Saturday, May 01, 2004

May 2, 2004

I can't believe it's already May 2nd. I need to get moving. I will depart Bangkok tomorrow (the 3rd) and continue my journey home. I just read an email from my friend Aaron who is currently living and working in Switzerland. He offered some very true comments that I would like to share.

" . . . I've heard recently that Cambodia and Vietnam have changed a lot. Backpackers wearing dumb shirts saying, "Beware of Landmines: Cambodia," as if that's cool. Well, I think you'll enjoy those places anyway.

"I felt the same way as you at times. Why does everything have to be homogenized, globalized, and americanized? Well for better or for worse, people want prosperity and security, so right now that means skyscrapers and McD's. Nevertheless, the cosmetic changes that happen in a society are often only skin deep though. Thais will always be Thais and do Thai things, even in big shopping malls with Gaps and Kmart. Just like Japan- a very Americanized country, but it's stilll very Japanese- the Japanese pysche remains strongly in place, even in little Japanese boys and girls want american stuff, they will be Japanese, and their parents have enjoyed the postwar prosperity- and when Yankees like us step off at Narita, the familiar signs of 7-11 are not really enough to make us feel at home."

What Aaron said is true and now that I have been in Bangkok for nearly a week I'm not as despised by it as when I first arrived here from Myanmar. Currently I'm reading a book entitled Night Market by Ryan Bishop and Lillian S. Robinson. The book takes a very strong and sharp critical look at the Sex Trade in Thailand and the effect it has had on the Thai economy and its own people. It is impossible to walk through this city and not see farang - foreign - men in their 30's, 40's, 50's, and 60's with a Thai prostitute attached to their arm. It is simply everywhere. What is the attraction for these men to travel half-way around the world to have their sexual fantasies fulfilled. How pathetic are they? And considering that about 50% of all Thai prostitutes are HIV positive how much of AIDS is being spread in the West by these western men who come to Thailand for sexual bliss? But there are also Japanese men and Malaysian Muslim men here as well pouring millions of dollars into the 4 billion dollar tourism industry here in Thailand. They come for sex tourism. And how many of these foreign men who come here for fun are married and get infected with an STD and bring it back to their wives, girlfriends, and spouses? Will Bangkok reach sky-high HIV infections just as South Africa? They are sure on the way. And the sad thing is is that since HIV is such a problem here among the prostitution rings, Go Go bars and such the demand for young (ages 12 to 14) virgin country Thai girls is extremely high. And the Burmese, living in a closed country, have women that are strongly sought after by Thai pimps because Burma - to them - is a land devoid of HIV. So health problems will be a major issue in Thailand in the future. It is obvious that HIV here will become epidemic - out of control - and taking its toll on the prospering Thai economy which is due in most part to Sex Tourism.

The local Thai's despise the Sex industry in their country. If they could have it their way they would shut it down for it does not reflect proper Thai thought and behavior. But, do the politicians and government officials really care? Corruption is here as in any country. As long as the BIG bucks continue to flow in from pathetic foreign men flying here for a sexual joyride the Sex Trade will continue to thrive here. But, the Sex Trade is much bigger than just Thailand. The Japanese yakuza - mafia - have been long patrons of the industry in both their own country and throughout Asia and Southeast Asia. The yakuza imports Thai, Russian, Eastern European, Chinese, girls from the Philippines, and where ever else into Japan for their own red-light districts.

What an interesting world we live in.

Taungoo to Inle Lake, Myanmar - April 20th

The ride from Taungoo to Inle Lake was a rough one. The journey was a long one - about 8 hours if I recall. And along the journey I began to see the landscape change drastically from a dry green into a vast desert. Cactuses, shrubs, and scattered trees dotted the terrain. The road to Inle Lake was only one lane and falling apart from years of neglect. And if there was a small pond or body of water we were sure to see Water Buffalos bathing lazily and staying cool.

Along this path there is a community of Indians. The style of dress began to change among the locals we saw from the traditional Burmese longyi (sarang) to bright and beautiful Indian clothing. This is something I have noticed on my travels; strong economic countries encouraging their citizens to wear boring colors of clothing. Go to New York or Tokyo and everyone is in a suit of black and white and grey. But, go to a poor country like Burma and you will see that people wear bright and vibrant clothing. Why is that? Why have we westerners repressed the bright and vibrant colors from our wardrobe. In ancient times vibrant colors were strongly sought after by Kings and Queens and nobles. Odd, that we Westerners, with the power and money to import whatever dyes needed for interesting colors do not. We settle for blue, black, grey, and white.

Aung soon enough pulled the car over to the shoulder of the road so that we could stop and have some Toddy juice. Toddy trees look like tall palm trees and Burmese farmers extract juice from them and leave them out to ferment. In a day or two the juice will ferment into a light alcoholic beverage preferred by all Burmese farmers. I had three glasses and felt a slight buzz that gave me a nice smile for a portion of the journey north to Inle Lake.

Inle Lake lies in the eastern mountains of Burma. Aung drove our taxi slowly through the constant and dangerous curves of the mountains. Then, we began having car trouble. The car kept stalling and stalling. I wasn't really worried for some reason. I was curious to see - if we did get stuck - how we would get out of our situation. But, we didn't. Aung pulled the car over twice and worked on the engine. We still had a bit of trouble but then luckily we came across a Nat shrine dedicated to cars and safe travels on the road. Aung immediately pulled the car toward the shrine and advanced and retreated the car from the shrine as he chanted. Then we heard the caretaker of the shrine begin howling her chants behind our car. She then approached us and Aung gave a donation to her. She then explained that there was a Buddhist monk that needed a ride. Aung and I both jumped and said that we would be more than happy to have the monk ride with us - we were both selfishly thinking that a Buddhist monk in our car would only bring us good luck and cease our car troubles for the day.

The monk was a curious old fellow. He was perhaps in his late 70's. His skin was a very dark brown and he only had a few teeth left in his mouth. He had a pleasant smile. Who knew what he thought of me. I must have been as curious to look at as he was for me.

Then we were off and we did not have any more car troubles for the day. About 30 to 40 minutes later the monk told us to stop and we dropped him off. Aung and I decided to allow the car to rest under the shade of a tree. We had stopped in a small village. All the children soon gathered around me. I pulled out my digital camera and began filming them and then showed them the images that I had recorded. They were absolutely fascinated by my camera and all they could do when they saw themselves in the small monitor of my camera was laugh hysterically. I then decided to begin making them all paper airplanes. And before Aung and I left I gave them the pad of paper I was using to make the planes and a few pens and breath mints.

Aung and I arrived in Inle Lake before night fall. We checked into our hotel and later had local Myanmar food.

I will be departing Bangkok tomorrow so I will continue to discuss the journey through Myanmar in the coming days. For now I must go.

From the East,

Thursday, April 29, 2004

April 29th, 2004,

Here I am back again. So let us begin . . . shall we?

Myanmar-Yangon April 17th, 2004
While having breakfast in my hotel dining area I asked the Chinese lady who owned the establishment the best means of traveling to Mandalay. She responded by explaining that a good idea would be to rent a taxi for my time here. She said that it would cost me about $250 U.S. or so. I thought about it and decided that it was a fantastic idea. So she made the necessary phone calls and told me that some time today someone would come to talk to me about negotiating my travel itinerary and so forth. Since it was New Year's day though that day she explained that it would be difficult to get a hold of the people she knew who could help me out since they would be at the temples praying. "No worries," I told her. I then told her that I would go out for a bit of a walk and that I would return by 12:30 to see what the status of the phone calls she would be making on my behalf would be.

So out I went around City Hall and soon enough I was approached by a curious old Burmese women whose back was heavily arched. She spoke perfect English and quickly said and asked, "Hello, do you remember me?" I entertained her and said yes. She went on, "There you see. I saw you yesterday and I tried to talk to you but you disappeared. Do you want to have a coffee with me?" I quickly said yes to her request. Then she led me down the streets of Yangon telling me how she 'knew all' and how she had taken various foreigners around the city and the country and that she had even been in a magazine. We finally sat down in a yoghurt shop. She had some buttered bread and a drink and I had my strawberry yoghurt. I then simply sat down and listened to her.

"Yes, there you see. I know all," she began. "My father was British. Long ago, you see. Long ago. Here, have a look at this-" She quickly began shuffling through her purse and soon pulled out an old identification card with a black and white picture of when she was young and beautiful. "That is me, you see. That is me."

I took the picture and pleasantly looked at the old photo and smiled.

"I was beautiful then, you see. Now, no more. I am falling apart. You see this-" she said holding a plastic bag of pills and plastic bottles. "This is my medicine, you see. I was riding these old buses a month ago. Sitting in the back I was. And then there was a bump and I flew off my seat and landed hard back down. A terrible pain I felt in my back after that. Terrible pain. Now I have to take these medicines, you see.

"Where do you stay?"

"At the May Shan Hotel," I replied.

"The Chinese. The Chinese own that hotel. And a restaurant too. Rich they are. Why do you give your money to them? How much are you paying for you room?"

"$10" I lied.

"Too much. Too much. I know all. I can show you everything. Where to stay and eat for nothing. Nothing for you. I can help you. I dont need much. If you are happy you can give me a little something. Pay for my food or a bit of money so that I can buy my medicines."

"Yes, that sounds nice," I said trying to assure her that there was a possibility that we could forge a friendship of her as travel guide and I as patron.

"You see. I know all. All! We can go around the country if you want. By bus if you like and stay at cheap hotels. I dont need much. You will save much money with me. And at the end you can give me what you like. I was in a magazine, you see. I wish I had that article with me. I will bring it tomorrow so that you can read it. It's in English. You can read it. In an Australian magazine."

"You're famous," I complimented her.

"Then, when we are away from the streets and the listening ears of others I can tell you all you want about the military, the British, the Japanese. Everything. I know all."

I barely said much during our conversation. Which is usually the way I like things. I simply like to listen. People love to talk . . . so I let them and observe. As the conversation went on it was apparent to me that there was no way that I would hire her to show me around. She talked too much. Too much for my tastes. Well, at least she talked too much without really saying anything. If someone loves to talk and I am learning something then great but I wasnt really learning much from her. But, I was entertained by her. I know she, as a character, will find her way into my stories of the future.

I returned to the hotel and the Chinese women - the owner - explained that soon enough someone would come to negotiate with me my desire to hire a taxi for 9 days. I waited and soon met the man who drove me from the airport to my hotel the previous day. He was accompanied by Aung - the man who was to become my driver and friend in Myanmar. We sat down and decided that for nine days I could travel to the following places: Bago, Kyaikto, Taungoo, Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake), Bagan, and Pyay. I didnt have enough time to see Mandalay (next time). The agreed upon price was $350 U.S. for nine days. That included all travel expenses (gas, etc.), and my driver's accommodation and food expenses. Cheap. Very cheap. So, the deal was done and we were to set off tomorrow morning at 8 a.m.

After that I ran to the hostel where Daisy was staying at. She was gone; out to lunch, literally. So I waited reading my book out on the veranda of her hostel. She returned and together we set off in search of a camera shop where she could get some C.D. copies of her digital camera photo's and then to Kandawgyi Lake.

We found a camera shop but the lady of the store didnt know how to operate her computer. I then sat down behind her computer trying to figure out how to dump the photo's from Daisy's digital camera but Daisy grew impatient and I afraid that the woman would loose her sale. Well, it simply took too long and we left. Daisy and I then went to the train station; Daisy had to get some information regarding trains to Mandalay. We then went in search of the Lake. I was the leader for it was my idea. We walked and walked. Daisy, I think was growing impatient and in disbelief that I knew where I was going. Well, we found the Lake. It looked pleasant but there was a fence all around it and it looked like there was no way to get in. We chose a direction and walked hoping we would find a way in. We ran into Manuela, a cute German woman who had been traveling in Myanmar for the past month. I enjoyed very much listening to her accent and her stories of her travels around the country and her hunger to return to her home country. She gave Daisy and I some helpful hints and we parted.

Daisy and I then decided that the Lake, and our quest to find a way in to see it, was not worth it so we decided instead to see Chaukhtatgyi Paya. We took a taxi and found the massive, I mean massive, reclining Buddha statue. It was enclosed in what honestly looked like an airplane hangar. After spending some time marveling at the statue I found myself playing a game of kick-the-plastic-bottle-cap-in-random-directions with a wonderful group of little Burmese kids. It should be noted that the temples in Burma are a leisurely area where one can come seeking shelter from the sun in the temples shade and pray or relax or socialize. The kids there always find a way to have fun because for a kid to sit and relax as an adult and socialize is freaking boring. So there I was barefoot playing with these wonderful little kids. Daisy watched and took a photo.

Then we left and after we returned to Yangon. Daisy, skilled in bargaining got her C.D.'s made of her digital photo's. We then had our last dinner together at a Thai restaurant and soon enough I was back in my hotel room getting ready for my adventure.

Yangon to Bago to Kyaikto - April 18th, 2004,
Bright and early Aung and I set off. First we had to stop by to see his wife and child - he had to drop off some money for them. Before we arrive to meet them we passed a Nat shrine for those on long journeys. We didnt stop to pay homage for Aung explained that he had already done so.

The Nat are everywhere. What are the Nat? The Burmese nat is a spirit. There are many nats or spirits who hold dominion over trees, animals, places (both natural and artificial), etc. The Burmese are very careful to never offend the Nat. The always pay their respects to them and I found example after example with Aung who always was praying and paying his respects to them on sometimes my own behalf without me even knowing it.

One story that I would like to share is that Aung shared with me was when he was driving a group of Germans around the country. One of the German men in the car had to relieve himself (number 1). So Aung pulled the car over and the man walked up to a tree and began peeing on it. Aung immediately began chanting. The German, when he was done, asked Aung what he was saying. Aung explained that it was rude for him to pee on the spirit (nat) of the tree and so he was chanting on his behalf to apologize to the tree. The German felt guilty and together they prayed and offered their apologies and respects to the tree. And away they went :)

We stopped at Aung's village and got out of the store and walked to the tiny open-air shop that his wife operated. Aung's 3 year old son was standing just out front wearing clothes that had a patterned design that was exact to what his wife was wearing. It was cute to see the two wearing the same clothes designs. I said hello to his wife - she was BEAUTIFUL!!! Aung said goodbye very stoically and away we went.

Bago is about 80 km east of Yangon. We got there in no time but only stopped at one temple for I was not interested in seeing the nearly same temple designs as I had seen in Yangon. We stopped briefly at Kyaik Pun Paya which was a "four back-to-back sitting giant Buddhas" temple. I got out of the car and was immediately approached by a little Burmese girl selling postcards. I told her that I did not need any postcards but she did not give up. Kindly she took me to walk all around the temple. We spoke a little and then I wanted to take a picture of her so I offered her some money for her photo. She refused over and over and over to take my money. She said to go ahead and to take her picture for free. I forced some money into her hand and she posed with a very PROUD stance for my picture. I like this picture very much. She has a wide smile and stands with such terrific pride.

Then away Aung and I went to Kyaiktiyo.

The great thing about traveling by car in Myanmar is that you see what life is like for all the people around the country outside the cities. That is obvious . . . what I just said. But what is amazing to see in Myanmar is the horrible state of the roads that are at times only one lane for traffic moving in two directions. But, not many people have cars in Myanmar so it is not a problem to travel on these one lane roads for you at time rarely come across another car or bus. What I continuously saw were Ox-driven carts moving at the pace of a snail. At times these carts were filled with dry grass or long stick of bamboo. I saw horse driven rickshaw and trishaw bicycles carrying people to and from. I always saw a tractor turned into a car type of mobile device. I have one picture of this machine and it is simply everywhere. And the buses. There were many and they were packed to beyond belief. Men were always hanging on from the back of the bus as they stood on the bumper in sandals for their long arduous journeys. And so often I saw buses with men, monks, and teenage boys, and women - I believe - sitting on the top of the buses covering its every inch. And there were trucks with wooden planks bolted down across its back as a kind of row of benches for people to sit on. This was the usual way people traveled to and from and after seeing all of it I was thankful to God for having the foresight to rent a taxi for 9 days. I dont think I could have survived three days traveling by these modes of transportation simply because these buses and trucks were packed way beyond belief. I thought the packed trains in Tokyo were bad. Packed Tokyo trains are a total joke to the horrible means of transportation in Burma.

Now, Kyaiktiyo. We arrived at my hotel - Golden Smiles Hotel. It was very new and very nice and my room was way too big for me (I later met the owner of the Hotel when I returned to Yangon more than a week later. She was from Belgium and had been doing business in Myanmar for the past 6 years). Aung then took me for lunch and then away I went solo in a truck up a mountain on a holy quest for the Golden Rock. The Golden Rock is a "massive, gold-leafed boulder delicately balanced on the very edge of a cliff at the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo." It, like the Shwedagon Paya in Yangon, is one of the most holy Buddhist sites in Myanmar. Along my way up the mountain I was in the company of devote Buddhists who were making their pilgrimage to the site. The truck soon stopped and we all had to get off and pursue the rest of the trip by foot.

If you look at the cover of the Lonely Planet Myanmar (Burma) book you will see a picture of Golden Rock. Let me tell you that the hike up the mountain to see this thing is PAINFUL!!! I am so out of shape. I sweated and sweated and trekked and trekked until finally I made it up this beast of a mountain. Along the way I came across a kind of corridor of open-air shack homes of local selling trinkets to those on their pilgrimage. I saw a bunch of things that I assume had medicinal qualities: roots, various herbs, monkey skulls, severed goat heads, etc. I also saw bamboo toys for kids. There were various toy guns made by hand from bamboo with painted red, white, and blue on them and the good old "U.S.A." Inscribed on it. It looks like in Burma the U.S. is famed for their weapons? I wasnt proud. Burma, in my mind, is a Land of Smiles and devout Buddhists who speak honestly. And it looks like to Burma the U.S. is a land not of liberty and peace but one of oppression. A land that lives by the gun to settle their disputes. Well, with Iraq up our &*@ I think the Burmese are correct in thinking so of the U.S.

Once you arrive at Golden Rock you find a large flat expanse of marble floors and shrines and the Golden Rock itself which I could touch if I chose, ironic that the Burmese women (devote practitioners of their faith) or any woman for that matter were prohibited from touching the rock.

There is also a small little town in Golden Rock that I spent some time walking through. Finally I decided to call it a day and descended all the way down by foot and truck until I collapsed on my bed with a massive headache.

I later woke up that night to find the power had gone out (a daily occurrence in Myanmar) and the most horrible case of diarrhea. I will not say more.

Good night,

P.S. I will write more of the trip tomorrow :)

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

April 28th, 2004

I'm in a Thai shopping mall. It is an evil place :) I'm smiling as I say that because I believe it and then I don't. My heart is heavily split between me being an American who comes from and is comfortable in familiar western surroundings such as this mall here, and, sadness, disgust, and anger toward this "westernization" and "globalization" that is slowly turning Southeast Asia into a twisted image of America. If I were to weigh the scale though I would say that my heart is truly sad to sit here in Bangkok, in this mall, and to see its youth and pop-culture trying so desperately to be American.

And I pray that Myanmar does not fall under the same greedy fate as Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.

I arrived back in Bangkok from my 12 day journey through the central part of Myanmar yesterday. My feelings and thoughts are still very raw from the experience. I will try my best to convey to you what I found and fell in love with in Myanmar.

Where shall I begin? I will begin my confessing to you that yes, indeed, I fell in deep love with Myanmar. The people, the culture, the religion, the temples, the ox-driven carts, the old beaten roads, the teeth of the Burmese stained red, the skin of Burmese women turned pale from the natural cream (made from a particular tree bark) they apply to their faces and arms, the longyi (sarongs) that everyone wears. I can go on and on and show all my pictures and yet I still know so little of this country. I was only there for 12 days - and that was all my stomach could bear for it was the first casualty on my trip (I got a bacterial infection in my stomach due to something I ate). But, I can tell you this, as can anyone who travels to Myanmar, that upon arriving, upon my first observations and thoughts I knew that I would come back again and again.

I arrived on the last day of the Water Festival. After getting soaking wet in Bangkok for their Songkran festival I arrived in Yangon to get soaked all over again. And I couldn't have imagined a more pleasant way to be introduced to Myanmar that on the last day of the Water Festival.

As soon as I exited the Yangon International Airport I met a nice gentlemen who would provide me with a taxi ride into the city. He explained that I should look for someone to share the ride with to cut expenses! In Thailand taxi driver's try as best as they can to cheat you out of your money and here I was in Yangon, not even an hour of being there, and a Burmese was advising me how to save money! I told him it was no trouble at all to get going into Yangon but then he pointed out a backpacker that was walking out of the airport alone. He said he would wait and away I ran to catch up with her. I asked her if she wanted to join me and she said yes and away we went together into Yangon by taxi.

Now before I continue. I would like to talk about my initial thoughts as I arrived in Yangon airport. From the air all you see are forests of trees and golden spires of beautiful Burmese Buddhist temples reaching up and above all the surrounding greenery. You do not see a heavy grid work of streets and buildings that defines most capital cities near their airports. No, this you do not see. All you see are trees and golden spires. It is said that you can tell what a society or culture deems holy by what buildings or structures are the tallest. Centuries ago the Church was the tallest building in most European cities, then government buildings, now it is corporate buildings. Western civilizations pay homage to money. But, in Burma you find only Buddhist temples rising higher than anything else and that is a clear sign as to what you will find respected and practiced among the people of Burma.

Then we landed. My Thai Airline plane was the only plane in the airport. It was moving to arrive in Yangon and to be the only plane in the entire airport. You immediately feel how isolated this country is from the rest of the world. Then we got off the plane to board an old Japanese bus that would take us to the building where we would go though customs. As I sat on the bus I began reading all the old familiar scripts in Japanese giving safety instructions of to do this or not to do that. I thought that it was odd that all the instructions (even the old bus map) was still in Japanese. It was as if the bus had quickly been taken from Japan 10 to 20 years ago and simply dropped off in Burma to continue working a new route without anyone changing or putting new signs on the bus in Burmese. And this I constantly found in Burma. As I rode my taxi around with my friend Aung I would see buses that had JR (Japan Railways) or Keio (this is a train and bus line in Tokyo) or a Seibu Lions logo painted on its side. All these buses, unchanged, from Japan now in Yangon operating.

Customs at the airport was a breeze. No worries there. I didn't see any armed guards or militarymen causing fear - in fact I never saw a single gun in my time in Burma. What I did notice tough was one of the Customs officials, a woman, with a dried light brownish cream applied on her cheeks in a circular design. I had no idea what that was. I later discovered that all women usually put this cream on as a form of natural makeup and sunscreen. I wish I knew the name of it . . . in any case I will continue to read and educate myself on Burma so that when I develop a website to this trip I it will be fully educational for both you and I.

Getting back to the taxi ride to Yangon. The girl I was riding with was from Holland and her name was Daisy. She had been traveling for nine months!!! I was a mere novice compared to her. Well, there we were on a beautiful sunny day riding into Yangon watching World Water War III all around us. People were jumping out of their cars dumping, launching, throwing, catapulting water at other cars and pedestrians. Everyone had huge smiles and were laughing. The Water Festival is an old tradition to celebrate the Burmese New Year which marks - I believe - Buddha's birthday. The water is a symbolic means for purifying oneself and other. It is very much the same as the Songkran in Thailand except that no one here uses talc powder or water guns simply because there are no water guns in Burma - but someone would make a fortune if they did import the toy at an affordable price for the Burmese kids. What I found pleasantly interesting and entertaining were these giant stalls along the road where up to 30 people or more would stand with hoses and spray down cars. If you did not have your car window rolled up you were sure to be a victim of being soaked by water. Daisy and I were no exception. Our driver kept his window down and soon enough someone sprayed water into the car getting everyone inside wet. Daisy and I could only giggle and laugh like children. We loved Myanmar. Everyone was so happy, and to put it in the words of a Frenchmen I met later that day, "Judging by how happy these people are today you would never guess that they are under a military dictatorship."

The taxi took my to the May Shan Hotel - just in front of the 2,000 year old Sule Paya (a 46 meter high Buddhist temple right in the middle of the center of old colonial Yangon). Daisy went off to another hotel and I promised to meet her in 30 minutes. After I got settled in my hotel room I walked a few blocks to Daisy's hotel. The walk was wonderful. Everyone was smiling at me. I was the only foreigner for blocks and everyone looked at me with great curiosity. It was wonderful to see so many friendly curious faces. And beautiful teeth!!! The people in Burma have perfect, white teeth - compared to Japanese teeth which look like a small bomb went off in them. But, then I saw some teeth that were heavily stained red - God aweful and scary. I later discovered that men, as well as women, in Burma often eat a kind of natural food high that is made from I-dont-know-what but this delight has a red bean or root or something that causes this redness of the teeth. It is temporary . . . nothing permanent. I arrived at Daisy's hotel and off we went. First thing we saw was the City Hall which was blocked off for a massive stage entertainment show. There were giant pipes spraying water into the air all over the seated guests - it was funny to see some of these seated individuals holding umbrellas over their heads. As Daisy and I watched the crowd around us stared at us. I felt like an alien. Everyone looked at us as if they had never seen a foreigner before and Im sure for a few of them they never have. Then we started getting soaked. People came up to us and literally poured water - sometimes ICE water - down our backs and on our heads. I was careful to keep my camera totally out of the way of the water. Soon enough my shirt was so soaked that it looked like I took a shower in it. Daisy and I continued walking and enjoyed observing all the life around us. Visually you could saw that Yangon is a very poor city, it is dirty, falling apart, possessed of old cars and buses, and old colonial buildings, and constant power outages, but for some reason, on my first day there and in my entire time there I never felt the poverty, I never went through any degree of culture shock, I never felt uncomfortable culturally speaking. I felt right at home in Burma. It is curious to say such a thing. For all the countries I have traveled to in South America, North Africa, or Asia, I have felt some degree of discomfort or shock . . . but in Burma it was never the case. Some would say that I had lived a past life in Burma . . . perhaps - but the explanation for why I felt so at home in Burma is that the people there made me feel at home.

Soon enough in Yangon locals from the black market began approaching us to exchange money. Daisy and I agreed to a rate of 810 kyat to the dollar. We were led to a tea shop that had a satellite TV showing some action film (the military government is relaxed about supressing what people watch on their TV sets - in my hotel I saw programs from Burma, China, Thailand, MTV from Indonesia, and movie channels from the U.S.). We changed our money and I ended up with a huge wad of Myanmar Kyat.

Then Daisy and I walked to Shwedagon Paya (about 30 minute walk). Along the way we got more soaked and we ran into a group of fun-loving Burmese rock-punks with blue hair. I asked to take pictures and they quickly posed and then they attacked me with can of spray paint - they sprayed my hair and shirt BLUE!!! Now I looked like a punk! Soon enought Daisy and I made it to the temple but we actually started at a temple near the Swedagon. We first sat down for some Burmese local food and drinks before entering. At all the temples in Burma you must take your shoes off at the door as a sign of respect - in Bagan I walked barefoot in a temple loaded with bats, and guess what? I walked on bat shit twice!!! disgusting!!! The sun beats down on the temple grounds so if you do not walk on the white marble tiles leading into the temple your feet will burn, burn, burn. Daisy and I quickly ran to get into the shade of the temple. The temple was curious. Within we saw statues of Buddhas that had a concentric rings of colorful light bulbs behind their heads glowing in patterns. It was actually funny to see a device of electricity being used for decorative Buddhist purposes.

Then we walked to the Swedagon. There are four main entrances and each entrance is met with two Lion guard statues. Once you past the Lion guards we walked under a long roofed corridor (barefoot) toward the temple. The corridor is lined with shops selling drinks, flowers, and such. It was beautiful and pleasant to walk in the darkness of this corridor. Then the Swedagon was before us. It is the most sacred Buddhist temple in Myanmar and in my opinion one of the most beautiful temples I have ever seen. It is nearly 100 meters high and clearly visable from any plane that either arrives in or departs from Yangon. Some amazing facts about the temple: "The current stupa dates from the 18th century although the site is undoubtedly much older; there are over 8,000 golden plates covering the monument; the top of the spire is encrusted with more than 5,000 diamonds and 2,000 other precious stones; and the compound around the paya has 82 other buildings . . . the top of the spire has a 74 karat diamond embedded in it."

Now, for such a poor country no person will see so much wealth invested into their temples. And there are boxes of donated cash in all directions. The Burmese believe in the power of their temples and give gladly to their temples. And I believe it. The Burmese are devote in their practice of Theravade Buddhism. All men go live in the monastary at least twice in their lives; once when they are young and second when they are older. All men describe living in the monastary as wonderful. And women can live in the monastary as nuns as well. And they are beautiful to see. They also have to shave their heads but they wear cute light pink robes and a light orange cloth that they sometimes strap across their chest or wear on their head to protect against the sun. Many men and women I spoke to - husbands, wives, taxi drivers, hotel managers, etc. - practices mediation and prayed on a daily basis. I must tell you that I have never encountered a country like Burma where 99% of the people I met were incredibly honest, genuine, loving, giving, simple, kind, true, honest, honest, honest. I loved them. They truly practice what they believe. They are fine examples of Buddhists!!! Buddhism is alive and well in Burma. I wish I could say the same about Thailand. Thailand is full of people trying to cheat the farang (foreigner). I should mention that my last night in Bangkok - the night before I departed for my trip to Myanmar - the lady who did my laundry in my guest house delievered it to my room and then said that she was tired and that she was going to sleep in my bed!!! Do you believe this place??? Bangkok is full of prostitution!!! The hotel I am staying out now has signs all over that read: NO PROSTITUTION, please!!!

Anyway. Burma, in the end is the best place in Southeast Asia if you ask me. I have yet to see Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam but I know that none of them will be able to hold a light to Burma.

Well, getting back to Shwedagon. I wish I could keep writing about it but I should stop for today. I will write more about tomorrow and the taxi journey I took all over the country. I should mention though that I have another idea for a book or screenplay running around in my head as a result of what I experienced and saw in Burma. It will be called Thieves of Burma and it will entail the story of a team of thieves that plan to steal the 74 karat diamond in the Shwedagon temple. I have to do a tremendous amount of research for the story. I want it to detail the Buddhist and Nat superstitions, a love story with a Burmese girl, the history of the country, the current military regime, etc. Well, since this is a public site my idea has been officially copyrighted so hands off ;)

Until tomorrow,