Yangon, Myanmar Kittens Jumping Through Hoops

This is my last night in Myanmar. I’m gonna try and cover the final few days and get that out of the way before heading off for Cambodia.

We hired a taxi to drive us from Bagan to Inle Lake. I’d had it with agonizing 12 hour bus rides and wasn’t going through it again. I told Tom he could take the bus himself if he wanted, but I was getting a car.

The taxi option turned out to be only slightly less awful. No matter what you’re riding in, the roads are still the roads. They’re downright treacherous here. No one’s getting any sleep when the potholes send you airborne at least once every few minutes. Reading isn’t much of an option either. And while the buses may set new standards for reduced legroom, imported Chinese rice wagons like the one we rode in aren’t much of an alternative.

In an attempt to manage some degree of comfort, I tossed my bags out of the rear storage area and scrunched in there myself, using some Indian pillow covers I bought as gifts to shield my head from the exposed metal plates. My back is still paying for that dumbass idea.

One benefit of the cab ride is that they stop at Mount Popa; an extinct volcano jutting some eight hundred meters above the surrounding plains, with a sprawling monastery built into the mouth at the top.

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Aside from hiring a car, there’s pretty much no other way to get there.

The volcano is home to what is considered to be the most powerful nat in Myanmar. A nat, as near as I can figure, is some kind of god-like spirit being whose good side you generally want to stay on.

The big draw for me on Mount Popa was, of course, the monkeys. The volcano is literally crawling with them. They live there in semi-domesticated bliss, fed by the offerings of karma-seeking visitors.

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I went a little sick with the monkey pictures.

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This last picture got me in some trouble. I got pounced on for moving too close to the infants and earned myself a cut on the arm.

Lesson learned.

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Not a monkey, but still cute.

Here’s an example of how crowded public transportation gets in Myanmar.

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Kind of makes me feel like a jerk for complaining about the car ride.

We saw some people cutting stones on the side of the road with crude tools and hauling them back and forth. There’s a description of this activity in the guidebook, and I’m not sure it’s what we witnessed, but if it was, the people were working as forced labor for the government. They get paid nothing more than food money for their backbreaking efforts. It’s slavery under a different name.

On our arrival at Inle Lake, we discovered that in ten solid hours of driving, we’d covered just over two hundred kilometers. Those are some seriously rough roads.

We had dinner at a nice Shan restaurant. Shan cuisine is apparently the best in the country, but I was in no mood to try it. I wasn’t able to eat much of anything.

We talked to the restaurant owner, who was unusually forthcoming, and learned that much of Shan state, not to mention the rest of Myanmar, is off-limits to foreigners. The reason is difficult to say conclusively. The official line is that the government can’t guarantee the safety of visitors. I’m sure there’s some truth to that, but I suspect it also has something to do with the massive amount of opium that’s grown throughout the countryside.

A lot of the opium is controlled by bandit groups, who are especially active in the Shan region. There are large areas where the government has absolutely no presence or control. I have a hard time believing, however, that the government’s hands are entirely clean. They don’t have a lot of friends, and there aren’t many ways a government like Myanmar’s can earn money. The most reliable option is to do what North Korea does and supply boatloads of drugs to more respectable neighbors. Another thing that makes me suspicious is the state-run newspaper, which offers daily stories on the military’s heroic seizure and disposal of opium shipments. As a rule, a good way to find out what corrupt regimes are up to is to read what they claim to be combating in their state-run newspapers.

My guess is there’s a silent war going on between the army and various drug-funded rebel groups for control of the opium trade, and there’s no one around to report on it.

It’s all so goddam exciting, isn’t it?

I’ve read tha t Myanmar exports an estimated 700 m illion methamphetamine pills to Thailand each year. I have no idea what methamphetamines consist of and whether it’s related to opium or if they’re producing some other substance as well. I don’t keep up on this stuff. I’ve also read that a lot of heroin goes through Mandalay on its way to China. I think heroin has something to do with opium, right?

Whatever. It’s all bad and Myanmar is up to its neck in it. Inle Lake is about as far east as you can go before people start pointing guns at you. And in typical Myanmar fashion, it’s an utterly beautiful, innocent, and peaceful place that seems untouched by violence or vice.

Actually, I can’t say that for sure as I didn’t get to see very much of it. I spent most of our time at Inle Lake chained to the toilet in our hotel room. After nearly five months of travel, my stomach has finally given up. It liquidated all its assets and declared bankruptcy. It is no longer open for business.

Food doesn’t interest me anymore. There’s hardly any point in eating it. I’m like a garbage can with a hole cut through the bottom.

By the way, I’ve shot past ‘gaunt’ and am approaching ‘scrawny’. Since the start of my trip, I’ve lost 40 pounds. Since arriving in Myanmar, I’ve lost ten pounds in as many days. That’s not good. That’s just scary.

Losing weight hasn’t worked out the way I hoped it would. I still have a gut, I’ve just lost everything around it — which actually looks kind of worse than it did before. It’s like that episode of The Monkees where they find the monkey’s paw that grants them wishes but they always turn out to backfire somehow.

I’m going to serve time in obscure reference prison for that one.

And I miss my old ass. Sitting hurts now and I used to be able to do it with much greater comfort. It was like a seat cushion that I carried around with me. It was a useful adaptation and I want it back. Keep the ass, lose the gut.

I don’t expect to keep this weight off. If I were near a Taco Bell right now I’d gain half of it back in one go. The thought of a Burrito Supreme makes me weak in the knees. I’d kill a man for a Chalupa. By the end of this trip, after driving across the super-sized United States, I will no doubt be back to my fighting weight and carrying an even more padded seat cushion.

Anyway, with me in my condition, I sent Tom out with my camera to explore Inle Lake. He came back with some nice pictures.

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Of course, my favorite one is from the Jumping Cat Monastery.

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Ya see, it’s a Buddhist monastery, but the gimmick is that they teach cats to jump through hoops. That helps to set them apart from other monasteries, where everyone is just meditating all the time.

Brilliant idea, if you ask me.

I’m reading "Around the World in 80 Days" by Jules Verne and I absolutely love it. Phileas Fogg is my new role model. Aside from the fact that he’s flawlessly punctual, magnificently affluent, unswervingly sagacious, unbearably tenacious, and in every way the model of a perfect English gentlemen — aside from those things, he and I have a lot in common. For example, we both enjoy "securing passage" on "vessels".

I’m seriously considering a similar undertaking at some point in the future.

To make things interesting, I’ll avoid air travel — unless maybe a blimp, hot air balloon, or something equally whimsical proves necessary to bridge a gap between arrival and depature points. But planes are definitely banned.

I should still be able to do the trip in the allotted number of days and have time left over to actually visit some places. I won’t be leaving from London, so I’ll have to alter the route. I’ll sit down at some point with a globe and a piece of string to try and work it out.

Another difference is that I’ll do the journey with as much frivolous gadgetry as I can stuff into my luggage: laptop, digital camera, GPS device with speed indicator and vector headings, maybe a cell phone, and of course the most essential item: my GameBoy Advance. I’ll do up an elaborate web site too with all sorts of tracking info. It’ll be fun.

I’ll need a lot of money, though. And I’ll need to not have a job or any kind of serious obligations. It might have to wait a while.

We met a guy in Shan who practiced a martial art called Shan fighting. They use bamboo sticks in place of knives and whack the crap out of each other. I correctly identified it as having been featured at the start of Rambo III, which yielded a deservedly condescending look from Tom. The guy showed us the hole where his tooth used to be after losing it in a recent match.

Oh, Mom, the hotel we stayed in happened to be nextdoor to the local Save the Children office. I went inside, and introduced myself, and name-dropped that you work there. It was a little awkward. They didn’t know what to do with me and I had nothing to say other than, ya know, "way to go with saving all those children," and "keep up the good work." Anyway, it was interesting to see.

The guy in the office was Burmese and he had the weirdest facial hair I’ve ever seen. It was these two tufts of long black hair coming out either side of his neck, around where Frankenstein has his bolts. I didn’t know people could grow hair there at all, much less six inch clumps. I guess it’s the local fashion.

We’re running low on time before I’ve got to be in Mongolia for the start of my trans-Siberian train trip. We both want to squeeze Cambodia in, so we decided to hightail it out of Myanmar. That meant booking a plane flight from Inle Lake to Yangon in order to avoid the eighteen hour (no kidding) bus ride.

The flight was great. It only cost $70, and it left from He Ho airport, which up until recently had the distinction of being, at 12.5 meters, the narrowest ATR landing strip in the world. I’m not sure exactly what that means or how big of a deal it is, but it’s a moot point now cause they fixed it at the end of last year. No entry in my record book. Bummer.

We flew on a twin-propellor plane that ran the circuit from Inle Lake to Mandalay to Bagan to Yangon all in a couple hours. It flew at low altitude, so we got a great view of the Myanmar interior. It was thoroughly worthwhile.

Flying back to Yangon also meant that in the course of one week, we’d traveled by bus, boat, train, bicycle, car, plane, and horsedrawn carriage. That’s the kind of thing that I get very excited about.

We’re back in Yangon now and once again on a very tight budget. We can’t get money out of our bank accounts until we leave the country, so we live and die by the money Kristin wired to the US Embassy here (thanks Kristin!). We have to buy another pair of plane tickets in the morning and we’re not sure how much it’ll cost, so every dollar is vital. After checking my email tonight, I had to walk the four miles back to the hotel instead of spending a dollar on a cab.