It has come to our attention that this blog is dragging on a bit. We set out to chronicle our ride for our family and friends and hoped that our experiences would also help touring cyclists with their own routes and planning, but we have reached a point where even our mothers are no longer faithfully reading (but you, Nick, you’re still hanging in there, right?). [EDIT: thanks to our other 4 readers (that includes you, Mom!) for making us feel like we shouldn't give up! Nick, you better step up your game if you want to be our #1 fan]. We want to see this thing through to finish the story of our trip and even document the aftermath: coming home, resettling, figuring out what comes next. Since we are already back Stateside in real life, but still somewhere on a bus in rural Asia according to this blog, we’re going to spare you the boring day-by-day details and just go to the highlights- and lowlights- of the remainder of our trip. We’ll be sure to supplement with lots of photos.
We finished where we started in Myanmar: after two and a half weeks we made it back to the White House Hostel in Yangon. This time the city wasn’t as overwhelming- it actually had quite a nice shine in comparison to Mandalay- but we gave ourselves permission to hang around the hotel instead of trying to squeeze in more sightseeing in the heat and grime. We did manage to rouse ourselves out of our room and over two blocks to the only Synagoguein the country. Apparently Yangon had been home to a healthy Sephardic Jewish community that emigrated from India during British colonial times. As the political situation strained, Jews began to leave and by the 1980s, there were fewer than 50 Jews left in the country. Rabbi Moses Samuels is the caretaker, having taken over from his father, and sees more Jewish (and other foreign) tourists nowadays than Burmese Jews (one current estimated count of Burmese Jews is less than 20). R turned to me and said that after months of visiting Buddhist temples and Muslim regions, this was the first time he felt totally comfortable walking into a religious area, knowing that he didn’t have to be afraid of failing to observe form.
To tell the truth, I was ready to leave the country days before our flight was scheduled to leave. There is a lot to love about Myanmar and it is truly unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been, but it is a hard place to be. There is a ton of poverty and the history of military oppression is mind-boggling. Infrastructure is inconsistent (roads, public transport, electricity) and the cultural divide- between an inscrutable language and a devout Buddhist population (oh, except for the Muslims, who are still marginalized and barred from citizenship)- it is a difficult place to for a foreigner to travel. A good portion of my eagerness to get a move on is definitely attributable to travel fatigue and I knew that with the next flight, our trip was officially winding down.
A Few Funny Things That Happened To Us In Myanmar:
- The T-shirt Phenomenon:
In the second week of our time in Myanmar, R bought a NLD (National League for Democracy) t-shirt featuring the likeness of two Burmese national heroes: Aung San and his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi. The shirt was both a souvenir of shifting times and an attempt to expand his meager wardrobe. It immediately went into his wardrobe rotation and we began to notice that every time he wore the shirt, we’d get honks, yells, thumbs-ups and even high-fives from basically everybody we saw. We knew that the Burmese people are going through major changes and that they are embracing a newfound sense of national pride, but it was kind of crazy to us that R, as a Westerner, would get so much props for rocking a t-shirt. He began to wear it more often than was suitable, considering the scarcity of washing machines, because every time he did, we ended up having great conversations and interactions with locals. The energy and pride was very reminiscent of young people in the US during Obama’s first campaign where a sticker or a t-shirt signaled a shared goal and camaraderie that I had never seen before aside from Ohio State fans.
-Money Ain’t A Thing. Oh, Wait, Yes It Is- It’s A Very Big Thing:
Any guidebook on Myanmar will have in big, bold, capital letters that you MUST HAVE US dollars in pristine condition. Message boards have subject listings like ‘How pristine is pristine?’ and ‘This is no joke: bring brand-new bills!’. The issue is that there are no ATMs for foreign banks in the whole country (thanks to long-standing sanctions against Myanmar’s military government) and US bills are the most desirable currency for exchange. You can exchange Thai bhat or Euros, but at a much lower rate and even these must be absolutely free of creases, smudges, tears, etc. These people don’t play around. For a pair of backpackers with limited space and a penchant for wadding up receipts, cash, and candy-wrappers in our pockets (we’re like children!), this presented something of a challenge. We did manage to make it through our two weeks with the aid of a paperback book and carefulness bordering on obsession in keeping our bills straight, but it makes you wonder how local businesspeople get along with this policy and how bills, which circulate through the country, stay in such great shape. On our return to the US, I felt a little wave a panic when the ATM machine spit out some well-loved $20 bills, but when I realized that I could spend freely, it made me love my country just a little bit more.
-Karaoke. Is. Everywhere:
But mostly on buses. With the exception of the most beat-down tin-cans on wheels, every long-distance bus that we took featured music videos with lyrics scrolling along the bottom. A personal favorite was Chan Chan, a Burmese model/singer who cribbed American tunes and paired them with fantastically bizarre videos (this one is definitely worth a watch) while passengers would sing along quietly or not-so-quietly to pass the time. We saw karaoke in the remote hillside village we hiked to outside of Hsipaw – note that this village had absolutely zero electricity except for the tiny array of Chinese-made solar panels, whose function I have deduced, is solely to provide weekly entertainment in the form of living-room karaoke with the extended family. I can totally get on board with a little bit of Whitesnake sing-a-long, but, due to the language barrier, I could only watch while everyone else had all the fun.
I’ll paraphrase our Lonely Planet guidebook’s entry on Burmese food: ‘For a country bordered by China, India, and Thailand, the food in Myanmar is shockingly awful’. No spice, no flavor, no fresh ingredients (this last complaint may be attributable to the dustbowl-like landscape in southern and central Myanmar). It is sadly surprising that despite an eternity spent sharing borders with the world’s culinary powerhouses, no element of good eating appears to have snuck through the bordered. Oh, yeah- and colonized by England? They didn’t have a prayer.
It sounds trite to talk about the weather, but our trip happened to fall smack dab in the middle of Myanmar’s hottest season. The insane heat was the biggest presence every single day of our trip and dictated how we toured the country. We always wanted to pay extra for air-conditioned buses, but rarely ever had the pleasure of a cool ride even when we paid for it. We never paid for air-con rooms because electricity was so spotty and hotel generators did power fans, but not the antique A/C units. We began to get up around 4am and nap during the afternoon- not by choice but because that’s when our bodies started to shut down from overheating. One of my most memorable ‘culinary’ experiences was finding the one lady who somehow, magically, had frozen water bottles for sale in Bagan. I mean blocks of ice in water bottle form that melted within moments of reaching my hot little hands. Mind you, we spent the better part of 14 months in the tropics, we’re not sissies, but the heat in Myanmar can’t be all that different than the heat on Mars.
One of the reasons we decided to go to Myanmar was because the country was ‘just opening up’. We wanted to get in before the Australian bar crawlers crept over the border from Thailand and before McDonalds could formulate the perfect Sparrow McNugget recipe. What we found was a country very much in the throes of shaking off its shackles and trying to figure out what comes next. Myanmar has problems and I didn’t know that half of them. In the past year, Myanmar has been in the international news in a big way with the democratic election of Aung San Suu Kyi and the lifting or easing of sanctions by many countries, including the US. Now, excuse my language, but let me just say that shit is still fucked up over there. There is ethnic violence, forced labor, extreme poverty, and did I mention how hot it is over there? What I’m trying to say is that the country is still working on a lot of very basic things like not violating human rights, holding democratic elections, and easing the extreme censorship that has permeated life for decades. In the past, activists have called for a boycott of tourism in Myanmar so as not to support an oppressive government. Now that the government has made some good-faith efforts to create a regime more palatable to the outside world, tourists are streaming in, but they still find themselves blocked from visiting huge swaths of the country. I am not trying to summarize what the problems are in this country or how to fix them, but Myanmar is going through a type of revolution and we had no idea what we were getting into. The history of the country is so complex and full of hardship (British colonization, Japanese occupation, a military coup or two, ongoing efforts to bring the country up to modern standards of sanitation, education, and technology, and the list goes on), that some messiness is inevitable. My ignorance about the country and its history is my own fault and it was only after we arrived that I understood how much that history continues to affect the present.