Photo Of The Day: U Bein Bridge Sunset

Myanmar’s iconic U Bein bridge, near the ancient Burmese capital of Amarapura, is a much beloved (and photographed) site among tourists and visitors to this intriguing Southeast Asian nation. Today’s shot, taken by Flickr user American Jon, is a fantastic example of what makes this ancient wooden structure so visually captivating. The teak bridge’s long expanse, when photographed against the early morning/late day sun, makes for a striking silhouette. This particular shot is all-the-more eye-catching due to the dramatic clouds in the background.

Taken any great photos during your travels? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

[Photo credit: Flickr user American Jon]

Other Countries A US President Has Never Visited

President Barack Obama will land in Myanmar (aka Burma) this week, a first-time visit for any President of the United States. Never mind that Myanmar is best known as a brutal dictatorship, not exactly in line with U.S. foreign policy. Disregard any political or geographically strategic reasons for befriending Myanmar. Today, this is all about the President being the first to visit Myanmar and the trip begs the question: “So are there other countries that no sitting U.S. President has ever visited?”

Out of the 190+ countries in the world, just 113 of them have been visited by a President of the United States, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Historian.

Countries not visited include close-by neighbor the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, St Kitts, St Lucia and assorted tiny island-nations. Understandable, we would probably view a visit to the harmless Seychelles as a taxpayer-paid vacation anyway.

On the continent of Africa, more nations have not been visited than have been by a U.S. President. Again, probably not a lot of strategic reasons to stop by.But some big-name countries we might think that some President, somewhere along the way, might have visited; not one has.

  • Monaco, the second smallest country/monarchy in the world and the most densely populated country in the world boasts the world-famous Monte Carlo Casino.
  • Algeria, in northern Africa, famous for its vast Sahara in the south..
  • Nepal- famous for eight of the world’s ten tallest mountains. No visit.

Armenia is a country one might think worthy of a trip by any standards. Bordered by Turkey to the west, Azerbaijan to the east, Georgia to the north and Iran to the south, Armenia does seem to have a strategic location. Still, no visit.

Presidential travel takes any given sitting head of the free world to countries all over the planet on visits of good will. Meeting face to face with world leaders, attending meetings and spreading good old American spirit around when they can, Presidents are a big ticket when they come to town, along with Air Force One and more as we see in this video

Oh, and that trip to Myanmar? While President Obama is the first U.S. President to visit, he’s not the first Obama. The president’s grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was a cook in World War II for a British army captain stationed in what was then called Burma.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user 0ystercatcher]

Lost WWII Planes Discovered In Mint Condition In Myanmar Jungle

Twenty-five years ago a British farmer by the name of David Cundall overheard a group of American World War II vets discussing how they had buried a squadron of unused Supermarine Spitfire fighter planes in the jungles of Burma. The plan was to leave them there until the RAF needed them, at which time they could be dug up and pressed into service. But as the war ground to a halt and newer planes replaced the Spitfire, there was never a need to retrieve the hidden aircraft. So, they’ve stayed there, buried under 40 feet of soil, ever since. That story struck a chord with Cundall, who was a farmer at the time, and for some reason felt compelled to go looking for the lost planes. Two-and-a-half decades, and $210,000 later, he has found them, and the discovery has exceeded his imagination.

Cundall started his search about 15 years ago, making regular trips to Burma, which is now known as Myanmar, to comb the jungles there. Earlier this year, he finally found what he had been looking for but while he expected to locate about 20 planes, he has actually discovered nearly 140. All of them are still stored, wings folded back, in their original crates and are wrapped in wax paper and covered in grease. That has kept them in near mint condition, even after being buried in the jungle for nearly 70 years.

After the discovery, Cundall petitioned the government of Myanmar for permission to begin excavating the vintage planes. They have recently granted him that permission, and he is now free to start the process of digging them up and shipping them home. And why exactly would he want to dig up all of those old planes? Because each of the Spitfires is estimated to be worth about $2.5 million when sold to a collector. That makes the entire find worth roughly $350 million.

It seems this lost cache of British fighters may not be the only one either. According to the “Business Insider” story linked to above, there are rumors that more than 230 Spitfires were buried somewhere in Queensland, Australia, as well. To date, none have been found, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from searching.

[Photo credit: RAF via WikiMedia]

The Burmese Bad Boys Of Mandalay: The Mustache Brothers

I was lost. Well, not “lost” as in I-can’t-find-way-home lost, but in that way where you suddenly find yourself in such unfamiliar territory, you just feel like you’ve stepped into another dimension. I knew I was in Myanmar, the country still sometimes referred to as Burma. And I knew I was in Mandalay, the second largest city in the country. I was traipsing through a street fair when I happened upon a booth selling posters. Next to images of the Chinese version of Justin Bieber (or is Justin Bieber the American version of this guy?) were displayed posters of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and the main thorn in the ruling junta’s side.

I took a picture of it. And then someone said to me, in English, “Be careful.” I knew what he meant. After all, this was Burma. Government agents, I’d been told, may or may not be shadowing tourists like me.

Displaying pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi – who has served several stints under house arrest but was recently elected to Parliament – was verboten a year ago. Now they’re nearly ubiquitous. Still, though, despite the recent changes in the country, this is an isolated land. Decades of totalitarian rule by the Burmese military have left the country in a freeze of sorts. There are no Starbucks or McDonalds in Mandalay or Yangon, the city formerly known as Rangoon. Cellphones from abroad don’t work, so visitors who want to get any kind of reception have to fork over heaps of cash to buy a SIM card. And it has to be cash, as there are no ATMs in this land. You can’t buy an iPhone or a BlackBerry but you can score a Chinese-made knockoff called a Black Jerry (I’m not kidding) for about $100.

The country is so insolated that kids walk around wearing T-shirts emblazed with the Nazi swastika (or, as you see from this pic I took, on the back pocket of their jeans). They’re not Nazis. Nor do they necessarily hate Jews. As one local told me: “People here somehow believe the swastika is a symbol of modern Germany and have no idea of its connection to the Nazis.” With this kind of information control – or, rather, lack of information available to the populace – is it any surprise that after George Orwell spent five years in Burma, he went on to write 1984? Answer: not at all.

I wasn’t just aimlessly wandering around Mandalay. I was on my way to a show. But this was no ordinary show. Meet the Mustache Brothers. They consist of mustached siblings Par Par Lay and Lu Maw, and their barefaced cousin, Lu Zaw. Every night of the year they put on a show for tourists in their garage-cum-theater that’s something like a mix between vaudeville, folk dancing and the type of show you see on cable access at 3 a.m. and wonder the next morning if that was for real or if what you had been smoking was just really potent stuff.

I walked down a dim alleyway and then made a left down an even darker hallway before being spilled out into the 25-seat performance space in a garage. It was occupied exclusively by foreign tourists, mostly lumpy looking northern Europeans. The reason? Par Par Lay and Lu Maw have both served time in prison for openly criticizing the government. After their release, in 2002, they were banned from touring around the country doing shows for the Burmese. So, they set up shop in their home and now only perform for tourists.

“It’s the tourists and the international attention the audience brings,” Lu Maw said when I introduced myself before the show. “This protects us from the government. ” And then he asked if I would please write about them for my blog. I didn’t tell him I had a blog. Nor did I say what I do for my job. I figured he just assumed everyone in the West has a blog these days.

Lu Maw began the show with rambling banter punctuated by political jokes. Example:

A Burmese man goes to a dentist in Thailand. And before the dentist examines the Burmese man’s teeth, he asks: why did you come all the way to Thailand to see a dentist.

“Because,” the Burmese man says, “in Burma we’re not allowed to open our mouths.”

“We’re not afraid of getting arrested anymore. Thank you Aung San Suu Kyi and Secretary Clinton,” Lu Maw said to the audience. He said the current international focus on Myanmar means the government has to act very carefully now. Though he did concede: “The New president? He’s a new bottle, same wine.”

Somehow during the show they managed to reference Ashton Kutcher, Bruce Willis, Al Pacino and Rambo. They held up hand-painted signs scrawled with phrases to emphasize a point or as the punchline to a joke – “Back Door Man” and “Whoop It Up,” for example. Other times, Par Par Lay would sit around in chains, looking not unlike some kind of circus sideshow act, referencing the time he was a political prisoner (see photo above). In other skits, the entire family took part. Wives and kids danced. There were costume changes. There was some hollering. In the end, it wasn’t the best show I’d ever seen. But that’s not at all the point. That they’re even performing, saying the things they’re saying – in public – in a land where getting imprisoned for the words you choose to use, is the point. And I was happy to support it.

After the show, just before the 25 or so of us shuffled out, Lu Maw hollered: “Don’t forget to write about us on your blogs.

It was a promise I said I would keep.

12 Hours In Yangon, Myanmar

For most of the past two decades, the only images and sounds of Myanmar that have reached the outside world is of its repressive military regime and the heroic resistance of the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. For years, travelers found themselves caught up in the debate over the ethics of traveling to Myanmar resulting in the country becoming more remote and inaccessible.

Now, with extraordinary political changes sweeping the country, Myanmar is once again back on the global stage. There is a near frenzy of who gets there first, to (re)discover this ancient land lodged between India and China. Most tourists that arrive will immediately head to Bagan, a dreamland of ruined pagodas, or Inle Lake, to soak in the serenity of its placid waters and photograph the famous leg rowers. That is indeed a great choice if you want to experience picture-perfect Myanmar – the Myanmar of myth and mystique. But if instead you want to feel the pulse of Myanmar as it is today – experience the sounds, sights and smells of a living, breathing city on the move – then stay a while longer in Yangon, the biggest city and the commercial capital of the country.

10 a.m.: Visit Bogyoke Market

Every great city has a thriving, bustling market to call its own and Bogyoke is Yangon’s. Most still know Bogyoke by its old colonial name – Scotts Market – and come in search of crumbling colonnades and cobblestoned lanes that bulge with an extraordinary variety of Burmese specialities. You could spend your entire day here, so keep your focus. Best buys at Bogyoke: traditional longyis (the Burmese sarong that is the de facto national dress), green tea from the upper Shan States, jade Buddhas, ruby pendants and teakwood shot glasses.11 a.m.: Learn to tie a longyi

So you bought the longyi at Bogyoke – now you have to learn how to tie it. The Burmese longyi is more artful than the Indian lungi or the Balinese sarong; getting the knot just so comes with weeks of practice (and at least a few public embarrassments). To find a longyi tutor, just clutch the cloth around your body and look around helplessly. It may sound like a cliché but the Myanmar people are among the world’s friendliest and most hospitable, so soon enough a crowd of longyi experts will collect around you. Just keep saying, “Keizu be” (pronounced, chase-oo-bay), which means “thanks,” as they hover over you tucking and tying.

12 p.m.: Slurp down a bowl of mohinga

If there is one national dish of Myanmar, it is mohinga. This flavorful dish is basically fish broth with noodles and can be had for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Like other Southeast Asian classics like chicken rice (Singapore), pad thai (Thailand), amok (Cambodia) and phó (Vietnam), each bowl of mohinga tends to carry the uniqueness of the place, despite the sameness of basic ingredients. Some are spicier than others, some include a quartered egg, others fritters and green beans. What is true of each bowl is that it is always delicious and immediately addictive.

1 p.m.: Walk down Sule Pagoda Road

You haven’t been to Yangon if you haven’t walked down the Sule Pagoda Road. Located smack in the heart of downtown, it is a vision of a city on the move. Here you will see the varied textures of Yangon come to life: the modern Traders Hotel that bustles with the energy of businessmen searching for new opportunities in a fast changing country; the tall Sakura towers that clamor with the squawking of travel agents and tour operators trying to manage the rapidly increasing tourist numbers; the ever popular cinemas playing everything from John Carter to local Myanmar favorites; the rows of roadside tea stalls swelling with gregarious customers; the bus shelters crowded with longyi-wearing Burmese smoking green cheroots, their mouths reddened (and ruined) from chewing betel leaves; sugarcane vendors with their grand wheel presses; and rising from the middle of it all, a tall, graceful, gilded pagoda that gives the road its name.

2 p.m.: Release a bird (and earn eternal merit)

Myanmar is overwhelmingly a Buddhist country and the religion is an essential part the country’s cultural fabric. Everywhere you go you will find monks, pagodas and rituals that keep religion in the foreground. One of these rituals is the practice of releasing captive birds to earn merit. Outside Sule Pagoda itself, you will have the opportunity to release yellow crested sparrows for a dollar each. Pay your kyats (the local currency) and you will have a squawky little thing in your hand. Plant a kiss on the head and with as much flourish as you can, hoist it to the skies. Most tourists suspect that the birds come right back to their cages but you still get your merit points!

3 p.m.: Drink tea at a streetside stall

The Burmese obsession with tea is even greater than their passion for chewing betel leaf (and that’s saying a lot!). Strewn across the city are low tables with a flask (or a kettle) of hot Chinese tea. Sit down and pour yourself a cup or several – it costs nothing and you can empty the whole thing without paying a kyat, though it’s polite if you order some food for the table. These roadside stalls offer great vantage points to people watch and just soak the city in.

4 p.m.: Visit Aung San Suu Kyi’s house

You cannot come to Yangon and not be faced with the charismatic presence of “The Lady.” Since the new political reforms kicked in, and ‘Daw Suu’ and her party, the National League for Democracy, won nearly all of the seats up for grabs in the April by-elections, images of Suu Kyi and her father – independence-era hero, General Aung San – are everywhere. It is safe to say that in contemporary global politics there is absolutely no one that evokes the kind of devotion and emotion Suu Kyi does in her people. While you are unlikely to have the chance to see her in person, make sure you make the trip down to her now iconic house on the wide, tree-lined University Avenue where she spent much of the past two decades under house arrest.

5 p.m.: Walk around Inya Lake

Not far from Aung San Suu Kyi’s house is Inya Lake. Hemmed in by a neat promenade, this is where the Burmese come out for their daily constitutionals. If your image of Burma is only saffron-robed monks or rural farmers, get ready for breathless joggers and fitness freaks in fashionable sportswear. A hotspot for dog walkers, this is a good place to check out Yangon’s prettiest canines.

6 p.m.: Take the ferry across Yangon River

For a change of scene, head over to the Pansodan jetty and take the ferry across the caramel waters of Yangon river. The large boats, which take over 200 people, convert themselves into busy bazaars. You can buy hats, watermelons, clothes, DVDs, snacks, flowers or just join the thronging crowds in the babble of conversation and a communal camaraderie. One of the most spectacular things about this ride is the flock of seagulls that fly alongside the boat – in hundreds – and it is an incredible sight to see them swoop down on the fritters being offered by the passengers.

7 p.m.: Play a football match

Football came to Burma with the British and it hasn’t left. Yangon is a die-hard Manchester United city and be careful if you disagree. Football is everywhere: on television sets by streetside shops, on T-shirts and keychains, and in neighborhood parks and narrow bylanes. When you spot a game going on, or a group of boys practicing head shots, just join in with a smile and a nod of the head.

8 p.m.: Visit Shwedagon Pagoda

To not visit the Shwedagon Pagoda when in Yangon is to not visit the Taj Mahal when in Agra. This gleaming stupa of mammoth proportions dominates the Yangon skyline and you will see its towering dome several times as you make your way around the city. It’s considered to be the oldest pagoda in the country (about 2000 years old) and it’s most sacred. Its main stupa is a glittering construction of gold (tons of it), diamonds (thousands of carats) and a mind-boggling amount of precious gems. Sitting inside the pagoda, on its cool stone floors, is a most humbling experience.

9 p.m.: Get a drink at the Strand Bar

Unarguably the place to be seen on a Friday evening, the Strand Bar is just as chic as it was a century ago. Managed by the same group that is famous for iconic properties like Raffles Hotel Singapore, the 1901-built Strand Hotel, Yangon, is the ultimate showcase of discreet luxury and boasts a guest list that includes “royalty, nobility and distinguished personages.” It is also a historical landmark that continues to preserve the colonial heritage in a city where most other buildings from the period are crumbling away with disrepair. If you need more convincing, Happy Hour specials are offered from 5-11 p.m. and you can toss back a glass (or three) of Strand Crush, for just $3 each, alongside diplomats, ambassadors and well-heeled journalists. The service is impeccable and the food, particularly the chicken skewers ($7), is impressive.

10 p.m.: Visit a nightclub

Yes, you read that right. Yangon is a young city and knows how to get a party going. To start things off, head to 50th Street for a few drinks and a round of pool at, well, the 50th Street bar. The crowd here is essentially EAWs (Expat Aid Workers) but you will meet several Burmese who speak fluent English and are probably more widely travelled than you. As the buzz kicks in, head towards Inya Lake where you have the choice of two nightclubs: DJ Star and GTR. DJ Star is better known because it’s been around for a while, but the newer GTR is all the rage in Yangon these days. For one, there are fewer hookers there (and so if the girl is interested, there is a chance that it is not your money that she is after) and second, it doesn’t have a cover charge (K10,000 at DJ). If you still have energy you can head to BME 2 on University Avenue, or for a peek at the Yangon underbelly, to Pioneer Club, but the night isn’t over until you have sat around at the tea stall in the wee hours of the morning and wolfed down a plate of rice and peanuts.