Sunday, June 24, 2007

Farewell Burma

At the train station in Yangon.

A girl with thanaka on her face. Thanaka, found on the faces of most children and women, is a sort of sunscreen/make-up made from the bark of a tree with the same name.

We met this woman and her daughter on one of our last days in Yangon. Austin took a remarkable photo of them which can be found on his blog:

Check out Austin's blog for more shots of the soccer balls.

Sorting through a storm drain looking for valuables. In his left hand he holds a magnet.

The streets of Yangon.

A Triumph in particularly good condition, considering the state of the streets.

Our last night in Burma...We'll miss it.

-- Will

Friday, June 15, 2007

Inside Naypyidaw

In November 2005, the ruling military junta of Burma surprised the world by announcing it was moving its capital city from Yangon to a new location 460km north. Construction of the new city started in 2004 and, from what we saw, hasn’t slowed since. The official line is that Yangon was too crowded and busy for the government to expand, however some groups believe the move inland was made because of fears of a US-led invasion. China, the junta’s largest supporter and trading partner, criticized the move, questioning the logic behind spending millions on a new capital when the economy is in shambles and thousands of citizens are starving.

Our decision to visit the capital, Naypyidaw (also spelled Nay Pyi Taw and Nay Pyi Daw), was inspired by conversations we had with two travelers we met in Bagan. They had taken a bus from Taungoo to the new capital without any trouble. International news stressed that the city was still off-limits to foreigners.

We decided to try staying in Pyinmana, a town only eight miles from Naypyidaw. Upon arrival a guesthouse manager told us foreigners could only stay in the specially designated “Hotel Zone” in the capital. This strip of five or six extravagant resorts was spread along roughly three kilometers of deserted freeway. From afar they looked postcard-perfect, with manicured gardens and villa bungalows, but upon closer scrutiny sloppy imperfections showed themselves. With our particular bungalow the builders spaced the front door improperly and a small piece of wood was jammed into the gap to allow it to close. The bathroom was also designed in a strange fashion, with the adjoining toilet room barely large enough for toilet itself and too small to sit comfortably in. Privacy didn’t seem to be a priority either, the door to the bathroom having curtain-less windows.

We were checked in by 7:00PM and decided to explore the town a little. Leaving the hotel, a friendly group of guys ushered us into their water truck and gave us a lift into town. The “city center,” a five-spoked traffic circle, can only be called so as it is in the center of town. Not too much goes on here though.

We were surprised, however, at how lively the rest of the city can be. Restaurants were packed and people were walking the streets, enjoying the night. Now that government workers are allowed to bring their families to Naypyidaw, it seems more like a city than the vacant shell of one it may have been a few months before. Despite this, it is still a strange place: slums and local markets right next to sparkling new malls and colourful apartments.

Our second day there we awoke early hoping to pack in as much time exploring before our bus left that night. Instead of walking the five kilometers to the traffic circle, we flagged down two motorcycle taxis who took us to a new mall still under construction. Most shops were sparsely supplied at best. One computer shop, roughly three meters from wall to wall, was barren save for one lonely shelf with a few spindles of DVDs and a couple other products. There were labourers everywhere, men and women.

We took a city bus to Myowma, which seemed to be the real center of the city. Here, crowds of people came together to buy and sell goods, chow down, or wait in line for buses to Yangon.

After spending some time there we decided to get a better view of the city and climbed the road going up to one of the larger pagodas in town. We were stopped by two plain-clothed police officers who eyed our cameras while taking down passport information. This was the only time we came in contact with the law. On some occasions we did feel as if we were being followed. Later on the second day a man stopped his motorbike in front of us, started talking on his walkie-talkie, then drove off. Maybe I was just being paranoid, but he looked like someone I had seen earlier that day.

From the pagoda we were afforded a better view of this expansive city. Far in the distance we could see the red- and blue-topped apartment complexes under construction. A combination of dying camera batteries and heavy rains kept us from doing much else so we made our way to Myowma market to wait for our bus.

Here are some photos from our time in Naypyidaw.

The stretch of road along the "Hotel Zone."

The colourful apartment buildings of Naypyidaw.

Myowma market.

A massive new structure looms behind vast slums.
Photo credit: Austin Andrews

Construction is everywhere.

Men, women and children construct the grand resorts of"Hotel Zone". Many building sites have guards keeping watch on the labourers. It's hard to tell whether any of this is forced labour. What we do know is that the Tatmadaw government has in the past used forced labour to build infrastructure. We spoke with a local who told us that when he was a child the military rounded up people in his village to build a bridge, without pay or food.

A man looks out over Myowma market at night.
Photo credit: Austin Andrews

-- Will

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Inle Lake

After three days of exhausting, but rewarding trekking, we finally reached Inle Lake. We said goodbye to Alex and Como-Say and hired a boat for the next day.

Austin, Alex and Como-Say on the boat to Inle.

Austin lines up a shot.

The Intha people live in stilt homes on the lake. They also grow their vegetables on the water. Lake-bottom weeds are gathered and piled in rows, anchored by bamboo shoots, providing a suitable garden for growing all sorts of produce. The gardens are also resistant to flooding because whenever the water level rises, so do the gardens.

Longboat fishermen.

The Intha fishermen use these cone-shaped nets to trap fish. At its deepest point, the lake is only twelve feet. Unique to Inle is the rowing style in which the fisherman wraps his leg around the pole and paddles with his leg. This gives them a better vantage point to see the fish.

Burmese VCDs for sale, along with what looks like medication.

At the market.

At lunch our driver took us to his friend's place for a traditional Intha meal. (Intha being the people living on the lake.) Apart from the French Fries, I think it was more or less authentic. In any case, it was delicious and that's all that matters.

Our host's kitty, whom we nicknamed Loopy, was indeed a bit loopy. The way she ate was very strange. When feeding her dried noodles she would bite it like a fish would, in one lightning-fast motion. We chalk it up to her being cooped up in a stilt house on the water, with very little space to run around. Perhaps she spends more time with fish than she does with cats.

The somewhat touristy lakeside market at Inle.

Nuns walk the city gathering alms.

At the Jumping Cat Monastery, the monks have trained their cats to leap through hoops set at least a meter high. As these cats know, it's best to have a hearty breakfast before the jumping begins.

Performing for tourists can really take it out of you.

This kitten is quite content to just play with this broom.

The skies were incredible in front of this pagoda.

On the way home we were treated to a beautiful sunset complete with rainbow. At the time it was raining so we would take turns holding the umbrella while the other frantically took shots and wiped off his lens. Right in the middle of all these incredible photo opportunities, Austin's camera battery suddenly died. Shortly after that, I found that I had no space on my card, so I desperately deleted photos from the beginning of the day while Austin took out his battery, shook it, and replaced it, hoping to get a few more shots. Eventually, both camera's battery's died, so we just sat back and enjoyed the show.

-- Will