Burma at Last!

Old Nov 28th, 2009, 09:42 AM
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Burma at Last!

As a child, I saw a photo of the temples at Bagan rising out of the peach-colored mist at sunrise. I knew I had to go there.

To go or not to go?
While I had wanted to visit Burma since I was a child, it wasn’t until this year that I actually made it to Burma. I, like others, was concerned about the brutal junta, and did not want to do anything to support them.

The first time I planned a trip to Burma was at a time when the country had recently opened to tourism. “Opened” is a misnomer really, as one could visit as part of a group tour for not more than 7 days. Thai Air had such a tour, leaving from Bangkok. While I dislike group tours, I wanted to go so badly and since it was the only way to get into the country, I decided to go. I had done my research with what was available (not much) and had talked extensively with a friend who had been there. We already had tickets to Bangkok. Just as I was about to book, ASSK asked that people boycott Burma. So I booked a trip elsewhere in SE Asia.

I planned trips two more times as it appeared that the government was loosening its iron grip on the people. The second time, they had released ASSK, who was traveling around the country. I was ecstatic, and immediately planned a trip. Then government forces attacked ASSK’s entourage in upper Burma, killing somewhere between 8 and 80 people, depending on which reports you read. Of course, I cancelled that trip.

I continued to watch and each time there was some thawing of the relationship between the pro-democracy forces and the government, I would again look at planning a trip. The most recent time I planned a trip before this was derailed by the government forces shooting peacefully demonstrating monks in the streets of Rangoon.

A number of people whose opinion I respect had opted to travel to Burma. Typically, they said it was important to travel to Burma to put money into the hands of the people. Some also noted that the presence of people from other countries could serve as encouragement to the people of Burma; they would know that others cared about them and their plight. Others pointed out that travelers were sometimes the only conduit for accurate information from the outside world, given the government’s blocking of many news outlet websites, email and such. While those are all reasonable arguments, they didn’t feel compelling to me. How would my visiting help the people change their circumstances?

Finally, I was convinced that it was time to go see for myself. I read extensively, including books by ASSK and by pro-democracy supporters who do not support the boycott. I went looking for ways visitors like myself could have a positive impact.
I researched the ownership of the hotels and chose ones without government connections. I flew on non-government airlines, though Tay Za, the general’s son-in-law owns Air Bagan. But given my itinerary, I had no choice. I hired taxi drivers and a horse cart driver on the spot, and tipped generously. We were conscious of trying to spread our money widely. We purchased directly from craftspeople whenever possible.
We were aware of the arrangement the Pa-O people have whereby they are allowed to charge visitors to their previously closed areas, and the ethnic group is allowed to retain the money. In talking more with the two Pa-O guides we had, we learned more about this arrangement and how it came to be. The Pa-O (as well as a number of other ethnic groups) had been at war with the government for decades. These groups were fighting for independent states, for self-rule. This arrangement, whereby the Pa-O could collect and retain monies for their own projects was part of the cease-fire agreement with the government. The Pa-O also require that visitors have a Pa-O guide for their foray into Pa-O territory, thus adding employment for their tribal members.

The Pa-O are one of six ethnic groups that have signed cease-fire agreements with the government and have gotten this kind of concession. This seems to me to be a significant step forward in relations between the government and the ethnic groups, and a step forward in having some control over the group’s economic development.

We were delighted to add our dollars to the Pa-O’s coffers on this trip, and look forward to being able to use our tourist dollars in support of other ethnic minority groups in Burma on a future trip.

Talking Politics:
Every visitor is cautioned not to talk about politics with locals, as the locals may suffer for it. So while we did not initiate such conversations, we heard plenty, especially in the aftermath of Obama’s ASEAN speech which occurred during our first few days in Burma.

Our experience last year at the time of the election was that Obama was a symbol of change for people in SE Asia (as well as elsewhere). The US electing Obama was seen as the US re-joining the world community.

We had many conversations with people who referenced Obama’s ASEAN speech, and already saw the possibility of a closer relationship with the US, US investment in the country, and greater economic development for the country. There was a palpable excitement.

Many people told us their stories. Quite a few of the people we met were university students or ready for university when the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations were violently quashed by the government. Those were times of tremendous hope followed by tremendous trauma. One man told us that he and his friends, who were students at the time, had demonstrated, and that his friends were arrested and put in Insein prison. When we asked where his friends are now, he said “all gone.”

For those who were students or ready for University, their educations were interrupted and often, permanently derailed. Even when the government re-opened universities several years later, they closed the main Universities in Mandalay and Rangoon and required that students attend small, decentralized “universities” throughout the country. Many professors left the country after the 1988 uprising, so there were not enough qualified instructors. Many instructors in the decentralized “universities” did not have University degrees.

We heard stories of instructors who were trying to teach their students by being a chapter ahead of them in the text books, who admitted they didn’t know or understand the material. A program in computer science, for instance, had three computers for 30 students and an instructor with no experience in the computer technologies he was trying to teach. Students graduated with no hands-on experience. We met people with University degrees driving taxis or horse carts, acting as guides or working in hotels. All said there are no jobs for them in their area of study.

The people value education highly, but perceive the government as not wanting educated people who think and question, but people who obey without question. And still, the people see education as the country’s only hope for advancement.
A number of people told us of relatives who held government positions who retired after the 1988 uprising as they did not want to work for that government.
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Old Nov 28th, 2009, 09:50 AM
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A note on place names:
I have chosen to refer to the country as “Burma” as that is the name the Pro-democracy groups in the country prefer. I have opted to use the traditional name for Rangoon, though the current official name is Yangon. SOme place names have many alternate spellings, and even signs within a locality will use different spellings. I have tried to use commonly used spellings, but in some cases have given alternate spellings.

Practical Matters:
The only up-to-date guidebook available at present is the Lonely Planet.
Taxis: Taxis do not have meters, so negotiate a rate before you go. In every case, the rate quoted by the driver was reasonable, usually in the 2000-3000 kyat range for destinations in Rangoon (US2-$3).

The local currency is the kyat (pronounced “chat”). You will need local currency to pay for taxis, meals in non-hotel restaurants, purchases from markets, etc. You will need US dollars to pay for hotels, transport (air, rail, bus) and admission fees. You can exchange dollars or Euro for kyats. Don’t use official exchanges such as those at the airport (which offer artificially low rates), but exchange at Scotts market or stores. The best rate when we were there was 1000 kyat to the dollar in Rangoon. Outside Rangoon, the rates aren’t as good, but we were able to get 960 kyat to the dollar in Bagan. Banks are not allowed to exchange money for visitors. Technically, private citizens in Burma are not allowed to possess foreign currency. Even those private citizens who are allowed to accept foreign currency (such as taxi drivers from the Rangoon airport or horse cart drivers in Bagan) are often hassled by the government as they try to exchange dollars. For small vendors, exchanging dollars is a problem. If/when they can exchange them for kyat, they may be harassed and they will not get a good rate. Vendors often ask tourists to trade them kyats for the dollars they have previously accepted. Do the vendors a favor and only use kyat when you purchase. If you have extra kyat, do trade them kyat for dollars.

The national bank has a policy of not accepting bills that have even the tiniest tears or are dirty or have ink on them. Thus, places that accept dollars such as hotels and travel agencies are very particular about the currency they accept, as if the central bank won’t accept a bill, it cannot be exchanged. Their only recourse is to find a visitor who will exchange an unacceptable bill for an acceptable one. We opted to get all new currency, which was much appreciated by the hotels, travel agency, etc.

Take enough US currency to pay all of your expenses in Burma. Take a variety of denominations, so you will have exact change for hotel bills, for instance. $100 bills will get the best exchange rate when you are buying kyat. Note that kyat are worthless outside Burma, so spend it before you leave the country. You can only change kyat back to dollars if you have an official receipt , which you will not have as you will have exchanged money on the black market.

Credit cards:
Because of the sanctions placed on Burma by most of the world, Burmese companies cannot accept credit cards. You will find places that accept credit cards with a 5-10% surcharge, as they use Thai or Singapore companies to process the charges. The Strand was willing to take a visa card for a 5% surcharge, the Hotel @ Tharbar Gate was willing to do so for an 8% premium. No American Express cards can be accepted anywhere.

Making air reservations:
We were unable to find a way to make our intra-Burma flight arrangements outside Burma. Even our usual Bangkok agent was unable to purchase tickets for us. We opted to use Santa Maria Travel, which has been highly recommended by number of people we know. They were helpful and responsive. Note that the airline schedules you find online may have little to do with when planes arrive or depart in Burma. The local travel agencies seem to have an “in” and know when the flights are actually scheduled. Few flights are non-stop, as planes often fly in a circular pattern.

Making hotel reservations:
We tried to make hotel reservations over the web whenever possible, so we could pay via credit card in advance. We succeeded in one case, for Inle Lake View Resort, but the other two hotels quoted us the best rates directly, so we opted to pay them in cash. Note that email within Burma is often unreliable. If you do not get a response within a couple of days, email them again.

Internet access:
Internet access is unreliable within Burma. Connections are ofaten slow outside Rangoon. Many websites are blocked by the government, including all email sites. The locals have found ways to work around this by using proxy sites, but not all email sites are accessible with the proxies. We were unable to use our email anywhere within Burma. G-mail was accessible via an easy work around while we were there, but be aware that this is an ever-changing situation as the government blocks proxy sites as it learns about them, and locals find new way to work around the government blocks.
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Old Nov 28th, 2009, 09:54 AM
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Rangoon Bound

We flew from Seattle to Bangkok on United in Business Class. The Seattle to Narita leg had the old seats, and the Narita to Bangkok leg had the new lay flat seats. The new seats get my seal of approval. However, United has discontinued champagne in business class, serving instead California sparkling wine, which, in my opinion, in no way approximates champagne. But perhaps that’s the price we have to pay to get really good business class seats.

We arrived in Bangkok near midnight, and checked into the Novotel at the airport. We had gotten a good rate on Agoda ($138 including tax and service) by booking several months in advance. The Novotel is comfortable and very efficient at getting us from the airport to the hotel and back again.

In the morning, they dropped us at the Thai first/business class entrance, and Thai personnel handled our luggage and got us checked in quickly and comfortably and through the fast-track passport control. I always appreciate the excellent service of the Thai personnel, but it’s especially appreciated when we are in a jet-lagged fog.

Our flight from Bangkok to Rangoon on Thai Air was on time. Cabin service was good, and, of course, they serve real champagne.

Arrival formalities at Rangoon:
We had received our visas from the Myanmar embassy in Washington DC quickly and efficiently. They do require an inordinate amount of paperwork, including a job history form. They also require Fed Ex to and from the embassy. Our passports with the visa affixed was received a week after we sent it off.
Before we landed, more forms were distributed, duplicating much of the info we already provided on our visa applications (copies of which the embassy had stapled into our passports). We dutifully filled these out as well. Passport control was fairly routine, though everything seems to take longer in Burma. They removed all of the paperwork from our passports, leaving just a pink form in the passport. Do not lose this pink form!

There are baggage handlers who found our luggage (it’s all outside) and brought it to us. They took our baggage receipts and gave them to guards in order to exit the baggage claim area. There is a taxi desk, we told them we wanted to go to the Strand, and that we needed to make a short stop at Santa Maria Travel (in order to pay for our in-country flight tickets and Balloons over Bagan tickets). The cost was $10, and the baggage handlers loaded our suitcases into the ramshackle taxi. Virtually every taxi in the country is a wreck. Large chunks of the interior are missing, the back portion of one front seat, a door panel, etc. I’m not sure if any of the windows worked. Of course, there was no air-conditioning. The driver spoke good English and offered useful information.

We had arrived on “National Day” which is a holiday, so many things including Scott Market were closed. Of course, that is where we intended to change money.

Santa Maria Travel is difficult to find, and located on a street where there is no parking. But the intrepid taxi driver dropped me off, and he and Cheryl drove around the block until he located a place where he could park briefly. I went to Santa Maria, and gave them a stack of crisp US currency in exchange for the tickets. I told them I need to exchange some money, but Scotts market was closed, and they agreed to exchange $100 at a rate of 1000 kyat per dollar. This was the exchange rate I was aiming for, so this worked well.

Driving though Rangoon is a study in contrasts. Some areas are very rundown and dirty. But there are wide major streets and boulevards as well as narrow, crowded lanes. There are lovely swaths of green as well as expanses of grey. There are two lakes within the city, one natural and one man-made. The city is entirely cut off from the riverfront, once its life blood. There are huge mansions as well as tiny apartments in tall cement buildings. The old area along the Strand, once the center of Rangoon is now grey and dirty, though the Strand Hotel and the British and Australian embassies still stand in adjacent blocks. There are a number of old colonial era buildings along the street, some now used for government offices, others standing vacant.

We love cities, so decided to stay in the middle of the city, the Strand Hotel, in order to explore it. The hotel is an oasis of calm, cool, clean in the midst of a hot, sweaty, gritty city.

We arrived at the Strand ($200++ a “promotional rate” on their website), and were whisked into the lovely lobby while the bellmen dealt with our luggage. We were seated in the lobby and brought a cool glass of watermelon juice. The GM stopped by and introduced herself. After relaxing for a few minutes, we were escorted to the elevator, where our butler took over, taking us to our suite and having us sign our check-in papers.

The suite was lovely. We had a corner room, so it had lots of light. There was a bottle of prosecco chilling in a wine cooler, and a basket of tropical fruits in the sitting area. The service at the Strand is absolutely superb. You have 24 hour butler service, and every Strand employee is glad to be of service to you.

After enjoying our suite for a while, we decided to go out to explore. Sidewalks are hazardous. Great chunks of concrete are missing or displaced, some water-main covers are missing, creating hole a foot or more deep. Drivers seem to have the right of way, even in crosswalks. Pedestrians do seem to have the right of way on sidewalks. On the other hand, the traffic is the most orderly of any city that size I’ve seen in SE Asia – Singapore excepted. Horns are rarely used and drivers are not aggressive. Traffic flows smoothly, even when the streets are crowded.

Staying in the center of the city makes getting to attractions quick and inexpensive (though taxis are inexpensive overall). The other option is to stay a bit away from the center of the city. The Governors Residence is the other place we considered (more about this on our return to Rangoon).

It was beastly hot in Rangoon. The whole country was having warmer than normal temperatures, and it was about 40 degrees centigrade (near 100 Fahrenheit) in Rangoon when we arrived. We decided to go to lunch at Monsoon, a restaurant recommend by a number of recent travelers. Monsoon serves a variety of SE Asian cuisines. We had a nice lunch. The food was ok, but by no means exceptional. There is a crafts shop upstairs which is supposed to have high quality crafts. We saw nothing that we had an interest in buying.

There is a great historic walking tour in the area around the Strand, but it was so hot, we decided to save it until our return to Rangoon.

In the evening, we went off to Shwedagon Pagoda. This is the premier sight to se in Rangoon. The pagoda was still being repaired from damage done by the hurricane Nargis, so parts of the pagoda had bamboo scaffolding and some of the golden surface was covered while being repaired. We arrived before sunset, paid our $5 admission fee, and rode the elevator up. Once you are at the pagoda level, you can see the surrounding buildings and the marble walkway around the pagoda. Sunset is a lovely time to visit. Many people are there, circumambulating the pagoda, making offerings, meditating, or pouring water over Buddha images. We saw only a few western visitors. We did see military men in their fatigues, boots and riot shields visiting, an odd contrast to the calm of the crowds at the pagoda. We spent a couple of hours there, just enjoying the atmosphere.
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Old Nov 28th, 2009, 10:30 AM
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Wow, Kathie. You sure you don't want to go into the travel guide business? This is fantastic! I'm printing and saving the 'essentials' section for when we eventually get there (hopefully in the next few years.)

Can't wait to read more! You've really done a tremendous job of setting this all up.
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Old Nov 28th, 2009, 10:39 AM
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Kathie - how fascinating this is. Glad you were finally able to make your childhood dream come true....
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Old Nov 28th, 2009, 11:06 AM
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Thanks for the encouragement.

Early the next morning we saw a stream of people crossing the street near the Strand. The workers in the city, vendors and laborers, they had arrived via a ferry from across the river. Many carried items on their head, some had hand carts. It was like a scene out of the 19th century. What a contrast as we later drove toward the airport and notice two theatres, one playing the Michael Jackson movie, This is It, the other playing Angels and Demons.

Off to Inle Lake:
Our flight to HeHo was early in the morning. Our hotel rate at the Strand included breakfast, and we had a lovely meal of Eggs Benedict before heading for the airport. At the airport, an employee took our luggage and tickets and got us checked in. No passport or any kind of identification was required. Security procedures were lax to non-existent. While the international airport looks fairly modern and efficient, the domestic terminal is rather run-down. Flight announcements consisted of a man waving a signboard with an airline name (but no flight number) on it.

Our Air Bagan flight to HeHo was on time. It stopped first at Mandalay, then flew the short distance to HeHo. They served a “breakfast” which we declined. Upon arrival at HeHo, the baggage guys quickly found our luggage and took it to the waiting van. Santa Maria had a representative waiting for us. We had arranged a car and driver with Santa Maria to take us to Kakku on our way to our hotel at Inle. Given our limited time at Inle, this was our only opportunity to visit Kakku.

Kakku is a group of nearly 2500 stupas in an area that has only been open to tourists since about 2000. It is in Pa-O lands, so an admission fee of US$3 per person plus $5 for a Pa-O guide is required. This is arranged at an office in Taunggyi. Our Pa-O guide was excellent. As we drove through small villages, she talked with us about the Pa-O people. We were able to see people as they went about their daily lives and ask her about what we were observing.

The initial sight of the stupas at Kakku is dramatic. There, amidst the rolling fields is a forest of stupas. As you approach the site on foot, you hear the tinkling of the bells from the hundreds of “umbrellas” atop the stupas. It’s very atmospheric. We walked among the stupas, the only visitors (though we had seen a van load of visitors there earlier while we were eating lunch). As you walk among the stupas, you can see that most of the stupas have been “restored.” Visitors from many countries have paid to restore stupas. The initial “restorations” were really the building of new stupas on old foundations. More recent restorations have used existing elements of the ruins to rebuild a stupa from the remaining elements and reproductions of those elements.

The drive from the airport to Kakku and onward to our hotel at Inle Lake was about five and a half hours long over rough roads. It was an exhausting drive, but I was glad to have had the opportunity to visit Kakku.
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Old Nov 28th, 2009, 12:15 PM
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Wonderful stuff, Kathie, thanks! You're rapidly moving Burma up the "must revisit" list...
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Old Nov 28th, 2009, 12:21 PM
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Inle Lake View Resort:
We were relieved to arrive at our hotel, the Inle Lake View Resort. This is a lovely place, with views out over the lake from our room and from the dining room. We were in an upper floor junior suite. The room was lovely with hardwood floors, large windows to the view of the lake and a balcony with lounge chairs. The junior suites have a nice-sized sitting area. Bathrooms are well-equipped and very clean. There is no air-conditioning, just a ceiling fan, which was adequate when we were there. I understand it can get quite cold at night, but the weather was warmer than usual when we were there.

We met the owner/general manager of the hotel and learned the story of the resort. It was developed by a woman who is from Rangoon. She was at the age where she was ready to go to the University when all universities were closed in 1988. She went to work in the travel industry, eventually owning her own agency. When the universities re-opened, she opted to continue her work in travel rather than go to the university.

Being in the travel industry, she felt she knew what was needed: an international standard hotel at Inle Lake. She sold her travel business and purchased the land and engaged an architect to help her plan the resort. She built the resort with local materials using local labor. She did this without government involvement, which means she cannot count on the government for electricity or water, for example. She has a water purification system so even the tap water there is safe. The resort has its own generator which functions when the unreliable public power fails (many times each day). Her priorities were to create a resort of international standards with a sensitivity to environmental concerns and offering opportunities to locals for jobs and economic development.

The resort has been built in stages. There are two individual villas and a series of superior rooms plus the lobby/restaurant building that were completed first. The 8 junior suites, arranged in two buildings were built more recently.

She had a Swiss General Manager, but with the downturn in tourism after the violent end to the demonstrations a couple of years ago and Hurricane Nargis, tourism declined. As she put it, she could let one ex-pat go or 30-40 locals, so she chose to let her GM go and she came up from Rangoon to be the GM.

She has plans for further development centered around providing a quality food supply for the restaurant. She plan a farm near HeHo and also hopes to begin breeding milk cows to be given to local families. The families must feed the cows only vegetarian foods, and in return, she will buy the milk from them for use at the resort. AT present, she imports all of the milk they use to ensure a safe supply.

There is a nice restaurant and the food is quite good. Everything is safe to eat, as much of the produce is grown in the resort’s gardens, and everything is washed in purified water. Craig had complained about the expensive European set menu, but that is now gone. The menu is a la carte, and there are both Asian and European dishes to choose from.

The staff was wonderful. They are all locals trained by the resort. They have on-site housing, going back to their villages when they have a few days off. For many of the staff, coming to work at the resort was the first time they had running water and electricity.

We loved this place and would stay there again. We paid US$180 per night including tax, service and daily breakfast.
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Old Nov 28th, 2009, 12:30 PM
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Very much enjoying your report Kathie, looking forward to more, and green with envy, but still wondering about the ethics of visiting Burma.
Your account is forcing me to re-consider.
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Old Nov 28th, 2009, 12:51 PM
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Kathie, just a note to say how much pleasure I am taking in reading your report and how helpful it is for my own upcoming visit in March.... We are also staying at the Inle Lake View, but at the Savoy rather than the Strand.

Carry on, please!!
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Old Nov 28th, 2009, 12:56 PM
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"As a child, I saw a photo of the temples at Bagan rising out of the peach-colored mist at sunrise. I knew I had to go there."

You romantic fool! Great opening line. A novel to follow?
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Old Nov 28th, 2009, 02:37 PM
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Kathie, great report so far...

I'm glad the Inle Lake View Resort's owner fired the GM instead of the other employees. The GM was kind of a jerk - even if I didn't say so in my trip report. Nice to know that the restaurant menu has changed as well...

I get the impression that Kakku was kind of special but maybe disappointing also. Perhaps that is what you expected based on previous reports...?

I do look forward to more - this was such a special place for us and it's wonderful to see it through your eyes...
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Old Nov 28th, 2009, 02:44 PM
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Love your report Kathie. Very informative and thank to you I get to "revisit" the country again through your report.
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Old Nov 28th, 2009, 02:51 PM
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Great reporting Kathie as usual! Will file this one as a primer for a future Burma trip. Can't wait to hear more and to see Cheryl's pictures.
Welcome home!

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Old Nov 28th, 2009, 03:35 PM
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Thanks to all of you for your comments.

Leigh, I will have more to say about the decision to visit Burma. As you know, I struggled with this issue for many years before going.

Eks, I think you'll love the Inle Lake View. It's really lovely. And I love what the owner is doing in terms of supporting the locals and protecting the environment.

degas, no question, I'm a romantic. But Bagan also seems to inspire that in people.

Craig. I felt I was prepared for Kakku, so didn't feel especially disappointed by the rebuilding of so many stupas. The sheer number of the stupas is amazing, and the atmosphere is special, with the tinkling temple balls in the deep quiet.

Pook, I'm glad to take you along on our journey.

Thanks, HT. Cheryl has been working on her photos but one of her computers crashed this morning. She's hoping to get them on the website some time next week. So many of these photos are really stunning.
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Old Nov 28th, 2009, 03:40 PM
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Touring the Lake:
The hotel arranges boats and will help you plan an itinerary. They have maps of both the main lake and the southern lake, and can make suggestions if you need them or simply follow your instructions. They were very helpful in figuring out how much we could fit into a day, and how to cluster the places we wanted to visit. The boatman speaks only a little English, but the staff will lay out for him the itinerary you have chosen for the day. You can modify it as needed by pointing to a location on the map or saying no to a stop previously planned. The boatman is sensitive to the needs of the photographer and slows or stops the boat as needed for photography.

We really wanted to see the southern part of the lake, so opted for that our first full day. The trip to the southern part of the lake takes time (Lonely Planet says it takes three hours each way, but I guess our boatman was speedy, as it took us 2.5 hours each way) and is more expensive ($75) than day trips on the main part of the lake ($35). The boats are pretty comfortable; you sit low in the boat on seats with cushions and arms. We wanted to get out on the lake early and aimed to start each day about 6:30.

It is quite cool in the morning on the lake, especially as you are moving along in the motorboat. We both brought windbreakers with hoods, and hats that served to keep us warm in the morning and the sun off our faces in the afternoon. We also brought gloves as recommended by fellow Fodorites, but as the weather was warmer than usual, the gloves were not needed. We used SPF 30 sunscreen and I reapplied it a couple of times each day, and still got a little burned. The sun is very strong and there is also the reflection off the water. Boats are equipped with umbrellas, and I used one from time to time in an effort to protect myself from the sun.

I loved being out on the lake; we were seeing people live as they have for generations. In the early morning it is misty, and the photos Cheryl took look at this time of day look like they were done in black and white. We loved watching the leg rowers as they spread their fishnets or dropped the fish traps into the water. We also saw people beating the water with bamboo poles to drive fish into nets or traps. Others in boats were pulling aquatic plants from the bottom of the lake to fertilize the floating gardens. We saw people working in the floating gardens, and even saw a section of a floating garden being moved from one part of the lake to another. The lake is the primary route from village to village, and we saw school children on their way to school in boats. We saw produce, pottery and other things being transported via boat. People were very friendly and smiled and waved to us.

We headed toward the southern part of the lake. This area has been open to foreigners only since 2003. You have to stop on the way to get a permit and pay an entrance fee ($5 per person) to the Pa-O and pick up a Pa-O guide ($10). You will later pass a checkpoint that will make sure you have the proper permit and guide. Again, we had an excellent guide.

Each time you get a permit to enter a previously restricted area, it is a reminder that you are being tracked by the government. Your name and passport number is recorded each time. Of course, you are also tracked by where you stay, as every hotel and guest house must submit a complete list of all guests, with their passport and visa numbers, citizenship to the police every night.

We were really looking forward to seeing Sankar (also called Samka). This is a grove of ruined stupas, some rising out of the water, others scattered along the shore and farther inland. When the lake is high, you can float through a cluster of stupas in your boat. As you can imagine, this is lovely, silent, atmospheric. Just one stupa has had some restoration work done on it, the others are in a lovely state of decay. There is a ruined wooden monastery as well as a newer wooden monastery. We visited the monastery and spoke with a monk via our guide, as the monk spoke little English. There are only a few monks there. The monks have a generator and so have electricity at times. There is no electricity in the village. There is a tv at the monastery, and the whole village comes to the monastery to watch soccer games. We walked through the nearby village and were invited in to observe part of a wedding celebration.
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Old Nov 28th, 2009, 04:49 PM
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I love being able to visit again through your eyes. My Pa-O guide was the best of my entire trip. Can't wait for Cheryl's pics.
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Old Nov 28th, 2009, 05:59 PM
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enjoying reading this as a reminder of our limited trip several years ago...
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Old Nov 29th, 2009, 11:00 AM
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Perhaps this is a good place to offer some definitions. I’ve been writing about stupas. Stupas are solid, often bell-shaped monuments. They are also called chedi or zedi. You cannot enter a stupa. A monument you can enter is usually called a pagoda in the area around Inle Lake, but is more often called a temple in Bagan, though some are called pagodas. In Thailand or Laos, this would be a wat.

At Sankar, we entered several old pagodas farther from shore than the stupas. All contained Buddha images, all in the sitting position called “Subduing Mara” or “Calling the Earth to Witness,” but in every case, rather than touching the ground, the Buddha’s fingers are touching a tiny white elephant. Every Buddhist country I’ve visited has some interesting Buddha story variants. The story referenced here is that of a white elephant appearing to the Buddha in a vision when he was being tempted by Mara (a demon). I expect this story is related to the story of the Buddha’s mother having a dream of a flying white elephant that foretold her giving birth to the Buddha.

In Burma, Thailand and Laos, the white elephant is considered sacred. All white elephants belong to the king. Indeed, wars were fought between Burma and Thailand over the possession of white elephants. In Burma there are stories of stupas and temples being built where a white elephant stops for the night; this is likewise the story of the location of Doi Suthep near Chiang Mai.

Most Buddha statues we saw around Inle Lake had the white elephant; nowhere else did we see this image.

Our next stop was on the opposite shore of the southern part of the lake, Takhaung Mwetaw Pagoda (called Tharkong Pagoda in the Lonely Planet). It was here that we saw the only other western visitors during our trip to the southern part of the lake, a couple from Maryland. This is another groups of stupas, some in their original state of decay, others restored, as well as a pagoda with Buddha images. Our Pa-O guide told us that they had learned from the errors at Kakku, where foreigners were allowed to come in and build new stupas on old bases. Here, they are trying to do some real restoration work, utilizing existing elements of decaying stupas, and reproducing missing portions. Some of the stupas have a pale red-orange color to them, where they ground up the crumbling old brick and used it to reproduce missing or destroyed sections of a stupa. Here, as at Kakku, the people paying for the restoration of the stupas are almost all foreigners.

After this, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant on stilts over the lake. These are places to remember about food and water precautions. None of these restaurants have electricity; food is cooked over a flame. At the hotel, the man helping us with our itinerary reminded us to only eat hot food here. We did so and were fine.

Veteran travelers to SE Asia, know to carry toilet tissue along, and certainly the area around Inle is a place you need to be carrying your own. When we used the facilities at this restaurant, it appeared that there was toilet paper in the bathroom… but looking closely, it was a roll of crepe paper!

We would have been fine heading back toward our hotel after this stop, but our guide wanted to take us to a Pa-O pottery village. We stopped and watched a woman make a series of 5 vessels from a single lump of clay on her wheel. Cheryl got a video of this, and will post it on You Tube. The pottery here was utilitarian, meant for local use rather than as souvenirs for tourists.

Now we headed back to the main part of the lake, almost a two-hour trip to where we dropped off our guide and another half hour or so to our hotel.

I loved all of the time on the water, watching the fishermen and the daily life along the shore or in the villages on stilts over the lake. It had been a very full day.
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Old Nov 29th, 2009, 11:31 AM
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avidly and gratefully reading your report...
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