Thanaka face paint

Earlier I gave you a little teaser about the creamy yellow paint that many people (mostly women and children, but also some men) wear on their cheeks and to a lesser extent, noses, in Yangon. It’s called thanaka, and seems to be used mainly for sun protection but apparently can also be used against acne.

We quickly got used to seeing it on the faces around us and hadn’t thought much more about it until we stopped by the vast marketplace and found a young girl grinding the paste from small (3-5 inch) logs and selling the logs. She demonstrated it for us, adding water and grinding the wood against the stone plate (apparently called kyauk pyin) to make a watery paste.

She wanted to sell us some logs, but while we thanked her, we told her we would not be allowed to bring a piece of a tree back into our home country. That just won’t fly with customs.

Well, she offered to apply the paste she had just made for us to our faces so we could wear it for the day anyway! How sweet. I think she got as much of a kick out of it as we did.

And it was interesting to see how people reacted to us when we were wearing it.

Before, women would barely make eye contact (except that if we smiled sincerely at girls and women first, they would usually break into a huge smile in return), but once this thanaka was on my face, I got many spontaneous smiles and a few women even pointed us out to their friends.

With my skin color, it doesn’t seem to show up very well in photos, but people definitely noticed it and responded well to us in the street, becoming even more kind than they had been before. It made us feel really welcome.

It’s good to do as the Romans do.

We hung out with Monks!!!

We were minding our own business, spending the day at Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon. We’d been walking around this amazing golden stupa for a while, and it’s like the Grand Canyon- you have to look away for a bit before you look back again to appreciate it anew- it’s such an incredible sight. So, we decided to take a little break and sit off to the side, but within sight of the paya’s eye-catching golden top.

Within minutes, two monks walked over and asked if they could join us. Kim started talking to the older, teacher monk, while I got to hang out with the young “novice” monk.

My favorite moment of that day was listening to music on my iPod with the monk. I swear I didn’t corrupt him- he had told me that he’s “crazy for music” and mentioned Bon Jovi, Shakira, and Westlife were his favorites. I knew I had one Shakira song on my iPod, so I grabbed it from my bag, handed him the earpiece, and we set to listening together.  I played him some Stone Roses, too.

Mid-way through our conversation, the heavens broke open and unleashed a torrent of cooling summer rain, so the monks quickly guided us to a nearby prayer hall to stay dry. We sat with a bunch of other people in the shrine, discussing monky things and Buddhism until they had to leave for the novice’s daily lessons. It was an unexpected and magical 2 hours!

The thing is, monks have very clear rules about interacting with women. I’ve read that women can’t touch monks, and can’t even hand anything to them. You have to either put things down on the floor or hand them to a man who then gives them to the monk. When you sit, you shouldn’t sit above a monk or let your feet point towards a monk (or statues of Buddha). Few monks even made eye contact with me. So, I didn’t think we should have even been able to sit next to them, let alone talk with them. The whole experience was a happy surprise.

We gave them a donation which my monk said would go toward the “children without parents”, and in return, the teacher monk blessed both Kim and I. We each remarked later that we instantly felt a little lighter after the blessing, which included words about being free from worry. Alas, that feeling didn’t last long, but it was nice to feel for a time. And then to alert the spirits that we had done a good thing through giving our donation, we got to ring two enormous bells by hitting them with wooden staffs.

We also got to make a few new female friends, as well. As has occasionally happened to me in other Asian countries, we were watched by a small group of young women and then approached for a photo. I always like to turn the tables and get a photo of my own, so we got to pose about 6 times for shots on everyone’s cameras. I thought it was really sweet that they walked over and immediately put their arms through ours to pose. It’s always nice to meet new people and to be appreciated.   🙂

Paya

The pagodas here are called paya, and they are gorgeous. Myanmar Buddhists really know how to worship in style.

This country is heavily influenced by many of its neighbors, and I found that at the Shwedagon pagoda in particular, there were a few viewpoints that made me think of India, China, and Thailand.

This is such a large complex that you can spend hours wandering around and looking at all the small buildings, different views, and smallest details. You can really make a day of it. So, I guess it shouldn’t be too surprising to see that many people brought food to eat while at the pagoda, and that some people were even stretched out on the floors, sleeping.

We learned that people will often come to the temple and stay for the whole day, so they take time to eat and relax- even in the middle of a worship area.

The two main paya that we visited in Yangon were both set up as a series of worship spaces around a central dome. So, you can walk (clockwise) all around the paya, with beautiful views of an improbably gold and shining central dome and spire reaching far up into the sky, with prayer spaces at the 4 compass points and in between. And you get to see a lot of monks!

Apparently, some of the buildings have such a preponderance of Buddhas because so many have been donated over the years. It almost looks like they’re running out of places to put them.

Foreigners pay a special fee to get in, but we guessed that the locals come to worship for free, as it should be… plus, they give a lot in donations (and Buddhas) while there.

It was interesting to see so many different types of buildings/architecture in one place. Some structures were of wood, some were mirrored, some were golden, and some were white and stone-like- maybe marble?

If reports are true, Shwedagon is over 2,600 years old, which may make it the oldest pagoda in the world. With all that gold, it looks pretty new. It’s obviously well-cared for and carefully maintained.

Many of the buildings had fierce creatures outside them.  But this guy just made me think: “we’ve got a pepper baaaaar”.  The resemblance is uncanny… and creepy.  🙂

A nice cup of tea and a sit down

You might think that in such a far-flung foreign outpost as Myanmar that you might be without some of the comforts in life. That may be true, but you certainly don’t have to live without your tea.

We found an authentic (all locals) teashop near the market the other day, and decided this would be the perfect thing for the afternoon.

We didn’t know the proper procedure, so we simply walked up and directed a hopeful and questioning: “tea?” to the male server outside (these places all seem to be run by teenage boys).

He brought us in and seated us at a table with several little plates of goodies already on it. He then brought over another plate, with yet another variety of tasty treat, and served us up some strong, milky orange tea. I suspiciously asked the prices of everything on the plates. Most of the plates held more than one item.

 

It turns out that you pick out and eat whatever you want and at the end, you just pay for what you ate.  The tea was only 300 kyat, and each treat was 200-300.  ($1 will get you 840 kyat.)

This would never work in the US, because the food may just sit on the table through a series of diners (but you have to let that stuff go when you’re traveling).  We tried an almond cookie that looked like it might be chewy, but turned out to be similar in flavor and consistency to biscotti, though it looked like a real cookie (I’m going through cookie-withdrawal here).

And we tried this interesting pastry that was orange on top, and had a nice almond-ish paste in the middle. This would be my favorite. There was a mix of both sweet and savory treats on the plates, but we stuck with the sweets for that day.

(Photo: View from inside the tea shop)

As with many Asian sweets, the delicacy was only mildly sweet. I’ve noticed a tendency to use an otherwise savory or neutral base (beans, rice, nuts, bread, cream) to make the sweets.

 

So you rarely end up with that mouth-coating, pain-in-your-fillings rush of sugar like you do with many of my favorite US and UK desserts.

 

But, never fear- US treats are still available. Myanmar can be added to the list of places where you can find Oreos.  Seriously- I’ve yet to visit a country without them.

 

We may not be able to force democracy on all the countries of the world, but we’ve successfully gotten them all to accept Oreos.  🙂

Men in skirts

The men in Myanmar wear skirts.  It’s actually really great- as a traveler, it makes you feel more like you’re in another country when everyone dresses differently than they do back home. You just don’t see that very often anymore in our commonly traveled-to places.

(Thus, my excitement when I saw women in Vietnam wearing those conical straw hats, and my slight disappointment that I didn’t see bunches of geishas running around Japan.)

Kim posed at the airport for our first (stealth) photo of a man in a skirt. The skirts are called longyi, and they are essentially just a length of fabric, knotted at the waist.

Most men seem to wear them with either a button-down or polo shirt. And everyone was wearing flip-flops. Women wear these longyi, as well, but their skirts have different patterns (usually plain or flowered or something jazzy) than the men’s usual blue or green-based plaid variation.

(Photos: The color options at the men’s longyi store.)

And women’s longyi usually have waistbands, whereas for men, the tube skirt is more like a length of cloth which they wrap around themselves from behind and tie into a large knot at the front. And it somehow doesn’t pull open obscenely. Of course, this makes for frequent adjustments throughout the day, so I suppose they have that in common with Western men, anyway.

Most of the younger guys we saw usually stood with a leg/hip jutted out to the side, which is probably a cooler way of standing, and probably also helps to keep the longyi in place. The longyi seem to hit between mid-calf and almost ankle-length, but not all men or women wear them.  There are plenty of people in “Western” garb, too.

I hope this lovely cultural dress isn’t one more thing that disappears as we all move toward worldwide sameness. I tend to think that discovering (and blogging about) our differences is one of the most interesting parts of traveling.

The times, they are a changin’…

I’m lucky to have been joined by my friend Kim for a fun-filled 2.5 weeks through Myanmar and Thailand!  It’s so nice to have someone else around for the mosquitoes to target.  😉

We’ve enjoyed our welcome to Yangon airport- like BKK in Bangkok, it looks to be a sleek new building. As with many other things, so much is new and changing so quickly in Myanmar, that not only are the 2-year-old guidebooks out of date, but so is the internet. I’ve never seen anything like it.  Hotel prices have doubled, tripled, or quadrupled in just a year or two.  And our information keeps turning out to be incorrect.

For starters, I kept reading that there are no good and sanctioned ways to change your money into Myanmar kyat and get a good rate, (you can’t use atms, travelers checks, or credit cards here) so you have to find a guy on the street and change it through him.  And this is risky, according to all I’ve read, because these black-market guys are slippery pros. Apparently they grab your money from you and count it out repeatedly, and then shuffle it around and distract you so that even the most careful and alert person ends up losing a few bills before the process is over.

Well, now you can change your money at banks and get a very fair rate, without the hassle. I only learned that from a fellow blogger who was here a month ago. Oh, and I don’t even know what the bank rate is, because I changed my money at the airport. I had no intention of doing this, because I was told by 3 different sources that you can only get the official government rate at the airport (of $1 = 4 kyat), instead of the actual current rate ($1 = 850 kyat).  But as we arrived and waited for the others who were headed to our hotel (you can get a free 40 min. van ride from the airport if you book with certain hotels- even budget ones), the driver advised us to change our money at the airport, because the rate was even better there than at the banks in town.

We checked it out and when we were quoted the rate we expected anyway, we happily changed our money. So, Lonely Planet was wrong again!  I’ve also heard a rumor that the multi-day visa process we went through in Bangkok(which we were told was either a next-day regular charge, or a same-day expedited fee… but turned out to now be broken up into 1,2, or 3 day return rates) may not be necessary because they might be offering visas-on-arrival to Americans now, maybe with a visa-approval letter like Vietnam allows.

But that’s just a rumor… things are changing so quickly here, nobody can keep up.

One thing that has stayed the same is that they will only take pristine, un-creased, and unmarked US dollars for exchange. It also seems unfair that they won’t take Euros or Pounds, etc, but there you go. I got a handy little plastic case to keep my bills in good condition until they were needed. Other travelers have mentioned using cardboard and saran wrap. And if you don’t use all your bills in Myanmar, you can always save them for Vietnam and Laos, etc, where they may accept them for payment instead of local currency.

Incidentally,  some of the visas here in SE Asia are the coolest I’ve ever seen. Instead of a boring stamp, you get an official pre-printed, personalized sticker that takes up a whole page in your passport.

Until my next post, please enjoy the hard-hitting headlines in the Myanmar newspaper…

A pause in Myanmar

The internet is a bit spotty, unreliable, slow, and also inconvenient to find here in Yangon, so I probably won’t be able to post anything for a few more days until I get to Bangkok.

BUT, I’ve got some good stuff planned to share with you!  Men in skirts, women in face paint, and mystery noodle dinners without the aid of menus!  And… the impossible search for crab rangoon in Rangoon…

Halong Bay Bungalows

The 3-day tour was supposed to include a night of sleeping on a “junk” (boat) in Halong Bay, but for whatever reason, they couldn’t do that, so I stayed in an island bungalow for two nights instead of just one.

And I “got to” put up and use mosquito nets for the first time!

The word “Bungalow” sounds ordinary and boring, but these were thatched wooden huts right on the sandy beach- in the middle of nowhere.

You can only reach it by boat.

The arrival was dramatic, as we chugged up in our wooden dragon boat to this long dock which speared out into the bay.

As we walked down the bouncing, creaking, floating footbridge, we approached the edge of the bungalows, where people were emerging from their cabin rooms, looking out into the sunset. It felt like we were entering into this little forgotten land of beach paradise that only a few people in the world knew about.

There’s nothing else there but these 10-15 rustic-looking bungalows, a communal area with a few long tables (where we all gathered for a delicious seafood barbecue dinner), and the long dock that dead-ends out in the still green bay.

And that’s it. You’re surrounded by rock formations, so there’s nothing else there and nowhere else to go except by boat.

And the view from the beach looked like the one form the movie The Beach, even though I know that’s technically in Thailand. I may see it later in June.  🙂

We arrived after a long day of cruising through these amazing waters with green-covered rocks towering all around us.

On our way there was a colorfully-lit dripping wet cave that we tramped through, and a floating village (a la Waterworld) that we chugged past en route to the bungalows in the middle of nowhere.  🙂

 

This was also one of those parts of my trip where I got to meet a lot of lovely people.

A big thank-you shout-out to the Brighton girls who got me chocolate when I was marooned on this island paradise for 2 days and bereft of dessert- Grace, Nicky, Sharon, and Amanda. You guys are great.  And thanks also to the lovely Irish Kerr family and Rochy for being such great company, and for the book.

And to Ron and Jeanne for sharing the dinner feast (and the good lunch recommendation) when we finally made it back to Hanoi after our 9+ hour journey of bus, boat, boat, bus, boat, boat, bus. (I think. I kind of lost track.)

It was quite an adventure.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay is amazing. The karst limestone formations rising straight up from the water look like something out of a fairy tale. Actually, Halong Bay means “descending dragon”, and it did appear to be a place where dragons would live. Of course, this inspired a short conversation about Game of Thrones with my new Irish friends as we traveled through this unnatural beauty on our boat.  The name comes from the pattern of the island formations, appearing to be like an undulating dragon’s body, but it’s such a mythic-looking place that you could picture exotic creatures winging their way around these other-worldly sights.

One of the tour workers pointed out interestingly-shaped formations by their names. There was a cat up on one cliff, a dog nearby, and a woman on another. They explained that these rock sculptures would continue to narrow at the bottom as the salt water eats away at them from below until… one day… they would fall down and disappear.

 

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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

I visited Ho Chi Minh’s Masoleum on one of my last days in Hanoi.  Apparently, the poor man wanted to be cremated, but instead has been lying in state in a large square gray granite building in Hanoi since 1975. I was told the mausoleum was open until 11:30am or 12, but when I arrived the lines were very long, it was 10:30, and they told me it closed at 11am.

They also mentioned that the left luggage office also closed at 11, so I’d have to get back to it quickly to get my backpack, which wasn’t allowed in. That left me 20 minutes.

A Spanish solo traveler arrived at the “left luggage” window at the same time as me, and together we ran off to the line, with the admonishments of “hurry, hurry!” coming from behind us.

We soon joined the line, skipping ahead of 2 blocks of people who were waiting to see the museum, as well, which stays open longer. The line moved really slowly, so I asked a few other guards, who each gestured us to jump ahead in the line. In the end, though it felt like we had cut in line very unfairly, (but repeatedly and with permission), we successfully hustled through the exhibit with time to spare.

That was a lucky thing, because we were directed a block out of our way at the end and had to run several blocks back. We did manage to just barely make it back to the left luggage office in time.

Seeing Ho Chi Minh was interesting and unsettling.

The idea is that you move through the hall quickly, without lingering.

It reminded me of another type of visit, in London. While the Tower of London places people on a moving conveyor belt that passes the crown jewels, HCM’s mausoleum had guards who grabbed your arm and propelled you along, almost into the people in front of you.

The visit to the Mausoleum made for a quiet, dark, crowded, and solemn experience… until the anxious/giddy run back to the luggage office, of course.