Mike's photo adventure weblog

Mike's photo adventure weblog: November 2010

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Four Floors in a Fine City (Singapore, Update #7)

Zero Stars, Insufficient Jets
During my last week in Myanmar I received 2 emails from JetStar, urgently advising me that my flight Singapore-Perth had changed it's flight number. I scanned the itinerary and confirmed my flight leaving Yangon hadn't changed. So when I arrived at the Yangon airport to see my flight was cancelled, I wasn't impressed. And there wasn't even a JetStar representative to tell me why! I got put into a hotel across the street, and festered there all day until my Myanmar Airways flight the next morning. Interestingly enough, there wasn't a single Burmese staff or pilot on the so-called "Myanmar Airways" flight. They were all French! I wasn't sure whether this was an upgrade or not.

After my three day recovery from Burma in Singapore I was flying back to Perth. I went to the airport early to try and score some compensation for my mistreatment in Yangon.  I showed up at the JetStar counter to watch my Perth flight status change from "Check-In Open", to "Cancelled".  No. Joke.

I usually wouldn't mind, but there was a problem: I had a dental operation the next morning in Perth. My dentist was going on holidays the following day, so I couldn't reschedule. And my medical insurance to pay for this $1300 procedure was expiring a few days later, since I quit my job.  So I could not be delayed.

There were 30 angry people at the desk around me, and 100 more coming, who no doubt had 130 great reasons why they also needed to be in Perth the next day. So I set phasers to "maximum charm", and took aim. My first target, a nonchalant young female employee, told me the only other flight to Perth was full.  I gave up on her, she wasn't going to help me. I quietly determined the manager, caught his name, and when he finished his phone call (reserving 100 rooms at a hotel!), I politely asked for a minute of his time to explain my situation.  He said he'd try, and told me to wait behind a French woman in line. Her story was rather eventful: Her Mexican boyfriend had poor visa advice from JetStar staff, so when they landed in Bangkok without a visa he was thrown into the detention center for hours, awaiting deportation. They were sent to Singapore, where he also had no visa, and was promptly chucked in another detention center. If they didn't get on the plane to Perth (where they did possess visas) he'd be spending the night in the communal cell with 40 other guests, some of whom had been rotting there for months. And they'd even charge him $25 for the accommodation.  We all got on the flight, but not without a couple more suspenseful hours, and an enormous delay and re-routing due to volcanic ash.  I was 10 minutes late for my dentist.

Three Weeks and Three Thousand Kilometers
While Jon and I were trekking in the northwest Vietnam highlands, we stopped for lunch in a trailside hut, and met two women our age who were lawyers from London.  We joked and chatted awhile, exchanged emails, and went our separate ways. (Ours to Burma, theirs down Vietnam, up to Hong Kong, and over to Bangkok). 
Fast forward 3 weeks, and 3000 kilometers. I'm walking along the waterfront in Singapore, a city of 5 million people. Two nice looking ladies come walking towards me, and they looked a bit familiar.
I stopped. Slowly removed my sunglasses. And stared in disbelief. And they did the same. It was my two friends from Sapa. Unexpected and unlikely encounters are one of the highlights of traveling. 

No Durians on the Train
They call Singapore "A Fine City", because the government keeps the city clean and orderly, by prohibiting many things and fining those who offend. You'll get fined for possessing chewing gum, littering, smoking almost anywhere, jaywalking, drugs (even if they're only in your bloodstream), pornography, or failing to flush public toilets. But if you overstay your visa you don't get a fine -- instead, they cane you.

Mod Oz
Surprisingly there were a lot of Australian establishments around Singapore. There's even one restaurant called 'Fremantle Port' -- that's the port city on the coast where I live!  When I walked past one expensive restaurant advertising fine Australian cuisine, I laughed. I didn't even know we had that in Australia! It must mean really nice toast with gourmet Vegemite.
Though in seriousness, "Mod Oz" (Modern Australian) food has plenty of Asian influences, so it's interesting that now it's spun around 360 degrees back to Asia**  I think I'll start a restaurant in Australia, improving upon Modern Australian food from Singapore. I'll call my cuisine "Postmodern Australian".

The most posh entertainment and shopping area in Singapore is on Orchard Road, where you'll find Armani, Cartier, Burberry, Chanel, Prada, and the most expensive hotels. I had been 3 days without being called 'handsome', so I needed an ego boost. I went for a walk around the one mall on Orchard Road that stands out from the rest: Orchard Towers. This mall is famously known as "Four Floors of Whores". Every other shop is a massage parlour. And after a 10 minute walk I had 15 women compliment my appearance. Perhaps the most sad yet unsurprising observation about the mall was that on the 2nd floor, nestled between the highest density of brothels, I found The Aussie Bar.

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The moving platforms and escalators of Singapore operate just slightly faster than in anywhere else I've been. It's subtle, but I like it.  I'm a bit less subtle: Take a look at my finished photo album from the trip by clicking the thumbnail above.

Thanks everybody for reading, responding, and commenting on my updates and photos. I hope you enjoyed these chapters in my ongoing global adventures.


**Another cross-cultural fusion story: Ramen noodles originated in China hundreds of years ago. But after returning Japanese soldiers from WW2 in China set up restaurants at home, they became popular in Japan, and in 1958 instant ramen was invented there. Cheap manufacturing meant that the Japanese ramen production eventually moved to China. (At this point we have Japanese-style Chinese noodles, made in China for Japan). And before long the Chinese became huge fans of ramen too. They now consume 50% of the world's ramen and nine times more than Japan.    

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Smoking Monks and Criminal Comedy (Myanmar, Update #6)

Laughing All The Way to Prison
Last week Myanmar had its first "elections" in 20 years. The news anchor for the state television channel assured me they would be "free and fair", but with the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi still under house arrest (where she's been for 14 of the past 20 years, after winning the last election in a landslide!) nobody doubts the unfairness of the election. People are so paranoid around the country to speak out that the response we heard repeatedly was, "I don't like the government. But I cannot say anything else. You know," then their eyes would dart side-to-side. At this point I'd make the "zippered-lip" motion, and they would nod knowingly.  A political comedy trio called The Moustache Brothers we went to see in Mandalay has served a dozen years in prison between them, just for telling jokes about the government.

The ruling party even created an election propaganda sitcom which I watched last week with my hotelier. The plot was basically a lot of normal people, experiencing normal problems, and the ruling military party solving them.  (As an aside: the commercials are hilarious. We saw the same few celebrities hired to sing and dance before green screens, to advertise five different competing instant coffee brands, in consecutive ads! This was followed by the same celebrities advertising fertiliser!) I'm not really sure what the point of this election was, since everyone both in and out of Myanmar know it's a farce. Not one person we met cared about the election, except the few who dutifully planned to vote by spoiling their ballot. Myanmar would need an internal propaganda machine rivaling China's if they were to convince the local populace they were getting a fair election. And funnily enough, China just commended the dictatorship of Myanmar for their successful elections.

Upper Class 
The government owns all the trains here, one major reason not to ride them. And they also profit handsomely from foreigners with hefty prices (required in USD), often 3x the cost of a bus ride.  But I love watching out the window of trains the countryside rolling past, unpaved and without choking exhaust. So when I found a train cheaper than the bus, and went for it.  (With the government selling billions of teak-wood lumber to Thailand, and oil to China, I don't think me abstaining from one train ride could collapse the regime) I chose upper class, since I still had a searing headache from my four-day illness, and having come directly from a 14-hour bus ride I was in no mood to spend a further 11 hours on straight-backed wooden benches, with children swinging from luggage racks, people piled high around me with no concept of personal space.
I walked down the platform past all the 'ordinary class' cars (and in the truest Aussie sense of the word, they were) to my 'upper class' car. Comparing carefully, the only changes to upper class were thin vinyl coverings on the straight-backed wooden benches... and the label 'upper class' outside the coach. The trains were in the worst condition I've ever ridden. Sometimes the vertical oscillations in the car were so great that everyone's bums had become bouncing basketballs. And the horizontal violence was so sudden and sharp, I imagined the train could derail itself at any moment. When I couldn't even stand up, the food vending women continued to gracefully walk the aisles, stepping over bodies, balancing heavy loads on their heads. The walls and ceilings were destroyed from years of water damage, with nonfunctional wiring hanging everywhere, filthy stained floors in tatters with some holes to the tracks, and every door and window rattled to pieces. Every original latch, on every door and window, was broken, replaced by sliding bolts, of which most were broken. Past me walked an unbroken parade of vendors selling coffee (instant, of course), eggs, corn on the cob, betelnut, cigarettes, fish heads, fried crickets, and some cold meat stew ladled from a punch bowl.
Adjacent to me sat an old monk peacefully, smoking a huge cigar. Directly across sat "the shadow", a woman dressed head to toe in a black burqa (she even had black socks with black sandals) who, for 6 hours, did not eat, drink, stand, speak, or do anything to prove she wasn't a statue. Out the window I looked down the train to see passengers sprinkling a gentle, uninterrupted snowfall of litter. We clickity-clacked past abandoned platforms with stray dogs trying vigorously to increase the local puppy population. 

By the time we arrived on the outskirts of Mawlamyine, it was night. Burmese cities have few streetlights, and no electricity to spare; and my train had no functioning lights inside the coach. As the train inched the final few kilometers in complete darkness, I was the only passenger left on my coach, until a few homeless children ran up and climbed aboard. They searched for food or valuable trash in the thick blackness of my car, creeping around me like rubbish-seeking ninjas. (Anywhere else I may have feared they'd rob me, but Myanmar is extremely safe for tourists. Remember that we all must carry our entire trip's funds with us, so locals know the average foreigner has $500 in their pocket. Yet there are no reported cases to Lonely Planet or Wikitravel of people being mugged or robbed.)     

In Mawlamyine there's really only one place for foreigners to stay, and they generally all leave town together via the twice-weekly slow boat to Hpa-An, so the eight of us in the city at the time got to know each other pretty well.  We'd meet randomly in the streets, have dinner together, tell stories on the steps of our hotel, and share the locals we met (who were also eager to meet, teach, and learn from us). Two of my fellow tourists had very interesting histories. 
One older professor from Adelaide went to China as a child with his Ambassador father. He met Chairman Mao! In the 90's he went back, to teach English to the highest officials of the Communist Party, including the President and Prime Minister.  Another younger friend from Russia told me stories of his various schemes to avoid mandatory military service (including drinking a whole bottle of vodka, then getting his friend to stamp on his leg to tear a ligament); and his adventures in capitalism and near-imprisonment during the economic liberalisation of perestroika. He built a large business selling pirated CDs which caught the attention of Microsoft's international piracy crackdown, who very nearly made him an "example".

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I managed to leave Yangon** (but not without some complications) just three days before one of the most important days in their last 20 years: The release of Nobel Laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. Whoops!  
I hope my timing was a bit better when it comes to my photographs. Have a look by clicking the thumbnail above.  


**Many news broadcasters have referred to Yangon as Myanmar's capital. This is wrong. Upon the advice of astrologers, the military dictators moved the capital — at great expense — in 2005 to Nay Pwi Taw ("Royal Capital"), an empty arid plain 300km north of Yangon.  

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Models for the World, and Soft Rock Ballads (Myanmar, Update #5)

Hold On
In Burma, new cars are as rare as free-speech. In Mawlawmyine (formerly Moulmein), they still use awesome old Chevrolet trucks from WW2.  Besides a few Land Rovers driven by the Generals or the politically well-connected, cars are from the 80s or earlier. And most have right-hand driver setup. This wouldn't be so strange, except that somehow since British colonisation, Myanmar has managed to switch to driving on the right side of the road. This makes even the mundane task of getting on a bus exciting; since you're stepping into traffic. And even better, it adds a new dimension to overtaking other vehicles; since the driver can't see oncoming traffic until his entire vehicle, and all of its nervous passengers, are looking straight at it.

Myanmar people are avid carpoolers. This makes greenies like me smile (if I don't see the blue smoke billowing from the tailpipe). We've traveled in a regular pickup truck carrying 30 people, plus luggage.  A local joked that, "from far away you cannot see any pickup. Only people, coming towards you."    

The Path to Nirvana
My last day wandering alone in Mandalay I had a random string of really nice encounters. Outside a Buddhist temple a kind woman vending food served me a delicious meal of rice, soya and green beans, and tomato onion prawn curry. When I asked the price she replied "present" and refused payment. Minutes later I was looking for a pickup ride home and stopped to help a man unload the roof of a bus. It wasn't going where I needed but the driver insisted I board, and a woman told me that the driver would make a detour to drop me off. He refused my fare, too!  When I got off the bus I went to buy some street pancakes from an Indian lady who sells them in a tiny, lively alley neighbourhood we found by accident the day before.  The pancake lady's only English speaking friend, amid a chorus of giggles from the neighbourhood women and children, proposed to me!  Afterwards, I walked past some friendly teenage girls outside a clothing store, and they waved me in to chat (with more giggling). One girl opened a handwritten lyric book, and soon we were all singing "My Heart Will Go On". Later when the girls called me beautiful I immediately protested, "No, not beautiful. I'm 'handsome'."  I thought I was having a lucky day, or people were just on a karma spree, but that day marked a turning point from the standard developing world kindness to a whole new level that puts Burma in the company of Nepal, Laos, and Iran (places where I know or have heard the people are outrageously kind and generous.)

The Quest for Nyi Nyi
I get really excited about random challenges when traveling, like trying to find a backpack repairman in Amsterdam, or a hidden mountain temple in Korea, or a specific conman in Zambia. (I only succeeded in one of those challenges, by the way). My last night in Mandalay I met a Polish girl who was trying to reach her young tour guide from Inle Lake, which was my next destination. She said everybody pretends not to know this guy "Nyi Nyi" because he's a freelance undermining tour agencies, so she didn't think I'd find him. So I told her I surely would, and she wrote a letter for me to deliver. (I didn't steam it open but am almost certain it was a love note). The town was so small I had great fun bouncing around the social networks. After asking a few people, the first person who knew Nyi Nyi said, "Oh yes! I know her. She got married and moved away 4 years ago." I kept looking.

While chatting with a freelance guide about the fine art of eating betelnut, I learnt that Nyi Nyi's father-in-law sells sandals in the market. I went to check it out, and found that there were more than a few old men selling sandals in the market. The friendliest of all them called out to me and after chatting for 5 minutes I was feeling lucky, and asked if he knew Nyi Nyi. "Why yes. This is his wife," he said pointing to his daughter. Jackpot!  We arranged to meet at their house for dinner that evening.  Funnily enough, later that day I befriended an interesting Brazilian whom I spent a lot of time with over the next few days. This Brazilian told me he had just met Nyi Nyi on the street, as Nyi Nyi was looking for me. Small town!  

We were invited to so many locals' homes for tea or food, always refusing payment. I spent hours in Phyu Phyu's 'bamboo hut' sitting on the floor with her mother and sisters, playing with the kids (one of whom I'm now named after), drinking tea, teaching English, learning Burmese, and watching the women kick out their rambling, incomprehensible, drunken father when he got too loud or began to smoke. He actually hadn't lived there since they threw him out 5 years earlier, but only visits for meals, and lives with his drinking buddies down the road.  Burmese men love their whisky.

And I love that town. In the afternoon people would start playing Chinlon, an incredible sport like volleyball, but only feet and heads can contact the ball, which is made of rattan. The leaping bicycle-kick ball spikes over the net were spectacular to watch. At night guys would sit out on the street singing and playing guitar beautifully, from their stool, doorway, or parked motorbike.  It was a shame I had to leave, because only two weeks later was the famous Fire Balloon festival I only saw video of: Unmanned hot air balloons loaded with fireworks -- fuses burning -- take off from the center of a crowd of thousands. The balloons don't usually make it up very high, and sometimes are still on the ground, when they start firing thousands of colourful fireballs in every direction, often directly into the half applauding, half panicking crowd. It's a pyromaniac's dream!

Sensory Overload
I like to generalise a country into the most common stimuli experienced by each of my senses during a trip. Here goes.

Thanakaw (facial cream/sunblock worn by all women) and longji (like a sarong, worn by everyone) decorating the most beautiful people in the world. If height didn't matter, a fifth of the young women here could be models. They are stunning.

Sound: Clipping speakers blaring deafening music, (because it keeps the bad 'nat', or spirits, away). And what they play on every bus ride, which seems like the only genre of music: nauseating, repetitive soft-rock ballads with low-budget karaoke video accompaniment, often out of sync.

: "Chinese Tea" which is drank by everyone, everywhere, for free. This is in contrast to Burmese tea, which isn't free, and often comes from a "3-in-1 mix" packet (unfortunately).

Smell: Cooking oil, from the ubiquitous roadside deep fryers. That, or open sewers (unfortunately).

My butt, numb from sitting on long trips in a space designed for people that live in a country where five-feet is 'tall'.

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I've barely managed with all these internet restrictions, but have uploaded a few more photos to Flickr, with descriptions. The new ones are mostly watercolour. (You'll see). Click the thumbnail above.

-Mao Kan Tu (Lucky Man)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Burmese Days (Myanmar, Update #4)

As expected, we've had a few snags trying to surf the internet since arriving in Myanmar over a week ago. We've barely even waded in it -- I'd call it splashing. During the few minutes each hour that the internet is actually working and assuming there's power, we're still restricted by government firewall from accessing Yahoo (which owns Flickr), Facebook, any real news websites, any website with 'blog' in it, and much more. And the speeds make me reflect positively on my 14.4-kbps modem days.

Besides the strange VIPs on our flight to Burma, including a Kim Jong Il look-alike with wiry, 15cm-long neck hair; and a clan of spoiled, stiletto-heeled Asian bimbos with iPhones 4, our flight was uneventful. The captain informed us that we were landing on schedule, 30 minutes earlier than our itinerary stated. So our airline obviously wasn't aware of Burma's 30-minute time zone shift. We'd have a wait for our hotel pickup.

After customs, we were met by an overly-friendly Burmese man, dressed like almost every Burmese, in a plaid longyi (like a sarong). He welcomed us warmly to Burma, but informed us that our hotel always forgets to pick up their passengers. He graciously offered to take us in his taxi. He was even kind enough to tell all the other backpackers the same thing. Taxi drivers are same everywhere. Fortunately the rest of the people in this country are unimaginably kind.

Something Fishy
The longyi's have no pockets, but we've seen many creative workarounds. A fisherman we noticed tied his longyi with a front pouch, where we dropped all of his still-wriggling fish.  When playing their favourite street game of wiffle-ball hackey-sack, men make their longyi's into shorts, with a sumo-esque strip of fabric pulled underneath and tucked behind. And when carrying wallets they tuck it into their waists against their lower back. I noticed the few trousered men, despite having pockets to carry their wallet, still carry it the same way.  

Colonial Charm
As usual I love noticing the quirks of a country that make traveling here like nowhere else I've been. They are one of only three countries officially on the imperial system (keeping good company with the USA, and Liberia). They changed their flag (didn't you hear?) just two weeks ago to a very post-colonial-African combination of yellow, green and red stripes, with a big star in the middle. (Ghana, don't hold your breath for royalties). The power never goes more than a few hours without interruption, even in the largest cities. So in front of nearly every building in Yangon and Mandalay on the sidewalks citizens have installed large diesel generators. With these oily monstrosities, mangy stray dogs, cars without headlights, piles of rubbish ready for burning, and few streetlights, you've got one filthy, pedestrian-unfriendly obstacle course.  

The capital city, Yangon, is a charmless place. The old colonial buildings are all filthy, dilapidated, grossly stained with mold from the humidity. Jon likened the appearance to some post-apocalyptic city after 20 years occupied by zombies. Our hotel was near one particularly enormous, even palatial, colonial estate in disrepair. We noticed behind two walls of barb-wire fence, separated by an open sewer (the moat, as it were), some squatters washing clothes, evidently living in this burnt-out mansion.  But then we noticed they were washing their police uniforms!

Mandalay, the second largest city was only mildly better. We visited the nightmarket, which sounded great, except that due to road works, at its center was an open sewer. And when we arrived, the power was out (surprise surprise) so everyone's table was shrouded in darkness. We couldn't see what anyone was selling!

Currency Manipulation
In the past 50 years the government has thrice declared without prior notice certain currency denominations to be worthless. In 1985 they even demonetised three quarters of the country's currency (the 20, 50 and 100 notes) and created 25, 35, and 75 notes (because it was the dictator's 75th birthday). Two years later they scrapped those silly denominations and replaced them with 15, 45, and 90 notes (because the dictator's favourite number was 9). And two years later the current General took the country in a coup, and brought in the current sensible denominations. In fact I'm sure many of those 1989 notes are still in circulation -- most bills are so old, torn, taped up and filthy, that they're barely readable. Some bills are so irrepairably shredded, they are kept in plastic sleeves. Coins would be a sturdy solution, but we haven't seen one yet. (People still transact with bills worth 2 cents). The banking system is disconnected from the world, so all ATM and credit cards are useless. Once in the country, the only way to obtain more money, is to leave the country.  We brought of all our (slightly under-budgeted) money in crisp US bills, which we knew we had to exchange for Kyat. Since the black market rate per dollar is about 900, and the official exchange rate about 6 (yes, six), we would opt for the dark side.  And since the largest bill is worth about $1, we'd be walking out of our blackmarket transaction like drug lords (with bricks of money).

And the transaction went like this: A really friendly Indian-Burmese man found us in the market, offering us a better rate than others, with a plausible backstory about why his boss can give a better rate than anyone else. (Tyre business in Thailand needs USD).  We met his 'boss', made jokes and talked at length. His boss even told us how happy he was we stayed at the YMCA, because they taught him his suburb english, and he's endlessly grateful. In short, these guys gave us 'good vibes', and I've learned that in these parts of the world, that's crucial.

The money arrived, and two new men replaced our 'good vibe' friends, to conduct the transaction. These new men were edgy, unfriendly, and had sinister and (unfortunately common) teeth, blood-red and rotting, from betel-nut addiction. These guys gave us 'bad vibes'.  We counted out every single bill (nearly 400 of them; remember their largest bill is $1), inspecting and replacing the worst ones, over a tense twenty minutes. Satisfied, we extricated the USD from our money belts. When they saw the bills, the men let out a choreographed groan. Our serial numbers were not good!  Oh, just imagine our bad luck! But these kind men would do us a favour, and take the bills at 10% lower rate. In marveled disgust at their dishonesty (and saddened that this idiotic trick must actually work on some tourists), we walked out and found a 'good vibe' Sino-Burmese man to change our money. He warned us about one of the other scams he called 'fast hands', because the money changers count the bills in front of you yet somehow you end up missing up to a third of them. We met a couple Canadians who lost $80 to this.  The best part of the whole transaction was when we saw the original con-man on the street later, we mentioned casually that somebody else took our 'bad serial numbers' without question, for the same great rate he was offering. It was almost worth our wasted time just to wipe that grin off his face.

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I've (finally) managed to get some internet access that's lasted more than 5 minutes. The election next week has caused the government to lock down web access for hours at a time. With proxy workarounds to get past the government firewalls, I've been able to access Flickr. I hope you find my efforts worthwhile (click the thumbnail above)

Thwa me naw,