows the balloon sideways – in the worst case directly into the grandstand. Caution is definitely advised!

Somehow, we were a bit disappointed: the number of balloons launched at night is much lower than in Taunggyi! There, the balloons go up quickly at regular intervals all night long. In this respect, Pyin Oo Lwin still has a long way to go. There are long intervals between the launching of the balloons. The cultural show with traditional dances and so on cannot compensate for this. Nevertheless, we found our visits (we went twice!) quite rewarding.

The funfair on the big fairground was a hit! First and foremost of course the usual food stalls and market stalls for all kinds of goods (textiles dominate). The noise of market criers all over! Sometimes amplified by loudspeakers. The fun rides were well attended and amazingly modern. A huge, brightly lit swingboat seemed to be especially popular. Great fun to look at the children’s carousels. While the little ones mostly sat with dead serious faces, their parents watched them closely with excitement. Much to my regret, the beautiful men-driven old Ferris wheels were missing. Instead, amazingly modern devices. For the people from Northern Shan State this is probably the ultimate experience. As the great German poet Goethe put it:

Here is the people’s paradise,
contented, great and small shout joyfully:
“Here I am Man, here dare it to be!”

Towering over a large marquee for the performance of traditional Burmese drama (pwe) there was a giant image of a zat-dancer. There was pink cotton candy on sale and there were shooting galleries where one could buy six tennis balls from pretty girls for only one thousand kyat and try his luck throwing them at prizes such as soft drinks, from my point of view not fit for human consumption. However, my employees who came along quite enjoyed drinking it. Maybe, I’m too picky… And all the cruelties of Burma’s cuisine, including my ‘favourite’ We’ Thar Tho Hto (pork entrails on small skewers). Customers sit in a circle around the kettle with the boiling broth and dunk their skewers into it. Hot seasoning is available for free. Dirt cheap! I haven’t dared to try the skewers yet. But I would like to join the circle sometime. That’s the way it must have been in long gone times, when the ancestors of today’s Burmese roamed the plains of Burma as nomads. Also bayi’ kyaw (roasted crickets) are something not be missed. By the way, it is surprisingly cold around the season. Pyin Oo Lwin is 1,200 m above sea level. So bring something warm like a sweater. Or two! My judgement: absolutely worth going!

Deepavali in Pyin Oo Lwin

Deepavali in Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo)

Last Sunday I had a very special evening. Maymyo has a significant minority of people from the Indian subcontinent. Accordingly, quite a few temples and mosques can be found here. Deepavali (aka Diwali) is the festival of light for the Hindus. It symbolizes the triumpf of light over derkness, good over evil and wisdom over ignorance. It is a gazetted holiday in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. Which isn‘t much of a surprise, as these guys hardly miss a chance to party. All houses, shops and other buildings that are occupied by Hindus are brightly illuminated and religious music is to be heard everywhere. In many homes mandalas are painted on the floor. These are geometrical configurations, very often with a religious content. Sometimes only used for decorative purposes. And of course oil-lamps are lit everywhere. As can be expected, the most brightly lit and decorated places are the temples.

According to my information, there are three Hindu temples here in Maymyo:

  • Pashupatinath is the temple of the Gurkhas (Nepali). Many of them are descendants of soldiers who have served in the British army in colonial times. Pashupati is a manifestation of Lord Shiva as the master of all animals. The shrine is named after the famous temple of the same name in Kathmandu (Nepal)
  • Ganesha-Temple is the centre of worship for the Tamils from South India. It is dedicated to the Ganesha, the famous elephant-headed god. Who is known under various names such as Ganapati, Vinayaka etc. He is the conqueror of obstacles and the patron of merchants, bankers, writers – and thieves. His vehicle (vahana) is a rat. Ganesha belongs to the Shivaite spectrum of gods.
  • Last but not least, Krishna-Tempel is the place where the ‚Indians‘ meet. At least I was told so by a lady who attended a ceremony. My argument that Tamils and Nepalis – somehow – were ‚Indians‘, too, was met with a mysterious smile. Krishna, mostly depicted as a child with blue skin, is the protector of herdsmen. He is considered to be the eighth incarnation of Vishnu. Interestingly, Lord Buddha is worshipped as the ninth incarnation of that god.

With my bicycle I went to those temples to have a look at the ceremonies there. It seems that ghe Gurkhas (Burmese: Gorakha) prefer to celebrate at home. No doubt, there were mandalas painted on the floor. But the congestion was rather limited, to put it friendly. At least a priest (brahmin) was present who dabbed a red dot (tilak) on my forehead for as little as one thousand kyat. A pity, as this temple is a very interesting one! The ‚Indians‘ in the Krishna temple seem to share the habit of celebrating at home. Only a few visitors strayed by while I was there.

The Ganesha temple offered a completely different picture. A big mandala decorated the forecourt of the temple and there were quite a few of them inside, too! All around there were oil lamps (one thousand it total if I may believe the brahmin) that were lit a exactly 8 pm bby the believers. The ladies were dressed in their most beautiful saris. Tamil religious songs were played from a cassette. I have studied Tamil at Berlin university several decades ago. So I was able to show off with a few words and proverbs I remembered from those long gone days. Oru nalla matukka or adi, oru nalla manithanukka oru col (‚A good ex needs only one blow. A good man only one word‘). Or how about this one? Panam enral, pinamum vayeit tirakkum – Say money and even a corpse will open his mouth! And when finally I deciphered a few words in Tamil script everybody was sure that a true man of genius must have found his way to the temple. Then I vaulted into the saddle and pedaled home.

Htam Sam Cave, Hopong

Overland from Taunggyi to Kyaing Tong

Ever since coming to Myanmar (then Burma) the first time in 1977, I’ve been dreaming about this trip. How many times have I been standing in Taunggyi or Kyaing Tong and longed for taking this road. For several decades it was virtually impossible to do it, as the road (NH 27) leads through territory that was controlled by insurgents and tribal armies for a long time. Even today fighting between rebel groups and government troops flares up occasionally. If that happens, the road will be closed immediately for tourists… Now, forty-two years later, my dream came true.

The permit situation is somewhat confusing. According to MTT (Myanmar Travel & Tours) we didn’t need one. On the other hand, when we reached the check post at the Salween River bridge they told us that without a permit we wouldn’t have been permitted to cross the river… So better bring one. It is important that all passengers are mentioned in the permit. If one doesn’t come along, just delete him or her. And bring plenty of passport copies and copies of your permit! Foreigners cannot do the trip without a licenced guide. It seems that we could have gone all the way from Heho to the Salween River without a permit. There were no checkpoints. As we’ve learnt, foreigners who don’t have a permit are free to stay wherever they want. I mean, as long as there is a guest house with a licence. At least that’s what we’ve been told. If you have a permit, however, you’ll have to stay in Namhsam. There’s a reasonable hotel in town that costs 40.000 Kyats. Including hot water! Quite a relief, as it tends to be cold at night.

The six of us (Tobias, Htet Htet, Klaus, Lucas, Andreas and myself) rented a comfortable Hyundai H 1 van from Yoma fleet. Tobias has a Burmese driving licence and drove all the way. The total distance between Heho and Kyaing Tong is about 480 km. From Heho to Namhsam it is around 160 km. Which means, you’ll have to do two thirds of the trip in one go. It is NOT allowed to overnight on the way. So make sure to start early from Namhsam on day 2.

Htam Sam Cave, HopongWe left Heho around 9.30 am and arrived in Namhsam around 4 pm. As we had plenty of time on the first day, we made quite a few stops. The first in Hopong after ca. 50 km. There is a famous cave by the name of Htam Sam Cave. Foreigners have to pay a whopping 20 (twenty) USD. That must be the highest entry fee in the country. So we asked our local guide to go inside and take some photos. Which she did.

Schöpfrad am Nang Pawn RiverWhen we crossed the Nampawn River we saw an ancient (?) scoop wheel that irrigated the paddy fields nearby. The way it looked, we guessed it must be standing there for a long, long time. After a few miles we reached the famous city of Pinlon, a.k.a. Panglong, where we had lunch (Shan noodles, quite alright). Then we paid a visit to the conference site of Burmese unity, as it is called. It was here, that Aung San and 23 signatories of various ethnic groups signed the Panglong agreement on 12. February 1947 (Union Day). I had expected a house but there was only an empty space with the usual obelisk and photographs of the signatories. Aung San of course in the centre. Seems it was signed in an open air ceremony… After climbing up to about 1.700 m over a mountain pass we reached Namhsam, where we stayed at the PINELAND 2 Hotel for the night.

Lahu-HochzeitWe left Namhsam at 6.30 a.m. Not far from the village Kho Lam we stopped at a small village of the Ta’Ang Palaung. The men wear remarkable trousers, resembling wide breeches. Not far from that village there is the beautiful Nawng Phar Lake, over and over covered with lotus flowers. Not to be missed! At milestone 331 (km, that is!) a deeply wooded, very dominant, steep mountain rises in the middle of rich paddy fields. A few km down the road we stopped at a Lahu wedding ceremony. The Lahu are Christians and we saw the two couples being blessed by a priest. The brides were 16, resp. 17 years old. The bridegrooms didn’t look much older. The friendly people invited us for lunch (plenty of pork!) but as we had a long trip ahead of us, we had to decline their invitation. We crossed the (quite impressive) Pang River, a tributary of the Salween River and not much later the Der mächtige Salweenmuddy waters of the Thanlwin itself greeted us from afar. At the bridge we had to report to the first check post during our trip. People were rather friendly but – as mentioned above – Ein Wasserfall am Wegesrandwithout a permit this would have been the end of the road for us. For many it may be a surprise, that the Salween River is longer than the famous Ayeyarwady River. However, its importance as a route of transport is negligible, as it runs mostly through mountainous, sparsely populated terrain. It is navigable only for around 200 km from its estuary near Mawlamyaing. Not far from the Salween we stopped at a rather romantic little waterfall. Remarkably, we didn’t find any plastic waste there. A rare sight in Myanmar. But – strangely – we found a pair of underpants that someone must have forgotten there… Before reaching Kyaing Tong we had to cross a mountain pass with altitude of nearly 2.000 meters before we climbed down into the Kyaing Tong basin.

Kyaing Tong is a laid-back city. However, I have to admit that since my first visit there in 2002 the city has made quite some progress. Now quite a few reasonable restaurants cater to the demands of foreigners and power cuts were not as frequent as back then. Our favourite was the Iron Cross. From the terrace we had a spectacular view over the lake! We stayed at the Amazing Kyaing Tong Hotel, formerly known as the Kyaing Tong New Hotel. Many travelers avoid it because it was built on the site of the former palace (haw) of the Shan Sawbwas of Kyaing Tong, demolished by the Burmese government in 1991. You’ll have to decide for yourself but I think it’s the best deal in the city. Even the breakfast is o.k. for the western palate (butter instead of the ubiquitous Mother’s Choice margarine!). The rooms were clean and quite alright (hot water, air condition and TV), even though some of our clients some time ago mentioned a feeling of forlornness, whenever they walked the hotel’s dark aisles at night. They said it reminded them of the Overlook Hotel in Oregon, US, where parts of the movie ‘The Shining’ were shot… When I looked at the swimming pool, teeming with happy children, I thought it may have been not a totally bad idea, to turn the palace gardens into a place, where kids can enjoy a swim. Formerly, these gardens were reserved for the Shan royalty. Even though. personally I’d have preferred to convert the palace into a boutique hotel.

Im Wat Jong Kham TempelPlanetenandachtsstätte im Wat Jong Kham. Rahu ganz rechts, dargestellt durch die Szene im Parilayaka ForestThe city is home to quite a few temples. Most of them built in Laotian style rather than in the Burmese. Among them, Wat Jong Kham is definitely the highlight. It houses quite a few beautiful Buddha statues and interesting gold leaf pictures on a lacquer base. They show various scenes from the Enlightened One’s life, jataka stories etc. I’ve noted an interesting detail in this region of Shan State: contrary to the rest of the country, the planetary posts don’t show the usual eight animals. Instead, the days are identified by different postures (mudra) of the Buddha.

Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take the road to Special Region 4 with its ‘capital’ Mongla, dubbed as Myanmar’s Las Vegas (Chinese customers only!). Even the two beautiful Loi Wa villages of Wan Nyat and Wan Seng with their picturesque Buddhist temples (wats) were not accessible. A pity! I remember there were some beautiful longhouses and the people went hunting withColonel Rubels Haus, Loi Mwe crossbows. And a lot of tea plantations up there. Better luck next time, hopefully. Instead, we went to Loi Mwe (dubbed ‘Misty Mountain’ by the British), situated about 30 km south of Kyaing Tong. The mountain road (definitely not for the faint-hearted) to the small hill station branches off from Highway No. 4 that leads to the border town of Tachileik. Spectacular rice terraces please the traveler’s eye. The big village boasts of an artificial lake, and pagoda on the hill and a Catholic church. There we met a priest who had just finished translating the New Testament into his native Akha language. The main attraction is probably Colonel Rubel’s residence, built exactly hundred years ago. Unfortunately, the red brick building is not open for visitors. From here, the colonel watched over this easternmost outpost of British India.

On the second day of our stay we visited several tribal villages in the vicinity of Kyaing Tong. Among the tribes, the Christian Lahu and the Buddhist Palaung had the nicest villages and their agriculture was quite progressed, compared to that of the other tribes. Further up in the hills, the Akha villages werEine freundliche Eng-Fraue more traditional, traces of animist worship can still be found there. The Eng (Ann) people occupy the highest places. There, agriculture is tiresome and yields are poor. They have kept their animist beliefs as well as their traditional dress. Their black teeth needs getting used to. On the other hand, we found them to be very funny characters. After a sweaty trek, the nearby hot springs offer welcome refreshment to weary travelers.

To sum it up: Don’t miss this trip. If you need help, let us know!

Photos: Klaus Scholpp and Lukas Messmer!

From the Bay of Bengal to the Shan Plateau

Novices at Ngwesaung Beach

In early May 2019 we (Tobias and Htet Htet, Martin and his wife Bee plus Ei Ei and myself) rented a comfortable car and set out on a 14-day tour of Myanmar. As Ei Ei and I had been to Ngewsaung beach several times, we joined them in Pathein. We liked the capital of the delta as it has kept a lot of old Burma flavor. Although a big shopping center has opened recently. Much to our surprise (and joy!) we found genuine HARIBO jelly bears there. Hard to find even in Yangon! We grabbed our chance to restock on our provisions! We stayed at the newly opened ‚The First Hotel‘, conveniently located at the city’s ‘Corniche’ – if it can be called that…

It takes only one hour from Ngwesaung beach to Pathein. Our friends stayed at the Shwe Hintha Hotel – simple but good, located directly at the beautiful beach. We headed north over the southernmost part of the old Pathein-Monywa Highway. The highway connects the delta with Monywa, the main town of the Chindwin Valley (Sagaing Region). It runs on the west bank of the Ayeyarwady River. The Burmese government built it in the 1950s to circumvent the rebel-held areas on the east bank of the Ayeyarwady. A few miles south of the village Alezu we left the highway and turned west.

We crossed the Arakan Mountain Range (Rakhine Yoma), which separates the state of the same name from the rest of the country. The mountain range follows the foothills of the eastern Himalayas (Chin Hills) and runs in north-south direction forming an arc. It is sparsely populated and the roads linking Arakan to the ‘rest of the country’ are rather bad. The narrow strip of land between the mountains and the Bay of Bengal, however, is one of the most densely populated areas of Myanmar. The height of this mountain range decreases to the south, until it seems to disappear in the Bay of Bengal near Cape Negrais. Which is a wrong conclusion: It continues south over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands all the way to Sumatra.

Arakan (Rakhine) State has been in the headlines of the international press for a considerable time. The conflict between the native Buddhist Tibeto-Burman Arakanese and Bengali immigrants (who call themselves Rohingya) dates back to British colonial times. In 2018 it culminated in the expulsion of several hundred thousand Muslims to Bangladesh. In addition, there has been a conflict for some time between the ethnic Arakanese Arakan Army (which seeks independence) and Burmese government forces. This conflict has led to several skirmishes with fatalities on both sides. The population – as happens all too often in Myanmar’s ongoing civil wars – got caught in the crossfire. As these events take place predominantly in the north of Arakan, it didn’t affect our trip.

There’s a check post at the border between Ayeyarwady Region and Arakan State. Immigration authorities had a look at our passports and our names were recorded in a voluminous book. Foreigners seem to be quite rare up there. An hour later we reached the town of Gwa, romantically located on the Bay of Bengal. From there it is still about an hour north to the town of Kanthaya. A bad road leads to the sea and finally our destination: the Arakan Nature Lodge!

The beach at Arakan Nature Lodge

It is operated by a male nurse from Switzerland named Ueli, who’s been living in Myanmar for quite a while. As he told us, he had worked for an NGO in Sandoway. Then he got the offer to take over this resort and he accepted it. The Arakan Nature Lodge consists of several fairly comfortable single-storey bungalows and some two-storey buildings, each one containing two rooms. Some of the bungalows are right on the beach, the rest in the second row.

We found the prices comparatively high (over 100 $). It should be noted, however, that all meals are included (full board). The food (a bit on the vegetarian side) tasted good, although the servings tended to be a bit small sometimes. Ueli and his team go to great lengths to pamper their guests. Solar powered electricity is available from 6 in the evening until 7 in the morning. There is no air conditioning or fans, which was O.K. for us (in the hot season!) as there was always a cool breeze from the sea. However, it tended to get a little unpleasant in the afternoon.

The toilets are not equipped with water flushing. After use, a mixture of rice husks and whatnot is sprinkled in the toilet bowl. The result was satisfactory as no bad odour came from the toilet. The guests were mostly expatriates based in Myanmar. At the time of our stay there were several couples with children visiting. The highlight – as can be expected – was the beach. It was exceptionally beautiful and practically deserted. Now and then we saw a few fishermen at the waterside.

Pillow lava

A beach like this one can actually be found in catalogues only. It is ideal for swimming, even for children. It takes a while before one reaches deep water. At the northern end of the beach we found very interesting, bizarre rock formations (pillow lava, see above). We did not dive or snorkel there. However, what we saw from above was impressive! The resort provides masks, fins and several watersports equipment for free. The journey to the beach is – not surprising in such a remote location – a bit difficult. It takes about eight hours by car from Yangon. A less strenuous journey goes via Ngapali/Sandoway, which is easily accessible by plane from Yangon. From the small airport it takes about three hours by car to the resort. There are quite a few pristine beaches on the way. In Kanthaya itself we saw a few guest houses and hotels that were catering for locals.

Our next stop was aforesaid Ngapali. There is a lot of hectic bustle going on there. It reminded me a bit of Kuta Beach (Bali) in the 70s. With one exception: there’s no night life in Ngapali, of course! We stayed at the Yoma Cherry Lodge, a nice resort north of the main beach. Unfortunately, the bay is also used by many fishermen as anchorage. So it often stinks of diesel, and the fishermen go about their work. The beach is therefore not very attractive. With the car it takes only a few minutes to the main beach, which is ideally suited for swimming. Our ranking of the beaches we’ve visited would be as follows: Arakan Nature Lodge would come in first, followed by Ngwesaung and Ngapali.

After three days in Ngapali, we hit the road to Pyay, located on the eastern slope of the Rakhine Yoma. The road headed north to Taungok. From there, the main route leads east over the Rakhine Yoma to Pyay. The mountain range here is higher than further south. The border between the Rakhine State and the Bago region runs along the crest of the ridge (about 1,300 m high). At the border the usual check and then we went to Pyay (Prome). We arrived there in the evening. To my astonishment, the mountain range was rather dry, the vegetation largely withered. Although it is located so close to the sea. And my astonishment became even greater when the next mountain, the Bago Yoma, was already considerably greener – although much further away from the sea. And to make the picture perfect, the farther eastern Shan Mountains were the greenest! This is likely to change fundamentally with the onset of the monsoon.

Bespectacled Buddha

Pyay, formerly known as Prome, is a fairly large town on the east bank of the Ayeyarwady River. A huge bridge connects it with the west bank. Besides the usual pagodas the city doesn’t have a lot to offer. We stayed at the Lucky Dragon Hotel, totally o.k.! However, it is likely that the newly opened Pyay Garden Hotel will be the city’s No. 1 soon. If you enjoy the good old Burmese socialist style, might be comfortable at the Mingala Garden Resort. The sights of the city are a little bit out of town. On the one hand there is the spectacled Buddha in Shwedaung. It It has become an important pilgrimage center! A Briton, whose wife suffered from an eye disease and was cured here, donated the glasses in the 1920’s. There have been several attempts to take off the glasses. They all ended in disasters of various kind. Finally, they just let it be. It takes nine monks to clean the glasses every fortnight!

Bu Hpaya

Certainly more interesting is Sri Kshetra. The Burmese call it Tharekittaya. It is the last of the great cities of the mysterious Pyu people. They played an important role in the country’s early history. The big city was overwhelmed by enemies in the 9th century A.D. and its inhabitants were dispersed in all directions of the compass. The ruins cover a large area. They are considerably older than the buildings in Bagan. A small museum tells the story of the city. The Pyu ‚invented‘ the so called gourd stupa (Bu Hpaya), so called, because it resembles a gourd. In addition to the big stupas Hpayagyi and Bawbawgyi especially the Laymyethna-Tempel with its four entrances (the model for all later temples of this kind) deserves attention. The ruins convey a serene impression and one can easily spend a day here. Quite contrary to Bagan, you’ll hardly find any visitors there.

Bago Yoma Eco Resort

After visiting Sri Kshetra we headed east to the Bago Yoma (Bago mountain range). It extends from Mt. Popa (near Bagan) in the north over several hundred km down to the south and ends in Yangon. Theingottara hill, on which the Shwedagon pagoda stands, is the last spur of the mountain range. It is not particularly high but an important center of forestry. Most of Myanmar’s teak logs originate here. You can still see elephants at work there. It is possible to visit the camps by appointment. Unlike other camps (like Poe Khyar Camp) this is the real thing! We stayed at Bago Yoma Eco Resort, which is located on the western slope of the mountain range. It was tastefully decorated and we stayed in comfortable beautiful bungalows. We even had aircondition at night! From there, one can mak trips to the Bago Yoma. Wild elephants and even tigers roam the forest. At least I read in the New Light of Myanmar that poachers had shot a tiger there and were severely punished. We left the lodge after lunch and reached Toungoo in the late afternoon.

Thandaungkyi

Toungoo is the nucleus of the second Burmese empire (16. – 18. Century A.D.). Later, the kings moved the capital to Bago (Pegu) and then to Ava (Inwa). The huge palace is a reminder of past greatness. We stayed in Myanmar Ahla (Myanmar Beauty Hotel). A hotel that has seen better times! Soon a large new building will be opened next door. Obviously, the owners count on a strong increase in tourism. Even in this remote area. Let’s hope so, by goodness! We used Toungoo as base for an excursion to Thaundaungkyi. After leaving the dusty plain, we reached a beautiful green mountian world. As mentioned above, the greenest of them all!

We had to pass the border to Karen state (no check post!). There are many Christians living in that state and Thandaungkyi is an important pilgrim center for them. On a mountaintop rises the ‘biggest Christian cross of Myanmar’. It is made of steel and due to its good lighting it is also visible at night. Up there we met a lot of nice people! We returned to Toungoo and there we parted ways: Tobias, Htet Htet, Martin and Bee drove to Yangon. Ei Ei and me continued to Bagan and then on to Mogok (see previous blog entry: “RUBY LAND – A trip to Mogok“).

Axel Bruns