Myanmar: Jon Gadsby
Day 1 - Yangon
It's much more splendid than I expected - the effect of the temples. There's an odd juxtaposition between the beautifully kept majesty of the pagodas and the faded glory of the colonial era. It's amazing being here now, but I'd have loved to have seen this place 100 years ago. There is less of a military presence than I expected. You don't see it so much as feel it& locals especially. They seem happy but slightly subdued.
Day 2 - road to Kalor
The bus resembled a mobile bordello - mirrors, chandeliers etc and broke down& often. Stopped at a place called Bago for morning tea - gave money to a child monk. No thanks given. Little bastard. It's getting noticeably more "third world" as we get further from Yangon. Encounter the dreaded squat toilet - first of many. Two thirds of the world uses squats, we are in the minority. Long may it stay that way! The driving defies description but there seems to be some strange method to the madness - or at least a pecking order. I only saw sign of one accident the whole day. Amazing, given the roads and the traffic!
Day 3 - road to Kalor
Mosquito attack. Woke up with right eye swollen closed in "The house of the rising mosquito". On the road, I'm climbing higher and the country is changing. It's looking more affluent - slightly. The houses are better standard. I saw a tractor and a diesel water pump and a gravel crusher. Landscape looks very like the Coromandel without the tree ferns. The bus broke down again. Local kids attracted by swollen eye. Very compassionate. They had nothing but still wanted to help me. SweSwe Min& wonder where she'll be in 12 years. Condemned to a life of drudgery, I suspect, unless she marries a General. More breakdowns. The people are amazingly friendly. They don't want money so much as interaction. Of course they do want money - desperately, but it's not their major motivation. Arrived in Kalor. Bus broke down again.
Day 4 - Kalor
Hired bikes and headed for town. A guy tried to charge 3000 kyat for ride around the block on his tractor/taxi. Settled for 500. Met Jimmy at tearooms. He would take us to mountain village for festival. "Vegetarians who eat pork on special occasions" yeah right. 10,000 kyat - came down to 5000. The tractor taxi broke down the moment the main road turned into a track. The driver tried to negotiate steep clay track with totally bald tyres. Like ice. Nearly went over the cliff. Pulled out by Toyota and dog. Bugger. Jimmy must have known we never had a prayer of making it, but refused to let the money just walk away. I like Kalaw. Noticeable Indian and Pakistani population. Beautiful faded houses and grounds& You can buy a mansion for 9000 US or less, so I'm told.
Day 5 - Inle Lake
Leaving on the 9.30 train& expect it around 11.00...10.50 depart. Woman with cauliflowers in 1st class. The train keeps stopping for black market wood "for the drivers' families". Police on train of course - they share the wood, naturally. Very resourceful people. The penalty for cutting wood is three years. What would you have to do to get that in NZ? Assault with intent to GBH? Attempted murder? Tonight, there was a Shan feast and dancers at my guesthouse. A little girl in the audience copied every movement. Sad place. All the tourists have gone. The guesthouse owner may have to send his daughters to work in Thailand.
Day 6 - Inle Lake
Rode riverboats on Inle Lake through miles of canals to the floating village market. I was besieged by souvenir hawkers - very persistent. The had beautiful stuff and bargained hard. Visited 1000s of ruined, mini-pagodas covering an entire hillside.
Day 7 - Inle Lake
Visited an old monastery - canoe trip along canals like Wind in the Willows. Where I stopped, Monk No 1 had gone to town, so I sat and talked with Monk No 2. He was reserved at first, but then opened up. Turns out he is an ex-judge of 38 years. He
showed me his room& like an American college kid's - sports posters, bright pictures etc. Saw some 'paint pots'. They turned out to be the makings of betel nut chewing. He demonstrated, including taking his teeth out to show brightly betel stained dentures. This is the equivalent of the Archbishop taking you to his bedroom and rolling a joint! Leaving, he said he'd left school in 1942. I asked about Japs. Very Very Bad he said!!! Visited a local stilt-house. I am Amazed at the spartan nature& no furniture, just two or three mats on bamboo floor.
Day 8 - Mandalay
In Mandalay at last - long, long bus ride. I chilled out at BBB's a European style café/restaurant. I thought it was great! In reality it was probably extremely average. I've changed.
Day 9 - Mandalay
The city is nowhere near the size of Yangon, and lacks its vitality. I took boat across the river to a one-third-built ruined temple, and the world's largest uncracked bell. I rang it three times which is supposed to be lucky. I was beseiged by a gaggle of kids and teenagers trying to sell things. They 'adopt' a tourist. It breaks your heart. They're very poor, but happy and laughing& rapacious in their little way, but they haven't quite learned the tourist tricks yet. They're not completely hard, so far.
There are rumours floating about that Aung San Suu Kyi has been released to home detention. Just rumours I suspect.
Day 10 - Irrywaddy River
This is an impressive set up. There is a big boat ready for me with beds made up and tables set out in the shade. I have heard more rumours of another announcement - last night's announcement was wrong. The Lady is still under detention and now on a hunger strike. Talk is that if she gets sick there will be major civil disorder, riots etc.
I am heading for Bagan. On the banks there are temples and stupa as far as the eye can see - even in the middle of poor farmland. There are 1000s of them. I can't help but think, what has this cost? Where else could these vast amounts of money have been spent?
Day 11 - Bagan
A mosquito night, but not too bad. I stopped at a village and gave clockwork Kiwi to little kid. It was broken in 5 minutes. They're lovely children everywhere here. They have nothing, but they're happy. I arrive in Bagan. Now this is a truly ridiculous number of temples and pagoda&over 5000 in a town about the size of Matamata. They are everywhere. I attend a festival. The whole town was there to celebrate the beginning of work on rebuilding an ancient palace. Bit like an AMP Show - truck grandstands etc.
Day 12 - Bagan
More temples. Getting annoyed at the kids telling lies. They're all saying they're orphans now, which they're not. Also people spitting on the floor. Why do they insist on us taking our shoes off etc, if they're going to defile their own holy places in this way. Temples, temples& why all these bloody temples? Couldn't someone tell them to stop?
Day 13 - Yangon
Whistle stop plane flight back to Yangon. There is a strong military presence around local airports. After some thought, I've decided I should have been here. There's a sad beauty about Myanmar and a similar sad beauty about its people. I'm on my way home. They are trapped here. It's a paradox. Without meaning to be trite - a poor country with a deep richness of spirit - a rich country that has been made poor. It's a beautiful country, this Myanmar, achingly so. It's full of beautiful people who make you want to cry& whether that's out of joy or frustration, I don't know. Above all, it's a place of contradiction. I think contact, rather than isolation will fuel the forces of change. The free flow of commerce, ideas and people will help to disentangle the knot. It's hard to leave without thinking of Swe Swe Min and Jo Jo and Mai Maise, and wondering what will become of them. I hope someone calls a mis-deal and they get dealt a better hand next time. In the meantime& another gold leaf goes onto a temple - and another little girl takes the road to Thailand. Is this what Buddha would have wanted?