Wednesday, October 10, 2012

last nights in Myanmar

We had two nights and one full day back in Yangon, and no specific plans. We were both kind of sick of Burmese food, to be perfectly honest; small bowls of weird cuts of random meat floating in oil, we'd kind of had our fill. Next door to the restaurant (Feel Myanmar) where we ate our first night in Yangon, so many days before, was a Korean garden restaurant, which sounded spicy and delicious, so off we went. We walked past the enormous Indonesian Embassy, with photos of the country including one of a giant komodo dragon, and then past the small and more modest French Embassy, and there we were. The place was huge, a few different garden areas, an area on a large porch, and tables near the front. We were led to the back garden area, where mosquitoes promptly took up their own feast on my legs....but I didn't care. SPICY FOOD. We placed our orders and spent the rest of our time there feasting on spicy food, I had a wonderful Myanmar beer (wonderful, but not quite as good as Lao Beer ["the beer of wholehearted people"]), and we listened to the live band. There was a young guy on keyboards, pretty good, a guy on electric guitar, pretty good, and a guy singing. Note what I'm not saying there. :)  But I give him huge props for singing anyway, for putting himself out there and giving it his all. I had Malaysian fried rice, with a soft fried egg on top, and Marc had Thai shrimp. So much flavor, and nicely spicy. Our waiter was this beautiful young boy with badly crooked teeth and a shy smile; he reminded me of my son Will so much that my chest ached and I had to fight back tears.

The next day our big plans involved shopping and taking a boat ride. We headed back to the giant market where I'd seen dozens and dozens of fabric goodies to buy the last time we were there; as these things go, I had a very hard time finding things that appealed to me when I was there to buy. Still, I found souvenirs and gifts (including a little jade bracelet for my TT, my little Grace), finally, so that deed was done.

standard street in Yangon

more -- looks like most of the streets we saw in this area

on the right, a betel nut vendor, and walking past a man with sparrows in a blue cage

Little India

lots of physicians with lots of specialties! and lots of initials!

and  nuclear medicine. and yet Myanmar is ranked dead last in health care, in the world

apartment buildings, with satellite dishes and laundry over railings

need to make a phone call? need kaffir limes and leaves? they've got you covered!

One thing that struck me, when we were walking around, was the visible mix of religions. Muslim men, in caps and longish beards; monks in crimson robes; Catholic nuns in habits; all walking around in the swirling crowds, all together. I was sitting on the curb watching, and wondering why this seemed so striking -- hell, we live in New York City, a melting pot if ever there were one! And yet you don't see religious people, except for orthodox Jews, and some Hassidic Jews. But you don't see monks in robes, and you don't see Catholic nuns. You just don't. You have to learn how to see all the churches -- and there are a LOT here, mixed in with everything else. Suddenly, if you tune your eyes in Manhattan, you see Baptist churches and McDonalds and Korean churches and of course giant cathedrals and synagogues. But they kind of blend into the blocks in a way. In Yangon, people's religious lives are visible and invisible at the same time, because they're just all there. It was fascinating.

 It was sweltering hot, and so humid because giant black clouds loomed overhead; we were tired and Marc's tummy wasn't feeling well, so we returned to our room to wait out the hot part of the day. After the rain ended, we took a cab to the famous Strand Hotel, because it was right next to the boat jetty. We'd been told earlier that there were no tourist cruise boats operating for some reason, but we'd have no trouble finding a small boat and driver to take us up and down the river at sunset for an hour or so. The guy was either pulling our leg, or we were simply in the wrong place -- though I know we weren't -- because we couldn't find any small boats we were allowed to take. We found the jetty and all the boat drivers were shaking their heads, some speaking to us anxiously in Burmese, putting their hands up, shooing us away. One finally said, "No foreigners." Marc found a boat driver who spoke a little English; he told Marc that the boats are not safe for foreigners, and he pointed down the river a ways, toward the big ferry. Marc laughed and said, "But it's safe for you?" and the driver laughed too.

here's the jetty, with the "unsafe for foreigners" boats

We left the jetty (we were really making people nervous, being there) and as we walked toward the ferry, a young kid of 13 fell in step with us. I don't know if it was a boy or girl, I'll just say boy; he told us that we had to take the ferry, that the police would come if we got on a boat.

To buy ferry tickets, as foreigners, we had to walk into the manager's office and put our names and contact information on big ledgers. We suspect that we got the "special foreigner" price -- $1USD each way, for each of us. We boarded the ferry with hundreds of Burmese people who lived on the other side of the river, heading home for the day. There were some benches, but mostly the floor space was open. There were stacks and stacks of tiny plastic chairs, kid-sized, and people grabbed a chair and sat where they could. We sat next to windows on the upper level and watched the goings-on. So many kinds of vendors: boiled egg vendors, selling blue and white and brown and quail eggs; clothing; flashing plastic toys; fried fish chips in white and red; fresh pineapple chunks and watermelon slices; and cigarettes and betel nut packets. People carried groceries and shopping, and bought boiled eggs and tucked them down into their bags to eat later. Some people ate boiled eggs on the ferry; the floor was littered with egg shells. I watched a beautiful women eat one brown egg in 9 or 10 tiny delicate bites. A boiled egg never looked so good -- I was mesmerized by her, standing there so quiet and elegant in the crowd, lost in her boiled egg. She was petite, and very self-possessed.

We didn't have specific plans for what we'd do when we got across the river; we thought we might walk around and look for a restaurant, or see what there was to see and then return to eat in Chinatown if nothing looked good. The ferry sidled up to the platform and we left in the crush of people and I was already kind of overwhelmed. I was probably the tallest person in the crowd, but the intense crowds, and people shouting, and the dark, and the sprinkling rain, and my uncertainty, all combined to make me feel very anxious. When we got to the end of the ramp, we came out into a big parking lot crowded with motorcycles, people shouting, grabbing, some people trying to hustle us, other people shouting to get people into their overcrowded bus taxis. I couldn't find a place to stand that felt safe -- either from motorcycles or bicycles tearing out, or from bus taxis, or from people trying to get us into their taxi, or to be our guide. Poor Marc; he wasn't at all overwhelmed by it and would probably have loved to explore, but I was thoroughly swamped and nearly in tears, so we just went back down the ramp to take the return ferry.

waiting for this ferry to empty out so we could return to Yangon

I loved this little girl
Going back to Yangon, the ferry was hardly crowded. We sat on the tiny plastic chairs on the bottom level, and a little girl, the daughter of an egg vendor, was entranced by our camera. She pulled up a chair right next to me. I took her photo and then we looked through the pictures on my camera. She was so sweet I felt like crying, and I got this huge ache for my nearly-here granddaughter Grace.
When the ferry docked, we decided to pursue our original loose plan to eat in Chinatown. We went back to the Strand Hotel to see about getting a cab, since few street names have English translations and we weren't exactly sure where Chinatown was located, other than "over there." Plus, it was drizzling and I was still kind of shaky. We found a wonderful man who said he'd take us in his cab, or tell us how to get there, whichever we preferred, so we hopped in his cab for the ride. Like so many Burmese we encountered, he spoke pretty good if heavily accented English which he learned from speaking with tourists. I probably caught 60% of what he said, but he charmed the hell out of me because he was a big giggler. I complimented him on his English and this flight of giggles emerged out of him like a flock of birds. He said he drove a taxi for two reasons: to make money, and to practice his English.

Chinatown didn't seem like it held many good options for dinner (though he said Burmese people, including his family, love Chinese food), so we asked our driver to take us back to the Korean garden restaurant, since it was also near our hotel and we could just walk back afterwards. The restaurant was much quieter than the night before, and there was no live music, so we enjoyed a quiet dinner and I had one last Myanmar beer for the road. Marc got a Thai omelette and Thai basil and pork salad, and I got the fried Malaysian rice again, with chicken -- it was so good the night before!

We were up early this morning for the flights to Chiang Mai.....Yangon to Bangkok to Chiang Mai. More on that later -- in this hotel we have wifi!

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