Author Archives: Paul Wilding

Bangkok to Yangon – Part two Shwedagon Paya

Shwedagon lit up at Twilight

The highlight on any visit to Myanmar will most likely be Shwedagon Paya. Billed as just a stupa, but with the maze of surrounding structures it more resembles a miniature city or a Buddhist Disneyland. Shwedagon is the most sacred site in Myanmar and the most overblown Buddhist complex on earth.

The 100 metre high centrepiece has an equally hyperbole legend to accompany it which claims it was built 2,600 years ago by the king of Suvannabhumi to house 6 hairs of the Buddha, still there today.

In reality it was most likely built 1,500 year ago and little more that 9 metres high. Around the 15th century its height was doubled and the sides gilded. From then on it became the most famous pilgrimage site in Myanmar. Over the years it suffered terribly form earthquakes and was virtually destroyed in 1768, it was after that quake its current inclination was built.

left: the wishing spot - right: the stupa's gold mysteriously turns white in a certain light

Shwedagon stupa today is an awesome sight, gilded with 60 tons of gold, it’s like Fort Knox with the vaults in public view. On top are over 7000 precious stones, largest of all being a 76 carat diamond. Around the complex telescopes are mounted to view these.

The complex around boasts hundreds of pagodas, shrines, halls, pavilions, temples, zedi, monuments, plinths, statues, museums, stupas and even bodhi trees. And it is not only a Buddhist site, as around the based are shrines to various Nat (Burmese spirits) where worshippers pour water over them to cleanse them. If you know what day of the week you were born on, you can visit your Nat shrine. Around the complex are littered sacred spots, the wishing spot is where worshipper sit and ask for their wishes to be granted or illnesses to be cured.

The 5 Dollar tickets are valid all day so you can watch sunrise and sunset if you like, leaving and returning as often as you like. However the best time to go is around 4pm when you will see it in daylight, around 5pm the sun will begin to set and the monument be bathed in golden light. Around 6pm the lights will be turned on, the sun will be gone and the sky will turn deep blue creating a stunning twilight scene, finally around 7pm the sky will go black and you have a superb night time experience as the place has filled with worshippers and is positively buzzing.

Just a fraction of the hundreds of buidings surrounding it

Thousands of Burmese visit the paya each day. Some monks and nuns on their daily study and meditation programs, some pilgrims coming to pray, many people from around the country on their once in a lifetime trip to the place. Others are locals who spend most days their, chatting with friends and often taking opportunity to meet tourists, practice their English and learn about the outside world.

Around the paya are also a few exact spots where the lights shone on the stupa from the ground reflect off the 76 carat stone at the top making it a glow a rainbow of different colours. If you don’t fancy paying a guide $5 to show them to you, chatting to locals can be a great alternative method of getting shown them.

Not Nice

Burmese people are nice, really nice. I don’t mean nice in a horrible way, you know the kind of nice that makes you want to go out and torture pandas. I mean the kind of nice that if there was a row of nices on the shelf at the supermarket and even if it was twice the price of  he others, Burmese nice is the one you would buy. However one place Burmese are not nice is when behind the wheel of a vehicle. Having lived in Bangkok in the 90’s when it was seriously dangerous, few places leave me gobsmacked at the standard of driving. Burmese cities are such places and are as much worse than Bangkok as Bangkok is from Singapore. Vehicles have no concept of stopping, slowing down or even avoiding pedestrians in the road. Even on an empty dual carriageway with no car on either side of the road and a pedestrian 100 metres ahead, the car will make no effort to change lanes or slow down, but just continue straight at them, not even the late hard breaking of Bangkok.

In Mandalay is an amazing speactacle, the city is layed out on a grid pattern so at the end of every block is a four way junction. There are no lights or even give way lines at them, vehicles from all four directions just keep on going and try to miss each other.

The British Embassy is a good place to visit in Yangon. This may sound strange to any Bangkok residents used to sharing a city with the British Embassy, a place that you cannot call sham artists for fear of unfarely insulting all sham artists all over the world.

The embassy in Yangon has a long noticeboard outside well worth a read and is probably the only source of free media in the country as it tells some home truths about the regime. Listing bombings,  political unrest and rising, plane and train crashes the government is suppressing  knowledge of. I guess the secret police must be staking it out and any Burmese caught reading it are quickly eradicated, perhaps this board has killed more Burmese than the typhoon. It also says British embassy officials are not allowed by the embassy to leave the city because it is too dangerous anywhere else in Myanmar. Which is strange as the board also tells us out of around 5000 British tourists annually visiting and only 2-3 need embassy help, a positive haven of safety compared to Thailand.

Video’s (the four phases of Shwedagon)

Shwedagon in the daylight

Shwedagon at sunset

Shwedagon in the twilight

Shwedagon at night (76 carat diamond reflecting)

Please also visit Part One.

Bangkok to Yangon – Part One

With daily return flights starting at just £48 (2400 baht, low season, booked well in advance) from Air Asia, Yangon now counts as a viable excursion/visa run from Bangkok. This fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by locals either; I met dozens of Thais, Malays and Chinese taking a long weekend in the city.

Arriving in Yangon the first thing you think is, hell the plane took a wrong turn and I’m in Bombay or Calcutta, Indian architecture, tea shops, chapatti stalls, Bollywood cinemas and dirt lots of dirt. Only difference the locals are about the most chilled out you’lle ever meet. Then you remember Burma wasn’t a separate colony but part of British India, so had the same architects.

There is a plethora of stuff to do, shopping in the markets or city centre where prices are the most jaw droppingly cheap I’ve ever seen. The Sukura Tower offers a stunning view of the city from the overpriced restaurant at the top, (200 baht + per dish) we had drinks only, 80-100 baht each but the location so great we stayed for seconds. Temples litter the city draped in gold like no other place on earth, Chinatown was disappointingly bereft of traditional architecture but the colossal British colonial public buildings made up for it. The location of Ang Sung Suu Kyi’s house is also visit-able and the road bloc that keeps her under house arrest a curiosity itself for its punyness and lack of security alone.

Eating in the city is both surreal and pleasantly surprising, with a better selection of foreign food than Bangkok. Restaurants range from Italian to Mexican, and Japanese, Korean and Indian restaurants are everywhere being the staple cuisines of the locals along with the differing regional dishes. On top of this street stalls and tea shops sell an unimaginable variety of foods you never imagined existed, the variety is enormous but the prices not. Western fast food chains can’t trade in the country but that hasn’t stopped Burmese imitation chains from appearing, such as Pizza Corner and Tokyo Fried Chicken. Service too is surprising, at even the most basic guest house you’lle be treated like you’re at a 5 star hotel, opening doors, unbrellering you to the taxi, and of course Burmese are the friendliest and most honest people in any country you’ll ever visit.

The main reason to visit Yangon is Swedagon Pagoda, the greatest Buddhist monument on earth and easily as spectacular as the pyramids or Taj Mahal. However this awesome monument deserves a later blog all to itself so I will cover it in Part Two.

Gems Museum
To any armed robber or gangsters who happen to be fans of my blog. If you’re planning a heist might I suggest the National Gems Museum. Burma is perhaps the most gems rich country on earth, the museum boasting arguably the finest collection and no security whatsoever. Less a museum and more a large square room, the exhibits are housed in old style wooded tables with glass tops. The museum is more than just a collection of gems and it has three distinct sections. One side is mined minerals in their raw state, much out of cabinets, everything from iron ore, silver, platinum, zinc, marble, onyx, coal to precious stones, a giant geologists wet dream collection with hundreds of exhibits. In the middle are the precious gems collections with examples of every kind found in Burma natural, in state and polished. The collection includes the largest ruby in the world (think coffee mug), the largest sapphire, largest star sapphire and some smaller ones only the size of tennis balls.

The final part of the museum is the jade section with exhibits of giant pieces of stone and fine carvings. Being the only tourist who had visited the place for some time, one of the several all-female staff who spoke excellent English decided to give me a personal tour of the place. Seeing a stunning 15 piece immaculately carved black jade tea service next to a smaller less impressive 7 piece translucent green one, I asked her the price, judging this to be the finest of the jade exhibits, to which she replied $4000, leaving me amazed by how cheap, but hastily added the green one next to it was worth $24 Million. Guess I’d better really not try buying gems.

Having seen the rather lame in comparison crown jewels in at the Tower of London and the security that surrounds them, I’m still speechless at the fact the whole time I was there, just 1/8″ of glass, eight ladies and an open door stood between me and around a billion dollars. So now where to find a hammer and a getaway car………..

P.S. If any raiders do decide to take my advice, my 10% goes into a Swiss account and email me the number.

If you read Lonely Planet there’s a section on should I go or not, telling you if you go you break the international boycott and gives you the cases for and against breaking it. Hypocritically and dishonestly Lonely Planet then contradicts this and tries to reassure everyone who does choose to go, hey you’re still not breaking the boycott after all, have your cake and eat it. It does this by telling you not to pay entrance fees, so missing all the sights after going to all the trouble of going there in the first place. So you don’t pay $5 and miss Swedagon and that money has been denied to the Junta. A few pages later it recommends a military owned Guest House so $15 a night goes straight to the military. Have no illusion, you are breaking the boycott if you go.

By breaking the boycott you are putting money in ordinary people’s pockets, chatting to locals around the country (English is common here) who are desperate for contact with the outside world. I have to say in this respect Burma isn’t like any other place I have ever visited, I have never encountered anything like the air of desperation there, not just the poor like in a India but all levels of society are living day to day starved of not only food, but education, experience, vitality and any kind of personal empowerment to change their pitiful plight. I am one unashamed convert that everyone should go to Burma, break boycott and interact with these people. But don’t lie to yourself as Lonely Planet suggests and pretend you are not.

Visa Warning
When I set out for my month in Burma life was simple, daily flights from Air Asia among other airlines and visas on arrival. However while there the unpredictable Burmese Junta cancelled visas on arrival and the rumour was they were going to introduce a 2 weeks waiting time for visas at the embassy (currently it was same day express or 3 days regular). The rumour was this was only temporary for the election period, so researching the current visa regulations would be a good idea before travelling, in fact the regulations changed both times I’ve been to Burma, while there, and I have seen many the unable to enter the country despite being all correct a week or two before, daily checking is a good idea.

Money Warning
While at the hotel I was staying, a Swiss guy arrived and had to U-Turn and leave the country the same day. This was due to not having the correct money. You cannot use credit cards (apart from at a few top hotels and then only to pay the bill) or Travellers Cheques in Burma, there are no banks or ATM machines. You must bring all the money you need for your whole stay in cash. Many guest houses in big cities accept Euros and some in the countryside prefer Kyat(Burmese Currency) but most places only accept US Dollars. Many entrance fees can only be paid in Dollars too, all places in Yangon I went accepted Kyat but in Mandalay they only accepted Dollars.

Dollars bills must be pristine to be accepted, if you bring old Dollars they are as useless as toilet paper outside Yangon, other currencies don’t have to be pristine. The black market traders at the Aung Sung market will exchange most major currencies, old Dollars and many other non-major currencies from nearby countries. Money changers who approach you on the street or around Sula Paya will rip you off.

Part Two

Kalasin to Roi Et

Darkest Isan (where decent thais fear to tread), Part Five

Leaving Buriram and southern Isan it was time to head north towards the centre of the region and Dinosaur country. Kalasin is famous for having not only the most Dinosaurs in Thailand after the Bangkok British Club but the world’s smallest dinosaur, Siamosaurus. Siamosaurus is apparently a crocodile like beast, so no opportunity for satire about the Thai government there. The best thing about Kalasin is it’s not like Buriram, which I kind of expected it would be like. It’s also not difficult to find a place stay as the town is geared up for the influx of Dinosaur museum tourists and as they are virtually all Thai, the hotels are great value. The Sirindhorn Museum is the reason to visit the town, a kind of one dinosaur town. This surprisingly quite excellent educational museum mixes theatre with fact and delivers in both departments whether wandering amongst the models in the dinosaur park or looking at the fossils themselves in the sand beds.

Roi Et meaning One Hundred is just an hour’s bus ride from Kalasin. The very neat provincial town which is the springboard to visit a province boasting such tourist delights as……. um…. well………… Ok maybe you should just stay in town, I did for four days and it is officially the place I fell in love with Isan (staying in love until I reached Nong Khai) and was never bored for a moment.

Roi Et has an almost southern European feel to it, as this clean, litter free and laid back town lounges around the lake watching the day go by. Despite its size the town has thus far managed to avoid having a monstrous department store plonked in the centre, instead a rather tiny old two story sixties affair is all that exist and its one fast food shop a miniscule KFC is all but bereft of customers as the market stalls surrounding sell chicken for half the price.

The town has plnety to do and see, a huge centrepiece lake and landscaped park, full of adventure playgrounds, dinasaurs, swan peddle boats, pagodas, free fitness machines. Around the park stunning temples and a 1000 year old chedi.

I was their for Buddhist lent but no-one seemed to tell the locals it was happening as only the expensive restaurants closed, and upmarket bars stopped selling booze. The locals committed to some serious boozing in the downmarket establishments and the monks very definitely didn’t stay in their temples. Good to see none of this, Bangkok, actually enforcing the law nonsense has infested the civilised provinces yet.

The town’s free aquarium is a nice touch, allowing whole poor families from the countryside to come in. Giving the attraction a feel like no other in Thailand.

The annual Thai Candle Festival held every rainy season to announce the beginning of Buddhist lent is best seen in Isaan. The festival consists of a parade of locals in elaborate costumes, floats and then climax’s with giant wax sculptures the size of trucks fabulously carved into the shapes of Buddhist Gods and Demons. Unfortunately the festival was a washout after 15 minutes as a monsoon hit and I went from having to fight my way through the crowds to take my first photo to being the only person standing on the street 20 minutes later.

See the video, Roi-Et Candle Festival vs The Rain Gods.

Buddhism’s not really for Women………….

It’s a Nun’s Life. Thailand and Myanmar, a comparison

“Buddhism’s not really for Women…………. they can’t make merit.” As Lo Win my Burmese Buddhism sceptical motorcycle taxi driver I hired for the day in Mandalay put it, while I snapped the passing nuns. In South East Asia’s most Buddhist country where they practice the religion with a passion more akin to the middle east than neighbouring countries, finding a sceptic is almost like discovering a dodo in Nova Scotia, or an unfixed exam in Rangsit University.

Travelling around Burma seeing fully ordained nuns walking around collecting alms and living in monasteries seemingly equal to the men had reawaken an interest I had about nuns in Thailand, where they’re so clearly second class, yet still chose to do it, why?

So much is written about Buddhist monks I thought I would take the opportunity to do a comparison between Thai and Burmese nuns……

Differences in Temples and Monks
Comparing Thai and Burmese Buddhism is bit like comparing Catholicism and Protestantism, everything in Burma is done on an epic scale, temples colossal and overblown, soaked in tons of pure gold, statues, ornamentation, pilgrims by the thousand, whereas Thai temples are very much smaller scale and sedate affairs, the religion very much a solitary thing. Conduct at temples vary too, at temples in Thailand there is no male/female segregation, in Burma women often have a separate area at the back, in Thailand women can approach Buddha to place gold leaf on him, in Burma only men can, in Burma at major pilgrimage sights women are forbidden from entering, men go to touch the golden rock, women are not allowed with 5 metres of it. For the female worshipper Thai Buddhism seems by far the better prospect.

Monks differ a little too, in both countries most men will become a monk sometime in their life, in Thailand it usually ranges from a very short time to a few years, lifelong monks are much rarer than Burma. Burmese men become monks twice usually, once when a child and once when an adult and for an awful lot of men it is a life long commitment. In Thailand monks can live in temples as well as monasteries, and often only a handful to dozens at one place. Burmese monks live in monasteries in their hundreds or thousands, the temples being uninhabited. This distinction has an important effect upon nuns in Thailand as they live in temples too along with the monks whereas in Burma they have their own separate monastries.

Monks have the highest status in Thailand, technically higher than the king. Whereas nuns seem to be considered lower than the average member of the general public. If an athletic 25 year old monk gets on the bus a heavily pregnant woman will be expected to stand up to offer him her seat. If an aged and invalid nun gets on a bus absolutely no-one will offer her one, not even the young and healthy.

Nuns in Thailand are not allowed to be fully ordained so technically are lay people. They live at temples alongside the monks, however are not allowed out to collect alms and almswise what food that the monks collect goes to them first, there is no obligation whatsoever for the temple to provide for the nuns. Theoretically the nuns could starve but this doesn’t happen in reality in wealthy Thailand. So what actually is a Thai nun’s role? Thai temples give nuns no role or education in Buddhism so there job is basically unpaid skivvy, nuns clean the temples, wash the monks clothes, cook their food and act as servants to the monks. “So a genuine family relationship” as my cynical Burmese motorcycle driver put it when I told him. Many nuns in Thailand are older women, which is in total contrast to Burma where they are usually young. Many Thai nuns are widows who lack the funds to support themselves and had the choice of being a nun or the streets, though this is certainly not true in all cases.

Burmese nuns initially seem better off. They don’t share the monasteries with the monks but have nunneries all of their own. They also can go out and collect alms just like male monks, but unlike monks who can only collect alms in the morning, they can do it all day. However being a nun in Burma isn’t usually for life, most nuns are very young and spend their teen years as nuns then leave. The other twist for being a nun in Burma is it is only for two days a week, the other five days they’re a civilian. You could actually think the nuns get a better deal than the monks, a five day weekend.

Nuns in Myanmar are ordained and enjoy a high status in society, though no-where near as high as monks. They also go on a full study program of Buddhism and meditation the same as monks do. Technically the most senior Nun’s rank is lower than the lowest novice monk rank and part of the precepts of being a nun is they are subservient to monks and forbidden to admonish them.

However as with Thailand nuns can’t make merit so as my ever social reality facing driver points out, “it’s utterly pointless them being nuns at all”. This can be visibly seen at alms giving in the morning when the alms tables are layed out for the monks and laden with cash, elaborately cooked food or toiletry gifts. When later in the day the nuns come around they get a desert spoonful of uncooked rice in their bowl. The Burmese people logicking why give if I don’t get any merit from it.

However as my ever insightful driver points out, Burma has no free state schooling like most countries and only people with money can educate their kids. This is why most nuns are teenage girls, they get a free education and a meal if their parents send them to a nunnery, pretty much the same reason why boys become novice monks.

Video of Nuns collecting Alms

In Conclusion
With the temple segregation in Myanmar it’s probably marginally better to be a female Buddhist in Thailand, but for nuns Burma is infinitely superior, in fact it’s probably better to become a beggar than a nun in Thailand, the social status is higher and working conditions better. But this does bring me back to my driver’s original quote and title of the piece. I do wonder why women are Buddhists at all, surely Scientology or Chinese Water Torture seem better options……. Then again I could ask women the same question of equally sexist religions, christianity, islam, hinduism, Sikhism, judaism and so on, I guess the answer is they’re just stupid.

Around Phanom Rung

Darkest Isan (where decent thais fear to tread), Part Four.

Once upon a time people came to Thailand because it was off the beaten track, later people came because it was on the beaten track, nowadays it’s so easy to travel Thailand makes the beaten track look in dire need of remodernisation just to keep up. Travelling Thailand is now easier than travelling Europe, your average Lonely Planet wielding student from the UK is going to have a less challenging time getting around than their parents on a two week package holiday in Spain. Even the remotest places are a walk in the park to get to, good roads, English signs, friendly and helpful locals, roadside restaurants every few kilometres, motorcycles for hire for under £5 per day and crime and dangers almost non existent (outside the south).

So this makes me wonder why so few bother to travel around Thailand. On the whole two types of tourists come to Thailand, package tourists and backpackers both seemingly content to be herded around the same few overpriced and under delivering sights, sleeping, eating and travelling as they’re told. I’ve always found seeing Thailand in this way akin to sucking sweets with the wrapper still on.

One thing I do in most Thai places I visit is hire a motorcycle, pick a direction and head out of town, often as much as 50-60 km, exploring all the turn offs, venturing along the dirt roads heading towards anything interesting in the distance, stumbling upon small villages and stunning views, chatting to locals in small shops or restaurants. If this sounds a bit bold and adventurous it’s a good thing to remember in Thailand, it’s not.

If your still a bit doubtful about a heading a random direction out of tourist free Chaiyaphum mapless, a good sheltered way to make your first off guide excursion is around Phanom Rung, apart from having stunningly beautiful scenery, safe roads, a good English map is available from the motorcycle hire shops and there are plenty of sights marked on the map to head for. It is quite common for tourists to do this trip so the locals will be used to coming to lost tourists aid.

For me driving around the countryside, looking at the scenery and visiting the minor ruins was the far better experience than Phanom Rung itself. It’s often said there is no beautiful scenery left in Thailand, this is very definitely not true, it’s just a little harder to find these days and the ruins in the middle of untended fields, surrounded by palm trees and farm houses not local parks, the rice farms and small villages, explore-able temples, hills and trails make this one of these places.