September 30, 2015

novatel opens a fancy hotel

i stopped in at a newly opened Novotel Hotel in Yangon.  it's walking distance with decent sidewalks from the apartment and they have good coffee.  the pool on the roof is amazing and for a short time was open to expat for free which was really nice as the weather was 100+/39+.  it was an effort to win over some expats as the initial opening had not gone well they were struggling a bit as early guests were arriving and the paint was still wet all the walls.  in particular the staff was criticized because they were so pretentious.  yeah, girls you get wear heels and short skirts at work but it's still a service job so adjust your attitude.

September 28, 2015

the big P

mostly i think to keep the tourists from noticing the mold and decay of the rest of the city, Yangon promotes the Shwedagon Pagoda as it's biggest attraction.  and it is impressive, with jewels and leaves of gold, built to stand out for miles in every direction.  it's a sacred place, so sacred that you can't wear footwear and you must be covered from elbows to knees.  unlike most sacred spaces, they provide companies the opportunity to advertise wireless internet access and charge a FEE if you are not a local.  you'll also run the gauntlet of vendors selling worthless trinkets lining the approach which is about half a kilometer.

take the time and go ride the circular train instead. 

at one time as an expat with properly stamped resident papers you could get in without a fee but now they just shake their heads and point at the fee board.  most people i know take their guest up to one of the bars/restaurants overlooking the pagoda towards evening as it is impressive to watch the sunset and moon rise and the lights come up at the pagoda.  unless you're a practicing Buddhist there's nothing to really see inside the perimeter [you can't go inside the actual stupa unlike a temple where the religious practice is inside] and it's voyeuristic to stand and watch those who are in the moment practicing.

September 23, 2015

Myanmar mulls left-hand drive car law

there's a lot of stuff that's different in Myanmar.  there is the fact that most cars [90%] have the steering wheel/driver on the right side of the car we call that right hand drive or RHD.  what makes it different from other countries with this car orientation is they also drive on the right hand side of the road.  again, superstition ... one of the generals switched the driving from left to right on the advice of a wizard.

well, now there gonna change that..... can't wait to see when that law hits.

Myanmar mulls left-hand drive car law

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar plans to make left-hand drive cars compulsory, state media reported Sunday, causing concern in a country where the vast majority of vehicles remain right-hand drive despite cars driving on the right.

The law is an attempt to correct one of the more unusual legacies of decades of junta rule.

More than four decades ago Myanmar’s paranoid and notoriously superstitious dictator Ne Win ordered all citizens to drive on the right.

The reasons were never stated, but many said the change was either made following advice from an astrologer or was a rebuke to Myanmar’s former colonial master Britain, where vehicles are driven on the left.

After junta rule gave way to a quasi-civilian reformist government in 2011 and the lifting of most Western sanctions, the car market exploded.

But an estimated 90 percent of the vehicles remain right-hand drive -- primarily because most of the affordable cars available and brought in by importers are second-hand vehicles from Japan.

The strange quirk creates daily havoc on Myanmar’s increasingly congested roads, with drivers often having no clear line of sight before overtaking and buses regularly disgorging passengers into the middle of a road rather than onto a pavement.

The government now aims to correct that anomaly.

According to a report in the Global New Light of Myanmar a new law was given initial approval last week that will make left-hand drive vehicles compulsory.

The report made no mention of when the law would come into effect or whether citizens would receive any help from the government to initiate the change.

"The new law drawn by the Road Transport Administration Department pointed out that use of right-hand drive cars is incompatible with the existing drive-on-the-right traffic system from the standpoint of ensuring road safety in Myanmar," the report said, adding that drivers would have 90 days to make the change.

The same state media report voiced rare official criticism of the proposals, saying many were hoping the government would give drivers more time to make the switch.

"People will suffer losses if they are asked to abandon their right-hand drive cars during a short period of time," U Nyan Tun Oo, Yangon Region Minister for Electricity and Industry, was quoted as saying, adding that taxis and buses should be switched first.

The report added that over 50,000 right-hand drive vehicles are currently on showroom floors waiting to be sold, according to Dr Soe Tun, president of Myanmar Automobile Manufacturers and Dealers Association.

In recent years Myanmar’s roads -- particularly in cities like Yangon and Mandalay -- have become choked by the influx of cars that accompanied the country’s opening to the world after decades of military rule.

And the gridlock looks set to get worse.

Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which is working with Myanmar on several nationwide transport projects, predicts the number of cars clogging Yangon’s pot-holed roads will quadruple to around one million.

September 21, 2015

nat worship

no discussion of Buddhism or religion in Myanmar would be complete without a mention of the nats.  it's something else that is singular to the country, although the manifestation of evil spirits is common to all religions.  there's a specific list of nats like there are saints.  usually a nat is a human that has met a violent death and they are worshiped in much the way a saint would be venerated.  

ask a national about the nats and you'll get something similar to a 'ghost story' with the same passion and creepiness that goes along with the western tradition.

mt. popa is the largest of the shrine sites and hosts a festival on the full moon in December.  i did not visit mt. popa ... it's a day trip from Bagan because the other travelers i knew were a bit disappointed with the experience.  it is more actively practiced in the rural than the urban areas but they are everywhere and i saw the box below on a tree along the river in Yangon.  there is also an easy to find and quite impressive Nat Shrine in Hsipaw, to the north.

September 19, 2015

monks and nuns in myanmar

begging nuns - scotts market in yangon

the tradition of monks and nuns in Myanmar goes back to the 10th century and has remained for the most part, completely unchanged in the country. monasteries take in the unwanted children and they end up begging on the streets for offerings.  my heart breaks for the little girls with heads shaved following the older girls with no idea what they are doing.  

they go from store to store, house to house, restaurant to tea shop looking for whatever might be given.  in a lot of places there is a rice bowl with a scoop and each child who begs gets one spoonful of rice.

the little beggar girls from the Buddhist monastery on my street know me and will cross the street when they see me because they know i will empty my wallet. 

September 17, 2015

merit making

previously i'd mentioned the Buddhists persecution of the Rohingya in the Rahkine State of Myanmar and there's more that differs between the Buddhists of Burma and Buddhists in other countries.  there's a lot of them...  people from around the world have long flocked to Burma to study Buddhism and an overwhelming 85% or more of the population identify as Buddhists.  most are not conservative Buddhists, they eat animals, drink alcohol, beat muslims, etc.
street facade for 'merit making' week

strangely, unlike most military dictatorships, there was no effort in Myanmar to shut down religion after they took control.  in fact, they promoted and embraced it as a way of 'merit making'.  the military elite pours money into the building of pagodas [pagodas you walk around - temples you can walk into].

which leads me to the one of the annoying things about buddhists in burma which i have not encountered elsewhere.  merit making is the practice of good deeds and charity in order to obtain a favorable rebirth.  see that picture of the facade that is erected over the street?  that roughly translates to 'you are f#ck3d for the next week' and 'you will get no sleep'.  

preaching platform
on the street which they close down at dusk they build these 'altars' on which at some point in the night the head monk will come out and start preaching.  it's a really, really small area - like 1000 sq feet [sorry Europeans you do the math] but they use loudspeakers projected outwards to the community so non one misses out.  then, because the monks need to collect their food before sunrise, they loudly call all the monks to come around 4AM.  i know normally rational expats who, having lost sleep for days, will curse the monks who do this.

even more annoying is they ongoing list of merit makers that is read over a loudspeaker, sometimes starting at 6AM, and this goes on as long as it takes to collect the money needed to support the local monastery.

in the rural area i visited the presence and influence of the monks varies widely from village to village.  in some it was very passive and in others quite dominant.  see my post on a really sacred moment. in one village where we sat through an evening ceremony the most interesting to me were the bats flying around but i'm sure anyone in the village who was absent was noted by the monks.

September 15, 2015


i know i've been spending too much time traveling because the airports in SE Asia are getting way to familiar.  i actually budgeted time to hit the duty free shop in Bangkok before heading back to Yangon.  the reason for the stop was to get some real vodka.  real vodka you say, what about all that Absolut and Barcardi on the shelves at the store at the local grocery?  

when i was first in Myanmar i was shocked at the cost and availability of western brand alcohol.  a one liter bottle of Absolut costs about US11$.  i thought the relative cost of alcohol was the government's way of keeping the nationals numbed.  turns out i could not have been more wrong.  one of the expats explained is all fake alcohol made in china, where of course there are no limmitations on brand infringement.  on the shelf at the grocery store between the 'fodka' and 'facaradi' i found the tonic for 'general health'.  

the British, when they colonized Burma, pretty quickly set up a rum distillery and it's legacy remains.  it's called Mandaly Rum and it sells for about US1.50$ per liter.  it is not good.  on the other hand, there is a local beer called Myanmar Beer which does get pretty good reviews by the expats.