Monday, July 22, 2013

Life in Myanmar

I had just spent about 20 minutes trying to open blogspot in order to log this post when my low battery alert went off, sending me in a search for an outlet. Now that I'm finally ready to go, crouched in a corner of our guesthouse, blogspot is warning me that it is unable to save my post due to internet connectivity issues. Myanmar is entering the modern world - but just barely.

It's amazing that I'm able to connect to the internet at all in Myanmar. I had contemplated not even bringing my laptop because I had read recent reports that travelers shouldn't expect any kind of connection to the outside world: internet or cellular. But Myanmar is changing by the day and most guesthouses now do have internet access; just enough to write home about.

We're in Bagan right now, the most obvious destination for tourists outside of Yangon, the largest city of Myanmar. Bagan is a huge archaeological area about 15 square miles filled with pagodas and Buddhist stupas dating back nearly 1000 years. It's right on the Irrawaddy river and is a kind of cultural heritage center of Myanmar. Unfortunately, it's also our least favorite place so far. We were originally skeptical about coming to Bagan due to the tourist push there but everyone insisted that we must come here to see the pagodas and stupas. I'm not going to write about Bagan because a) it's one of the most written about sites in Myanmar and b) I don't have many positive things to say about it so far.

Instead, I'll catch up on the past week and our time in Hsipaw and Inle lake.

We arrived in Mandaly by air from Bangkok on July 15 and then by 4am the next morning, were on a rocking train east towards the mountains of Shan state. It was a 12 hour ride that was surprisingly beautiful and as much adventure as you could hope for on a train; switchbacks up mountains, a 100 year old viaduct built by the British crossing a river flowing into a cave, violently rocking carriages due to settling rails that hopefully aren't as well maintained as the viaduct. And then you get to Hsipaw (pronounced "Thipaw"). It's a beautiful, small little town on a river nestled in the mountains. There's a hill just outside of town where you can watch the sunset. I liked the town immediately because you can see the whole package in one field of vision. You can see the main road going through it, nearly every house in town, the river in the foreground and rice fields in the background. As a traveler, towns like Hsipaw are great because you only have a few days to digest them and they lend themselves to being digested easily. Without them, the unending possibility of cities like Bangkok and Saigon wear me down.

From Hsipaw, we hired a guide and hiked up into the mountains to a little village where we spent the night and then came back the next day. This village of about 100 houses, Than Sant, would be interesting to visit in ten more years. It's indigenous export is green tea leaves but they are under pressure from the Chinese, who sell tea for much cheaper. There's a burgeoning tourist trade in the area as Myanmar opens up, so it will be interesting to see how Than Sant manages the economic decline of the tea trade and the increase in tourism. I'm fairly certain that there isn't any kind of comprehensive strategy for how to handle the transition, so it will likely happen organically. I'm filing it away for 10 years from now when I come back, maybe.

From Hsipaw we took a 17 hour bus ride onto Inle lake, Myanmar's largest inland body of water at about 3000 feet above sea level. Again, the natural beauty was immense and as soon as you got out of the main town (just a tad bigger than Hsipaw) you were in a wild, remote countryside where people lived off of the lake. Until recently, Myanmar had been under strict sanctions by the west. Likely because of this, it's rare to find western brands. Once you get out of the city, Coca Cola is pretty much the only western brand that you can find. Everything else is locally made, which makes eating an adventure. They have indigenous potato chips, but most of the pre-packaged food involves dried fruit, soy bean, fish or a combination of those three. It's not always the tastiest, but it's definitely different.

Also, there are the tomatoes. Inle lake is the tomato producing heartland of Myanmar and they can be had tasty, ripe and cheap in all sorts of forms. My favorite has become tomato salad, which is fresh tomatoes mixed with peanut sauce and sesame seeds. Sometimes they put fried garlic on top, which is the best.

I don't want to give the impression that Myanmar food is necessarily good. They definitely do salads well, and we've enjoyed the tomato and papaya salads especially, but the main courses usually just involve a whole lot of rice and strangely colored meat. Myanmar is a very poor country (I think the poorest I've ever been to) and it shows in their food. They are practical eaters and see food as fuel to cultivate and harvest more food. Still, the uniqueness of some of the indigenous foods here makes for a culinary adventure.

What I've struggled with the most here is what to take away from Myanmar. I read about this country the most before our trip, but everything I read was about colonial and war-time Burma. I didn't get to the more modern history or Burma's military rule since the 1960s. Since the more recent history is more on everyone else's mind, there is a higher degree of "moral tourists" who come here. They come here to show their support for the people and have done their homework to avoid government run businesses. We haven't done that. When I come to Myanmar, I see the vast natural resources and geo-strategic importance of this country wedged between India and China, providing a back door for southern China to the Indian ocean. Myanmar is a country of vast potential wealth, but due to the giants on either side of it, it's unlikely that the country will ever have a high degree of autonomy or evenly distributed wealth.

That being said, I highly recommend it as a place to visit. There is so much unspoiled beauty here and, especially now that tourism is on the rise after years of restrictions, the people are very welcoming and friendly to foreigners. I feel almost exploitative saying that. There's a tourist rush right now precisely because people want to see this place that has been locked away for so long, only to rush on to the next place. That's what we're doing and I don't feel particularly proud of it. I wish we were staying longer, but Italy beckons. I start classes in about three weeks and we need to get to Singapore by then. I think I may be done with the expansive, fast moving trips. Next time, I want to just go somewhere and marinate there for a while.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Passing Frontiers Part II: The Chopstick Frontier

Back in April, 2011, I wrote a post about the multi-layered frontier of southeast Europe as one passes from Christianity to Islam. Now, two years later, I am noticing similar observations in southeast Asia. As we move from China, through Vietnam, Cambodia and now, Thailand, we’re noticing a lot of gradual changes as we head mostly south and a little west towards Singapore.

First, there are the religious boundaries. Passing from Vietnam to Cambodia, we went from the predominant Mahayana branch of Buddhism to the smaller branch of Theravada Buddhism. I’m still not clear on the exact differences between the two branches. Both claim to be more closely aligned with the original teachings of the Buddha. The architecture of Buddhist temples changes pretty dramatically though when you move from Mahayana to Theravada territory. In China and Vietnam, the temples were more linear in architecture. As you enter the temple, you pass through or around several altars in a straight line. So far in Cambodia and Thailand, the temples have been more like complexes of concentric circles with a main hall in the middle that is more like a Christian church in its layout. It’s interesting to compare the architectural differences going back even a thousand years. Angkor, the old capital of Cambodia, is made up of dozens of massive palaces, temples and entire cities made of stone that are more labyrinthine. You move through them in a spiral closing in on the middle tower and apex of the structure. Meanwhile, the Forbidden City in Beijing, the old Chinese imperial headquarters, follows the linear progression of gates and buildings of the Mahayana Buddhist temples. I’m not sure what the significance of all that is. I could try some imaginative comparing and contrasting between Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, and how the architecture is symbolic of the people who practice the religions, but It would be pretty much made up. For now, I can only make aesthetic observations.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia - an example of Theravada Buddhist architecture
Angkor Wat: aerial view
Credit: Georg Gerster/Photo Researchers, Inc LINK

...Compared to the Forbidden City in Beijing, where Mahayana Buddhism is the norm
Disclaimer: These two photos are obviously not my own, I'm just using them as examples to prove my point. 

Foreigners (both tourists and expats) have become much more prominent as we've traveled southwest. In Kunming, you could easily go a week without seeing a foreigner if you avoided a few specific streets. Northern Vietnam was similar and we didn't really start seeing hordes of foreigners until we got down to central Vietnam where the nice beaches are. Angkor Wat felt more like an international airport terminal than an ancient Cambodian archaeological site. Granted, it’s the biggest tourist attraction in Cambodia, but even at places like the great wall in China, you’ll still see more Chinese people than foreigners. Part of the reason is that as we've left China, the standard of living has gone down and people are in general more poor. That was true for Vietnam and Cambodia, at least, Thailand is a different story, but the trend will continue as we go on to Myanmar. Even though China is relatively poor and disorganized compared to the West, it is, in general, much wealthier and more organized than many states in southeast Asia. Living in Kunming, it was always a little hard for me to imagine how influential China is in southeast Asia. China is pretty poor and most Chinese people you talk to hardly know Vietnam or Thailand exist. I remember pointing at a map of Myanmar at the LIBRARY in Kunming asking her what the name of that country is in Chinese. She gave me the Chinese name for Bangkok. If Jay Leno was allowed in China, I’m sure he could find as many ignorant Chinese as he finds ignorant Americans.

But, getting back to my point about there being progressively more foreigners, I think it is partly perception. Cambodia only has 14 million people, most of whom still live in fairly rural areas. An influx of foreigners to the cities and developed areas are going to be much more easily noticed than in China, with it’s heavily urbanized 1.3 billion people. There is a real difference, too, though. It’s much easier for foreigners to access southeast Asia than China. Visa rules and fees are less daunting, WAAAY more people speak English, and countries like Cambodia and Thailand depend heavily on tourism for their economy. Foreign tourism in China is probably barely even a blip on their GDP. For Cambodia, it’s a lifeline. If your daily bread (or rice) depends on foreign tourists, there’s going to be more of an effort to accommodate them. All in all, it makes me happy we lived in China first and spent so much time there. The satisfaction of getting a glimpse into Chinese life seems much better earned after seeing how easy it is to get around southeast Asia. And even in Myanmar, with all its eccentricities, we’ll at least have the advantage of being in a widely English speaking country, thanks to the British colonialism legacy.

One of my favorite and most anticipated “frontier” that we've been passing through is the “chopstick frontier". In China, the only time you ever saw a fork and knife was at a western restaurant. Chopsticks were by far the most widely used eating utensils. Vietnam was the same. But that started to change in Cambodia. We immediately noticed upon getting off the boat in Phnom Penh that forks and knives were much more in use there. We later learned that Cambodians typically reserve chopsticks for eating noodles. They were available at most food stalls, but not as the utensil of choice. We've seen chopsticks drop even further in use in Thailand. As a quantitative example, last night we went to a food stall market and sampled five dishes there. We were only offered chopsticks with one of the dishes (noodles) but it was spoons or forks for the rest. We’re eagerly awaiting the results for Myanmar. I anticipate that as we move further south through Malaysia and Singapore, chopsticks will become utensils associated more with the well represented Chinese/Japanese/Korean communities like it is in the US. Come to think of it, the “chopstick frontier” follows pretty closely the border between Mahayana and Theravada branches of Buddhism. Hmmmmm....

Of course, there’s also the gradual liberalization of political systems as we move from China to Singapore, with Myanmar the obvious exception. We celebrated the 4th of July by leaving the communist grips of China and Vietnam for the Red, White and Blue of freedom loving Cambodia. It was a good way to celebrate throwing off the shackles of tyranny, I thought. But Cambodia doesn't even compare to the wide-open society of Thailand. Plus, Thailand doesn't have the historical baggage of dictatorship that Cambodia does. However, Thailand has been and still is ruled by a King, so moving on to Malaysia will only bring us more freedom and prosperity, I’m sure. Notice how I’m skipping over our next stop, Myanmar, because it doesn't fit the pattern. But technically, Myanmar will be a detour from the general southwesterly direction of our trip. In fact, when we’re in Hsipaw in northern Myanmar, we will have made almost a full circle back to Kunming. We’ll be a little less than 400 miles away as the crow flies.

The Cambodian flag. Not exactly the same layout as the stars and stripes, but the color scheme is good enough to celebrate the 4th.