Friday, March 1, 2013

From Yangon to Mandalay

February 26, 2013

We woke up around 7am and had breakfast on the ship.  Mark, Larissa, Matt, Danny and I had decided to fly up to Mandalay then to Bagan to gather b-roll and go on an adventure that was recommended to us by Matt's parents who had just been to Myanmar a couple months prior.  We headed for the 11am bus to go into Yangon proper and get some errands done before going to the airport.

I needed to exchange my cash for some Kyat (pronounced like the english word: "chat"), so that was our first order of business.  We went to the ATM we had seen the night before, and there was a huge line for the money exchange part of the building.  It was way to long of a wait, and on the bus ride in there was an LED sign flashing money exchange on the main drag, so we decided to check that out.

Upon arriving there, we realized that it was flashing between "money exchange" and "coming soon".  It was still under construction, and the workers out front didn't seem surprised to see us since foreigners from across the city must have been flocking to this place like we did.  As we stood out front discussing where else we could go, we were accosted by a "local loco" (as Larissa would phrase it).  He was a crazed man with dark red teeth who had entered our discussion circle and started yelling things at us in Myanma.  "Let's walk quickly that way," I suggested, and we did just that.

The reason why his teeth were deep red and purple was because of the local narcotic called beetle nut.  It's some sort of plant that the locals put into a leaf with some other ingredients then tuck into their lip like tobacco and reap the buzzing benefits of the drug for hours.  It has to produce exorbitant amounts of saliva because it was impressive how much these guys were spitting their red goo.

I eventually found another money exchange and proceeded to unknowingly cut my way in front of a line of locals and got my funds.  I apologized, but they were very nice about it - the Myanmar way.  We had just enough time to grab some lunch before grabbing a taxi to the airport, so we wandered the streets looking for some quick food that wasn't street food.  We had been warned about the quality of the street food and decided to heed to warnings since we'd be on a plane in a matter of hours.

Shen the push-up man and our questionable lunch.
We were pushed into a little restaurant where we ordered five of the one thing that was on the menu.  It was some sort of rice, chicken and curry concoction that had a good flavor to it.  A little bit sweet but savory at the same time.  The owner got us all set up with cucumber and mint salads, a green leaf soup, and our rice platters before we knew what to even order.  We got some Star Cola for good measure, synchronized watches, popped a couple Pepto-Bismal and decided to let the experiment begin. We were absolutely sure we were going to be sick after this meal.

The owner's son, a boy who looked about 12, hung around as we ate and asked us little questions in broken english.  He loved Mark.  He pointed at the Under Armour logo on Mark's shirt and motioned as if he were doing push-ups.  We weren't sure what the boy wanted, but we chatted to him and eventually found out his name was Shen.  Shen watched us eat and helped us by pointing out the things we were supposed to put into our lukewarm rice - you know, the fresh vegetables that you're not supposed to eat.  We didn't give in, but he didn't seem offended.

As we got up to leave, the boy motioned to Mark again and made the push-up signal, so Mark engaged him and they both got down on the floor and had a push-up battle right in the middle of the restaurant.  It was pretty funny.  After eight push-ups, Shen gave up, and Mark showed off by doing two more.  Shen was very impressed and finally approved of Mark wearing the shirt.

They don't have any seatbelt laws around here, so it's quite normal to jam five people into a taxi cab (as we found out), so that's how we made our way to the airport.  I am pleased to say that they don't drive like they do in Vietnam, so we felt a little bit safer in that sense.

We got to the airport with only an hour and a half until our flight and were a little worried that we wouldn't make it.  The regional airport is actually just a small building with two sections to it, and airport security consisted of running anything you wanted to run through the x-ray machine and then walking through the metal detector, setting it off and getting a quick arm pat from the female on the other side.  It pales in comparison to airport security in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  They would cry if they knew about this place.

Me and what I thought was my
boarding pass sticker.
We were quite sure how to go about getting our boarding passes because all we had were some handwritten tickets that Matt thought looked like dry cleaning receipts.  We went up to the only window we could find that looked like it led to the outside and the man took our dry cleaning receipts and gave us each a sticker on our shirts.  We assumed it was our boarding pass, so we headed back to the waiting area.  The man made a big deal about the fact that we couldn't carry on Mark's backpack, so we took the time to redistribute camera gear only to find out that all you needed to do was walk past the little man with the concern and get on the plane with your stuff.  The cabin stewards were very accommodating.  They would buckle our bags into empty seats, cram them into overhead compartments, or let us rest our legs on them.  Again - Sioux Falls airport would die if they knew about this.

It turned out that the stickers were just telling the cabin stewards which people had which connections.  We were headed to Mandalay first, but the rest of the flight was going on to Bagan, so that's why we had different colored stickers.  The man chased us down and gave us our boarding passes, and Matt and I were assigned to seats 12C and 12D.  Mark, Danny and Larissa got seats 1A, 1B and 1C.  They told us we were all sitting together.  That didn't add up, so we just went with it.  Sure - yes 12C and 1C are next to each other.  Thanks.
We made it through security and waited
in the rainbow chairs.

After a run back through security for some shortbread cookies and potato fries, a little man with a sign came out with our flight number on it, and we jumped at the opportunity.  Once outside the garage door, we boarded a bus which took us about 50 meters to the plane sitting just outside the building.  Matt got on first and saw that 12A and 12B were the very back seats, but there was no 12C and 12D.  Uh oh.

The woman pointed him to the front of the plane where there were two jump seats facing backwards on the right side of the plane.  Those were our seats.  We learned to always trust the airport people.  They knew what they were talking about.

There is no air conditioning on these planes, and it's around 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside, so you can imagine how toasty these little prop jobs can get.  We were all pouring sweat, and so the cabin stewards lovingly came around with hot coffee and hot tea.  We thought this was our only option for beverages, and we were so thirsty and had already drank the water we packed, that we gladly slurped down the boiling water.  With burned mouths and extra sweating, we realized that this flight included a little box dinner.  Inside was a buttery little croissant with cheese and extra mayo.  Yum yum!  Warm cheese and warm mayo inside a greasy piece of bread.  BUT! We were headed to Mandalay, so there were absolutely no complaints - just a couple chuckles at the situation.

After an hour flight, we landed in Mandalay, and it turned out that we and another couple were the only ones going, so the rest of the flight kept seated as we awkwardly exited with all of our film equipment.

The sun was going down and there was a beautiful sunset outside the airport.  There's a ton of smoke and dust in the air here during the dry season, so you can't see very far through the haze and the sunrises and sunsets are bright pink and orange because of all of the particles in the atmosphere.

We went to the cab stand and attempted to barter our cab fare down, but they don't really do that here.  They're very honest and fair people, and every cab driver that we dealt with was pretty straight forward about the fact that their fare was fair.  The man took us out to a van that we shared with another couple and we drove about an hour and a half to our hotel in the middle of Mandalay.

A bright, neon sign that read "Smart Hotel" told us we were home.  We walked into the lobby and it was beautiful!  It was a very upscale place and we were served fresh mango juice when we walked in and greeted so kindly.  We worked it out to hire a cab for the next day because we wanted to get sunrise at the U Bein bridge, then catch the feeding of 1,000 monks, then go to Innwa then to catch our flight at the airport to go to Bagan.  After a long time of trying to explain to them what we wanted, we felt good enough about our plan and ordered a wake-up call for 4:00am.

We dropped our bags in our rooms, and Matt and I were so excited to see our room didn't have bunk beds in it.  It was air conditioned and had just been renovated within the last month, the front desk told us.  It was so beautiful and nice.  It felt really good to be in, and we were sad to only have a few hours there awake.

At this point, it was about 8:30, so we decided to go grab dinner and then get to bed as early as we could.  The front desk directed us to a place called Too Too's where we could eat some authentic Myanmar food.  I had lost my appetite which worried me since it had been about 8 hours since our lunch at Shen's Palace (which we named it after the little push-up boy).  Matt, Danny and Mark weren't satisfied with their cheesy croissant and ordered up pork, mutton and fish curry from the woman who didn't speak any english.  By "ordered" I actually mean pointed at bowls of curry hoping that it wasn't intestine - as usual.

The woman led us upstairs and gave three bowls of rice, then each curry, then three different types of curry salads for each person and some hot chili sauce and a strange tub of brown chunks.  The curries were delicious and the salads were pretty good except for the fish sauce sprouts.  That one tasted, obviously, like fish sauce, and, as I've said, I'll not allow fish sauce in my belly.  It rejected it outright after a quick sniff.

The sugar lumps jar and our big ole Myanmar meal.
Mark's fish curry, though, was magnificent, and I dug in and got a big scoop with a mystery lump in it.  I chewed the fish, then ran into a juicy lump of hot, green chili which blew up my mouth.  It was soooo spicy.  We found out that the little, brown mystery lumps were sugar and assumed that they were to alleviate some of the spiciness of the curry.  I popped one in my mouth and it was straight sugar which tasted like Bit-o-Honey, those little chewy candies in the yellow wrappers.  We binged on a few of those, but saw that we were being stared us, so we took it easy for the rest of the dinner.

After dinner, we walked out of the restaurant to the sound of a monk reading what must have been religious teachings.  It was playing on a loud speaker throughout the city and coming out of a monastery a few blocks down.  There aren't any street lights on the dirt roads, so we wandered around by the light of passing cars and houses to find where the noise was coming from.

We found the mouth of the monastery which was a long, concrete corridor.  We knew that shoes weren't allowed in these locations, but there was no one else around, so we decided to be safer than sorrier, and pulled off our shoes and socks and carried them with us.  The corridor was long, and the marble floor felt good in the heat of the night.

The first Buddha we saw.
It opened up to a large room with green fabric on the floors in front of a large Buddha statue up on a raised platform.  There were places to drop money all around and one man standing in the back behind glass.  We waved to him and he smiled to us and looked excited that we were there, so we proceeded further into the monastery.  We found another Buddha statue in another room which was more ornate.

What we didn't find was where the readings were coming from.  They were definitely being played from a speaker at the top of this place, but couldn't find the man reading, and we weren't able to communicate what we were looking for to the man at the monastery.  He kindly pointed things out and asked if we would sit, but we were ready to head for bed since it was about 10:00pm at this point.

We made it back to our hotel after saying hello to many of the locals that seemed fascinated with the five white people walking the streets at night.  They would stare at us, but as soon as we said, "Mingalaba", the phonetic spelling of "hello" in Myanma, they would brighten up and say it back.  I can't emphasize enough how welcoming and kind people are here.

I headed for bed, and Matt, Mark and Danny went out to get some shots of the lights in the thick haze.  The volumetric lighting looked majestic in the dark as people crossed in front of car lights and motorcycles passed by.  I slept terribly because I was so afraid of being sick the next morning in the middle of the U Bein bridge.  I wasn't actually sick, I think it was all in my head. The plus side is that I got to text back and forth to my sister, Alanna, since it must have been the afternoon in Colorado.  That was a nice distraction, and fun to hear of the adventures she's having with video production.  Wish I could be there to play, too!

Just before falling asleep at 2:00am, I started hearing these popping or clicking sounds outside.  Pop, pop.  Pop-pop-pop.  Pop...pop.  I peered out the window to the security guard below using an electric bug zapper which looked like a tennis racquet and zapping all the malaria-ridden mosquitoes away from himself.  He seemed amused by the task, which made me smile.  It helped distract me from my paranoia and I fell off to rest.