Travels In Myanmar: Under A Night Sky

I had no idea what to expect that morning in Yangon. Inside the city’s once grand but now decrepit train station, a few lonely bulbs fought weakly against the dark. Across the arrivals hall was the silhouette of my transport, an intimidating iron locomotive. I moved hesitantly towards this slumbering rusty giant, past anonymous passengers squatting on the cracked cement floor, huddled in the chill of pre-dawn. The station’s shadows whispering with nervous energy. Who knew where this day was headed?

In the vague outlines of my journey, only one detail was certain: I was in a country called Burma (or was it called Myanmar?) and determined to witness a mysterious festival of “Fire Balloons” in a distant Shan State town of Taunggyi. Beyond that, I knew little. The previous day I had wandered into a travel agency hoping to find a way to get to the festival. Buses and flights there were full, and the agent had suggested heading north to the rail depot at Thazi to arrange further transport. It sounded like a half-baked plan. But with dwindling options and a burning desire to witness this strange festival, I had agreed.

As I considered my uncertain itinerary, the shaky locomotive rumbled its way out of the station in a fog of anxious dawn. The ancient carriage embraced a landscape of endless, monochrome-green farm fields, shrouded in a mist of faint light. A treacherous white-hot sun soon pierced the horizon, igniting a furnace of unrelenting heat. Out the window I could make out distant water buffaloes lumbering across shimmering rice paddy fields, trailed by men hidden beneath sun hats. Amtrak this was not.

Inside the train car, red-robed monks stripped to the waist in the warmth, fanning themselves with wilting sports pages. Meanwhile, men puffed on fragrant cheroot cigarettes, the smoke curling its way into every orifice and fabric. Young boys roamed the aisles hawking glistening nooses of freshly plucked chickens, while the heat painted sweat stains in mosaics on my pants and shirt. I sat stewing in this pungent mixture of sweat, billowing cheroot smoke and grease, drowning in second thoughts as the reality of the unknown journey inched forward.

My motivation for visiting Burma had so far escaped introspection. Romanced by visions of countless travel writers and the exotic, I had left my job and life behind, traveling alone to this reclusive Southeast Asian nation in search of something different. I wanted to have an adventure and discover some deeper meaning to my journey. But as the hours bobbed and squeaked past tiny wooden villages and muddy brown farm fields, fat and thick with monsoon rain, I felt invisible and wracked with uncertainty. I desperately craved something familiar – an anchor to the reality I had discarded far behind in my relentless search for discovery.

Twelve dripping, exhausted hours later, a small triumph shook me from my daze. Thazi! I made it! But Burma wasn’t ready to let me off easily. The plan was to meet some other travelers in Thazi and find a ride – but I was the only one there. Come to think of it, Thazi didn’t even have a bus station. It was no more than a dusty main road littered with stray dogs and wobbly Japanese pickups. It was nearly dark and I was fenced in by my stupid choices. Growing nervous with dwindling options, I stumbled to a nearby pickup truck owner and pleaded for assistance.

“Can you…take me to Taunggyi?” I asked haltingly. The man sized up the tall foreigner in his midst, grinning at his luck.

“Maybe tomorrow. 20,000 kyat.” he spat out, with a smile.

My shoulders sagged. The vehicle was barely upright, let alone roadworthy – the cream-colored exterior was polka-dotted with rust. Four balding tires looked ready to deflate or burst, I couldn’t tell which. But the prospect of spending the night in that strange city, alone, drove me to further action.

“I’ll pay 10,000, and I want to leave tonight,” I countered.

The owner grimaced and crossed his arms in thought. Meanwhile a visibly intoxicated man and several kids crowded behind us, intrigued by the transaction. The cost was worth less than a dinner back home, but it felt like something large was at stake.

“OK, we go – but very far. You pay 15,000.”

Adrenaline surged. Taunggyi was now within my grasp! How naive I was. The truck still needed to fill with passengers and goods before it would depart. We waited for what seemed like hours. Six women climbed into benches in the back. Three more men perched themselves above the truck’s metal scaffolding. A precariously stacked bundle of wicker baskets was lashed to the roof. The truck looked less like transport than a vehicular Jenga game ready to topple. I sat on the curb, eyes wide and mouth agape. The drunken man from earlier hovered over me babbling, gesturing at the pickup and chuckling.

The evening was well under way before we departed. I climbed into the pickup’s front cabin with the owner and a young camouflage-clad man named Mikey, my knees jammed against the dash and head poking against the cabin’s roof, backpack shoehorned beneath my knees. The intimate seating arrangements encouraged Mikey to strike up a conversation.

“Where you come from?” Mikey inquired in his halting English.

I got asked this question a lot while I was in Burma. Frequently the desired answer had less to do with learning your citizenship than simply conjuring your state of mind.

“Man, it’s been such a long day, I can’t even remember anymore” I groaned.

We set off shakily, our pickup struggling to gain speed with its massive load. A horse-drawn cart rolled past, leaving our shaky vehicle in the dust. Shortly after departing Thazi, the pickup had its first breakdown. An hour later, the owner stopped to secretly siphon gas into the tank from a roadside oil drum. As we drove, Mikey chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes blowing smoke in my face in between eruptions of flatulence and cackling giggle fits with the driver. Spending the night in Thazi began to look like an attractive option.

Despite the setbacks, I realized my earlier anxiety was gone. Each unexpected stop seemed less like a challenge than a bizarre novelty. I found myself smiling at the ridiculousness of it all. Mikey even bought me a can of iced coffee, trading a grin and thumbs up of solidarity. As I sipped my shockingly sweet Coffee King beverage, I happened to glance up at the night sky, which had unfurled itself behind the Shan foothills like a blanket of twinkling brilliance. Sparkling meteorites zipped and swooshed with startling frequency. Distant constellations seemed to pulse and move like the rhythm of a cosmic ocean. In my semi-lucid state, I stared in wonder, mouth agape. At that moment, all the doubts, insecurities and vanities of my journey faded. This was exactly where I needed to be.

After each repair, we were back on the road, our ride wobbling ever higher in the foothills of Shan State. The smooth pavement became a dirt road treacherous with potholes. It was not much more than a single car wide, and we had to share with the hulking Chinese semis lumbering past, showering our vehicle with aromas of diesel fumes and dust. It was all I could do to keep from gagging on these noxious clouds, fortifying myself with the knowledge that clean night air would soon return to my window, along with that luminous sky.

Seven hours passed before the lights of Taunggyi shined in the distance, glittering like a city on a hill. It had been over 20 hours since I left Yangon that morning. I found the nearest guesthouse, banged on the door until it opened and collapsed on a bed. My longest day soon faded into the memory of the stillness of night.

Life frequently requires us to make decisions without fully understanding their impact. I keep asking myself the same questions about my purpose and finding no clear answers. Where am I headed? What’s the point? With so much uncertainty and doubt, it’s easy to believe I’ve lost my way. Except that I haven’t. Whenever I have these moments of doubt I remind myself to take a deep breath, and look up at the night sky. Suddenly I find myself transported back to that night in Burma when I rediscovered my purpose, gazing up at a blanket of stars shimmering with light.

Outside magazine’s inaugural ‘Travel Awards’ winners

travel awardsWith twenty-three categories and every continent up for consideration, the competition is fierce, but today Outside magazine released its picks for its new Outside Travel Awards. The winners include everything from travel companies and locales to cameras, suitcases, hotels, and apps, road-tested by those in the know (you know, those people).

Amongst the chosen is Seattle-based Mountain Madness, a mountain adventure guide service and mountaineering school, for its new Tsum Valley trek in Nepal, named “Best Trip in the Himalayas.” Known in sacred Buddhist texts as the “Hidden Valley of Happiness,” the Tsum Valley lies on the edge of the more visited Manaslu Conservation Area, which opened just three years ago to tourism.

Best travel company Geographic Expeditions (GeoEx) has “consistently taken travelers to the most remote regions of the world, from Everest’s north side to Patagonia’s glaciers to the far reaches of Papua New Guinea. This year its trailblazing new terrain with a 27-day trek to the north face of K2 ($11,450).” Bonus: “the price of every GeoEx trip includes medical assistance and evacuation coverage from Global Rescue and medical-expense insurance through Travel Guard.” Not too shabby.

Also making the list: Myanmar is the “Best New Frontier;” Canon Powershot G-12 makes the “Best Camera;” the “Best New Adventure Lodge” is the Singular, outside of Puerto Natales, Patagonia, Chile; and the “Best Eco-Lodge” is the architectural marvel, The Mashpi in Ecuador.

[Photo credit: Flickr user tarotastic]

A cultural tour of Burma through tilt-shift timelapse

For those who’ve wondered what local life is like in Burma (Myanmar), “Bonsai Burma” by Berlin filmmaker Joerg Daiber can enlighten you. Using tilt-shift photography, Daiber takes viewers on a cultural tour of the country showing daily life, women working in the hillsides, children playing, hawkers selling goods at the market, and fisherman working for their catch. Furthermore, viewers will be taken through various cities and shown an array of landscapes – mountains, hillsides, rivers, and cities – giving an all-encompassing tour of the country.

Betelmania: how to chew betel nut in Burma

Betelmania: how to chew betel nut in BurmaIn Burma, the streets are stained with red blotches, as if someone decided the pavement needed a more Jackson Pollock look. Walk down any lane in Yangon or Mandalay or anywhere that humans reside in this southeast Asian country, and you’ll see splotches of red on the street. I wondered if following these small red liquid pools would lead me to a hospital where I’d find some poor farmer who had had a bad run-in with a tractor. Or maybe it was that the Burmese needed a lesson in proper table saw safety. I began to wonder why there weren’t more amputees in Burma. But then I realized what I was really seeing. Saliva. Specifically, the saliva of betel nut chewers.

I have a proclivity for trying the local legal narcotic when I’m traveling. In Bolivia that meant chewing coca leaves. In Ethiopia it was chat or, as it’s more commonly known (where it’s chewed in Yemen), qat. In Amsterdam…well, you can figure out what I consumed there. I have to admit: I knew nothing of betel nut. Only that it made people’s teeth permanently red.

A guy I met who works for Intrepid Travel, a tour operator that recently began doing tours again in Myanmar, and he thought it was hilarious I had wanted to try it. He said I’d get slightly intoxicated from chewing betel. Betel also functions as a vermifuge–meaning it helps expel parasites–and an appetite suppressant.

As far as I knew, I had no parasites to expel and I was loving the food here so I didn’t necessarily need to cut down on my eating. But, for better or worse, I’ve always had a hard time turning down the local intoxicant. So when someone extended their hand to me–and that hand contained betel nut (see the photo above)–I couldn’t resist.

Sir James George Scott, a colonial-era chronicler of all things Burma, wrote, “No one can speak Burmese well till he chews betel.” I wasn’t necessarily out to learn Burmese during my week-and-a-half-long trip there (though I did somehow learn the word for “midget”). I was in Inle Lake, about 300 miles north of Yangon, a kind of decrepit looking southeast Asian-version of Venice; a town made of wood and water with canals flanked by rickety teak houses on stilts. I had hired a boat for a while–a deal at $10 for most of the day–to take me around the lake. We stopped at a place that makes herbal cigarettes. As a service to customers, they hand out complimentary food (think delicious tea leaf salad) and, it turns out, betel nut.

The boy rolling the nut held up a leaf, as if to offer. I nodded and he went to work. He slapped some white lime paste on the betel vine leaf and then came cloves, aniseed, and cardamom. Then he broke up some of the betel nuts and placed them with the rest of the party on the leaf. Finally, he opened up a jar and pinched out some tobacco that had been marinating in alcohol for days. He wrapped it up and handed it to me.

I popped the leaf in my mouth and commenced masticating. Immediately my mouth was incapacitated with saliva. I’d lean over the wood railing and spit into the water ten feet below a long stream of red liquid. The taste was bitter and the mint stung my tongue every so slightly. I stood there looking out over the golden temples that dot this town in the middle of the lake, my thoughts interrupted by having to lean over again and drizzle a stream of red saliva into the lake.

Constantly expelling red saliva didn’t make for the most fun narcotic I’ve ever tried in my life. On the boat ride back to the lake-side town I was staying in–having spit out the betel nut before getting onboard–I could feel a curious sensation. A slight tipsy feeling.

When I got back to shore, still a tad light headed from the betel, I didn’t necessarily want to speak Burmese–how could you with all that red saliva in your mouth? And my one word, “midget” (which I can no longer remember), only got me blank stares in return when I uttered it.

Or maybe it was the fact that I was a non Burmese with totally red, (fortunately temporarily) betel-stained teeth and lips that made me look like some kind of freak.

Myanmar Misfortune: a visit to the fortuneteller in Yangon

The man who told me my unfortunate future, did so with glee. I quickly learned he had a proclivity for sustaining the last syllable of every sentence, like a Spanish-speaking soccer play-by-play announcer after a goal, or a game show host announcing I’d just won a BRAND NEW CAR……!

“In future, you will be very unluckyyyyyyyyy,” he said after recording my birthdate and looking it up in a tattered book filled with numerical codes.

I was doing a self-guided tour of Yangon, the erstwhile capital of Myanmar, as outlined in my guidebook, Lonely Planet Myanmar. The walking tour took me down a street lined with fortunetellers and palm readers. I hadn’t planned on sitting down but I thought that if one of them was particularly insistent, I’d do it.

That’s when Min Kyot Kyow announced himself to me. I took a seat on the bench and within seconds he was rambling on about my unfortunate fate. Astrology is taken very seriously in Myanmar. The location of the new capital, Naypyidaw, was reportedly determined by astrology.

I’ve never really gravitated to fortunetellers, palm readers and psychics, but I’d randomly had a couple experiences with this ilk that left me both intrigued and perplexed. In Rajasthan, a fortuneteller’s main message to me was that the best years of my life were 1996 and 2005. Up until 2011, those were, by far, the worst years of my life. Or did he mean that suffering equals growth which eventually equals positivity? It’s possible, I suppose; after a terrible last year, I’m currently quite happy about the way things have worked out. In Rajasthan, though, I didn’t stick around for clarification. Instead, I walked away distraught and confused. The second brush came when I was reporting a story on people who privately collect holy relics. One of the collectors, it turned out, was also a psychic. In the middle of his answers about how he attained the complete skull of St. Anne, he’d get a glazed look in his eye, stare over my shoulder and make random (and, at times, frightenly accurate) statements about my past.

But no one had dared tell me my future yet. Min Kyot Kyow picked up a piece of paper and began reading badly worded statements in English about what lie ahead for me. It was as if this crumpled notebook leaf of paper had been divinely inscribed just for me. But because the ballpoint pen ink looked long faded and the piece of paper itself appeared to have been through the wash several times, it was like someone saw me coming about five years ago. Or did the fortuneteller just say these things to all the foreigners who happen to walk by?

Telling me things like I would live with my father until I was in my 70s or that I have a kind relationship to “beasts,” as he put it, was fine, I guess. I didn’t really need to know this information. I won’t be living with my father and I already know I’m a friend of the beast, after all.

But then he started to get specific. “You will marry foreign womaaaaaaaaaaaaan!” he screamed. And just in case I didn’t understand, he began naming nationalities, counting off on his fingers with each one. “China woman, Thai lady, Brazil woman, Indonesian woman.” Then he paused before adding: “Burma woman,” and raised his eyebrows up and down at me a few times.

I wish he would have stopped right there. I could have walked away and begun my search for my new foreign-born wife.

“But in eight years,” he added after studying my palm, “you will become widowwwwwwwwwwww.” A widower? Really? He was prophesying the death of a woman I’m going to fall in love with but haven’t met yet? (Note to any foreign-born women who may take a romantic interest in me: unless you like the idea of knowing you’re going to die in 2020, stay far away from me.)

The fortuneteller gave me a candle and pointed me toward the Sule Pagoda, the large Buddhist temple in the center of town that was looming in the distance. He said I’d know what to do with it when I got there (um, light it, maybe?). Which is what I did. I put it on an altar, set the wick ablaze, and sat there, meditating with a handful of Burmese Buddhists, hoping this fortuneteller was terrible at his profession.