burma

Kachin State — Myanmar’s Christian North

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

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Confluence of the N’mai and Mali rivers. Both originate as small streams on the Tibetan Plateau, and draw their waters from Himalayan-range glaciers. My tuktuk driver explained that N’mai is coming from China and Mali from India. Its not entirely clear wether the source of both rivers are in Burmese side or not. Judging the maps, some small streams indeed seem to come across the borders. The confluence is the origin of Irrawaddy River, Myanmars main waterway that flows through the country, all the way to Bay of Bengal.

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June 2015

Train to Myitkyina. We leave squeaking and shaking from Mandalay station into the night. Watching out into darkness, communities are living by the faintly lit street. Smart phones and TV screens are glowing back from there. Next morning we should be well on the way to north and after 24hrs should arrive to Myitkyina, Kachin state of Myanmar.

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Train traveling.
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Morning. Last night went without a sleep, not even the lightest dozing, ride is just too jumpy. Locals didn’t seem to mind much and kept sleeping. Outside our wagon, day is slowly opening. Clouds are looming low, and fields are wet. All the windows are open, sudden shower could wash us all inside. Farmers with their oxen are already plowing the paddies. “Iron-buffaloes” that are a norm in neighbouring Thailand, can be seen also occasionally. Change is coming also in remote parts of Myanmar. On railroads no such luck, except least were using steam locomotives like when British built the tracks 100+ years ago. Burmese trains defy the laws of gravity, to be put mildly.

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Ages old scenes meet today in north Myanmar.
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Myitkyina. Wide Irrawaddy is quiet. Night is coming and different shades over blue are descending over it. Due to the military restrictions, there is no traffic in the river. Water is plenty and level high, it would be easy to sail to Bhamo in south. Christian churches are everywhere, outnumbering the Buddhist temples in the city. A work of European missionaries in 19th century, who converted the local animist population to followers of Christ. Still, when looking the statistics, Buddhism is dominant religion also in Kachin state like in the rest of Myanmar.

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Street market in Myitkyina.

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Bhamo-Katha river boat.

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Two pranksters in Myitkyina.

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View from U-Bein bridge Mandalay, April 2013 & June 2015.
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South Myanmar in Photos

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

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Moulmein.
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June 2015

Most travelers head north from Yangon, Bagan and Inle-lake especially. But south-east of the country offers fascinating sights to see as well. Here are couple photos from Moulmein and Hpa-An.

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Moulmein. Worlds largest reclining Buddha at Mudon.
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Moulmein.
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Moulmein.
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Hpa-An.
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Hpa-An.
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Hpa-An.
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Hpa-An.
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Hpa-An.
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Amazing cloud of bats going for eat, every sunset.

Mandalay and Shan Minority Region of Myanmar

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

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Mandalay and Shan minority region: Land, and people from many ethnic groups are beautiful. Although world changes fast, here too, it was still possible to find places little affected by modern times.

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April 2013 & June 2015

Woke up in bus around 6am while approaching Mandalay, landscape outside looked drier than past days in Yangon. Highway bus station is well outside the city, even beyond airport. I was only tourist on bus, conveniently, maybe not coincidentally, there was older gentleman with a signboard offering scooter rides to center. Still sleep in my eyes walking outside the bus, took his offer, and about 40 mins later checked in to my room in downtown.

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U Bien Bridge, Mandalay.
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Before arriving, I associated the name Mandalay to a romantic gone world. World from sepia coloured photographs, noblemen posing with their hunting trophies. Kipling’s world connected with ocean steamers and telegrams, not emails and budget airlines. Mandalay suffered badly during WW2. Wooden imperial city in the center was completely destroyed. But city still has interesting sights worth visiting: Mandalay Hill, Mahamuni Paya Temple, U Bien Bridge being among them. City is second largest in Myanmar, street life offers plenty to see.

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Few locals understand English at all, older generations being better speakers than younger. Reason is that after military coup of 1962, English education was stopped in Myanmar. Country never joined the Commonwealth either, like other dominions of former British Empire. Myanmar has its own timezone… Burmese like do things their own way. @ Mandalay

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I tried to continue to Hsipaw this morning by train. State controlled railways are notoriously badly managed. Wake up at 3am, walk to station for 4am train. Waited until 9am for nothing, then had enough and hitched a truck to Pyin Oo Lwin which is about 1/3 of the way between Mandalay to Hsipaw. Hilly views were brown and barren.

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Friendly smiles in Shan state.
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Pyin Oo Lwin used to be hill station of British Burma, and it was formerly known as Maymyo. Many colonial-era buildings are still standing. Besides its colonial heritage, town has waterfalls to explore and botanical garden. George Orwell served in Mandalay and Maymyo as policemen in 1920’s. @ Pyin Oo Lwin

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Long railway bridge over a deep valley.

Yesterdays train was late “only” 3-4 hours. After checking tickets and done their duties, conductors promptly started drinking for the rest of the way. Kind of telling what is the state of government controlled company. Didn’t even know that its physically possible for heavy train to jump and tilt so much without falling! But views were great and am glad I chose the train not easier bus. Burmese life in the stations and in train was worth many pictures. Train arrived to Hsipaw on sunset, had simple dinner and went bed early. Town is little bigger than in Pyin was. @ Hsipaw

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Morning walk to hot spring outside the town. Winds were cool, farmers with their water buffaloes working on rice paddies, scene not much changed over the centuries.
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Visit to “Shan Palace” is still worth mentioning. Like other Burmese minorities in British colonial Burma, Shan’s had semi-autonomous status. After independence (1947), and especially after military coup (1962), ethnic tensions escalated dramatically when largest group of Bamar’s took the reigns of the state.

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Compared to common perception of “royals”, Shan’s royals were more like feudal lords. Each fief had his area ranging from biggest 12,400 (Kengtung) to miniscule 14 square miles (Namtok).

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Before coup of -62, Shan’s royals were living in Hsipaw. Nowadays their original palace does not exist anymore, it was burned down by the military. “Palace” that remains today is British colonial-era mansion built in 1920’s. Current owners are relatives of former royals, and are already well in their sixties. Much of their life has been a struggle with the whims of military leaders. During my visit, one wing of the decaying mansion was open for travelers. Sympathetic owners had fascinating story to tell about the family and Shan history. The place has old photographs and other memorabilia from long gone era… @ Hsipaw

Wind Of Change: Myanmar, Iran, Cuba

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Posts in the series:

Back in late 1980’s when I was a teenager, Berlin Wall, East European Communist satellites, and finally Soviet Union itself collapsed within time of only few years. Media, adults, everyone, were commenting and speculating what comes next. Scorpions recorded their famous song Wind Of Change, to portray the epic changes that profoundly changed lives of millions of Europeans. Me included, although completely clueless about it, but I liked the song.

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In this decade we’ve seen the news, ministers, presidents, envoys shuffling back and forth to three countries: Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Islamic Republic of Iran and lately Barak Obama was first American president in 90 years to travel Havana, capital of Republic of Cuba. All the high level work has been about ending economic blockades, sanctions and trade embargoes. These countries are far apart with different histories. Issues in negotiations have local nuances, and remains to be seen wether actual changes continue like the wind of change, or stale air of empty words. These events nevertheless represent similar dawn-of-new-era moment for the people of these countries, similar of what was happening in Europe earlier. To people who have been waiting for a long time, in many cases their entire lives. People who want more open, prosperous and predictable future.

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Spring 2015 I was finishing my assignment in north Thailand. While land border to Myanmar was always close by, crossing was limited to air travel mainly. So after my work was finished, flight to Yangon was awaiting and journey started from there. Friends also recommended two other countries, and the plan expanded from there.

Here’s the journey so far:

History: Why did Burma fell into tyranny while India remains worlds largest democracy?

On November 8 2015, general elections will be held in Burma (aka. Myanmar). It’s a chance for a long time to fix some errors of the past. But what the two countries in subject had to do with each other and the question?

Lets start in India. Epilogue from Michael Edwardes book British India 1772-1947:

Implicit in the tenets of liberal democracy is the rule of law. Inefficient courts and the inappropriateness of their procedure often led, and still lead, to travesties of justice, but the basic principle that law controls the limits of government is entrenched in India.

It may seem seem very little after 175 years of direct British rule to have left behind only a system of government and of law, neither of which – according to some critics – work very well. But they were not abstract systems. They were supported by an administration framework which survived the transfer of power. Unlike the other European imperial powers in their Asian possessions, the British deliberately constructed the scaffolding of a modern state in which Indians themselves played an indispensable functional role. When the small British element was withdrawn in 1947 the scaffolding did not collapse, even under the pressures of partition.

Burma was annexed by British in three stages from 1826 to 1886 when Mandalay, the imperial capital, and rest of upper Burma fell to British hands. Burma was province of India (Raj) until 1937, after which administered from Rangoon but still closely linked with India.

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Area of British India. At it’s largest in 1937, Raj was behemoth that covered modern day Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka

Here is where comes the interesting comparison: scaffolding that Edwardes describes, must have been taking form in Burma as well. Both countries gain their independence around same time, India 1947 and Burma next year. So what happened? Here are few points that can explain:

Time — British had 175 years of uninterrupted influence in some parts of India, Bengal in particular. Upper Burma in contrast, this was just over 60 years. Same person who’s birth and childhood in northern Burma was during reign of King Thibaw early 1880’s, could have seen Union Jack lowered and British Governor boarding on ship in 1948.

Border region — Burma was for a long administered from Calcutta and considered a mere eastern border of Raj. Buffer zone militarily, source of raw materials economically. Well before third Anglo-Burman war, British Secretary of State wrote to Governor-General of India (Terence R. Blackburn, The British Humiliation of Burma):

…it is of primary importance to allow no other European power to insert itself between British Burma and China. Our influence in that country (Upper Burma, still independent at the time of writing) ought to be paramount. The country itself is of no great importance. But an easy communication with the multitudes who inhabit Western China is an object of national importance.

This obviously does not automate things one way or other, but goes to show in which kind of hands the development of country was at the time.

Economy — Development of Burmese commerce, industry, education was slow because owned by foreigners. Not just European but largely in Indian as well. Need for civil servants to run state affairs was also different, in times when Burma received it’s orders from Calcutta or Delhi. Peace loving, tax paying, industrious middle class became one of corner stones of modern India, not so much of Burma.

World War Two — Burma became a war zone when Japanese entered the country 1942. They were forced out few years later by Allied army, but the damage was already done. Front lines were moving in Burmese territory. Effects on society and to democratic institutions can be easily be guessed. None of Burma’s major pre-war political parties survived until the independence. In comparison, Indian National Congress (INC) was founded decades before the independence, and is still one of the dominant political parties of the country.

Scaffolding that Edwardes described is still holding the worlds biggest democracy. In Burma it started collapsing after the independence, and came down entirely in 1962. Military took control of state powers (Dr. Maung Maung, Burma and General Ne Win):

Revolutionary Council (the junta) was deeply disillusioned with parliamentary democracy. In “The Burmese Way to Socialism”, a terse and powerful statement of policy issued by the Revolutionary Council on April 30, 1962, it was pointed out that “parliamentary democracy has been tried and tested in furtherance of the aims of socialist development. But Burma’s ‘parliamentary democracy’ has not only failed to serve our socialist development, but also, due to it’s very defects, weakness and loopholes, it’s abuses and the absence of a mature public opinion, lost sight of and deviated from the socialist aims, …

The last question: does it matter after all this time? Many things have changed and country has been taking few wary democratic steps in recent years. But the fact is that same clan of generals is still pulling the strings on state affairs. Human rights are abused when people try voice out their opinion. Ethnic minorities fight their desperate struggle against Burma Army. Couple examples from newspaper The Irrawaddy earlier this year: here, here and here.

Update after November 8 2015 election: (NLD) National League for Democracy won the landslide victory in election. People voted the only true democratic alternative, as opposed to parties and politicians appointed by military. Today mid December The Irrawaddy reported interesting meeting that take place between NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and former junta leader, Than Shwe. Positive signs, hope they continue to come.

Myanmar Travel Practicalities

For traveler planning to go Myanmar and studying things beforehand on Internet, certain things always come up. Because country is developing so fast, so will be information about it outdated fast. Regarding accommodation and transportation prices and availability, high and low season differs a considerably.

Summer 2016: On land border crossing from Thailand is now open for e-Visa holders in three places. North: Mae Sai-Tachileik, central: Mae Sot-Myawaddy and south: Ranong-Kawthaung (earlier it was required to fly). Link.

Summer 2015: Am just back from my second trip to Myanmar. Its over two years since my previous trip, from which the details were listed bellow. Here’s some differences spotted this time.

— Accommodation: to my feeling had remained mostly the same (only exception being Bagan, where new hotels and guesthouses have risen). My previous and this trip were both on low season and no guesthouse was never fully booked when walking in. I paid generally 10-15 USD for one night in non-ac, fan, shared bathroom option.
— Money: Dollar dependency is disappearing. People seem to start trusting their own currency, and wasn’t at any time situation where Kyat would have been totally rejected. Dollars can still be used, and often prices are quoted in USD. But multiply the amount by thousand (or 1100 to be exact) and you got your price in Kyat’s. If using Dollars, better still have brand new ‘big head’ ones (July 2016, only new Dollar bills accepted). New ATM’s of Burmese banks that accept MasterCard and Visa are more common, not just in bigger cities.
— Transport: roads and busses are improving as well, but only just. Smaller roads are in bad shape still. Rail transport is still same, trains are late for hours, and when desperately trying to catch the schedule, going old tracks can be gravity defying experience! Flight connections to and from Myanmar have increased a lot, Yangon and Mandalay being most easily accessible from direct flights outside the country. At the time I studied options, direct flight Chiangmai (Thailand) to Mandalay wasn’t available, but no doubt that won’t take long anymore. Mandalay – Bangkok is there, likewise Chiangmai – Yangon.
— Internet and calls: street landline telephone booths seem mostly vanished, and smartphones are glowing at faces of young and old. Liberalisation of the telecom industry was in the news back in 2013 has gone forward on full force, and teenagers are taking selfies just like in Thailand and everywhere. Brand new neon signs of Samsung, Oppo, Huawei are shining everywhere, in small towns that barely have any street lights. 3G prepaid cards are widely available for tourists as well. Often guesthouses have least some kind of WiFi available as well, although exceptions were and when working, very slowly.
— Military restrictions: Unlike two years ago Mrauk U and Sittwe (north west Myanmar near Bangladesh border), was now open for tourists. Met a couple who had done the arduous bus journey there and back. North east corner near in Kachin state challenging to travel, now for several years. Popular Irrawaddy boat trip Myitkyina – Bhamo – Katha – Mandalay is still not possible. River boat to Mandalay can be done from Bhamo, but one can access it by boat or fly in. Road access requires special permits, usually out of reach from tourists.

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Spring 2013:

— WiFi and Internet access. Generally hard to find and when available, snail speed. Power breaks interrupt net access often, so even if cafe advertise Free WiFi, check does it work before buying your drink. Power breaks can also damage electronics, so careful not to leave your device charging too long periods.
— ATM’s. Yangon and Mandalay are no problem anymore, especially former. Yangon Airport and many city shopping malls have Visa/Mastercard compatible ATM’s.
— US Dollars. Only brand new (no wrinkles), “big head” notes are accepted. Train tickets, hotels are usually paid with Dollars. Bus tickets, meals and other things with local money Kyat. Street money changers in Yangon offer lucrative rates, but tourist should be careful and count money carefully. Their hands are fast. Banks and official money exchange booths gave also good rates, and are safe.
— Accommodation was no problem. Prices for A/C-dorm, or single room with a fan and shared bathroom, were generally 7-12 Dollars. Higher than Thailand, but not astronomical like some high season traveler stories know to tell. Rooms were also always available.

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Public telephone booth for local calls. Liberalizing the mobile phones from state control had begun, so these booths are probably disappearing sight. When I arrived to Yangon Airport, none of my sim cards (from Europe, Thailand) connect to Myanmar mobile operator..

For traveler on budget (money is not used to pave the way), Myanmar can be rough experience. Roads are generally in poor condition (except new highway between Yangon and Mandalay/Bagan), so night busses are no sleeper busses. Seats are for small Burmese, large/tall Western person must fit in or cry and fit it. State controlled railway prices are double to busses and tracks are even worse condition than roads. Burmese are very friendly and helpful, but speak little to no English. Found personally their accent hard to follow, even basic words had often to be repeated few times.

Burmese History in Chiangmai

Arrived few days ago to Myanmar (Burma) and am working on material about that. But this post is about Chiangmai in Thailand (Siam). Was surprised to learn about my old home town being part of both countries over the course of history.

History in brief

Visitors of today in north Thailand probably come across the term Lanna or Lan Na. Lanna was independent medieval Tai kingdom (Tai are people speaking same family of languages, Thai being someone from Thailand). Its capital moved few times, but eventually Chiangmai, the New City, was founded 1296 by King Mengrai.

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Lanna mural in temple wall in Nan

Perhaps not as many are aware for over 200 year Burmese influence. Burmese rule in the region started 1558 when King Bayinnaung occupied Lanna and subdue it to his vassalage. Many other kingdoms would follow, eventually Bayinnaung’s empire would stretch from modern day Bangladesh to Cambodia, see: map.

Andrew Forbes & David Henley, The Khon Muang: People and Principalities of Northern Thailand:

Unlike the Siamese of central Thailand, the people of Lan Na do not retain bitter memories of the Burmese conquest. Judging by the histories, when a suzerain was just and his rule generous, the Khon Muang (Lanna people) would support him even against Siamese

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Burmese and Siamese main battle tanks in action

Later, continuous conflicts would empty Burmese war chest, resulting a heavy taxation and worsening relations. Burmese lost control entirely when Lanna rose to revolt with the help of Siamese 1775. Independence wasn’t to be anymore, and Burmese were replaced by Siamese with Bangkok as their new capital.

So if Burmese had over 200 years of influence in Chiangmai, they must have left a mark that is still recognisable? Both countries are Theravada Buddhist countries, and if people loved to do something in the old times, they loved to build religious buildings. In Chiangmai, people built stupas (chedi), temples and monasteries (wat), and city said to have almost as many of them as 50-times bigger Bangkok.

After a bit of research, I jumped on a scooter and drove to the city to find about its Burmese connection.

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Wat Myanmar, south-east corner of old city – I cruise to the yard early, before monks alms walk had begun. Pack of wat dogs (monks pet them, but don’t really train them to behave) started getting territorial. Luckily someone at temple was also awake and sweeping the yard. He hushed the dogs silent. Wat is fine example of a 19th century Burmese temple which would not look out of place in Mandalay. It is mainly associated with the lowland Burman tradition in the city, and pictures of the Shwedagon Pagoda of Yangon can be seen on the walls.

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Time seems to have frozen in Wat Myanmar

Wat Ku Tao. Remains of Tharawadi Min, the Burmese Prince of Chiangmai and son of Bayinnaung. In 1607 the Prince died after a reign of nearly twenty-eight years, his ashes are said to be buried in Wat Ku Tao.

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In Wat Ku Tao

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Kawila’s lions, Khuang Singh, or “Place of Lions”. This was erected by Chao Kavila at the end of the 18th century, when rebuilding of depopulated city had started. Some say lions are symbol of power designed to overawe the armies of Burma, in case they choose to try occupation again. Superstition played big part in everyones lives during those years, but would two stone lions really stop an army is everyone to judge by themselves. Lucky for lions, their test never came: by early 19th century Burmese threat in the region disappeared, when it in turn end up being occupied by the British Indian Empire.

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“Chedi Khao”, or “White Chedi” is on the bank of the river Ping. It is a round-base cone shaped chedi, 6 meters wide ad 8 meters high. The body is covered with smooth cement with no decorative patterns. It is painted in white.

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Legend was told that once a Burmese King led his troops to surround the city and challenged the ruler of Chiang Mai to bring the best diver to compete with the Burmese. His deal was if the Chiang Mai diver could stay under water longer than his, he and his army would return home. “Lung Piang” an old man volunteered to compete and the ruler of Chiang Mai accepted him. The two rulers agreed to hold the competition near the area where the chedi is situated now. They had two poles posted in the river at a distance. When the two army commanders were seated and the divers waited at the post, the generals signaled for the contestants to start diving. So much time passed and the people started to feel uneasy. Finally one of the divers came up to breath. He was the Burmese representative. The people on the Chiang Mai side were relieved and waited for their hero to come up to declare victory. Time passed; so long that it was clear that Chiang Mai had won the victory so the ruler sent his men down to tell the old man. The men returned and reported that Lung Piang could not return. He had sacrificed himself for the city. He tied himself to the post and was drowned in the river. As a monument for his bravery, the ruler commanded a chedi to be built at the Ping River bank.

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Warorot Market near White Chedi, by the river Ping. Visitor can try a Burmese cheroot from market supplies. Here too one may find a wide selection of lungyi—sarongs—from Mandalay, Lashio and even Mytkyina. There are also fresh/dried fruit, vegetables, flowers, butchery and bakery items, herbs, condiments, clothing, shoes, cosmetics, jewellery, lacquerware, silks, hemps, handicrafts, ceramics, wood carvings, beauty supplies, household appliances, electronic gadgets, sunglasses, watches, souvenirs, fireworks…

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Other of the two big market halls of Warorot

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Best Sai Oua, or northern Thai sausage can be found from Warorot Market

Ps. my Burmese Days (and Thai) are over now, and am moving Europe. I lived over two years in Chiangmai and will definitely want to go back one day. The region has its unique qualities that am already missing. Different that of south Thailand or Bangkok region for instance.