I’ll be the first to admit, it has been quite a while since I last checked in, mainly because I just haven’t had much time to write this blog, however, you will be hearing from me a bit more over the coming weeks because we have so many trips booked, mainly for Anna’s work. First up — Training in Yangon, Myanmar, and I couldn’t let a weekend this epic slip by.
This is the second time we’ve come to Myanmar, or Burma as it is also known, the first being when Anna came to do free eye surgery in a remote area here back in February, 2014. We had a great time on that trip, but it ended on somewhat of a dampener, no pun intended; In an incident we both now jovially refer to as the “Burmese Bed-Bath,” I had food-poisoning so badly that I shit the bed. Twice. It was so bad in fact that I had to wear a pad on the plane back to Singapore in case I shat myself again. True story, I don’t think I would have been so scared getting a pat down going through Singapore security if I had a kilo of heroin down my pants. How does a guy my size explain wearing a pad? To this day Anna still gives me grief about my reaction when she suggested I wear one of her pads after I fouled myself and woke us both up for a second time. “Why does it have love-hearts and flowers printed all over it?” I asked. “Why can’t they make tough ones with, like, skulls and daggers and stuff?”
Would there be a repeat performance on this trip? Only time would tell.
Anyway, when we were here last, we loved it; The people were friendly, the food was great, albeit a little unclean, and the country is beautiful, even if it is a little backwards at times, but there’s a reason for that. A little background information about Myanmar for the uninitiated, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Myanmar, officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and also known as Burma, is a sovereign state in South East Asia bordered by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. One-third of Myanmar’s total perimeter of 1,930 km (1,200 miles) forms an uninterrupted coastline along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. The country’s 2014 census revealed a much lower population than expected, with 51 million people recorded. Myanmar is 676,578 square kilometres (261,227 sq mi) in size. Its capital city is Naypyidaw and its largest city is Yangon (Rangoon).
Myanmar became an independent nation in 1948, initially as a democratic nation and then, following a coup d’état in 1962, a military dictatorship.
For most of its independent years, the country has been engrossed in rampant ethnic strife and Burma’s myriad ethnic groups have been involved in one of the world’s longest-running ongoing civil wars. During this time, the United Nations and several other organisations have reported consistent and systematic human rights violations in the country. In 2011, the military junta was officially dissolved following a 2010 general election, and a nominally civilian government was installed. While former military leaders still wield enormous power in the country, the Burmese military have taken steps toward relinquishing control of the government.
It would be easy to focus on the bad points, but this is a really cool country and I was sure we would enjoy our four days here, provided I didn’t get the squits quite like last time again.
Thursday, November 3
Our flight was at about 8:30am, meaning we would need to be at the airport at around 6:30am. It’s about a half-hour taxi ride from our place to Changi Airport, thus we would have to get up at about 5:30am. We were a little cautious because we’ve noticed a pattern, that I tend to have seizures when we catch early flights, most likely due to the lack of sleep, but that wouldn’t be a problem this time. I was more worried about Anna, she had been working extremely hard to prepare the two talks she had to present at the hospital, usually getting about four hours sleep a night. Well, she finally finished and crawled into bed at 3:30am on Thursday and was up again an hour-and-a-half later to catch the flight.
We boarded our plane, landed on time and before long were at that juncture where it was now time to go through immigration. I had applied for my visa weeks earlier, but even that couldn’t prevent me ending up in the line that was being served by what could be mistaken as a work-experience kid. It took me forever, Anna’s line went quickly, but then she was stuck waiting around for me for about another 15 minutes once she got through. She and some of her colleagues went straight to the hospital and I caught a taxi to our hotel, the Summit Parkview. I dodged all of the sketchy taxi drivers who were charging a 300% markup and got a guy who was legit and we were on our way. It was then that I remembered how bad the traffic can be in Yangon. Most drivers just turn off the ignition while they are sitting there, waiting for the traffic to move again.
Another thing that makes the traffic here a bit chaotic is the fact that they drive on the right-hand-side of the road, but approximately 95% of the cars are right-hand-drive. This might not seem like a big deal to some, but it makes u-turns a tad trickier and, if you’re a pedestrian and a car is turning left, there’s a good chance they won’t see you. Plus, if you want to get off a bus, you’ll be stepping out into traffic. I’m not kidding, check it out:
Finally, I got to our hotel and it was quite nice, although a little basic. You could see the temples and pagodas from our window, but there wasn’t a lot else around our township. My initial plan was to work while Anna was at the conference, but my work hadn’t sent me anything to write, so I thought I’d just get started on this blog entry.
Before long I had the bulk of this written up and I was thinking about getting something to eat, but first I thought I’d check if everything in our room worked. I switched on the TV and the first thing I saw was not what I was really expecting; Andrew WK being interviewed on a show about puppies (left). That’s definitely a sign that it’s time to leave.
I went for a bit of a walk around, but it turns out the area we are staying in really has nothing much nearby, plus I could feel myself getting really sunburnt, so I grabbed some lunch and came back home, just relaxing on the bed and listening to music until Anna got back. When she eventually returned, Anna told me that one of the local doctors was taking us out to dinner, but he was taking some of the other doctors to the pagodas first. We saw the pagodas last time we were here (If you want to check out the photos, have a look here), so this meant we had a bit of time to kill and we had been given some complimentary fruit punch vouchers in the hotel bar. We went down and redeemed them, but the drinks had a bit of a cordial-taste. Never fear, when I was walking around I saw that there was a rooftop bar next door at the Yangon International Hotel. We went up there and it was pretty tacky, everything painted gold with awful chandeliers hanging around and crowd footage of skanks dancing projected onto the wall in an otherwise empty room. We got a bit of a laugh out of it, but the beers were cheap and the view was nice, however, soon it was time to meet the others for dinner.
Dinner was at House of Memories, a great Burmese restaurant in a century-old colonial house that also housed the office of the late Burmese General, Aung San, now set up as a museum for him, with his original furniture. So, for those that don’t know, who is Aung San?
Bogyoke (Major General) Aung San (13 February 1915 – 19 July 1947) was a Myanmar statesman, initially Communist and later Social Democratic politician, revolutionary, nationalist, founder of the Tatmadaw, and is considered Father of the Nation of modern-day Myanmar who served as 5th Premier of the British Crown Colony of Burma from 1946 to 1947. He was the founder of the Communist Party of Burma.
He was responsible for bringing about Burma’s independence from British rule, but was assassinated six months before independence. He is recognized as the leading architect of independence, and the founder of the Union of Burma. Affectionately known as “Bogyoke” (Major General), Aung San is still widely admired by the Burmese people, and his name is still invoked in Burmese politics to this day.
Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, is a Burmese stateswoman and politician and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize who is now serving as State Counsellor and 20th and First Female Minister of Foreign Affairs in Htin Kyaw’s Cabinet.
The food was incredible, it stayed in me for the duration of the entire night, and the location itself was quite interesting, too. We took a look around the place, here is some of what we saw:
Soon dinner was over and we were pretty exhausted, so it was back to our room to crash for the night.
Friday, November 4
Anna had already gone to work by the time I woke up, so I had a shower, got tangled in the brown cotton shower curtain and decided to hit the street. I grabbed some lunch and went for a walk that would amount to being about a 10km round trip, taking in some interesting sights along the way. Instead of writing too much, I’ll just let some pictures do the talking:
One inconvenience in Myanmar is the constant blackouts afflicted by it’s antiquated power grid, something you’ll deal with at least four or five times on an average day. We experienced them in our hotel room and while trying to pay for our meals in a restaurant by credit card, they are just something you have to put up with while you’re here. But probably the strangest moment was when one struck while I was in a shopping mall. I was standing on the escalator when all of a sudden it came to a grinding halt, everything went dark and that slow, humming sound of everything powering down was audibly clear. What struck me as odd was how everyone reacted; Admittedly, it wasn’t all that busy, but I instantly thought what would’ve happened had this been back in New York — There would be absolute mayhem as everybody tried to steal as much free stuff as they could, but that wasn’t the case in Yangon. People just calmly waited around for about 30 seconds until the lights came back on and then just simply went about their day. Sure, they are well versed in these happenings, but they are also extremely honest people as well, not to mention patient.
It was hot outside, I was getting tired and I knew I had a long walk ahead of me, so I decided to go back to hotel and get off my feet for a while as I waited for Anna to return from work.
I was in our room for about 15 minutes when I received a message from Anna saying she would be back soon and that two of the doctors from the hospital were coming down to pick me up so they could take us and two other surgeons from Singapore to Bogyoke Market, then to dinner.
If you looked at the link to the photos from the last time we were in Yangon, ‘Scott Market’ and ‘Bogyoke Market’ are the exact same place and it’s pretty cool. One of Myanmar’s biggest exports is jade, so there are tons of jewellery stores as well black market money-changers, traditional Burmese tattoo stores and stalls selling food and herbs, especially betel nut. Chewing betel nut is an absolutely disgusting habit, it stains your teeth a reddish-brown with little bits of shell stuck in between and there is the constant need to spit the juice out. Seriously, there is dried betel-nut spit everywhere you look in Yangon, even on the windscreen of the car we were traveling in. If you want to know what it looks like on the ground, then click here, but why do people chew it? Well…
Usually for chewing, a few slices of the nut are wrapped in a betel leaf along with calcium hydroxide (slaked lime) and may include clove, cardamom, catechu (kattha) or other spices for extra flavouring. Betel leaf has a fresh, peppery taste, but it can also be bitter to varying degrees depending on the variety.
Areca nuts are chewed with betel leaf for their effects as a mild stimulant, causing a warming sensation in the body and slightly heightened alertness, although the effects vary from person to person.
But then there is this:
Areca nut affects almost all organs of the human body, including the brain, heart, lungs, gastrointestinal tract and reproductive organs. It causes or aggravates pre-existing conditions such as neuronal injury, myocardial infarction, cardiac arrhythmias, hepatotoxicity, asthma, central obesity, type II diabetes, hyperlipidemia, metabolic syndrome, etc. Areca nut affects the endocrine system, leading to hypothyroidism, prostate hyperplasia and infertility. It affects the immune system leading to suppression of T-cell activity and decreased release of cytokines. It has harmful effects on the fetus when used during pregnancy.
No thanks. Anyway, we strolled around, looked at a few stores, but we had seen it all before, however, we had heard that Shan noodles are really good, so we decided to pick up a bowl while we were there. Here’s what else we saw this time around:
After the market we checked out a large supermarket, then we were off to dinner. Again, dinner was really good and soon we were left to our own devices. We didn’t want to go to that crappy rooftop bar again, we wanted to have a proper Friday night. We had heard that there were some good bars near town, so we decided to walk there. About 10 minutes into our trek my stomach was feeling a little odd and, despite how immaculately clean toilets are in Yangon, I still can’t bring myself to crap in public, so we did a 180° turn and headed back to our room to drop the kids off at the pool.
A couple of minutes and a Loperamil tablet later and we were off again, however, we still thought it wise to stay relatively near the hotel, just in case. With the traffic jams here, you wouldn’t want to be catching a taxi with a less-than-perfect belly.
It would turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as we stumbled upon a great cocktail and shisha bar right near our hotel, so we decided to settle in for the night. I stuck to beers as per usual and Anna worked her way through a list of impressive cocktails as we puffed on our blueberry-flavoured shisha.
It was turning into a perfect night. That is until there was a little unpleasantness that was almost identical in every possible way to this scenario, except in a crowded bar. I’m not saying it was me and I’m not saying it wasn’t, but the responsible party had to get out of there, shower, and try to sleep off the shame, posthaste! One thing needs to be said, though — Service staff in Myanmar are some of the friendliest, most tolerant people I’ve ever met and they can do and clean anything with a smile on their face. Anything!
Saturday, November 5
It had taken us a while to get to sleep due to being more than a little hyper thanks to what happened the night before, so it was almost midday by the time we woke up to the realisation that the events of the previous night weren’t some bad dream. We popped a precautionary Loperamil tablet each before we left our room, but directly outside our door a bride was having her wedding photos done. She was blocking off the elevators so we tried to take the stairs, only to accidentally re-enter through a back door and photobomb her bridal shots while carrying a bag of very smelly garbage. Oh well, it still wasn’t the low point for the weekend.
We had the entire day to ourselves, so we decided to grab some lunch and check out the town centre. There are a lot of interesting old colonial buildings, many of which are falling apart, as well as unique stores and people lining the streets selling secondhand books.
A bit of what we saw around town:
We stumbled around for the afternoon throughout Yangon while constantly taking Loperamil tablets, still unable to completely shake the unpleasantness of the previous night and bursting into spontaneous fits of laughter at the sheer absurdity of the entire situation.
We eventually stopped into a cafe for a coffee before heading home to make 100% certain there would not be an encore performance tonight, then headed out. Anna wanted to check out a wine bar, but Google Maps decided to pull its usual tricks (left), so we just decided to go to another shisha bar nearby. It wasn’t a bad place, pretty much what we had been expecting on Friday night before we entered, and then very embarrassedly exited, what was apparently ranked as one of the world’s best bars. Saturday night was spent playing the hypothetical game; “Maybe if you do your hair, shave, wear pants and I do my hair differently, they might not even know it’s us!” was one suggestion, but we were simply lying to ourselves; This was to be our home for the night. We would just have to grin and bear it, just chatting, shaking our collective heads and cracking up at what a weird weekend it had been.
Sunday, November 6
After the weekend we had had, there was no way possible we could end this trip in any regular way. We got up and went to get something to eat, but none of the lifts were working, not even the service elevators, so we just sat around, waiting, all the while listening to the emergency alarm going off inside one of them. Eventually the elevator arrived at our floor and who else had been trapped in there but the bride we photobombed the previous morning, accompanied by her father, who holding the newly-framed wedding portrait. We shared an uncomfortable glance and a wave of relief washed over me when I noticed we weren’t in the background of their photo.
We checked out of our hotel, popped a couple more Loperamil and went out to lunch, over-cautiously eating only a fraction of what we ordered from fear of what could happen on the plane. When we finished we walked home and embarked on a cab ride to the airport that would turn out to be the only appropriate way to complete this journey. Why was it a fitting finale?
- One of the hotel valets flagged down the taxi and agreed upon a price for us, K8,000 (about US$6.25), however, when the driver saw me that fare instantly increased to K10,000 (US$7.80). Oh well, we’re used to this and he needed the change more than we did.
- We drove for about 100 metres, but the driver spoke almost no English, so he had no way of telling us he was going to stop and squat on the side of the road for a piss, he just got out and did it.
- It was raining heavily so he kept turning around and trying to wind up my window while driving. This would’ve been less frustrating if it weren’t for the fact that the window wasn’t even open.
- He had no air-conditioning in his ancient taxi, so he had to keep wiping his windscreen with a towel in order to see.
- The driver saw a police car so he decided then to put his seatbelt on. The only problem was that he had so much crap laying around in the cab that his only option was to plug it into the passenger buckle.
- Among that crap was a bottle of what looked like semen, but was possibly coolant, directly in front of Anna and myself.
- He pulled over to buy two single cigarettes off a guy on the side of the road, as well as borrow his lighter. At least he was nice enough to offer us one, but we didn’t want it so he just had to chain smoke both of them, otherwise he had no way to light the second one.
We somehow made it to the airport unscathed, so we tipped the driver a box of cashew-brittle that we were given but didn’t particularly want and caught our flight back to Singapore, seated several rows behind one of the smelliest people I have ever encountered on an aeroplane.
It was an interesting trip, but for us we are currently batting at 100%. Yangon and dysentery go together for Anna and myself like coffee and cigarettes or drunk and disorderly do for others; You simply can’t experience the former without the latter. Was it the Shan noodles this time? The pig organs, or accidentally swallowing some water in the shower? Who knows, all that was abundantly clear was that we didn’t make a clean getaway this time, either.
This post was only made possible thanks to Loperamil.