Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Myanmar for Christmas

We went to Myanmar for Christmas.  Ten days of pure tourism.  The kids cried when we announced our holiday plans.  I debated about going - should we be supporting a military Junta? should we risk getting caught up in post-election violence? should we go just because everyone says it's the most authentic, beautiful and fabulous trip that they ever took in southeast Asia? are the kids old enough to appreciate it? 

The answer to all that is YES! (except supporting the junta - of course). In fact, tourism is a way of opening the country to the outside world.  The information goes both ways. Post-election violence was limited to the Thai border and we were very far from all of that. Sometimes, if you follow the crowd, you find out what all the hoopla is about and you're glad you did. And the kids LOVED the trip. They will remember it always!

We took over 1500 pictures - the kids contributed. I simply must post and comment.  I can't remember the names of all the places. The history and dates escape me as well.  So here are my impressions - grouped by themes.  I hope it inspires you to go there, read up on it, or at least click on the next blog entry.

Let's get started with my absolute favorite photo - Philippe took this in the countryside somewhere between Inle Lake and Pindaya.  The land is all cultivated and it looks almost European - except there are NO tractors - only oxen and plows and there are people in the fields working. These women are harvesting sesame.  I love the colors.
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Saturday, January 01, 2011

All That Glitters...

Burma is fancy. Gold and precious stones adorn just about everything.  This is the light fixture in our CAR!!!

Seriously, there is a lot of gold in Myanmar and mineral resources are its primary source of revenue.  It's a good thing, too, because they love to plaster things with gold leaf - real gold leaf.

The most famous landmark in Yangon is the Schwedagon Paya (Schwe=gold, Dagon=old name for Yangon, Paya=Pagoda).  But this is not it - this is just a minor pagoda somewhere in Yangon covered in gold inside and out and housing a plethora of gold artifacts encrusted in gems from other pagodas.

 THIS is the Schwedagon Paya - or at least the base of it.  All of our pictures of the entire stupa do not do it justice.  What's great about this place, apart from the fact that it houses some very expensive stuff and is barely locked up at night, is the gathering of people: tourists, buddhist monks and everyday Burmese.  They pray, chat, work (volunteers for the upkeep), take pictures, pour water over the heads of their planetary post statue (according to the day of the week you were born - an elderly man kindly pulled out an almanac to tell us what each of our planetary posts were - all Thursday except for Philippe - Wednesday morning!), and generally hang out.  So we did too.

Another favorite passtime is plastering small sheets of REAL gold leaf onto statues of Buddha. That's what these guys are doing.  And there is a constant stream of people doing this all day, every day. The bottom of the statue is bubbly looking from all the random sheets of gold.  The face is still smooth and shiny because they wash it every morning and brush his teeth! They believe that Buddha is still alive inside.

I have some very uninteresting pictures of the gold leaf making shop - so I won't post them. 

Yes, the Burmese LOVE gold.  This house is an ancient palace building in Myanmar.  Made entirely of handcarved Teak wood - it was gorgeous. BUT in its day, it was ENTIRELY covered in gold.
Macro picture from Antoine's collection showing a detail of the carving with tiny flakes of ancient gold.
But we were able to admire our favorite gold every afternoon around 5:30
Part of our daily routine was finding a place to watch the sunset.  We were not alone - this is a typical tourist activity, but we really got into it.

You can see how thrilled Antoine looks!

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Friday, December 31, 2010

Getting the Message Across

I always like to look at the communication media in foreign countries.  It can be very telling.  We watched a little TV - pixelled out plunging necklines and thigh high slits in the Miss Universe contest were quite hilarious.  My mother would approve.  
But, needless to say, we spent the main part of our day visiting pagodas and temples - the former housed Buddha relics and the latter Buddha images - or the opposite - anyway, these were lively, vibrant places where people do lots of things and generally hang out.  So they are prime advertising spaces.  Like in the cathedrals of Europe where the teachings of the Bible are displayed in stained-glass windows and bas relief carvings, many pagodas featured the story of Buddha and his teachings in different media, mural paintings, glass mosaics (shown below), carvings, statues etc. 

However, there were often panels with very modern messages as well.  One in particular caught my attention as it seemed to give the rules and regs for good living.  This one is apparently 'Don't Drink'...

This one I couldn't figure out exactly, but I think the gist is 'Don't Talk Smack or you wil really annoy your neighbor'

In the street, there were other messages.  This one warns against bad driving.  I love the close up of the terrified guy.

This one was displayed in a tea house where we had lunch one day.  It was not a tourist restaurant by any stretch of the imagination, but the sign was in English, which I appreciated.  Again, good advice.

And finally, by our western standards, you would think that this is an ad for Large and Lovely clothing, but it's just a regular ad, for regular clothes with nice, plump women for models.  There were the same types for jewelry and cold relief medicine and coffee.  The message? "Plump and White is Beautiful."  Who knew?!!  

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Paleik - A Nice Surprise

This little village was a highlight for me because of its contrast with the bustling, glittering Yangon that we had just left.
 Simon, our guide in Mandalay picked us up after our flight from Yangon, and immediately proposed an off-the-beaten-track (and not on our program) visit. I was a bit weary, because the last unexpected proposal we had brought us to the saddest display of animal captivity I have ever seen - 3 white elephants chained to a cement slab - for eternity.
 He promised that it was a nice site, so on the way into town we stopped in Paleik, "The Little Bagan." Like Bagan, Myanmar's premier tourist site with hundreds of stupas dotting the plains, Paleik had a few hundred stupas to its name. However, unlike Bagan, the village was not forced to relocate to make way for the tourists.  Paleik was a historically wealthy town because of trade with China coming from the river running through it.  The stupas were built by wealthy individuals who wanted to gain Buddhist merit and show off a little of their wealth at the same time.  Some of the stupas have been renovated recently with golden spires, by some of today's wealthy villagers, but most were in a natural, beautiful state of erosion.

The village was also home to a monestary.  This is a teak temple that is used by the monks of the village. In the foreground are monks robes drying on the line.

The trees among the ruins were gorgeous and the path took us from the main road, through a forest of stupas, past the monestary and on to the village where we meandered and solicited the curiosity of the villagers.

Some of the monks lived inside the stupas. They took care of them and slept inside. Monks live off of donations by the people for food and clothing. Mandalay was a big Monk hub.  I can't remember the exact numbers, but basically that's where a good part of them live.

Here is one sitting on his front porch taking in the rays.  Behind him, notice the Italian archways on a building in the middle of Burmese stupas. Another nice contrast!

The village was a buzz with preparations for the upcoming pagoda celebrations in addition to the daily activity centered around its specialty, weaving.  Every house had a loom and they all seemed to be clattering away.  We were invited to visit one, with no pressure whatsoever to buy anything (there was no shop anyway) or even give money.  They just seemed proud to show off their workshop and have some foreigners come in.

We were surprised to see children working at the looms.  Everywhere we went, we saw children working at various jobs.  Some were in school, others were at work.  Hopefully, more and more will be in school in time.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Safran Touch

Ten percent of Myanmar's populations are monks.  Is that right?  Maybe not, but I know that it's a big percentage.  So it's alot.  In Myanmar, every boy must spend at least a little time in a Buddhist monestary at some time in their lives.  The resistance of the monks to military rule in the 80's is sometimes referred to as the "Safran Revolution," referring to the color of their robes.

Girls can be monks too, but I don't think it's as big a tradition for them.  This girl was an orphan, that is why she is at the monestary. 

The monks live off of donations of food and clothing.  Sometimes they live in temples, like the one below.  Sometimes in monestaries. 

Many of the younger monks come to the tourist spots to chat with the foreigners to help them learn foreign languages.  Antoine was often approached, and the first question was always, "Where do you come from?" the second is "How old are you?" The boy talking to Antoine in this picture is 16 years old.  He was surprised to hear that Antoine is only 12! 

We visited a Buddhist university near Myanmar. Here is a dorm room.

These guys were supposed to be studying, but it was a bit difficult with the foreigners distracting them.  They didn't seem to mind, however.

The ladies dress in pink, the silver bowls tucked under their arms are for collecting alms,
and they often had lovely umbrellas with them to protect from the sun.
This guy is taking pictures of my boys.  For some reason, there was a group of ladies that wanted to have their pictures taken with the boys, one at a time.  The monks were responsible for approaching us and asking our permission.  After the first lady had her picture taken, others lined up.  The boys were willing and patient through a few shots, but once we started gathering a crowd, they became a little uncomfortable and we moved on.  After sneaking and asking for so many shots ourselves, it was funny to have the cameras turned on us!

Monday, November 09, 2009

Weekend in Hoi An

Hoi An is a picture postcard town on the central coast of Vietnam and an easy getaway from Hanoi.  We spent a weekend of visiting the old town and playing in the waves.

The city was spared the ravages of bombing during the American War and has benefitted from substantial funding from Japanese cultural foundations for its restauration.

The coiled incense below is sold to wishers and burned in this pagoda. Inscriptions in Vietnamese and occasional other languages request favors, prosperity and other successes.

Our hotel was on the river. One evening we came back to our rooms to see these lanterns floating magically along in front of the hotel restaurant.  They were set afloat upstream and then collected a little ways downstream, creating a dancing light show in the pitch black night.

Simple boats set out to sea in front of Cham islands.

No cars allowed in the center of town.  This is a happy change from the honking and pollution of the streets of Hanoi.

The weekend ended with dragonboat racing on the river in front of the hotel.  The banks were lined with spectators and racers waiting their turn.  Men's and women's teams lined up to paddle ferociously up and down the river.  All under the watchful, benevolent eye of Uncle Ho, pictured below - can you find him?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Long Bien Arts Festival

Next year, Hanoi will be 1,000 years old. Last weekend, the city kicked off a year of celebration at the 999 year anniversary. At the Long Bien Bridge arts festival, the art was not very prolific, but pedestrians were able to take a leisurely stroll without the noise and dust kicked up by the thousands of motorbikes that cross the bridge each day.

The bridge crosses the Red River. In several spots, there are islands in the middle of the river and every inch of these islands is covered with cultivation, flowers, corn, bananas and other unidentified vegetation.

On the sand bars along the river, you could see camps. Boats dotted the river along these encampments and some of the buildings of the neighborhood of Tay Ho look like they are about to slide down the embankment.

Caligraphy by a very finely attired, white-haired man. On the spot art.

Back in the day...

Today, anytime you take the train to go north of Hanoi, you will pass over the Long Bien Bridge. The long leisurly walk we took, gave us a nice perspective on the river and the city beyond its banks. Unfortunately, it also gave us an upclose look at the iron structure that has survived over 60 years of rusting and various wars. Apparently, this doesn't keep it from holding up this train.