Burma, Chiang Mai, Mae Sot, Thailand, Yangon

Ride on man, right on!

Geeez.. these days I get around…

After only oneday in Mandalay I head back to Yangon with a night bus. Arrival in the early morning. I buy a ticket to the Thai border town MaeSod and wait at the station the whole day. Put up the hammock there. People smiling and laughing. Them Burmese homies never ever seen a guy spending a day in a hammock at the highway bus station.

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The station with the yellow banners... that's where i put up my hammock for 13 hours

It’s too hot to do anything anyway. To chill is hardcore in the lyrical and impossible in the literal sense. I am there the entire day reading, sleeping, getting out in the heat to take some steps and drink something, get some food into the system, then stroll back home to the hammock. In the evening the bus leaves with 3 hours delay. It’s the third night in a row spend in a train/bus.

I arrive in Maesod in the heat of the day. Within ten minutes i find a bro to let me call Albert who lives here. We meet at Heaven Café next to the border bridge. Until he arrives I take a quick shower Thai style at the coffeeshop toilet and order a chocolates-strawberry shake.

Twenty minutes afterwards he arrives. We exchange stories for a while after which he drives me to a great vegetarian food place. Oh how good it is to eat safe and tasty food again after two weeks of Burmese filthy and boring white rice fodder! Albert brings me to the bus station at Maesod. The bus to Tak leaves in only ten minutes. From there I will take a bus to Chiang Mai and arrive in the evening. Meet my friend Jean who let’s me stay at his place for a couple of days.

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Backyard of Jean's place at Chiang Mai. Bathroom hut.

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Jean's dwellings. I sleep upstairs. It smells good. Lynchee trees all around. Lovely neighbours selling textiles.

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Burma, Mandalay

Up by train and down by bus

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Sule Pagoda (view from my ghost... ehm.. guesthouse in Yangon)

The last 3 days were up and down in more than one sense. This is because I took a night train from Yangon to Mandalay. This is because the officers and ticket vendors and random people told me it would be possible to go from Mandalay or Kalaw to Tachileik. This is because I asked them if it was possible to cross the border to Thailand there. This is because I don’t want to take a plane if it is not necessary. The train ride south to north was not half as horrible as a friend had experienced and described it. Yes, it was up and down and jumpy and loud. But if you book a sleeper train ticket (12,700 kyats) and close the windows before you sleep, take earplugs and lie down on the bunk it is possible to get some sound sleep until the morning no doubt about it.

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At Shwe Dagon Pagoda

When I arrive in Mandalay in the morning the info-man at the train station tells me it is not possible for foreigners to go to Tachileik. I’d have to take a plane if I want to cross the border to Maisai (and go to Chiang Mai from there). I do not (want to) believe him. I ask him to call the station in Kalaw. He says there is no telephone. What? His cellphone is put right there between us. I sit down and take a breather. This is all a bit too much. I go out and get a scooter taxi. A nice pal named U Mo says ‘Bus from here to Tachileik? Yes, no problem, let’s go!’ He doesn’t have a clue… but he is a good driver. He gets me to two bus stations and also stops at a local vendor booth but all the people we meet just shoulder-shruggingly shake their head: Locals yes. No foreigners. Government says too dangerous. Not a peaceful area. Ok then. Let’s go back to Yangon! So after I have bought a ticket back to Yangon for the same day (as i am at the BUS station i get a night coach this time) my dear driver U Mo brings me to Mandalay Hill. That’s where i intend to spend my day. Go hiking, meditating, smile at it all and take it easy.

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Fruit market, Yangon. I passed it while i was looking for a retreat centre to spend some days there. In the end, I checked in at Okinawa Guesthouse. Just like a good tourist is supposed to do in Myanmar.

In retrospect, I see there was anger, of course, and initially i was mad at all those Yangon officials for not knowing what’s going on in the north… for passing on wrong information… for not taking the time to make a single phone call for me… and instead of saying they dont know… just telling me: Yes you can can! No problem! Eeeasy. But what use being angry? What use being mad? I only hurt myself. Dukkha myself. Better to just accept I am in Mandalay, use this day wisely and go back to Yangon in a couple of hours… I am not the first and I won’t be the last to go astray from time to time. There is so much mis- and disinformation around in this world that what I am going through is harmless. Maybe it even turns out to be a boon? Who knows?! I walk up to Mandalay Hill after a delicious meal and a fresh sugar cane juice. I take several breaks and rest in the shade. Siesta Siesta. Up at the peak I meditate for an hour or so and then walk down the staircase, this time to the west side of the hill.

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Check the heavenly and worldly news in "Mandalay Daily" before I go up Mandalay Hill

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A journey of a thousand steps ... and so on and so on

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Pali canon on stone tablets. There is a prk with hundreds and hundreds of them. And yes, they're carved both sides.

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View from Mandalay Hill Peak

After some 30 mins I reach the foot of the hill again, get picked up by a scooter taxi passing me.

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This is an all-in-one photo. I only realised after I'd taken it: The glaring sun. The dirt. The garbage. The walls. The ornaments. The nature. The stupas.

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At the foot of Mandalay Hill, five minutes before i get picked up by U Mossi.

The driver: U Mossi. It is sunset. He brings me to Mahamuni Pagoda. When I arrive at the famous site of clock tower and Mahamuni image it is dark already. About 7 pm. U Mossi says he will wait for me to take me to the bus station. My bus leaves at 8.30. What to say about it? It is the last ‘sightseeing’ attraction in Burma for me. When I walk in I do not recognise there is a threshold and walk in without taking my shoes off. Immediately, I am the centre of attention. People stare at me. Tell me what’s wrong. I do as I am told. When I walk in some monks want to take some photos with me. We share via Bluetooth. I watch the people bow down to the pompous golden Buddha image. Normally I prostate as well but this time I cannot. I find it ridiculous. If it were not for the idea that they are training humility, generosity and letting go of self believe it would be the same show as with the Christians and Moslems and all the other worshippers of the world who go to a ‘holy’ site to bow down three times, pray for welfare and leave some money to keep the story going and the wheel turning. If that is what religion is about I can do without. So much of it has the aspect of business – or is it just me that’s highlighting it? To make a general statement – and to state the obvious from a most personal perspective: this Buddhism/Psychology stuff really has the tendency to reflect/blow everything back upon the beholder. It can easily be used as an almost flawless defence mechanism. I just say it depends on one’s view and deflect any criticism. If someone accuses me of being greedy I tell him he only sees the money. If someone says I am this or that I tell her she is fixed on this or that. Easy. And wicked.

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Railroad station, Yangon

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Burma, Chaungtha, Sharing

Exploring Chaungtha

Given that there was no free room or the owners had no license to host foreigners I listened to a man who suggests the Tourist Police as people who might be helpful. Tonight is the third night since the kind police at the InfoPol Station as I have come to call it grant me a safe haven.

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Tourist InfoPol

Chaungtha is a crowded place on that weekend in particular:
Friday, May 1st is Mayday.
Saturday is Vesakh and FullMoon
Sunday is Sunday.

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The sign translates circa: 'We all must die. So be nice.'

I arrive on Saturday afternoon. I get only a wooden floor to sleep there but hey, I have slept on concrete slab and straw mat and on an inflatable mattress in a park… ! And these police – I was inclined to ask them for their badge cuz i couldn’t believe it – they were so incredibly hospitable and friendly. I think I mentioned this in another post already.

On Monday most of the people have left. Buses to Pathein and Yangon were packed with local tourists. It really is a place set up mostly for the locals.

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I found some gold on the beach!

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Three huts, a child, and a hotel

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Yep. That's a lotta rubbish.

Across the place where I found shelter (Tourist Info) there is a souvenir shop. The owner is a most helpful and honest man. His name is U Aung Shwe. We became friends during my short stay there. I visited him time and again. He took me on his scooter to show me around the place and drive me north of the town. It was also Aung Shwe who arranged a bus ticket to Yangon for me. The most comfortable bus ride I ever had. And it brought me downtown, not the Dagon-Eya Bus Station in the Northwest of the 10mio. metropolis.

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U Aung Shwe shows me around Chaungtha Beach with his motorbike

I can hardly believe I have left Pa-Auk Tawya Monastery only a week ago. It seems veeeery long ago. The trip from Hpa-An and the night incognito there… Before that, the three days in Hpa-An with many impressions and many surprises… I remember well that boy running after our tuktuk as we are about to leave the water lake to give us two cold cans of Chang for our ride!

Three nights in Hpa-An. One night in Yangon. One in Myaungmya. Three nights in Chaungtha Beach. Very different experiences. As diverse as it gets.

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Burma, Sharing

Life jumps, señor

There are times when I’d rather avoid having a close look at decay, or change, if you like. In the last few days, I try to go where I can see blossoms spectacularly blooming in rich colours, enjoying nature, fresh air (possible also in Yangon!) and a good talk with a friend. Does this mean I am not able to be fully at ease with what is – because I tend to approach the more convenient or say, the brighter side of life? Of course it is more agreeable to sleep in a comfortable bed in a bamboo bungalow than to rest for some hours on the dusty playing ground in the midst of Yangon concrete jungle.

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Bamboo Guesthouse terrace

There is a difference: Thursday… Sleeping on the ground with garbage all around and mozzies buzzing and mice scavenging and and empty stomach and the thought I might be stumbled upon by a bunch of drunken rowdies who beat me up for nothing. Friday: Sleeping on an optimally soft-tight mattress after a strong shower and a rich dinner with lovely newfound friends, feeling the air-con in the bamboo-rattan cottage and having no worries at all, and a bus ticket to the beach for the next day. Of course, big difference!

How is it that in less than 24 hours the sisters fortune & fate can change so much? Without Daniel being unreachable I’d never have gotten up at 4:30 and met Kyi Thu Shein two hours after that. Had never asked him about the bus. Had never been told about his hometown Myaungmya. Without that night in the dark alley, without that time spent without bed nor cover – I didn’t dare to put up the newly repaired hammock as I tried to remain hidden) nor shower nor dinner I would not be where I am right now. That’s a fact. I don’t say that it brought me here. But I dare say there are conditions and causes for every little thing we experience – and what we make of it.

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On our way to the Forest temple

Eventually, that’s also what lurks behind the words that life is what you make it. This is exactly what Ajahn Chan and all the teachers around the world try to tell us: happiness arises because there was unhappiness before and vice versa. Changing circumstances are what makes us happy or unhappy. If there are no (apparent) changes we get bored or spaced out pretty soon, right? In other words, the reason we experience pleasure is that we felt unpleasant before and when we feel unpleasant it is just because we were oh so comfortable before. I got up this morning and found myself in a very different setting than the morning before. Very different. Almost opposite. This big change was what rendered me so very very happy.

I feel elated and thankful for anicca.

Impermanence really is the game to play.

Dhamma gladness adds to every chapter on the way.

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Ananas in its natural habitat

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U Aung Zin, Joe Ming, and me

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Burma, Sharing

Red Spit

The betel Burmese chew on, a piece of tobacco wrapped in a leaf with lime paste, powdered tobacco and something else…it gives their grin a touch of resident evil 4, ruins gums and teeth, leads to funny pronunciation and let’s them spit what looks like gore. This certainly is a fitting simile of a people who live in fear and who manage to cover that fear in an ever smiling way. A way, that is, that never ceases to amaze me. Now at least, it does not surprise me any longer. Every day there are reminders that there are authorities who have to be informed about my (almost) every step in this country. I can’t stay at a monastery because ‘it is too dangerous because of people outside’. I’d like a bus ticket. Passport, please. When did i arrive in Myanmar? When will I leave? Where did I sleep in Yangon that other night? Thus, it is only appropriate that people chew on this and belch and burp and pull up snot and spit out this gory red stuff wherever they go. Just to put the next piece into the mouth. So it comes that the streets of Burma are full of blood. I would do it, too, if it weren’t so disgusting at the beginning, the middle, and the end.

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Betel vendor at the bus station

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Betel leaves, tobacco, lime

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Burma, Chaungtha, Myaungmya

Burma Beach

On the way to Myaungmya I met two young monks in the bus. I just mention it. I won’t describe in detail what happened. It is my privilege as a (greenhorn) blogger to decide what to tell and what to conceal. I’d rather keep some things to myself and learn from them instead of publishing here what might all too easily be misunderstood. I reckon enough already of what I write is not understood at all. Still, I keep it as a kind of diary.

The story (let’s not forget all stories are made up of parts told and untold) serves to remind me that there are real monks and there are men in robes. Well, what else is new? you could say… Look, these two groups play their roles impeccably. One group represents Buddhism by adhering to its principles. Another group serves well to remain alert in order not be misled by outer appearances.

The bus driver is chewing betelnut. He got it from a fellow driver. Spits out the scarlet stuff every now and then. There are 15 people in the van. There is A/C but still I am sweating. Too many bodies crammed into a small space. This is how it is. We all carry it lightly. With a wave and a smile and some red saliva dripping from the lips we all get along a whole lot easier than we would with a grim face full of thanaka sunblock fighting against who knows what. One’s own grimness maybe? I mean, just take a quick look at the driver’s expression.

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No funny stuff: 'Is my damn road. Give way or I gonna eat ya!'

Be that as it may. After the bus ride to Pathein and to Chaungtha I encounter a wall of nos trying to find a place to sleep. ‘No foreigner license, sorry.’ ‘Full, sorry.’ ’40$, please’ (for a room with a plain mattress inside) … so having been thru some conversations running along these lines I find a helpful man who brings me to the tourist police. There I meet two Germans who find themselves in the same situation. The police helps us, provides shelter for the night and shower/toilet. For free. When I point out that I like it this move and that I am grateful to see the other side of police – to help and to serve – for once, he just smiles and says: ‘We take care of our foreigners.’ It turns out that it is the best that could have happened to me. I mean, is there a safer place than the tourist police station? and, Is there any place cheaper than free? I stay there for three nights. Seldom check out the beach cuz it’s too hot.

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Chaungtha Beach (3km north of town)

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Chaungtha Beach. One resort after another. Expensive.

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Burma

Old friend, new friend

This morning I wake up early. Stretched out on the self-inflatable mattress. I open my eyes. Find myself on a children’s playing ground in Yangon. The street lamp illuminating the court goes on and off. Trying to remain still and quiet. Mice are here. Sure. Mozzies, too. Bothering, not biting, though. Got my arms and feet and ankles covered in good old DEET. Good because it works. Old because it is still the same bottle I had bought in Vienna about half a year ago.

Before I got here I had tried to reach a friend I had met at Pa-Auk forest Monastery. He had offered me to stay at his place. Now that I am here it proves impossible to reach him. His phone is broken. Emails he ain’t answering. Stranded in this city, I feel truly homeless. The hotel I find charges $60 for a night. It is around midnight. Anyway the price is out of question and at this time doubly so. I decide to check out the park near Inya Lake. But after some 20 minutes after I have settled down there with all my stuff and laid down on the ground…police comes whistling and pushing people outta there. So annoying. Not easy having a good time. All the time there is talk of danger danger when the actual troublemakers are those who all the others ‘others’. There are no strangers really. But once you get it into your head that there is ‘us’ it is impossible to live in a world without ‘them’. It’s reciprocal or as the Old Man would have it, idapaccayatā, dependently co-arising phenomena.

Some youngsters say hi. I high them back. They ask me if I drink. I say yes, water, and show them my half-full bottle of life elixir. It turns out they are quite drunk and full mayhem. They have a friend who is a taxi driver. I tell them I do not want to go to a hotel. They start their talk of ‘dangerous, dangerous’. It seems impossible for them to imagine a scenario where a man with a backpack takes rest in a city without checking in somewhere.

Together we drive to a hotel. The receptionist says ‘no foreigners’. When I come back to the main entrance the taxi is gone. Good riddance! Nothing is more pestering (and humiliating for everyone involved) than people not able to help you but desperately trying to do so.

•••   •••   •••

From the corner I have chosen to be my resting place for a couple of hours I can see people passing by. They do not notice me. If they do, they do not seem to be bothered or about to bother me. I get up with the first lights turned on. I take a look at the time: 4:30 am. I pack up my mattress and bid farewell to the mice & mossies. They pose no threat. The only fear I have sometimes is caused by men’s behaviour.

I listen to the early voices and the birds cheerful chirping. A night in the streets of Yangon. I witness how the city awakens. Slowly slowly it is getting louder and more crowded. I feel a bit lost to be honest. And also cheerful. Depends on perspective. Always does. A new day arrives and I am up for it. It feels so fine to be up early. I check email. Maybe Daniel has answered in the meantime? As I assumed, no he has not. At the food court on Kan Street I have break the long fast. Rice again. Omelette. Then palata with beans. Tea. Sitting there I notice slight irritation arise. Also, it becomes clear that I can communicate effectively when I feel secure, happy and relaxed. On the other hand, as soon as I am pissed at something or someone I am seemingly unable to make myself understood. The more I try the more I get shaking heads, raised hands palms up, shrugging shoulders, smiling faces and sad eyes. When I am tense I make all the people around me tense as well.

•••   •••   •••

I start talking to the people around me. Ask some monks about the names of the vegetarian meals they have and then point to it, look at the maung (boy) who takes the order and say tabue (one). Easy. They leave soon. I stay and drink tea.

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The food court in front...

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... and the kitchen in the back

I don’t know my next step. I had planned to stay here in Yang on for some days but now that my host in spe is unreachable this option falls short of realisation. I simply do not know what to do next. So I drink tea. My neighbour at the next table looks like a busy man. Or maybe he is a student (a busy one)?

I tell my neighbour that I would like to take a bus to the west coast. Where does the bus to Pathein leave? Which bus terminal? How do I get there? and so on and so on. This gets the tongue rolling. His name is Kyi Thu Shein. He is 37 and works as a CEO of his own consultant company. Speaks Burmese, Japanese, English. He is very helpful. After a couple of minutes a man appears next to him. It turns out to be his personal driver. He seems to be in a hurry somehow, like he is treading air or trying to remind his sahib that they shouda be goin by now. Kyi Thu Shein suggests to bring me to the local bus station to go downtown. He asks the driver to stop at the ‘Royal White Elephant’ Hotel so that i can check WiFi email again. Daniel has not written back yet. So we start rolling. Soon it becomes clear that he actually gives me ride there. No need to take a bus. Well. This is only the start! I feel like a prince escorted to the best ticket vendor for a bus due west. During the ride I mention my work as an Ohashiatsu practitioner. My profession in Austria. He takes a detour to let me see Mary Chapman School for the Deaf – The Listening Eye. They learn to practice shiatsu there. Also manufacturing handicraft. Nice!

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Students learn shiatsu and handicraft here

Along the way we talk about staying at Myaungmya, his hometown. We drive to the ticket office downtown. First one: no more seats. Second one: Double price for foreigners. Another: Bus leaves at 12 pm. but at the far northwestern terminal. Hmm. It is perfectly clear for him to bring me there.

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About 45 minutes through heavy traffic. During this time my newfound friend makes all the necessary calls to prepare my visit.

The roads are so congested it sometimes appears better to take my bags and walk. But I stay seated, grateful for the air-conditioning and the protection from the exhaust fumes mixed with sand and fine dust outside. When we arrive Mr. Shein asks around and leads me to the right ticket office. I buy a ticket for Myaungmya. It is about 9am. Bus leaves in three hours. Until then, I eat a whole pineapple, cutting it up with a knife I borrow from one of the many shops and food stalls at the terminal. Some rice and beans again before departure. Yangon, see you later!

•••   •••   •••

At some point during the drive thru the concrete jungle to the bus terminal I was so astonished by the generosity and willingness to help, by the sheer unbelievable abundance from which my friend was giving… so inspiring… so grateful for that experience… I was moved to tears in this taxi. So friendly, so helpful and so hospitable! Beyond words.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart, my dear friend Mr. Sun-Shein!

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