Travel in Myanmar, Sri Lanka & India

Started by Sean, June 23, 2009, 10:55:01 PM

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Despite Myanmar 's borders closed to foreigners if not locals as well with all five of its neighbours, you can cross to several towns near the Myanmar-Laos border area from Thailand without a visa. From Chiang Mai I bus it north to Chiang Rai and again to the border town Mae Sai. There's a scattering of foreigners and the process is straightforward with helpful officials and no corruption, costing B500 (10 pounds) for a travel permit; the articulate sounding Myanmar language is spoken immediately over the border.
Mae Sai thrives with Thai industriousness but Taichileik in Myanmar is pleasantly subdued and cautious, if even more safe and with some good English speakers around; Prices are lower and many men wear longes instead of trousers, a kind of straight long skirt, also found in parts of Bangladesh to the west. It's peaceful here if a little gaunt, similar to other parts of the country I went to a few years ago, and beautiful weather- warm but not too hot at least when its cloudy, and perfect conditions for sleeping with no cover; locals of course can tolerate much higher temperatures still and happily wear sweaters and coats or sleep under blankets in stifling tropical heat that could kill Caucasions.
I join a bus full of locals in the morning to Kengtung a few hours away to the north; there's only a couple of buses a day it seems and I buy a ticket back here tomorrow morning, as per my schedule to meet my flight out of Bangkok. Much hilly terrain, small thatched buildings, orange earth, parched forests, all very remote and undeveloped; the bus makes slow progress with the hills and bends: the vehicles are poor and the housing simple but everything clean and beautiful. The bus stops a couple of times at checkpoints for the police and military to search it, but they don't bother opening any luggage, only have a quick look and even self-conscious look in the hold, and aren't so thorough with checking identification- all rather perfunctory.
Five hours later Kengtung is nothing that special but has a nice lake and attitudes without too much materialism- like Laos people give you local prices without bargaining, quite touching in fact. The place is very low-rise and with poor back street families but completely clean and safe, and indeed cleansing to the mind to walk around. At a hilltop Buddha statue a curator opens up a small museum for me to walk around its old costumes and musical instruments, and never asked for money even after doing me a little guiding around.
There are many temples in town and many buildings with this tremendous rich timber work and deep browns everywhere with balustrades on staggered levels, typical of Myanmar; the roads wind off into the misty distance. Myanmar is Buddhist and culturally closer to Thailand than India or China but begins to show more of India 's brooding brand of inwardness and richness. There's same beautiful intelligent women I remember, walking and riding knowingly around on scooters- well dressed and alluring, watching your eyes; to my surprise some of the people also have light Caucasian type skin. No other Westerners in town as far as I can see.
My travel permit gets passed around a lot- from bus company to local police to hotel to whoever else, generating a wad of stupid paper detailing my activity. I'd have gone to Mong La, the other of the three main towns the permit allows on the Chinese border but don't have enough time and I get the 8am bus back south. The bus staff have to check everyone on board has handed them their ID cards- just for catching this local bus to the next town: must feel sorry for the control these people are under, and most of the regular officials carrying it out I'm sure don't much believe in what's going on either. At checkpoints passengers seem to be randomly selected for questioning by officials and called over to offices for a few minutes. The locals' embarrassment about it all is easy to see, their trying to put the best foot forward in these compromising circumstances in their own country.
Very hot in the midday hours today and make it back to the border at 1.40pm: though fed up of Thailand, nice to come back to its couldn't-carelessness and fine sense of being materially in the world but still not of it.

Sri Lanka

I took a flight from Trichy in southern India to the airport north of Colombo, on the south western Sri Lankan coast. Had no guidebook as yet but ignoring the taxi touts and low life on arrival got a free shuttle to the nearby town then a bus to Colombo to the cheap YMCA, finding this thanks to directions from the numerous police guarding and blocking presidential area streets- a heavy military presence but nothing that makes things seem especially unsafe. Plenty of green down the streets, giving some uncertain dark shadows at night though, and more mellow people than many of the Indian groups, even if Sri Lankans are of Indian stock with similar features and skin colour. People seem pleased to see Westerners in their country, there being few around; it's a little more developed with less obvious poverty but also there's not so much to see in Sri Lanka, contrasting with India's much richer history and culture, and its impressive continental scale feel.

Sri Lanka doesn't have India's foolish population problems and everything is a degree easier and happier, with only 21 million people; Colombo gets quieter at night than Indian cities and fewer creeps approach. I went six weeks without a drink in India but decided to have some beer at a nice bar here, still very cheap. The restaurants look clean and like they might have some nutritious food you could eat, rather than India's ubiquitous oily brown sludge; locals still eat with their hand though, for reasons mysterious to me.

The Sri Lankans have a slightly more Western mental profile, which you can hear in their laughing and responses to things; like the southern Indian languages Sinhalese is more articulated and clearer than Hindi across northern India with its nasty indistinct slurring. There's some tension in the air and lack of repose though with the Tamil insurgency in the northeast and risks of attacks at whatever official and religious places.

You still get the misplaced, skewed out answers to direct questions found in many non-Western cultures that don't prioritize focused thought, as based on principle or detail, and instead of suspending the whole set of possibilities in order to get something done, they respond to questions like 'Where is the train station?' with gibberish such as 'Do you want to catch a train?' or 'Where are you going?'.

However when I asked 'Is there any internet here?' for the first time in many weeks the reply was 'I don't know': people in developing countries rarely say this and will always invent an fake answer or just gesture further down the street. Saying 'I don't know' is too specific and negative for societies with little structure and predictability- everything is just exists in an interconnected indeterminate haze where there are no definites and only constant change, and questions like 'Is there x here?' are not so simple and in fact relate to societies that have established greater levels of order- out here it's just a chaotic environment that nobody understands, or would suggest could be understood.

People can't rely on others having internalized much regularity in behaviour or understanding about the world they live in: nobody knows what's going on and endless numbers of things just haven't been systemized: Westerners are tempted to ask questions that assume more background order in the environment than there is: the locals are bemused at this, particularly as the question usually assumes they should know the answer, as they would in the West, and just hesitantly match the dumb question with a dumb answer. The information you want often just isn't in existence and you have to find out what's going on at that particular moment as best you can.

In a similar way vehicles use horns all the time on the street, not being ready to assume that perhaps the traffic in front has slowed because of an obstacle it can do nothing about, or that it just has to give way. It's simply a harsh, every man for himself society with few rules or standards: their contract with society and what it does for them is limited.

Got a train to Kandy, a couple of hours inland, in the bouncy observation carriage at the back of the train with these large windows at the end and sides: rice fields, plains, jungle and cows are seen, and the track becomes single to pass through many tunnels and nice thick foliage in the hills.

Went to a botanical gardens place by Kandy, though hardly worth it really with its unimpressive collection of flora, considering this is a tropical country. As in India couples walk around making a show of romance and sitting very affectedly under trees together, after the paintings of the gods Rama and Sita. Attitudes are very Victorian and repressive, socialized and controlled- they sit pious and respectable with heads tipped together, all behaving in the same way and equally spaced out on lawns; it seems very put-upon, though perhaps a system that works for the entirely programmable kind of person. In India there may be fewer births outside of marriage but the mores totally fail to control population, and they need some draconian leadership on this matter or before long, with just a blip in the supply chain, there'll be famine in India on a scale the world's never seen: the infrastructure is only just coping and they don't see it.

Called by this elaborate looking Hindu temple but got extremely angry at the staff there for wanting to charge tourists for entering, and walked off: I've been asked for donations but never seen this even in India- unspeakable to blatantly make money out of your God.

Tried a Pizza Hut place and though the food was served hot enough, as I'd requested, it wasn't clean: developing countries consistently cannot run fast food restaurants, being imported products of a foreign culture from the other side of the world- they just do not have the necessary conceptions of attention to detail, particularity of cleanliness or the rational directed thinking that goes to making the food reliable and the place work. People just go to the market and cook their own food at home, and restaurants of any kind indeed can cause them trouble: good practices drown in Dionysian imprecision and brainlessness.

One give-away is always the way the waiter puts stuff on your table- very cautiously, hesitantly and slowly, and getting very concerned about how to position it and when and how to leave the table again and leave you alone. Hotel staff are similar and only very gingerly and cluelessly slope off once you've got from them whatever it is you want- they just don't have the principles in the background to guide them with what they're doing.

Got a bus to Kurunegela west of Kandy and walked by the lake with the same wretched couples about, still very hot but fresher cooler air in the evenings; was going to get a bus that night to the coast but couldn't get on any as were all too full, so had to stay the night. You could get on one at a station before it fills up but this isn't practical as it's only cool enough, if at all, for Caucasians when it moves and the air is passing through- but if it doesn't move until it's jammed. Getting on a bus with the sun hitting the metal roof and people's bodies sending the temperature way up would make you seriously ill; you can likewise see some trains so packed people are hanging out of the doors Indian style- all very dangerous.

Asians though understand none of this of course. Sweat pours from you in the midday hours but aircon on buses even if you can get it is hardly good enough even when taking your shirt off, and whenever the door opens the heat surges in. The locals scarcely sweat and don't actually need aircon- it's just a casual luxury for them not a matter of life and death as it can be at times for Caucasians, and they look at me either like I'm some dubious crazy character, or I'm sick: it's stressful but you have to make certain you're putting your needs first if you're going to survive.

In hotel rooms without aircon though, ceiling fans are to be used with greatest caution- they wobble furiously and if detached themselves would cause serious or fatal injury: they're almost universally inadequately installed, there being no building regulations to speak of. If you can't use it you can take showers through the night and let the water evaporate off you to cool you a bit; the cold water from the taps though indeed can be almost too hot to touch, being heated in tanks and pipes all day.

Had a night at a small place called Wariyapola- no entry in the guidebook but a lovely quiet hotel down a lane just out of town; then a bus to Chilaw on the coast to walk around for a while, and south to Negombo, the town near the airport.

India (Madurai only)

...The sea at Negombo (Sri Lanka) is brown and unclean with some angry looking waves; a few people were in it including a few Westerners but it's said to be unsafe with pollutants.
Back in Trichy in south India I'm pleased to be back in India's continental feel, it's vastness and sense of scope and diversity. As ever there's this unique sense of calm that creeps up on you, revealing an inner peace that was already there, and inspiring the Vedic texts at the heart of Indian culture concerned with the self. Got a little sick after some poor food- even hotel restaurants can't cook cleanly or well for single people- there's little understanding of customer service or standards.
South India is more relaxed than the north- they laugh more, make jokes with each other and in Trichy train station even used two rows of chairs as a queue, getting up and sitting down every few moments- very civilized, there being sufficient orderliness established in the society down here for this. Trouble sorting tourist quota tickets again at the station though- queued several times then off to other buildings to find an office and some other official, then back later to enquiries etc, but got a train to Madurai, with the necessary aircon.
Naive tourists will patiently queue and accept the teller saying they're simply on a waiting list- you have to be far more proactive than the semblance of a system the station presents would suggest, and make your way into the office behind the glass to ask direct, or find out how you can take your request further etc- or you'll be stuck forever where you are without a ticket, with nobody caring. Also the practice in India generally is not to take no for an answer if you have good reason, but politely hang around or be persistent, and they'll notice and bend the system, since nothing's much fixed anyway.
Madurai is another nice south Indian town despite moronic street touts trying to get you into their shops via promises of views from their roofs of the big temple in town; assorted other creeps, touts and beggars abound with the usual nastiness and pestering from rickshaw and taxi drivers- all needs cleaning up, as ever.
Few Western tourists, as everywhere here in the hot season, and indeed the hottest part of it; didn't see any others inside the temple, just Indian devotees. Surfaces start to radiate heat once the sunlight hits them, and the water from cold water taps may be almost too hot to touch, with little cool water to cool off properly in the showers.
Indians are a chaotic and intense people with mad staring eyes; even on buses with them sitting down it's a writhing mass of confused interaction and noise, the culture combined with the characteristics of the people. They just need to introduce more wealth-generating norms, instead of the small mindedness of trying to get the next person's money from them from endless techniques of deception: it's all very interesting to make sense of and try and be abreast of, coming from developed societies where the relations between people rarely have such level of duplicity and generally cannot have due to the regulation of so much of social activity. The South is leading the way in India's future though.
You can see the Sri Meenakshi temple from various rooftop restaurants, comprising a very large compound with rectangular pyramidal towers intricately covered in sculptures of gods, goddesses and hundreds of proliferating other divine beings: the towers have recently finished being repainted and are superb, the complex and subtle colour scheme obviously executed by people who indeed knew what they're doing. The lowest tiers though, as with some of the walls in the buildings inside, are yet to be done- the ceilings are, and the work seems to be working its way downwards.
It's a Shiva temple and one of the world's most impressive in its scale and exultation, one of India's finest architectural statements: it dates from the 16th century and the blizzard of deities embodies the range of God's possible manifestation, with the same Brahman behind them all. Unfortunately, as in many temples and places of interest in the developing world the town is allowed to continue right up to the sides without sufficient space to separate it off and create a proper zone: there needs to be a compulsory purchase order, which would perhaps be too expensive and unpopular, and most of the time developing world authorities simply don't have the vision for such orderliness or sense of peace or respect for whatever the site is (the Egyptian pyramids is another obvious example). The temple could be better promoted all round- it has real power and is a tremendous statement for Hinduism's non-confrontational nature.
Argued my way past officials, trying to convince them I'm a Hindu, to join a short queue for a darshan or sighting of one of the presiding deity statues in its enclosure of one- a bit of a nuisance to be taken for an unserious photo snapping tourist just because of my skin colour when I'm sincerely interested: there's no ceremony to become a Hindu and you don't carry a card to say, so it's annoying to be disbelieved. A darshan is where you see the idol for a few moments and it sees you, as it were, providing a self-referential loop emphasizing the subject-subject nature of consciousness, realigning your inner Self and its powers and reach, to secure your goals: visiting a Hindu temple is ultimately just praying to or exhorting yourself, finding that within you which goes beyond your material form and rational life, given back to you by the darshan, the central experience of Hindu worship. It's an aid to personal development and self-realization or path to union with God, and indeed with Brahman, which is beyond God.
There's a great pillared corridor leading to a large Shiva nataraja, Hinduism's greatest symbol: it has the psychological insight of the mind contained within righteousness and yet in freedom, Shiva dancing rather seriously within a circle of fire, on a demon of ignorance.
Examples of cultural difference you notice going beyond mere practices to physiological differences include Asians being able to sit cross legged with their weight forward so they're comfortable, and having dark skin and bodies to cope with much higher temperature and sunlight beyond most Caucasians. At the temple I'm the subject of uncomprehending jokes as to why I'm walking round with a bottle of soda- in this tropical heat: I got talking to a group of boys, trying to get it across to them that my brow was wet and theirs was dry- they don't even sweat.
The other thing here though, getting me literally hopping mad, was that shoes had to be removed at the main entrances before you got to the inner wall and doors (without even socks allowed, which you don't use though as they'd get filthy anyway), yet at midday the stone and concrete in the sun was way too hot to walk on- for Caucasians. Indians have darker, hardened and thicker skin after their routine barefoot walking: I saw a few children running with pain but no others. Indians happily stroll and chat over burning surfaces you could almost cook an egg on, and with construction work going on there was rubble and dust that stuck to your feet digging into your flesh as you walked, but again the locals couldn't care less, not even looking down to avoid it.
I complained to whoever would listen but as usual people just look at you with this glazed horror, never having met anyone with such odd problems. Indians have filthy feet with cracked and damaged skin, and are happy with it in their filthy environment. I could understand taking shoes off inside the building but not in the wider area after the exterior wall when there was nothing whatever to keep clean or be respectful towards (of course you also always have dirt and worse from other people's feet on temple or mosque floors you have to tread on, removing shoes here being standard). I managed to run from shadow to shadow but it was pretty crazy.
Shoe-keeper places of course are also a risk you often choose not to take: your shoes are the best, most well made and irreplaceable shoes that will be given to them to keep: Indians' shoes and sandals are almost uniformly worthless, ruined and easily replaced, rubbish worth a pittance or nothing. My high performance lightweight leather walking shoes would be sad to go missing from the dodgy keepers, and likewise with bag keepers, which I'd use yet more occasionally.
Back at the train station the next day the usual different people to see and moving backwards and forwards between them, sorting their tourist quota out for them, but fortunately the station was quiet for some reason; shouted at a few people for trying to push in front of me even when there was no one else even in the queue, the socialized morons.
Go to Ernakulam on the west coast, leaving 4pm but a mistake not to get aircon as the heat made sleep difficult until well after midnight, even with the wind through the open windows and doors; also too many people in the carriage for several hours, like it's a general unreserved ticket, adding to the heat and discomfort. Arrive 4.30am and get a ferry across to Kochi, a nice relaxing place with few people and some of the most chilled and hassle free of all Indians; some Westerners around looking for a break from the chaos. It's a fishing place noted for these Chinese-type great spidery bamboo contraptions on the seafront, lowering nets into the water. Cheap accommodation still available and quite a high standard, with many homestay type places; it's an old Portuguese Dutch Christian trading place with many churches and a kind of Christian iconography museum. Cool air in the evenings, a nice enough place for some recuperation.
Non-Western cultures show more Dionysian interconnectedness between people, this ready and confused interaction: it can be a refreshing thing and much of the West has lost touch with it somewhat, but also Indians then don't have the same understanding of personal relations, have little conception of personal space, and ask intrusive questions that may be genuinely polite but also can potentially be used to get compromising information out of you, like where are you going or what your hotel is. You need to sidestep this regardless of whatever offence it may cause, or they profess it causes; questions also often include soon after meeting, what your occupation is or how much you earn or how much a flight ticket to India is etc. Genuine friendship exists, but is much less common than most Western tourists at first understand with their limited understanding of these often crushingly poor and desperate people, and it can slide into requests to visit their shop or get you to different commission paying hotels or places. In most cases you have to refuse to speak or reply at all to the zillions of street creeps and develop the skills for being extremely upfront and harsh, taking no nonsense whatsoever and questioning everything; you see and meet endless Westerners getting defrauded.


Peanut butter, flour and sugar do not make cookies. They make FIRE.


Sri Lanka just isn't the same anymore without the Tigers...
Do what I must do, and let what must happen happen.

Solitary Wanderer

Interesting read again - thanks  :)

What Guidebook do you use and what are the lightweight, high performance leather walking shoes you mentioned?
'I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.' ~ Emily Bronte


Hello Solitary, I used to like Lonely Planet but most of its editions are now absolute filth for the mindless masses (I have some more thoughts on this development anon): there are no good guidebooks in existence. Asics do a nice lightweight comfortable shoe, half way to a trainer/ sneaker: I used to use Hush Puppies.

Solitary Wanderer

Quote from: Sean on June 24, 2009, 03:07:17 PM
Hello Solitary, I used to like Lonely Planet but most of its editions are now absolute filth for the mindless masses (I have some more thoughts on this development anon): there are no good guidebooks in existence. Asics do a nice lightweight comfortable shoe, half way to a trainer/ sneaker: I used to use Hush Puppies.

Thanks - the Asics Gel Odyssey range look very good - I will invest in a pair.

I borrowed several travel guides from the library, including Lonely Planet, and found them to be a good general guide to start you off. The main problem is that they say everything is wonderful! And they focus on tourist trap type attractions. Cross referencing on the net has been the best tool for me thus far  :)
'I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.' ~ Emily Bronte


I've been enjoying your travelogues.  You have a great eye for detail, and I come away from reading this with the feeling that I have some idea what it is like to be in these places.  Your observations on cultural differences are interesting.  Although it is dangerous to make sweeping generalizations, I realized after traveling in China that the Chinese and American cultures have very different concepts of personal space, appropriate interaction with strangers, and acceptable topics for conversation between acquaintances.  When I occasionally found myself feeling uncomfortable around Chinese acquaintances, it was always because some vast culture gap left me not knowing how to respond to a statement or question that in the US would be rude or intrusive and that in China was clearly considered quite normal and unremarkable. 


Solitary, indeed the guidebooks have systematically vulgarized and stupified the travel experience in recent years, under economic imperatives and the rise of the horde- very sad to me; in the past they read with real magic, illuminating other cultures for what they were, not places where you just funnel everything through your own muttonhead culture you bring with you. The old idea of other places being there to change you not for you to change them has disappeared, along also with the kind of humour that showed real insight...

By the way I didn't mean the purpose made walking shoes you can get, those chunky heavy things- unless you have specific need for those you only want to use regular comfortable lightweight shoes: Asics are both comfortable and look smart, it always being a good idea to try to be taken seriously from your appearence.

secondwind, cheers, yes you make exactly the right points and most developing countries have similar features of personal space or thought being poorly delineated, and people happily asking you about your income or how much you spend a day or so on. The interesting side is how inclusive and friendly people can be, certainly compared to the English who lack US (or many European) norms for good social interaction. If you're careful you can see there's much to be learnt in both directions.

I have a very long travelogue of a year's observations from working in S.Korea that I'm brushing up right now, so I'll post that when I'm done, though it won't be for a week or so.

Next post I'll also put up my old list of items to take with you travelling, and a short file on tropical health.