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© 2011 Sabrina Swenson. All Rights Reserved.
January, 2008

It was the most lengthy visa application I have ever filled out.  I've never had to include my entire work history on a visa application before.  Alas, I must have wrote the right things because I received my visa to Myanmar.  
To start, a bit of history of the country.  Myanmar has been brutalized by an incompetent regime (dictatorship) for the past 45 years.  
In 1962 control was wrestled from the elected government by General Ne Win who led the country to full isolation from the outside world.  It was ruined by a rapidly deteriorating economy and a major currency devaluation during the 70's and 80's.  In 1988 in pro democracy marches a leader recognized worldwide emerged; Aung San Suu Kyi.  There was a violent reaction to this protest by the military that was broadcast on international television and forced the administration to call for a national election.  The election was held in 1990 but the military has yet to hand over the government to the NLD - National League of Democracy which won by a staggering percentage of votes.  
There are estimates of approximately 400,000 monks in Myanmar.  About the same number of soldiers under the ruling junta's command.  Last September after the government imposed drastic fuel price increases the protests began once again.  The regime arrested leaders and beat up protesters.  The junta started killing protesters... civilians as well as monks  (doesn't that seem sacrilegious to you?)  A two month night time curfew was put in place and troops surrounded monasteries.   The ruling regime honestly believe they are the only ones capable of keeping the country together.   Protests have since died down and there no longer is a curfew.  The junta is still in control of the country and its people are still repressed.  
And now my story...I flew into Yangon the main city in Myanmar. After finding a hotel (as you may have guessed, Myanmar is very inexpensive) I headed straight for the Shwedagon Paya.  It's a traditional Buddhist religious monument consisting of a cylindrical cone and topped with a variety of metals and jewels. The great golden dome rises 98 meters (321 feet) above the base.  It is said to be 2500 years old.  Since Myanmar is earthquake prone it has been rebuilt many times and it's current form dates back to 1769.   I spent another day wondering around the downtown area and the local markets.  
I eventually took an over night bus to Mandalay 695 km (431 miles) North of Yangon.  The further North you go in the country the flatter, drier and dustier it got.  There was dust all over me and everything else everywhere I went in this area.  I always thought of South East Asia as being humid lush jungle, but not in this part.  The first thing I did upon arriving was to climb Mandalay Hill barefoot.  Since along the way you pass numerous Buddhas and shrines, no shoes are allowed.  I spent more time barefoot in this country than anywhere else in the world (lots of Buddhas and shrines).  You could see the entire city from the top of Mandalay Hill.   Nearby, I also went to see the longest teak footbridge across a shallow lake.  It's still strong after 200 years.
After a few days I headed to Bagan.  The most amazing sight in Bagan is a massive 42 square kilometer area with around 3,000 temples.  It is known as the Bagan Archaeological zone.  I hired a horse cart to cover a lot of ground and spent two day covering the area. You could climb to the top of some of the temples affording you a wonderful view of just how vast the area was.  One night I ate at a wonderful Indian restaurant that got great reviews in my guide book.  I sat outside under a tree that had lanterns hanging from it and the jolly, outgoing middle aged owner with an Indiana Jones hat sat down with me for a while.  We started to chat and after learning I was American he was very eager to talk about his countries problems.  After looking around to make sure we were not in ear shot of anyone else he proceeded to tell me his thoughts on the ruling regime.  A pretty gutsy move I thought considering such comments being overheard by the wrong person can land you not just in jail, but seven years hard labor!  Anyway, this local proceeded to tell me that several monks had been released after September so such information could be reported to the International press, however, he told me that many were still unaccounted for and that no one knew what had become of them.  
A side note....there are no ATM's in Burma and all banks have been closed down.  I had to carry a wad of cash in my bags and on my person the entire time I was there.  They also block access to personal e-mail!  Other than a place I found in the capital, I was not able to, in any other part of the country, access my e-mail account.  If you try to access it a notice in red letters comes across the screen that access is denied!  
After a very informative stay in Bagan I caught an internal flight on the local airline from Bagan to Inle Lake.  A gorgeous vast lake in the Eastern part of the country.  I shared a taxi from the airport into town with a young Vietnamese man who worked in Singapore.  We were both headed for the same hotel and after talking a bit realized that we had met the same man in Bagan who had suggested this hotel.  After reaching the hotel and realizing there was only one room left he graciously let me have it and he stayed across the street at another hotel.  We met up and went for an afternoon 5 hour hike.  We started off with a very basic map and vague directions from my hotel.  After happening upon a monks home we stopped and asked directions, we quickly realized he didn't speak English.  He, nonetheless took us to a nearby cave and showed us around as well as the immediate area.  After looking at the make shift map we had he pointed us in the right direction.  We set off and an hour later ended up in front of his home again.  He came out and laughed at us and offered us tea.  He then got his umbrella (protection from the sun and heat) and seemed to want to show us the way.  We followed him through the countryside and after a while tried to tell him he didn't need to take us the whole way.  He just kept shaking his head and saying "mama".  The Vietnamese guy "Kevin" figured he was taking us to see his mom.  He was right!  We eventually ended up in the same town we had started at.  We met his mother and the entire rest of the family (there were lots of them!).  After feeding us and giving us something to drink we tried to communicate a bit by using a dictionary in the back of my travel book.  We thanked them repeatedly and eventually continued on our way.  
Another day the Vietnamese guy, two Korean girls and I shared a long boat across and around Inle Lake.  It was huge and so peaceful.  We set out at 0700 and watched the fishermen starting their daily routine.  They were pretty amazing as they would stand alone on their boat balancing one foot on the boat whilst the other leg wrapped around the ore.  This put the effort of paddling on the leg thereby giving the arms a rest and the ability to fish.  One of my favorite places in Burma was on the South West side of the lake.  A place called Indein. An area of shrines and weather beaten stupas (Buddhist religious monuments).  
As you can imagine, there are very few tourist here compared with surrounding countries like Thailand and India.  I have to say the Burmese people are probably the nicest of anywhere in the world I have been and are incredibly hospitable despite their less than desirable living situation.

Coconut monkeys
In Mandalay with a group wanting my picture.  Why she held my hand, I do not know!
Girl selling flowers at the floating market.
My ride around Bagan.
A temple at Bagan.
Moving bricks.
One of the many temples at Bagan.
The monk that helped us find our way.
The monks home.
Following the monk through the dusty countryside.
Daily life as seen from the long boat on Inle Lake.
Fisherman on Inle Lake.
Daily life as seen from the long boat.