Yangon Circle Line

I was drawn to Yangon Circle Line precisely because of the way Lonely Planet (2017) described it — that it can feel like traveling in a washing machine on spin cycle. I had dreamed of embarking on such a crazy adventure. At the end of the day, I did not experience much spinning sensation from the train ride. But I got something better. Far better.

Following the suggestion made by Lonely Planet, we decided to not do the entire three-hour, 30-mile circuit. Our plan was “if the train ride rocked and bounced us to the point of getting sick, we would get off at the 9th station. Otherwise, we would do it at the 12th station” (as if there was a huge geographical distance between the 9th station and the 12th station!). We were lucky enough to be seated as the train became crowded with both local people and curious tourists. My excitement grew bigger as the train left Yangon train station toward the next 37 stops. However, in contrast to my anticipation of a wild, head-spinning, back-and-forth-rocking train ride fantasy, the ride was slow and quite smooth. Though my expectation and reality did not match, I was not disappointed. I guess a much bigger portion of my attention and interest was focused on the lives that were unfolding right before my eyes, both the lives on the train and lives outside the train.

IMG_5614

Looking into lives through a window of Yangon Circle Line. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

On the train I carefully watched my fellow passengers. Sitting right next to me was a teenage boy who had his face adorned with Thanaka powder (I was wrong for thinking this traditional beauty secret was for the Burmese girls/women only). He seemed to be lost in his smartphone, but when I asked my sister to take a photo of me, he respectfully moved away from the frame (he was still in my photo but that’s just how I loved it). Standing close to where we were seated were three pretty young ladies. They all had shiny long black hair and were dressed very beautifully. They were probably out for their usual Sunday get-together with friends. As they were not talking to one another, I wondered if they were friends or they just happened to be standing close together. In fact, most of the passengers seemed to have activated their silent mode. Some looked as if they were engaged in some deep thinking. I wondered what was going through their minds. Some others were dozing off. The day must have felt long to them though it was not even 11AM. The sight of people — young, old, men, women, rich, poor, local people, and tourists alike — sporting colorful longyi was almost everywhere. When the train stopped at the designated stations, people selling food, snacks, water, fruit and who-knows-what-else climbed aboard the train trying to sell their offerings to the passengers. I found it tremendously fascinating to watch some of those sellers gracefully carried trays filled with their offerings over their heads. Not everyone could do that, I thought.

IMG_2333

Here comes the train at Yangon train station, the first of the 38 stations.

I looked outside the train windows. We passed by shabby apartments, little wooden stands selling fruit and vegetables, charming street food scenes, farmers toiling under the blistering sun… it was Sunday and I remember asking my mom and sister “What do you think the people in these apartments are doing right now?” One particular sight sticks with me till today. It was the sight of women laying colorful clothes on the unused, rusty train tracks to dry at the 7th station. That sight was poignant yet beautiful. I feel I am unable to perfectly, or at least fairly, describe how I felt when I laid my eyes on that scene of life. I just know it put me at a crossroads of emotions. So much of my daily life I tend to take for granted when for some people they don’t even have proper space to dry their clothes! It would be great to take some photos of such scenes, but perhaps sometimes certain sights are best left “unphotographed”. My sister said “it is like looking into lives through windows”.

IMG_2337

A vendor in her colorful longyi carrying a tray of sour fruit salads on top of her head.

We disembarked at the 12th station. We took our time to walk across the train tracks to the other side. While waiting for the train to come, I studied my surroundings closely. At the back of the station there were a few shops that ran along the road.  One of them was definitely in the telephone business as it had a giant banner bearing the words “Telenor 4G” that hung over the entrance of its front door. Traffic seemed quite busy. A city bus pulled over at a nearby station to drop off/pick up passengers. I wondered if local people traveled by bus more than they did by train. Sitting close to where we were at the 12th station were three women selling various things — pickles and sour fruit salads, betel nuts and the other ingredients for Kun-ya chewing (I didn’t know betel nuts chewing was a serious addiction in Myanmar), deep fried dough that I would have liked to try if my fever was not causing a decreased appetite. My sister could not seem to contain her insatiable craving for mango salad tossed with salt, licorice, chili and ginger so she went over to one of the women to get some (she did get a mild diarrhea later in our trip but it could be due to something else). My mom’s eyes were fixed on the small house/shop located right across the tracks from us. A mother was rocking her baby to sleep in a baby hammock. My mom thought the hammock was hung a little too high from the floor, and the rocking was a little too rough. I guess my mom was scared for the baby as she finally said “Will the baby not be thrown out of the hammock?” I watched people cross the rail tracks on their bikes or by foot. The sight was nothing extraordinary but it allowed me to catch a glimpse of the everyday lives of the local people. For me, that was very interesting.

IMG_2335

The humble view of the everyday lives from the 12th station.

We were still lucky enough to have found available seats on our ride back to Yangon. Sitting next to my sister was a local man who, just like the teenage boy sitting beside me in the morning, appeared to be so immersed in his smartphone that he seemed oblivious to his surroundings. I guess he did notice me trying to take a photo of vendors because he later asked us where we were from. We quickly fell into conversation. If my fever was not so bad I would have asked him an endless number of questions about Myanmar. We learned that he was in Japan for a couple of years to be trained as a Sushi chef and that he was currently running a guest house in Yangon. I discovered from him that the local people prefer traveling by train to traveling by bus because the former is cheaper, faster, and less crowded. When I asked him about the strawberries that the vendors were selling to passengers, he said they were locally grown in Inle Lake. When we told him that’s where we were heading to next, he was very quick to respond “Inle is a very beautiful place. The air is cool and fresh…” He described it so beautifully that I became very excited about leaving for Inle Lake by bus at 6PM that very same day. It was also immensely engaging to hear him speak about the tourism industry in Myanmar and Japan’s contribution to the development and growth of rail transportation in the country. I could tell that this man definitely knew a lot! When we told him about our plan to take a taxi to the Bogyoke Aung San Market, he quickly pointed out that we could get off at the 2nd station as the market was right next to it. He just helped us save some taxi money and precious time! It is always interesting to talk to local people for reasons 1) we can really learn about things that may not be covered in travel guidebooks in the most honest, fair, objective and accurate manner; 2) they may have tips that can help you avoid unnecessary time and money spending; and 3) they can add weight and meaning and satisfaction to your trip, hence more precious memories.

Whether the ride on Yangon Circle Line was no spin at all, or the ultra-extreme super spin, or the high spin, it no longer mattered to me for I found a much better way of enjoying the ride.

IMG_5621

The deep fried dough sure looks good, doesn’t it? Imagine having it for a late afternoon coffee break. Heaven! Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

Bridge of Life

To some of us, a bridge is merely a structure that connects two points. But to many of us, a bridge can be metaphorically significant. Personally I have found solace in the symbolic representation of bridge as hope. In times of sorrow or distress, it can be comforting to imagine oneself crossing the bridge over troubled water with the prospect of better things on the other side.

I have crossed too many bridges that I am unable to remember all of them. I fondly remember the little bridge that spanned across the little river at my beloved grandmother’s place. I remember taking some I-am-trying-to-look-cool photos on a suspension bridge during a high school camping trip. Harvard Bridge was part of my do-or-die running route when Boston became my short-term place of residence. I am also fortunate enough to have crossed some of the world’s iconic bridges such as Golden Gate Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge and Capilano Suspension Bridge.

The most recent bridge I walked on is U Bein Bridge located in the ancient capital of Amarapura in Myanmar. It was no ordinary bridge that gave me extraordinary experience of the country that spelled much mystery to me prior to my visit with my mom and sister. The bridge has become one of Myanmar’s star attractions. It has been featured in a lot of postcards and paintings that attempt to depict the bridge in quiet romance. It has seen people from all walks of life cross it on a daily basis. What is it about U Bein Bridge that makes it so fascinating to so many people? Do people come to it for the fact that it is the world’s longest and oldest teakwood bridge built over 150 years ago? Do they come so they can admire the engineering feat accomplished by the man after whom the bridge is named — the local mayor at the time, U Bein (Mr. Bein)? Or do people come because the bridge is on the list of Myanmar travel guidebooks’ must-sees? I would like to think that we are all driven by different reasons to make a trip to U Bein Bridge.

20180216_174639

Silhouettes of people walking on U Bein Bridge against the setting sun and their reflections on the water of Taungthaman Lake.

20180216_092133

The Bridge is a lot more quiet in the morning.

IMG_5959

The beautiful surroundings of U Bein Bridge – wooden boats and their reflections on the calm waters of Taungthaman Lake, lush green fields, farmers’ hut… Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

IMG_5958

Lovely views of the surroundings of U Bein Bridge. The distant land is dotted with stupas and monasteries. A fisherman takes a couple on a boat ride across Taungthaman Lake flanked by green fields. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

I came for its widespread reputation as an iconic landmark of Mandalay. We visited the bridge on two different occasions —mid-morning and sunset — thus allowing us to have different experiences of the bridge. If I could summarize the two different experiences, I would say, on the surface the mid-morning visit was characterized by fewer people, and the sunset visit saw considerably more people. But on the deeper level, I would say both occasions allowed me to view U Bein Bridge as a bridge of life.

I picture U Bein Bridge as a wise old sage who has seen the arrivals and departures of hundreds of thousands of people since its inception. Through his lens, I saw how the bridge and its surroundings have become a center of livelihoods for many local people — souvenir sellers selling essentially the same trinkets on the bridge, a large group of shops and restaurants on one end of the bridge, fishermen on their wooden boats gliding across the Taungthaman Lake above which the bridge stretches out for slightly over 1 kilometer, farmers tending their crops. Looking from a wider angle, beyond subsistence, I observed monks on their way to some monastic school (I presume!), couples who seemed to be head over heels in love that they seemed oblivious to their surroundings, friends hanging out together and who could not seem to get enough of taking wefies, the solo visitors who seemed to stare blankly at the distant land (I wonder what they were thinking) and who shyly took selfies when they thought no one was watching, tourists who were probably packed with a sense of curiosity, excitement, gratefulness and much anticipation for their one-on-one encounters with the bridge. As the sunset drew a closure for all who had come to it, I watched the souvenir sellers pack their trinkets back into boxes, fishermen tend their fishing nets, farmers put down their tools, kids have the time of their lives, people leave and head home or to their next destination. Tomorrow and the subsequent days, weeks, months, and years will witness, I imagine, pretty much the same scenes — the sun rises and sets, people come and go. Indeed, U Bein Bridge is a perfect point to watch lives. Another perspective from which I look at the bridge is that my Myanmar trip was enjoyable, deep and profound chiefly because of two experiences. U Bein Bridge is one of them. It has given a precious life to my Myanmar adventure.

20180216_175245

The sun is slowly dipping below the horizon, marking the end of the day.

20180216_175104

Spectacular reflection as the sun reflects off the now-very-still water of Taungthaman Lake, appearing to form an illuminated path of sorts on the surface of the water.

IMG_6045

At the end of the day, fishermen, if not taking tourists out on a boat ride to view the bridge from the lake’s angle, tend their fishing nets. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

IMG_6077

My mom watches the day go by as she sips a fresh coconut. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

IMG_5967

My sister and the artist who painted the U Bein Bridge painting that she bought in Bogyoke Aung San Market in Yangon. What a nice little chance encounter!

Bagan Bittersweet

I read and heard about Bagan before I finally set foot on this ancient kingdom of Myanmar with my mom and sister just recently. Perhaps I read and heard too much that I developed this distinct Bagan fantasy that saw me riding an e-bike through the landscape dotted with thousands of centuries-old temples; and as the sun was slowly sinking beneath the horizon, adorning the sky with brilliant reds and oranges, the austere beauty of Bagan emerged in a craggy silhouette. When that happened, solitude, freedom, and independence were my best silent companions.

IMG_6249

Of all the temples we visited, Tha Beik Mauk was our favorite mostly because, unlike most of the other temples, it was almost void of visitors and souvenir sellers. Photo courtesy of my sister, Shuzytha Bidder.

We were in Bagan, and things were not living up to my ideals. They say riding an e-bike is easy. I tried it for a few minutes. The brief practice went well, but I was overwhelmed by the overpowering fearful voice in my head “Can I really do it? What if something goes wrong?” I decided to give up on my fantasy of riding an e-bike, and settled for an old-school bicycle. But I was continuously haunted by the annoying little voice that kept repeating itself “how nice it would be to be able to ride an e-bike to sightsee the temples, or simply to explore the dusty little town”.

My mom does not have the capacity for bicycle riding. Therefore, she and my sister would explore the temples on a horse cart. And for the benefit of “being together on the trip”, I would follow them to heel on my bicycle. This plan should work out for all of us…especially for me since I was reluctant to take a horse cart ride. Riding a bicycle would still fulfill, though somewhat limited, my emotional yearning for a “free, independent, romantic, adventurous” discovery of this land of thousand forgotten temples. I had indicated all the temples that we would like to visit on the free map given by the hotel the night before. Upon meeting my sister’s and mom’s horse cart driver, we explained to him what we would like to see with an emphasis on “seeing sunset over the temples”. His grasp of the English language was limited so perhaps that complicated an understanding between us for he seemed to refuse to do it our way. The hotel guy assured us that “he knows best”. Based upon that assurance, our exploration of the essence of Bagan began…

IMG_2417

My mom and sister taking a horse cart ride on the dusty road of Bagan.

The first temple we visited was not one that I had marked out on the map but I was amazed by the original murals on the temple walls (at least that is what the “caretakers” of the temple claimed). In that instant, it brought back that nostalgic feeling of being in Egypt exploring the ancient structures and the imagination-nurturing paintings on the walls. There were just us and another visitor so things were pretty quiet, allowing me to better appreciate the ancientness of Bagan. We moved on to more temples; some of which included those circled on our map. As we visited more temples, I found myself feeling more annoyed… annoyed by the throngs of visitors and souvenir sellers, especially at larger and more publicized temples. The initial feelings that I had — amazement, quiet, ancient — had been replaced by feelings of annoyance, disappointment, and a sense that the temples were overcommercialized. Temple fatigue had set in too. As we traveled on the unpaved roads, dust was flying in every direction as honking e-bikes and cars passed us by. Were it not for the temples, I would probably have thought I was caught in a heavy traffic of some metropolis.

20180218_092154

The very first temple that we visited. If you happen to know the name of this temple, can you please let us know? The murals on the temple’s walls are said to be the original dating back to the 12th century.

IMG_6131

My sister, mom and I before a huge mural of Buddha. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

20180218_092749

Sand and watercolor paintings are sold at almost all temples. Here my sister is getting a sand painting which depicts sunset over the temples, the price of which she negotiated down to K12,000 from K15,000. Perhaps the seller was entertained by her joke of “I am using my last kyats to buy one of your paintings” hahaha!

Our greatest annoyance hit us when we were down to the final two temples yet to be visited when the horse cart driver announced “after the last two temples, I will take you to the Irrawaddy River for sunset viewing”. Once again, we explained to him that we did not want sunset on the river, and that we wanted to see sunset over the temples. After some back-and-forth arguments, he finally agreed to take us to one of the designated sunset viewing points. Tension hung in the air between us and the horse cart driver. I never liked to deal with such confrontations. Silently, I cursed the bad luck of getting a horse cart driver who took our money only to follow a plan that would work most conveniently for him. Most of all, I wished I could have gone on my own, seeing temples that I would have liked to see. No restrictions. Only freedom and independence, just as I had fantasized my Bagan experience would be, or should be…

We were told that since the 2016 earthquake, visitors are no longer allowed to climb up the temples for great views of the entire landscape, and for sunset (one of the things that I heard and read about a lot!). I was disappointed but it was not something that was in my control. We headed to one of the designated sunset viewing points and waited for the magical moment to unfold before us. Was the moment magical at all? Perhaps I had lost touch with my sense of enjoyment and adventure for I was not as touched by Bagan’s sunset as the sunset in other places in Myanmar (U Bein Bridge, Mandalay Hill)… or perhaps I was just appallingly distracted by the very large numbers of people all cramped together on the viewing platform for sunset. I only felt fresh air again as we left the platform.

IMG_6262

Sunset over the temples seen from one of the dedicated viewing points. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

20180218_180338

Massive crowds at one of the sunset viewing points.

I felt mostly disappointed as the day ended for us, and felt the need to make up for my crushed Bagan fantasy. My sister and I thought perhaps we could compensate for the “loss” by cycling to the temples for sunrise (without my mom, which she happily agreed). We thought we would rent the hotel’s bicycles. But the moment we stated our plan to the hotel guy, he (unintentionally, I believe) blew up our last chance of compensation by announcing “seeing the temples for sunrise is only possible by taxi” (which, after too late, we thought did not make sense). We decided to drop the idea as the whole point of the compensation was to have the freedom and independence to go on our own, and not being dictated as to how and where to do it.

The final morning in Bagan, I expressed my disappointment in a grumbling discontented manner. I was resentful. I found faults… and worst, I said one thing that I believed had deeply hurt my mom’s and sister’s feelings… I said “I wish I could have explored all by myself”, to which my sister responded “then you will get everything that you want”.

Now that I am home alone, reflecting on the Bagan portion of our Myanmar trip and writing this post, I am filled with mixed feelings, the strongest of which is regret. I was so very preoccupied with satisfying my ideals of a perfect Bagan experience that I forgot the very thing that I will appreciate significantly more as years pass — the moments shared and memories created with loved ones, and not exactly the things I saw or how I saw them. I had apologized to my mom and sister, and they demonstrated an understanding for the way I acted and the words I said and an unhesitant willingness to forgive. But I know that every time I look back, it will always be bittersweet. Sweet because there are some sweet memories to smile, and laugh, about… bitter because I wish I had chosen to trust happiness more than misery. I guess there is much truth in what Janice Kaplan in her book “The Gratitude Diaries: How A Year Looking On The Bright Side Can Transform Your Life” says about “it happens too often that you have something terrific right in front of you but don’t realize it until the lover is gone, the moment is past, and flowers are wilted”. Bagan taught, or rather sternly reminded, me of this biggest lesson for future trips, and perhaps of a lifetime?

20180218_094353

Of the hundreds of souvenirs of Bagan/Myanmar that I saw, the colorful traditional umbrellas caught my attention. I thought they were very pretty.

My ‘Louis Vuitton’ Inle Moment

There was a beautiful picture hung on one of the walls of Golden Kite Restaurant, the restaurant that my mom, sister and I often went for dinner while we were in Inle Lake, Myanmar. The picture illustrated two slender wooden canoes, one behind the other. On one boat, there was a fisherman and his large cone-shaped basket. On the other boat, there were Louis Vuitton and his boatman. The fisherman and Louis Vuitton were standing very close to each other on their respective canoes. They looked as if they were engaged in some conversation of a lifetime. My impression was that this eye-catching image was taken in the early morning when the waters of Inle Lake were very calm and provided perfect mirror reflections. To me, the picture radiated a lovely sense of beauty, tranquillity and humility.

IMG_5895

My most cherished ‘Louis Vuitton’ moment of Inle Lake. Photo courtesy of my sister, Shuzytha Bidder.

I had one remarkable moment of Inle Lake that I would unassumingly describe as my ‘Louis Vuitton’ moment. It was a rare, up-close encounter with one of the leg-rowing fishermen as the sun was just setting. I was sitting at one end of his wooden canoe while he demonstrated his unique skill of handling the large cone-shaped basket. While it would be wonderful to be able to understand what he was saying, I was genuinely happy and grateful for the amazing opportunity to have such an extraordinary meeting with the down-to-earth, leg-rowing fishermen of Inle Lake. This, is, my beautiful, cherished, and personal ‘Louis Vuitton’ moment of the lake.

20180213_165319

A reality check: there is much to see in Inle Lake – floating gardens, houses (and restaurants and shops created specifically for tourists) built on stilts, monasteries, markets… and the Intha fishermen. While I am not always fond of the notion and treatment of local people as tourist objects, I must admit that I wanted to see those leg-rowing fishermen for myself. As we left Nyaung Shwe jetty on a slender wooden boat passing by seemingly hectic lives on both sides of the lake, it did not take us long before we came face-to-face with the heart of Inle Lake. It was vast and serene, and the fishermen came within eyesight. Scattered across the lake, most of them were catching fish independently. It was truly a sight to behold! Tourist boats approached them as close as possible allowing tourists to surreptitiously snap photos of these fishermen, most probably without their permission. I wondered what went through the minds of the fishermen as they became the “circus performers”. Did they take offense at being viewed as the subjects of photography? Did they enjoy the undue attention that they were getting from tourists? Did they ever think tourists were foolish for finding them interesting? Did they think tourists were jeopardizing their chances of catching fish, or worse invading their personal space? Were they curious about tourists as much as the latter were about them? I had noticed that some of the fishermen had become so accustomed to the tourists-taking-photos-of-us scenes that they saw it as a money-making opportunity — posing flatteringly for tourists in return for some Kyats. It was not my place to judge if this was good or bad, but I could not help but feel saddened by the realization that the fisherman-tourist encounters might be far from being genuine.

IMG_5727

The leg-rowing fishermen of Inle Lake have become part of the place’s attractions. While I feel torn about local residents being treated as tourist objects, I can’t help but feel drawn to seeing them for myself. It is not just their unique skill of leg-rowing that amazes me. It is the sight of them out in the vast and serene lake that gives me a great sense of beauty, tranquility and humility. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.