#6 Bangkok, March 10, 2003

Dear Everybody,

Well, I’m finally back on hotmail, and can send you all this message directly. I’m in Bangkok now, after spending five weeks in Myanmar. During my last week there I had some (very) minor disasters but to let you know that everything does not always go perfectly, I shall report on them.

The last day that I was in Nyaungshwe, I visited the Shan Palace Museum, an interesting old palace with thrones, swords, costumes and photos from the 1800’s. On the way back I spotted a beauty shop and since my roots needed coloring, I stopped in to see if they had any hair color that wasn’t black. Well, yes, they did, and I chose ‘chestnut brown.’ I have found that I must choose a color from the color chart that is lighter than my natural color because any darkish brown turns almost black on my hair. When it was finished, having used a toothbrush to apply the color and after doing the shampoo over a sink by pouring dippers of cool water out of a bucket that drenched my tee shirt, the results were in. Quite startling! My roots were a very light colored tan chestnut! I figure that it’s because many young Burmese, especially males, are lightening their hair and I think that in order to lighten that black hair, the color has to be on the light side so the lighter shade will show up at all. Or something like that.

Anyway, I got Air Mandalay back to Yangon on Thursday and decided to try to color my hair myself. I had to look quite a while and ask a lot of people where they sold hair color. This time I bought ‘truly brown’ and an artist’s brush to apply it. I tried to do it as I have seen it done many times, but this is not so easy on oneself, especially doing the back. When I was finished—voilla! It looked pretty good! (Disaster remedied) The directions had said not to color your hair if it had previously been colored within three weeks. I was glad when nothing untoward seemed to have happened since it had only been one day since the previous disaster.

On the airplane I read the in-flight magazine, which had an article about the “best restaurant in Yangon—Le Planteur.” It described a Thursday, Friday and Saturday night garden barbeque at 6:00 PM with ‘all you can eat and drink’ for $18. I had been having very good meals for $2-3. Well, why not a little treat for myself? The article strongly suggested making reservations but experience has taught me that most restaurants take a dim view of a reservation for ‘one,’ especially with a female voice. My typical stratagem is to forget the reservation and go early.

So I arrived right after 6:00 PM. Well, the article was incorrect (I had it with me) as to the time. I was an hour early. I said that I would drink while I waited (whisky, wine and beer were included). Well, no, they couldn’t start so early. OK, so I waited until 6:40 and asked again—“a small whisky with ice, please.” Still more delay—apparently they had a set presentation. And of course the drill is to serve drinks (a sweet rum cocktail that I said I didn’t want) followed by the cheapest (but drinkable) French wines and rich food so that you’ll be sated by the time the meat is served. Now, I KNOW THIS, which is why I rarely go to an ‘all you can eat.’ So while the salads and starters loaded with thousand island dressing and tartar sauce and other rich things were served, I was really annoyed with myself. When the meal was completed, it really had not been a ‘treat’ at all, so a minor disaster. The best part was a classical guitar player who really was a treat!

Friday I got a bus to Bago, less than two hours from Yangon. The bus was full with pull down seats in the aisle and extra people standing at the front of the bus. A ticket taker, luckily very slim, squeezed himself through the crowded bus collecting fares from those that got on during the trip. When we got to Bago, he signaled me that I would be getting off shortly. I looked up at my backpack and daypack that were in the luggage rack, wondering how I would get them and me off this plumb full bus. I needn’t have been concerned—the ticket taker worked his way back to my seat near the rear of the bus, apparently telling everybody along the way that I would be getting off. When the bus stopped he nodded me toward the door as all the passengers made way for me. He then called to somebody across the street who came running and he handed my packs to them through the bus window! They immediately ran across the street to the Emperor Hotel, where I was planning to stay anyway.

I was pleased when my $6 room had satellite TV including CNN—my first TV news in almost five weeks. I was not pleased, when turning on the TV, I learned that the Dow had dropped to about 7500. I turned it off in disgust (did I really want to know that?) and went sightseeing.

I had a trishaw driver take me around to several payas and monasteries, the highlight being a very old but restored reclining Buddha that is 180 feet long and 50 feet high. At one point the trishaw driver, who knew a little English, asked me if I had children, and I told him about my children and grandchildren. He, in turn, told me that he had two children, a boy, seven, and a girl, three. And then he added, “And that’s all now, no more!” I gather that family planning must be pretty extensive here in Myanmar if a small town trishaw driver who is close to the bottom of the economic heap was of this persuasion.

I had lunch at a restaurant next door to my hotel, whose specialty was ‘fighting goat balls’ fixed a number of ways. Yes, they mean goat testicles. I had them with cauliflower and quail eggs over rice. They were a little tough, I thought, but the restaurant served draft beer which hit the spot.

The next morning I hired a car to take me to Kyaikiyo Pagoda, or the Golden Rock. We drove for three hours over flat farming land, part of the delta of the Ayeyarwady River with many ‘farming scenes’—rice crops, haying, ox carts pulled by beautiful oxen, even little boys riding water buffalo. As we neared the mountains and the pagoda my driver pointed it out to me, waaaay up there, on the mountainside. This thing is a huge round boulder that somehow is balanced on a rocky ledge, with a third of its bulk hanging over thin air. The whole rock has been gold-leafed and has been crowned with a gold stupa. How they actually got the gold leaf on the outside of this balanced rock—well, it would take an awful lot of religious faith to be hanging over the outside portion of that rock!

The driver let me off at the foot of the mountain to take a large pickup truck half way up—the only vehicles permitted on the road. I suspect the reasons are twofold: 1) the mountain road is very steep and I noticed that the trucks are quite new and very powerful (six forward gears); 2)it gives the local economy a boost as each passenger has to buy a ticket on the trucks.

The trucks were equipped with about eight plank-benches arranged across the backend, front to back, with only about 10 inches between benches. they packed us passengers in there, five across. It was impossible to sit with your knees straight out, so we were each pretty much sitting in the lap of the person behind.

This was supposed to take 30 minutes, but it took nearly an hour as we stopped at a special shrine where Buddhist devotees got off the truck and worshiped. After a series of switchbacks we finally got to the ‘truck park’ from which we had to go on foot. All but three of us passengers were non-foreigners, mostly families with children, or couples, come to have a spiritual holiday at the Buddhist Kyaiktiyo Pagoda.

My driver said it would be a thirty minute walk to the Golden Rock from the truck park; the Lonely Planet guidebook said 45 minutes (keep in mind, most ‘lonely planeters’ are young male backpackers) but for me, it took an hour and 10 minutes. There were ‘carrying chairs’ available—four strong young men with a device made of two bamboo poles with a lawn chair slung between with which they offered to carry me up the mountain. They absolutely pestered me to death, no doubt because my face must have been bright red, and the distance between rest stops for me was getting shorter and shorter. But I persevered and MADE IT to the Golden Rock!

The last little way required shoe removal as this was the formal enclosure of the pagoda and since it was now high noon, the marble, with which this part was paved, had become pretty hot. I marveled at the difference in temperature between the strips of white marble versus tan or black. The white was much cooler, or I should say, not stinging hot. However, the pattern of the marble only allowed white in certain spots so I danced plenty fast over the tan and black stretches.

And finally, there was the Golden Rock, hanging out over the mountain. It really does look precariously balanced! This is a very holy place and people were paying their devotions to it and to numerous other buildings and shrines also on the grounds.

Given the temperature of the marble paving, I did not tarry long but went to have lunch. (When the going gets tough, the tough have lunch!)

Even walking down the mountain was quite a challenge for me as it was pretty steep although there was a good cement pavement to walk on. Back to the truck (this time I paid extra to ride in the cab, which is how I knew about the ‘six gears forward’), back to my driver and back to Bago. From there I got another ride back to Yangon.

Now I’m in Bangkok, having met up with David. This evening we caught up on all our news, then we’ll leave for Cambodia on Wednesday morning by bus. All is well.


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