Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Money: Laundered, Unfolded, and Pressed

This is a picture of Ric ironing twenties.  He's really good at it.  It's how we're spending the second morning in Yangon.  The money system here is strange.  Officially, the US dollar is the currency, but you buy everything in kyat.  SO, you have to change your dollars, but no ATMs work with foreign ATM cards.  We were advised to come with cash, and we did, but many of our twenties are not in perfect condition.  Even though most of them are quite new, they do have some creases, and worse, some ink marks.  This makes it harder to get a good exchange rate.  We successfully changed some yesterday, but the frowny faces even from the roadside money changers inspired us to spruce up our bills for the rest of our Burma adventures.

Last night on our way back to our hotel, we met a man who had emigrated from China several years ago.  He was on his way home because he had promised his wife that he would be home before ten from drinking whiskey.  His English was excellent and he seemed very pleased to have met some Western tourists.  Apparently there has been a directive from the government instructing all citizens to be helpful to foreign visitors.  He was very pleasant and let us know that Obama had come to visit in the last month, but also reminded us that our president only stayed for 6 hours, a point that seems to come up a lot.

I can't quite figure out if the people are insulted by such a short visit or happy to have had a US president come at all - Obama is the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar. We also learned today that President Obama was born on a Friday, as we were informed by our guide at Shwedagon Paya, as we learned that we were both born on Saturdays (this guy carries around a hundred-year calendar dedicated to informing tourists of their birthdays so that they know which Buddha to pour water on.)  Not the same day as Obama, but close!  That means that we're dragons in Burmese astrology, by the way - not sure what it means for Obama...

Speaking of governments and directives, the English language hotel newspaper lists the "National Objectives of 65th Anniversary Independence Day for 2013."  They are:

1.  All the national people to live together in the Union through thick and thin
2.  All the  national people to conastantly safeguard non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuation of sovereignty
3.  All the national people to participate in the tasks for bringing about genuine, eternal peace putting an end to the armed conflicts
4.  To make relentless efforts, in building a modern, developed and democratic nation, in order to better serve public interest, to ensure poverty reduction and bring about righteous legislative, administrative and judicial pillars.

Easier said than done?  Perhaps?  We'll find out more tomorrow night when we meet a bunch of performers and artists ( and performance artists) for dinner and drinks!

Stay tuned for some gorgeous photos of Shwedagon Paya!  It's an amazing historic and religious site, and so hard to reconcile such friendly people and beautiful national treasures with Myanmar's ) ongoing (but hopefully resolved by 2015 - people have different opinions about that as a realistic goal) inter-ethnic fighting as well as its recent history as a country with an extremely high rate of internal and international human trafficking.  All things to keep in mind while exploring a country that is "opening up".

And they are - Angry Birds are everywhere!!  Weird.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

First night in Yangon

Our first night in Yangon really felt like the adventure was beginning.  We were prepared, though, after a few days of holing up and being sick in Hua Hin.  If we were going to be sick, that was the place to do it!

Sunrise in Hua Hin

So we had our strength back for the first night of exploring Yangon.  

We had planned to go to the party at the Pansodan Gallery, but we didn't find it in time for the Tuesday Night mix and mingle.  We'll find it today.

What we did accomplish was wandering around the night markets in Yangon, which had some crazy vegetables and LOTS of clementines.  We didn't have any money changed, yet, though, so no real fruit tastes yet.

And we got to see/hear some action around the Botataung Paya.  They were chanting when we passed it on our way into town and still going when we made it back later on tonight.

Offering outside of Botataung Paya

Cobra dragon outside of Botataung Paya

We also found some dogs that wanted to make me a part of their pack, so we decided to head home and check it out some more in the morning.

Which it is, now.  SO!  We are off to make our calls, meet some people, and see what we can see in Yangon!

Monday, December 24, 2012

What have we been eating?


Here's the short list, with photos, in no particular order...

This is some candy in the Narita airport that was cute, but not cute enough to eat.

We have been eating a lot of rice.  Lots.

But it's really good!  This rice is cooked with cashews and raisins and baked INSIDE a pineapple!

First day in Bangkok - Ric couldn't wait to try the Squid chips!

Squid Jerky

Quail eggs.

Dragon Fruit - I have added it to the list of things that I will recognize as food when stranded on a desert island, and possibly as an interesting cocktail mixer, but eaten plain (although pretty) not that interesting flavor-wise.

Mangosteen!  Food for the gods in this close-up of an offering,  but we got some of our own at the market in Chiang Mai.

Neither Ric nor I ate this frog.


We are recovering from another bout of exciting food mishaps (Challenge:  check out the recent food blogpost and see if you can spot the culprit!), but luckily we had taken a couple of days for Christmas in Hua Hin, so there weren't tons of interviews to run around and immerse ourselves in.  Judy has been a constant source of insight into the NGO and USAID side of policy on the Burma/Thailand border, so we have still learned quite a lot.  Mostly, it's that when discussing policy in Burma, take everything with a grain of salt, because everybody has a different opinion about what is happening now and what' s coming next.

However, tomorrow we will see for ourselves!  We will arrive around 5 in the afternoon and check into our hotel.  Then, Than invited us to a party at Pansodan Art Gallery in Yangon.  Luckily for us, this happens every Tuesday night, so we're looking forward to meeting some new people there right off the bat!

In fact, we are moving into the part of our trip that is mostly devoted to talking to artists rather than policy makers, but (according to Judy, and most of the rest of the world) politics is going to be on everyone's minds in a country with so much upheaval.  In addition to this art gallery, we hope to meet up with the people of the Beyond Pressure performance festival in Yangon and hopefully also the infamous Moustache Brothers in Mandalay.  Plus a couple of other friends of friends that we hope to track down once we're over there.

Internet might be sketchy while we are in Burma, so there may be a bunch of retrospective blogs after we're back in Thailand, but you never know - we might find an internet cafe along the way, so stay tuned!

Until then, Happy Holidays from Hua Hin!



Sunday, December 23, 2012

Countries Full of Questions

We are back on the night train! 

Heading south from Chiang Mai back to Bangkok for a hot minute and then on to Hua Hin for a pre-Christmas R&R.  We did not have nearly enough time to appreciate all of Chiang Mai, and I think that’s going to be the story for most of this trip – a sampler of Thailand and Burma, with 2-3 days in each location and a lot of time on trains and planes in between.  It’s enough to get a taste of the different regions, but just enough to make us want to go back for more!

Chiang Mai was much less intense than Bangkok.  Of course, we used about a whole day to get over jetlag while we were there, and we had the luxury of staying with the delightful and hospitable Stephan and Wan while we were in town.  So we were in a good place to get our feet back underneath us.

Even so, we did get a lot of ‘work’ done on our first day in Thailand.  Tuesday we managed to meet Raymond from The Border Consortium, formerly the Burma Border Consortium – their name has changed due to the expanding scope of the borders that they handle.  Ray seemed very busy, but managed to squeeze us into his schedule so that we could interview him. 

Photo of Ray - coming soon (it's on the hard drive)

The more people we talk to, the better we understand the Burma situation.  It’s a very interesting time for people involved on all sides of the issue.  Everybody that we speak to in Thailand about the potential changes that are coming up in 2015 has a different perspective, but they all have questions.  The big question seems to be:  Where will all of the Burmese residents of Thailand go after the 2015 election?  (Ok, so perhaps the bigger question is, will Aung San Suu Kyi become president in 2015, but that is a question for another blog.  For more opinions on that score, visit the Democratic Voice of Burma website for a wealth of information about the ongoing political upheavals in the region.)

But we’re talking about the people.  Where will the Burmese people go in 2015?  Will it be safe for them to return to Myanmar?  Will they be able to start a life in Myanmar after (some) have been living in refugee camps for as many as 28 years?  TBC does a lot of job training for refugees living in the camps along the Thailand/Burma border, but will these skills be useful in war-torn regions of tribal borderlands of Myanmar riddled with landmines?  Some people wonder what will happen to the Thai economy if they lose the millions (about 2 million said one USAID worker that we interviewed) of low-wage Burmese workers that have played a crucial part of Thailand’s growing economy for nearly the last thirty years?

Most importantly, it seems, is whether or not it will be safe for people to return.  Than of the Democratic Voice of Burma expressed skepticism regarding the safety and security of Burma’s leadership after the elections. 

Than at the DVB headquarters

Will there be another coup?  Will the economy be strong enough to support its people?  Will the infrastructures be sufficient to support independent media organizations such as his that require free access to internet, radio, and satellite television twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week?  Will free speech exist under the new government, in whatever form it takes?

The questions, once they start coming, seem endless.  The covers on the TBC reports speak loudly.  One picture shows Aung Sun Suu Kyi seated next to Thein Sein (check spelling), both in front of a portrait of her father, each with a rather uncomfortable expression on their faces.  Aung Sun Suu Kyi herself was imprisoned for twenty years and was only released from prison early in 2012.   She is the elected chairperson for the National League for Democracy of Burma and stands a good chance of replacing the man by her side, and leading the same country that her father did, only under much different circumstances.

The other cover depicts a family, presumably in a refugee camp in Thailand.  The family is all seated around a table with visions of their future dancing in thought bubbles over their heads.  The mother seems to be remembering a country that surely doesn’t exist anymore.  The father imagines the stark realities of trying to start subsistence farming in a countryside filled with mines.  The daughter imagines a bright future attending a school.  The son sees the future as a metropolis filled with airplanes and skyscrapers.  The baby’s image perfectly sums up the region’s unpredictable future with question marks.  Everyone knows that Myanmar is changing, but no one knows exactly in what way it is changing and what that means.

It’s a blank slate that will take a lot of effort and compromise to fill in a peaceful and equitable manner.


Night Train Compare/Contrast

OK!  So we now have two night trains under our belts (more to come – we haven't even started towards Mandalay yet!) so we have a little bit of something to share.  Why night trains? you might be wondering.  Night trains are cheaper and you can save money on a hotel room by sleeping in the car, or at least that's the theory. 

Our first train we took to Chiang Mai from Bangkok.  We caught it at 19:30 and arrived the next morning at 10:55 (an hour late, according to the schedule).  The beginning of the trip was the end of our first full day in Thailand, so perhaps our recollections of this train adventure are more representative of our jetlegged state of mind than the train itself, but we like to think that this special party train was a special delivery for two Pittsburgh wannabe expats on their way to the Northern reaches of Thailand.

After a day of getting sim cards straightened out, catching up with Judy, cracking the Bangkok subway system, and trying not to fall asleep, we found the train station just in time to get our tickets and grab a quick bite of street food before getting on the train.  (Ric had congee, I had chicken green curry noodles – both delicious!)  We were in a hurry, so no photos of this food.  Just trust us when we say it was cheap, fast, and really yummy.  And don't worry – we've been documenting our eating thoroughly, so stay tuned for lots of pictures of exotic eating adventures…

We had two upper berth bunks in an air conditioned sleeper car.  It was COLD up there – if you're ever traveling this way through Thailand, don't get on the train without a sweater !  They give you blankets, but they are blankets in name only compared to the powerful AC. 

On the bottom berth were two French guys trekking their way through Thailand on their back to France after a year of working as mechanics in Australia.  I think they had started their party at about 8 AM and had no intention of stopping!  Maybe it was their party that we crashed… Ric joined Cedric and his crew in the bar car while I took a disco nap.  Then Cedric came back to the sleeper car and convinced me that I should join them at the party.  I had adjusted to the motion by that point, so I dragged myself out of the sleeper and down to the party car and this is what I saw:

Our French Friends!

The blurriness of this photo in no way reflects the condition of the photographer - still figuring out how to use my camera...

Pretty much as soon as I  showed up, the waitresses started shooing everybody away.  We eventually made it back to our shivery beds, but I'm not sure that's true for everyone.  Cedric and his friend were in their beds when we woke up (early – I think I was up before 6) but there were some guys in the bar (now breakfast) car looked like they hadn't budged since the night before.

Here's what the restaurant car looked like in the morning:

Shrimp Congee (boiled rice soup) for breakfast!

The bar car the morning after

Village out the window

Orange Juice on the Train!

Cow! (to the rightt)

The night train/party train was fun, but I think my breakfast shrimp congee got me the next day.  Ric seemed fine, so I blame my shrimp.  It was a good thing we were staying with Ric's friends in Chiang Mai, or else I think I would have had a long, sick day.  It was either food poisoning or residual motion sickness.  For that reason, I was a little skeptical about what our trip would hold on the way back.

But, I am here to report that the night train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok was a very different experience.

The car was cleaner (the other one kind of smelled like beer and cigarattes, although that could have been the guys in the lower bunks…) and even though I found the restaurant car, it seemed like people in there were eating.  It was a smoother ride, the sleeper seats on the bottom bunks were warmer (even though they were air conditioned) and wider – so more room to stretch out!  I think this was a faster train as well.  We arrived back in Bangkok this morning and now we're in a van on our way to Hua Hin, where we will spend Christmas on the beach!

Vivian in the Chiang Mai train station

Ric on the Chiang Mai - Bangkok night train

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


We made it!

It is now 19 December 2012 and it is our second day in Chiang Mai.  Traveling from Pittsburgh to Thailand has been an adventure already.  We've had several days completely dedicated to travel and adjustment.  We slept the WHOLE NIGHT last night, so I think that jetlag (and other travel-related maladies) is starting to wear off and we are ready to really get started!

We hope that while we're in Chiang Mai, that we'll be able to meet with a few folks who work with Earth Rights International and the Democratic Voice of Burma.  Hopefully we'll get a chance to meet them tonight and tomorrow.

But, while we're waiting, we've never been to Chiang Mai before, so at the moment we are headed out to have a delicious Thai breakfast and Wat Prathap Doi Suthep, which is on a mountain.

Pictures and details to come soon!