In true public transportation mode, I decline invitations from friends and neighbors to take me to the airport. Instead I take the Long beach 91 bus, the metro blue line, the mtro green line, and the final shuttle bus to get to Los Angeles International airport. It takes about an hour to do.
When I get to the airport I check in and sweet talk the Japanese ticket agent to get an emergency aisle seat for the first leg from Los Angeles to Tokyo. (This is a United Flight operated by the Japanese All Nipon Airlines and eventually going to Thailand.) The Tokyo to Bangkok flight is delayed but we keep getting our three announcements over the airplane intercom (One in English, one in Japanese, and one in Thai) that they will make up the delay in the air. And they surprising make up most of the delay.
At Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport I catch a free shuttle to a hotel near the airport since it is midnight. When I get to the hotel I discover that I have left the cable connecting my camera to my laptop at home so I'll have to go find a cheapie somewhere. I watch some television until about 1 am on Tuesday morning and aim for sleep.
I'm awake near 7 am and ready to start my day in Bangkok. Jet lag? What jet lag? Kava root extract, purchased from a health food store, has completely eliminated jet lag from my vocabulary for the past 12 years. After breakfast I move to a different hotel near Sukhumvit and then go walking as I typically do the first day (and since my new hotel room is not available). I ride the skytrain and walk and ride the train some more and walk and greet people in Thai and smile a lot and have a lot of fun ntil I start running out of steam - not jet lag steam, just sweaty walking steam, so to speak. So I get back to my hotel and my room is ready for me to relax in.
I spend the majority of Thursday just hanging out. My lower back is sore - probably from the beds in this new hotel that are as hard as the floor. Or maybe from the long flights on the previous days.
Regardless I take a taxi to Don Muang airport, the secondary airport in Bangkok. Don Muang used to be the only airport in Bangkok until they opened Suvharnabhumi about ten years ago. I get in line and say in Thai "I am going to Yangon, Myanmar". The conversation continues in Thai for a bit (as far as my Thai language skills will take me) until suddenly the agent gets up and runs away with my passport. I ask the second lady behind the counter (in Thai) "Where did he go?" but she doesn't know. I knew this was going to happen given the now-laundered condition of my passport and the almost empty availability of blank pages. The agent is gone for a while and I just keep looking back at the ever-lengthening line behind me with a blank "I don't know what's the problem" stare even though I know the problem. Eventually the agent returns and goes to English to explain that my passport is a bit in question because of the condition of it, the Myanmar visa is barely legible, and I may not be allowed back into Thailand after the trip to Myanmar because I have no blank pages left in my passport. I sweet talk this agent also with a 20% Thai, 80% English mixture of words about the my situation. He finally says, "You certainly CANNOT go to any other countries besides Myanmar and expect to get back into Thailand". I explain that I believe that I would only (possibly) go to Cambodia before going home to the USA (after going through Thailand) and now he's more confused than ever. But I explain that I have an expired Cambodia visa that I can re-use if I went to Cambodia. He still doesn't understand but we both continue to smile throughout the exchange. Finally he takes my checked bag, gives me my boarding pass for Yangon, and I'm on my way.
Except that I try to get through Thai immigration/passport control and now they don't like the condition of my passport. So I go into the story again and finally they say you are missing your Thai departure card. The agent is right - I have lost my departure card. So I leave the line re-fill in another departure card but now I'm stuck with a different passport control officer who is sitting right next to the first one. They are both speaking in rapid Thai that I cannot understand but they ARE pointing to the passport with strings falling off it and the illegible nature of the Myanmar visa. But they give me my departure stamp and I'm headed for the airplane gate for Yangon, Myanmar.
As I'm waiting for the flight to Myanmar the rain is just pouring down as hard as can be, so I'm glad that I'm inside today. But I'm afraid that the flight will be delayed. But the flight goes off 15 minutes late and now I have the Myanmar immigration challenge.
As I give my tattered and smudged passport to the Burmese immigration lady, I give her the traditional "min ga lar bar" Burmese greeting with my hands pressed together in front of me and a slight bow. She smiles and returns the greeting and this gets things rolling in the right direction. But son she's looking through the passport and calls another immigration lady over. She's a bit younger, but I give her the traditional Burmese verbal and gestural greeting and she also smiles and returns it. The two ladies are talking in Burmese (which I don't understand at all) and they are both pulling strings off the passport one at a time until the second one starts talking to me in English about my passport. I explain to her the tatterered condition and point out the pre-approved visa from the Republic of Myanmar Embassy in Washington, DC. They both end up smiling at each other and I get my stamps to proceed. I am now in Myanmar (again)!
I pick up my luggage and call my friend Shane, exchange some money, and he arives with a taxi. It's a 25 minute taxi ride to my hotel and I note how good condition the roads are in within Yangon and the absence of motorbikes. (Motorbikes are disallowed within the central city.) Shane hangs out with me at the hotel for a little while until he has to go tutor some of his students. And I plan out my morning of walking to discover Yangon.
I get up at 6:30 in the morning after having a nightmare that my house is under water and that there are plumbers digging around the entire yard. When I get out of bed there is water on the floor of my hotel. I almost slip and fall on the first step out of bed but hold on upright. Is the nightmare and hotel floor water a premonition of some sort? Later the hotel workers explain to me that they sometimes have this problem after heavy rains and when he air conditioning runs all night.
I grab breakfast at the hotel and then take a long walk completely around KandawgYi Lake. I go inside the natural park and lake and explore the pagodas and sites and sounds. On this ong walk, both around the park on sidewalks and inside the park, I greet many people with the Burmese "Min ga lar bar" and they all smile and return the greeting. The Burmese people seem so friendly. The walk ends up being almost three hours and I goo back to the hotel for a shower and a rest.
At 1 pm Shane is supposed to come to my hotel but it is pouring rain like crazy! The American midwest or Cambodia have nothing on the rain onslaught levels. We were supposed to go to the famous Shenwe Dagon Pagoda but we change plans to grab a taxi to an idnoor mall and pick up some of the supplies that we've been talking about. Except that it is idfficult to get a taxi so we end up walking under umbrellas and through foot deep puddles to a place where taxis hang out and we can get a reasonale price. I slow us down quite a bit during the shopping because I want to take the time and study all of the Burmese products or American products marked in the Burmese language. When Shane points out the salon where he ges his hair cut and colored and he tells me it costs $3, I almost fall over. I have to explain hat the cheapest haircuts in the USA at a place like Supercuts is $20. And now he almost falls over. But the rain quits and we walk over to a pagoda.
When Shane and I get to the entrance of the Gracefullness and Peaceful World Pagoda, we have to take our sandals and/or shoes and socks off. When I take off my shoes and socks Shane starts to giggle and apologize and giggle some more. I know what he's giggling about, but I play dumb and ask him what's he's laughing about. He says that he's never seen feet so white before. I've heard this before, but I have to explain to him that my feet have never seen the sun because they've always been in running shoes, ice skates, or cycling shoes. We go into the pagoda and pay our respects and pray for the things that are appropriate for a pagoda that has the word "peaceful" in it.
Shane heads for home and I get a taxi for the hotel. The taxi driver learned English in India (though he is Burmese) and we spend the traffic jam time jabbering away about economics and learning and work and neighboring countries. I have a slow relaxing evening in advance of a long Saturday.
I think back about something that Shane said to me today. As we were leaving the shopping mall he said "You were the superstar of the mall". I don't know what he means and query him. And he explains that everybody that you walked by was excited because you smiled at them and said "min ga lar bar" to them. They don't see foreigners in the mall often (which I noticed) but the foreigners NEVER say anything in Burmese.
Saturday starts as a disaster. After getting up and having breakfast, Shane meets me at the lobby of my hotel near 10 am to go buy an iPad. But various shops don't accept credit cards or an expensive price and we must have taken 5 taxi rides and done a lot of walking before changing enough money to the right currency and finding he right price. Finally Shane has his iPad. As the people at the shop set the iPad up all of the salespeople, who are young Burmese women, wantt to talk with me either in their very limited English skills or through Shane. So we spend almost an hour having the iPad set up properly and a screen saver put on and a case and talking about things. By the time we finished the entire transaction the daily Yangon downpour has started and the young Burmese salespeople have given me the nickname "Never-Ending Smile".
We get a taxi and it's a farily long ride to Shane's home and the rain has quit by the time that we arrive there. I get to meet Shane's mother, his sister, his teacher, his brother-in-law, a number of students in a weekend school (since Shane's mother is a teacher), and a number of other students there for a reason that I don't quite figure out. Shane's mother has cooked a delicious vegetarian Burmese lunch for us and we talk about a lot of things throughout lunch. Shane's mother has a rudimentary grasp of English, but every other conversation has to be translated via Shane. I like all of the people that I am introduced to and by the end of he conversation the entire family has also made a number of comments about my never-ending smile. I just tell them the story of how I greet everyone with the Burmese "min ga lar bar" and they give me a big smile and greeting back - so it's the Burmese people who also have the big smiles!
Shane and I grab umbrellas for the sun now and walk over to two pagodas - one with a huge Buddha image (or statue) and called the white pagoda. (Though I don't know why because it isn't that dominantly white.) Since we are near the outskirts of Yangon, rather than downtown, I get a lot of looks because I am a foreigner and I don't see a single foreigner on this excursion to Shane's home area. But I greet so many people in the Burmese language and they cannot help but smile with me. Finally we rest for a bit at Shane's home before I grab a taxi and go back to my hotel - dripping in sweat from the intense heat after the rain.
On Sunday Shane meets me at my hotel at 10 am and we walk over to the Shwe Dagon Pagoda - the keystone temple/pagoda in Myanmar. It's a hot day even with umbreallas but we walk around the giant pagoda and keep talking about things. At one point I see a telescope that people look up at the top of the pafoda with and the view through the telescope startles me. When viewed throught the telescope one can see the detail of gold chains and carvings hanging from platforms all of the way up the pagoda. I have to look into the telescope and just with the naked eye back and forth a few times to realize how high up these platforms are and how tall the pagoda actually is.
After we finish at Shwe Dagon pagoda I check out of the hotel and take my things via taxi to Shane's house. I'm greeted again by many people and I hang out while students come and go (even on Sunday). When Shane goes to teach his pupils for 90 minutes I have interesting conversations with Shane's mother and a former teacher and later a classmate. Near 5 pm we grab a taxi and go to the bus station for a 6 pm bus to Mandalay. Except that Shan'es brother-in-law bought the tickets for Saturday, not Sunday. So we have to buy more tickets. The bus ride that was described to me as a 6 hour ride becomes 9 hours as we arrive in Mandalay at 3 am on Monday morning. A short taxi ride where the taxis drivers do not know where to go because this is a new hotel gets us to the hotel at 3:30 am.
On Monday Shane and I get up and have breakfast. We do some walking around Mandalay and again my ATM card does not work. So after buying some camera batteries, we go back to the hotel and I spend a lot of time via Skype to Chase bank to try to solve the problem. Finally they give me an emergency PIN to use a credit card in an ATM machine though it comes with a cash advance fee.
Near 1 pm one of Shane's friends takes us via motorbikes to the largest pagoda in Mandalay. We spend a couple hours in the mid-day heat walking around the pagoda, saying prayers as necessary, and greeting the Burmese people who are probably used to seeing foreigners here but not being greeted in their own language. After a while we sit in the shade with cold refreshments and talk before heading back to the hotel (because Shane's friend has students to tutor).
Later on Monday another one of Shane's friends comes to visit and we go via motorbikes to the Mandalay mountain pagoda. This involves the typical chaotic motorbike ride through the city but then a good climb with hairpin turns to get to the pagoda. With 110cc bikes and me on the back, the mototaxi driver has to drop to first gear for a couple of the slow, steep corners. But we have a great view over Mandalay and the surrounding mountains. Afterwards we go back to the hotel and Shane visits another friend for a short time while I go take a cool shower and relax.
Tuesday is blazing hot in Mandalay so we run some errands including buying gifts for Shane's mother (who has never been to Mandalay though she has lived her entire life in Myanmar) and her students. We also buy a bus ticket for the return run to Yangon on Wednesday. Because of the heat it is a slow day until 8:30 pm.
At 8:30 Ko comes over on his motorbike and Ko, Shane, and I squeeze three people onto a 110 cc motorbike for a fairly short ride to meet another friend, Phyu. We also meet up with Aung and Htet on their own motorbike. Thus we have 6 people on three motorbikes taking a long ride out to a wooden bridge over the Daunz river. The long ride involves fairly high speed, many bumpy and gravelly roads, and lots of kicked up dust. The 6 of us sit down and have cold drinks and are joined by Shane's friend from Yangon, Zey, and his partner Min Shan. Zey and Min Shan only stay a short time, so the remaining 6 of us take a walk halfway across the wooden bridge over the Daunz river. Since it is so dark, it is hard to see where I'm going (with older eyes) and I see that there is no rope or guard along the side of the bridge. And I wondering if the bridge was meant to hold a big guy like me. But we have a fun trip and the 6 of us eventually return to my hotel - passing along some now-deserted streets except for a number of people who are actually sleeping halfway into the traffic lanes. Or at least I think or hope that they are sleeping. But that is not the end of the evening.
When we stop at the hotel Htet suggests that we take a short trip to the royal palace. So away we go. But before we can get to the exact spot that we want Ko has a flay front tire on his motorbike. With a various combinations of phone calls and tag-riding, Ko gets his front tire fixed in 30 minutes or so. While the repairs are occuring the rest of us take walk along the moat of the royal palace (that we actually passed on the way to Mandalay Mountain the previous day). As we are walking Shane tells me not to greet anyone or talk to anyone. From the previos night's driveby and today's walkby, I can see that there are many unsavory types hanging out here including money boys and money girls. At one point we turn around from our walk and just go sit by the original flat tire spot and wait out the repair. When the repair is finished Shane and I get dropped off at the hotel before midnight.
Wednesday is pretty much the all-day bus ride return to Yangon. This is a daytime ride so I get to see the very beautiful country side of the country as well as the hard-working farmers. At one point I tell Shane that I need to get a picture taken alongside a Burmese ox, but it does't quite happen because the bus stops are not close enough to farms to make it happen. When we get near te bus station Shane is worried about getting to his class to teach so we jump out of the bus and grab a crazy taxi driver. He drops Shane off at his house to teach and continues to drive me to my hotel. The hotel is located on Insein Road - which is appropriate for the way this taxi driver drives. He seems to think that if he beeps his horn than everyone will get out of his way. It actually works because we make it to the hotel with no contact and no dead pedestrians or cyclists along the way.
This last hotel is pretty much the worst of the bunch, so its fortunate that it is only for one night. The air conditioning is strong, but everything else is very antiquated and broken down and the Internet is slower than can be believed. It takes minutes to try and load a simple yahoo mail login form. It's actually what I expected most of the hotels to be like in Myanmar.
Later I go out walking for snacks and greet many people with the traditional Burmese "min ga lar bar" and get a lot of smiles and greetings back. I get more return smiles and greetings when I'm alone than when I'm with other Burmese people. But only barely more.
On Thursday I have a bit of a sore throat so I just hang out at the hotel and don't do much until it is time to head over to the airport. I get to the airport early (as usual) and meet up with Shane. He has insisted on coming to the airport for a short visit and seeing that I get away okay. But the wait is long and he has to leave to go teach his students before I even check in for the flight. We say our goodbyes, I give him (most) of the rest of my Myanmar money, and pray to make it past the airline ticket agents and Myanmar immigration with the tatterred and washed-out passport. But this time I zip right through.
I make it through Thai immigration with no problem except that the immigration lady is laughing with me because she can't find a blank age to use in my passport. I tell her just to staple over another and let me go on in. She wishes me a good trip (in Thai) as we smile at each other and I walk away. By the time I get to the baggage carousel my bag is just coming out of the shoot. And the taxi line is short.
I get to the hotel and check in and Karl is not in his room. I call Mr Tree and get a shock when it turns out that Karl and Mr Tree went to the airport to meet me and are waiting for me at the airport. I just can't stop from laughing at the situation and I finally give them my room number and they say they will come back to the hotel and my room soon.
Seeing that I have left Myanmar, I can now admit that was in the country on the birthday of Myanmar's Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kvi on 19 June. I can also admit that I had one of three or maybe four "So this is how it ends..." moments during my visit to Myanmar. (The other two I can recall were during civil war...I mean...civil strife in El Salvador and being pulled off a bus at gunpoint by 16 year old security forces in the Guatemalan mountains as guerilla warfare raged in that country.) We won't be talking about this "So this is how it ends..." moment.
On Friday Karl and I head for the Ekimai bus station and get on a bus for Pattaya because he has a Thai friend who lives there. When we get to the hotel we check in and call Karl's friend. The friend in turn calls my friend Tree who is now mad at us because we were supposed to wait at Ekimai for him, not Pattaya. He waited at the Ekimai bus station for an hour before turning back and going home.
After a couple hours we return to the club that was playing traditional Thai music (that I was enjoying). Somehow the music has become Isaan province music - the same type of music that was played at the concert last December where I dozed off at the concert. Isaan province music is like off key country music. I try to tmake the best of the situation and vow to not get myself into this situation again in the future. By the tim we are leaving as it approaches 3 am I have phone numbers from people that I've spoken with in mixed Thai and English.
On Saturday everyone sleeps a bit late but I get up and have breakfast at the hotel and then wait for others to go. Karl and I have lunch while I just have a Sprite since I had breakfast (and they did not). Near 1pm Karl and I go in search of a department store for supplies. On the way walking to the department store I strike up a conversation with two Thai people and soon there is the possibility of hanging ou with them tonight also. I tell them to call my room and we can see if we can work something out. I have more luck at the department store than Karl does as I get all of the supplies that I need while ne can't quite find a replacement travel bag for one that has just ripped along he zipper as we checked into this hotel.
Near 9 pm on Saturday Karl and I head for dinner, some bag shopping, and clubbing. I'm continuing to feel worse as the evening wears on, but we have fun anyway. We stop in at Kawaii Club where the two Thai people work. It's not until I get into the club and see that it is a gogo boy club that I realize what line of work they are in. Nonetheless they are nowhere to be found and Karl I sit and have a drink (I'm having Coke) and listen to some good house/techno/trance music. There is one gogo boy that keeps smiling at me and I keep smiling at him - perhaps he thinks he is going to have a customer tonight. But not a chance. Though on the way out of the club I lag behind Karl and put 100 That Baht (about $3) in his hand. He looks confused because most people would put it in his underwear, but then I just put it in his hand and grab his other hand briefly as I walk out the door without looking back.
We get a ride to the second club and there is also good house/techno/trance music playing though the club is packed with tables (to get people to spend money on drinking) rather than an open space for a dance floor. This music is too good though so Karl and I move a few tables around and create some space to at least move around to the music. A few other people follow suit but the tables are still there. We have fun until only about 1:30 and we walk on back to the hotel.
On Sunday morning I feel horrible with my sinuses and nose and throat and I'm glad that I self-medicated with a wide spectrum antibiotic which is prescription in the US but over-the-counter here. Nonetheless I have a quite day resting until Karl and I do to have a very late lunch, finally get Karl his travel bag, and pick up the laundry that we dropped off yesterday.
Later on Sunday we go wandering around Pattaya to see a movie. The times don't fit our schedule well so we eat dinnr first and hang out. By this time I am ready for sleep and I beg off of the movie - arriving back at my hotel at 8:35 pm. (I probably would have fallen asleep during the movie anyway.)
On Monday Karl and I take a bus back to the Bangkok Ekimai bus station, ride the skytrain to the MBK shopping center to have lunch, then get back on the skytrain to get to airport, and take a flight down to Phuket Island. We grab a wildcat taxi for a cheap fare and get to our hotel. As we start walking towards the water less than 1 km away, the district starts getting seedier and seedier and pretty soon we are among all of the bars and clubs that we had hoped to avoid. But we plow through all of the barkers and find a nice restaurant with great Indian food. And we make our way back to the hotel for some needed sleep.