This is Burma (Myanmar)

Listen up addicted Starbucks coffee drinkers, early morning metro seat hunters, I-tune-users, texting junkies, and taxi drivers. There is a different world out there, a world that your ancestors might have touched upon years ago. Let me bring you back in time to Burma, a place full of dusty mornings, buffalo work riders, power-outage work loads, betel spitting, toilet-less, paperless bathrooms, and ATM free zone.

Wake up! Smell that Starbucks coffee and be happy to satisfy your addiction. Burma serves coffee too, instant 3 in 1 — condensed sweetened milk, sugar and coffee. — “3 in 1” is a trend and all billboards are rocking it. It’s so sweet it will turn a diabetic into a glazed sugar Easter Bunny.

Even for Iza, — the sugar lover and the daring one — it’s quite too much. It makes her explosive.

Coffee? It’s for westernized world. Burmese people are tea drinkers and hard-core betel spitters. They prefer the buzzed addiction from betel. Continuously they chew on grannies with blood-red juices dripping from their mouths. Burma’s ghetto vampires, spittting red guts on the streets while sipping on “3 in 1” tea.

— We would like two teas please— I signal 2 with my fingers and sat on miniature chairs that stretched out on the sidewalk. She served 2 cups and a full thermos. We poured ourselves tea and were happy that it was green tea. Shortly after she brought 2 more cups, this time they were filled with Burmese tea, 3 in 1.

— What? I am confused, is this tea? — I looked at Iza with confusion.  — It’s tea— she confirmed.

They don’t consider green tea as tea. It’s served with everything, even when you order a tea at a teashop, green tea will be served with it. It’s like tap water served in New York’s restaurants.

Anyway, before you go on reading the rest understand that what you are about to read is the Hot Toddies perspective on Burma. What we saw heard and experienced.

The Different Ways, Their Ways.
Myanmar or the original countries’ name Burma had its name changed to Myanmar after the Brits left and the government ran “backwards”. I will continue to us “Burma” to go against the government.

When I say “Government” I mean oppressive military regime. Which pockets all the double priced tourist fees. Including transportation, archeological sight fees and all else government operated agencies. — Somebody’s kid is watching Sesame Street on 72” 3D plasma right now. — Be that monster and avoid the IWT trains, ferries and all else government organizations. Some locals would prefer tourists to stay away, just so the government won’t benefit.

When I say “Backwards” I mean just different. Burma is one of the few countries in the world, that uses half an hour time zone. Bangkok time is 23:00, New York time 10:00, and Burma’s time is 23:30. Half-ass-time.

The pedestrian’s crosswalk is painted yellow. While the road divider “yellow solid line” is white.

The year is something like 1373, a month has only 15 days, which means that one day they will catch up and that’s when the globalization will take over.

They squat to shit, western toilets are rare.

There’s never any toilet paper in the bathrooms. If there is, it’s used backwards; the roll is started from the inside.

Right side traffic and right side steering wheel. They changed the traffic laws few years ago, after an astrologist predicted an evil will happen.

There is no time to daydream while operating a scooter, car or bicycle in Mandalay. Eyes need to be wide opened while crossing any intersection there is no rules. They drive and do what they want, against traffic, and on the sidewalks. Makes me remember a time, when riding a scooter in NYC and thinking I had a moped. I went over the “pedestrian and bikers” lane on Queens Borough Bridge. A guy got so angry with me he wanted to fight me; I can only imagine him in Burma.

Beeep, beeep! Similar to spitting they were born with a hand on the honker. Before they pass, while they are passing and why not after they pass. They just don’t stop beeping. — Maniacs. —Beeeeeep to you too!!!

Exhaust fumes is the primary oxygen.

There is no globalization, no chain stores, no 7 Eleven, no McDonald, no Coca-Cola billboards.

No ATMs anywhere. They only exchange crisp, clean, fresh, unbent US dollars. While Kyat, the Burmese currency is falling apart and it reeks of dampness. My wallet officially smells like a wet dog’s ass.

TV airs only during the hours of 5pm to midnight, and that also depends on the local power supply.  Frequent power outage though out the entire country.

Burma opened their borders to tourists in 1993. Locals can’t host any foreigners; immediate arrest. Tourist can only stay in designated hotels and guesthouses. Only specified routs are allowed for tourists to travel. Not allowed anywhere near the Golden Triangle in Shan State. It’s forbidden to talk about politics. Plus, photography is strictly prohibited of any military facilities, uniformed individual, roadblocks, bridges and NLD offices. — Why the hell are we here?

In order to cross the border to Thailand or Laos, a permit is necessary. It costs US $50 plus a $15 for a guide to accompany crossing the boarder. For the first time during our travels the Hot Toddies are going to have an escort.

“This was South Korea 50 years ago” said a Korean guy who we shared a taxi with.

No mobile phones insight, the cost to have one is around $700-$2,000, but you will know if someone is on one, they talk really loud. It sounds like my grandma talking to my aunt in New York. It’s far away so she speaks up.

Don’t count on good bread. Their version of bread is like a toasted condensed cotton candy, with slightly less sugar. The locals eat it with tea as a sweet treat. But sell as “bread” for tourist on sandwiches.

How about food? It’s freaking greasy. Everything you order is dipped in peanut or palm oil. I ordered a noodle soup and even that was greasy. They love to deep-fry everything. Random pig parts are easy to buy all over the streets. However, nothing beats the fruits, they have the best mangos, papayas, watermelons and bananas in the world.

The People.
The exact population number is a mystery as the last census was done in 1983.

Men wear skirt like longyi, which outlines their butt-cheeks. Women are very respectful and cover their entire body’s also wearing longyis and shoulder lengths shirts. Not once did we wear our short shorts in Burma. I felt naked.

Street venders sell tape cassettes.

Every morning a Burmese woman put on Thanakha on her face. It’s a white powder used to create designs in the shape of hearts, leaves and traditional squares. This is their makeup and protection from the sun. Occasionally you will see man wear it as well.

No judgment, men wear pink or red nail polish, it’s in style. — I think it looks gay.

People just stare at us, we have a staring contest. We glance they stare, constant eye contact. Their look on their face is priceless. I agree to take a photo with a local girl from a university, which ended in a photo shoot, it lasted few minutes.

Burmese people make weird noises to get attention, an African style dialect.  They must have some African descents, women wear combs in their hair too.

They were borne spitting and hack-lugging. It’s part of their culture. Waking-up, while we eating, and while we walk we hear spitting. It’s the Burmese human nature sound.

According to 2008 GDP, USA’s yearly average income is $48,000, Poland’s $17,300, Qatar’s $108,000 and Burma’s is $1,200.

Locals drink whisky with beer. It’s the norm.

Sitting on the back of the bus going to Kalaw from Yangon, all we saw were dark, black heads upfront, no blonds no brunettes, just dark black hair.

All music videos show the same love story. Only in the videos local woman are westernized, wearing jeans, makeup and less clothing. No Britney Spears or any popular western hits reached Burma. They love their VCDs, Burmese love songs.

On the “slow boat” to Bagan, random sales women wanted to trade their goods for our shirts, makeup, nail polish or perfumes.

Not many people wear prescription glasses. Not sure if they have good vision or the lack of eye docs.

According to official figuresthere are about 500,000 monks in BurmaAnd about 87 percent of all Burmese people are Buddhists. They are everywhere, and we still don’t know if the monk’s robe is a one piece or two piece. 

The Tribe Life.
Being part of a tribe in Shan state is not easy. Chewing betel, digging dirt, riding buffalos and drying garlic is just the norm. They work hard so all the vegetation is perfect. Tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, cauliflower, mountain rice, water rice and cabbage grow perfectly without any chemicals or bug disturbance.

Each tribe wears different colors to represent their ancestors and keeps the tradition moving. The Pa-Oh Tribe in the Kyauk Su village wears black with vivid orange and red accents.

It’s with the Pa-Oh tribe we stayed one night during our 3 day trek to Inle Lake. We slept on the floor of the second floor in a bamboo hut. All Bamboo huts are structured the same, people sleep on the second floor and the ground floor is for buffalo, chickens and all other animals. While sleeping I heard buffalos breathing and their heartbeat.

Of course it was Iza who tried the betel with the locals while sitting on the floor in the kitchen. We spoke English they spoke a foreign dialect. Thankfully we had July, our guide who was also the translator. — The betel tasted like shit at first but then I got used to it. —  Iza later told me. — However her face said it all.

In their tribe, if there is a single girl living in the house, guys will come to show off their best ways. Hoping that the girl will choose them as her mate. — I like this tribe, the woman have the power.

No TV, no cell phones, no electricity, just candle light dinner. Dirty, stinky outhouse with no toilet paper and a bucket of water to flush down. No shower, water is precious. Cleaning is done near the river.

The older couple from Danu Tribe with whom we had lunch with, claimed that being single is the best way. — No one to control you — said the older lady. Then they assumed we have good education, and are very smart if we were not married.

The Experience.
How about a break, a break in the road? Literally. We drive, there is a road, then there is no road and the bus drives though a dried up river, then there is the road again. We swing left, we swing right. She puked, he is puking, and the kid is just finished puking. —  Shit I am about to fucking puke too, only my window doesn’t open. — The monk behind us keeps talking in broken English. He smiles, I smile he talks, I say — What? Say that again? — I smell a cigarette — Is someone smoking? Who the hell is smoking? — I look around for the cancer and I find the helpless junkie in a need of a fix. Car fumes are making Iza semi-conscious. She is in, she is out she is about to pass out. It’s dark, hot, humid, dusty, and stinky. We have 8 more hours to go, and we will complete our 168km ride to Mandalay from Inle Lake.

We arrived to Tachileik by plane to pick up our permit and cross the boarder to Thailand. Tourists are not allowed to cross from Taunggyi to Tachileik by land, it’s the opium galore reproduction. Tachileik is the border crossing city, is knows as the Golden Triangle city.

Sitting waiting patiently, we heard a knock on the door. — Hello, my boss would like to talk with you at the office — said one of the guys who works at the MTT office, an government run tourist agency, and who surprisingly showed up at our hotel. He was sent by his boss to search for us in all of the guesthouses.

— Or did he just come straight here knowing and monitoring our every move?

It was two days earlier from picking up the permit we walked impatiently to the office. — I am sorry but at this time the government denied your permit to cross the boarder to Thailand. — said his boss, and didn’t even made an eye contact. I had to sit down, as I felt dizzy from the news. — What do you mean the government denied the permit? We just paid $100 to fly here, just so you can inform us that we can’t cross the boarder. — I said as calm as I could. After few minutes of mainly us talking, we realized that there is no point of arguing. We had to fly back to Yangon and leave the country by plane. We were meters away from Thailand, from Chian Rai, where we would have taken transport to Laos. Instead we were denied and had to back track to Bangkok to take an overnight train to Laos. We lost $300 because the government felt like denying our permit.

— It must be our blog, our pictures, they Googled us. — Said Iza, who few weeks earlier read that Burma’s government really checks who enters their country. If you are a journalist, photographer the chances of receiving a visa to Burma are slim. Frustrated and pissed off, we left Tachileik and never looked back.

Best Part of Burma.
Additional to Bagan, Inle Lake and tribe life, the best part of Burma is the smiling people, their organic veggies, and the rawness of survival.

Yes, do go and visit this bitter, raw and organic country. It’s an experience.

click here to see pics.

Myanmar (Burma)