Ben, Braden, Emily and I took the bus that SAS provided into the city and hightailed it up to the Shwedagon Pagoda. It is also known as the Great Dragon Pagoda and the Golden Pagoda and is a 99 meter (325 ft.) tall pagoda. It is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda for the Burmese with relics of the past four Buddhas enshrined in it. One of the most interesting things about Burma is that it such a poor country with deteriorating buildings and dirt roads, but then there are huge golden pagodas all over the country.
One of the traditions the Burmese have is they buy very thin sheets of gold and rub it onto some statues of the Buddha for good luck. As Ben and I walked past one of the women who were selling these sheets, a monk approached us and asked if we wanted to do it. We paid $5 and received 11 of these tiny sheets of gold wrapped in paper so they would not stick together. The monk then took us over to one of the statues and showed us how to rub it on. It was such an amazing experience to have him help us through the process and explain how to do it and what it meant.
After the pagoda, Braden, Emily, Ben and I took a taxi to Chinatown to try to find some dinner. We stumbled upon a hole in the wall Chinese restaurant and were the only customers in there. Unsure of what to get, we all pointed at random things on the menu and hoped for the best. I ended up getting the crispy sour and hot chicken that tasted a lot like spicy chicken wings without any sauce. I could barely eat 4 pieces before my mouth was on fire and I had to settle for rice. We saw a giant spider as big as my fist (no lie) on the wall and I was terrified. If you know anything about me, you’d know I don’t do spiders or snakes, so the wait staff found it very amusing how scared I was. On the way out, one even joked there was a spider on me, which of course I believed. At least they got a good laugh out of it.
We took the hour and a half bus ride back to the ship at 11 and had time to pack and get some sleep. The next morning, Cassie, Anna and I all got ready and made it up to breakfast by 7. We were all on the SAS trip together to go to Ngwe Saung Beach and Elephant Camp, just on different buses. There were 115 people total split into 4 buses and 2 hotels. My bus had 28 people, including Kayla and Ben, so we were all able to spread out and have two seats for ourselves for the “5 hour” bus ride. Someone clearly read the map wrong because our 5 hour ride ended up being 11 hours with stops.
We left the ship at 7:30 and had our first break for lunch at 2:30. We had stopped at a hotel and had the banquet hall for ourselves, and had food that looked relatively similar to all of the other Asian cuisines we have encountered. We then got back on the bus and drove roughly 30 minutes to a parasol factory where we had the chance to watch them make the parasols, and if we wanted we could buy one. About 10 minutes into our visit, I sliced my foot on a bamboo pole and was “that girl who needed the first aid kit already.” Because this was Burma, and the pre-port made it sound like if you had an open wound you would catch 10 different diseases and parasites, I certain this would happen to me. Luckily, I am still alive to tell the tale, so no serious consequences happened.
Our drive then took another 4 hours to finally get to the beach. On the tale end, we drove through mountains that looked like they came out of a Dr. Seuss book. The road was full of sharp twists and curves and palm trees covered the mountains. When we arrived at our hotel, I was blown away. I didn’t really know what to expect of a Burmese “resort” but it was actually really nice. In my room, I shared a king size bed with my roommate, we had AC and electricity the entire time, and hot water ran for the majority of the day. I was feeling pretty good about it until one of the guys down the hall found an even bigger spider in his room. At that point, my roommate and I were terrified and had a lot of trouble falling asleep that night.
After we put our bags down, Ben, Kayla, Josh and I walked into the little town that was just down the road to have dinner. We found an outdoor restaurant and looked to be the first customers of the day. The menu was in English, so it was a lot easier to determine what we wanted. We all got some type of chicken dish and all approved of the place. When the power went out during the middle of the meal (this is very common in Burma) the wait staff brought out candles and we finished our meal with that. After we left, we walked down to the beach and walked back to our hotel and saw some fireworks on our way.
The next day, we had the morning at our leisure so we all went to the pool/beach. We had lunch at the pool and then got back and changed by 1 when we left for a local village and school visit. We first walked through the village, and strangely enough our tour guide walked us into different houses that people were living in. It felt awkward, but I’m actually glad we had the chance to see the inside of the homes. There was rarely electricity or running water, and the homes mainly consisted of open space in the middle with a few possessions lining the walls. There was generally a separate, smaller house in the back that was used as the kitchen.
While on the village visit, we stopped at a preschool where the children sang their ABCs, 123s and also the Burmese version of both. They were all so cute and all seemed so proud to be able to show off to us. One of the girls in our group bought them all snacks and “Charity Ball Tom” (a guy who brought 500 soccer balls on the ship to give away to schools and kids) gave away 10 balls to them.
After the preschool, we went to a high school and met with some older students. SAS donated about $1,000 to the school that was collected as part of our fee for the trip. Generally, teachers in Burma make $5 a month, and there are school fees for the students that add up to about $30 a month. We then got to meet with a bunch of the students and played soccer with them. Charity Ball Tom was back at it, and donated another 10 balls to the school.
We then went to Lover’s Island, a small island that was only accessible by land in the afternoon because of the tides. Legend has it that if you take a picture with the mermaid statue, it will bring you good luck with love. We walked around the island for about 45 minutes and then got back on the bus to get back to the hotel.
After our visit, we went back to the hotel and changed into our suits to hit the pool. We watched the sunset from the pool with happy hour. It is so hard to believe that this is college. We have to keep reminding ourselves of how lucky we are that we have the chance to travel the world and still get college credit for it. This is not a spring break, this is a spring semester!
After dinner, Kayla, Gabby, Ben and I walked along the beach and ran into a few locals having a bonfire. They invited us over and we started talking. They knew a little English, and they tried to teach us some Burmese including “beautiful,” “cheers,” “thank you,” and “friend.” We then sang “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” and “Gangam Style” because these seemed to be the two songs they knew in English. They sang a few traditional songs and tried to teach us a dance, and then we tried to teach them the Cotton Eye-Joe. They had also pulled out a really nice camera and wanted pictures with us. We stayed with them for about an hour, and then noticed how late it was and had to get back. They were all so friendly and welcoming; it was a lot of fun to hang out with them. The next day in the village, Kayla was walking down one of the streets and one of the guys recognized her and invited her in to meet his grandma and aunt and they had tea together.
The next morning, we woke up and were on the bus by 7:30 so we could get to the elephant camp at 8. There were 5 elephants when we got there, and we had the chance to buy sugar cane and bananas to feed them. The elephants were awesome. Really small though, but I think that's just because Asian elephants are smaller than their African counterparts. After getting a ton of pictures and feeding them for a while, the first group of people got to ride them. I rode with Kayla on a small one and the seating arrangement was actually really uncomfortable. It was this wooden basket you had to sit in, and it felt like you were going to fall out of it the entire time. We rode for about 30 minutes through the jungle before we came back to the camp. When I say through the jungle, I mean THROUGH the jungle. This poor elephant was trekking up steep mountains and over fallen logs and then through the water. There was definitely no easy path to get where we went.
After our ride, the next group of people went and we had the chance to visit the day care that was on the property. The ages of the kids varied between 1 and 9, and these were apparently all of the kids of the workers at the camp. They sang and danced for us, and we did the hokey pokey and chicken dance with them.
After the camp, we spent the rest of the afternoon at the beach and pool until our farewell dinner at the hotel. Our tour guide brought in a local band and she danced for us. The dinner consisted of a lot of seafood, including a corn and crab soup which made me crave some good-old Maryland steamed crabs. After dinner, we went back to the hotel and packed up our bags. I turned on the TV and to my surprise, was able to watch an episode of 24 before falling asleep.
The next morning, we had a 4:30 wakeup call and left the hotel by 5. We had a boxed breakfast of 2 slices of bread and butter, a hardboiled egg and a banana. The drive back took just as long, but we were racing the clock because we had to leave the dock by 4 in order to get the tide. Luckily, we were VIP status and had a police escort the entire way back to the ship. They redirected traffic for us the whole time, and aside from our 45 minute lunch break we made no stops. We got to the ship in plenty of time, and got to finally shower with normal water pressure.
The face paint that were on the kids in the pictures is called thanaka is a cosmetic paste made from tree bark. It is used to keep the Burmese people cool, and our tour guide even let us put some on, too. You could tell the difference of feeling cooler once it was on, and a few people on the trip bought some. Another fashion trend in Burma was the man skirt, also known as the longyi, a long skirt worn by men. In the picture below, Ben is wearing the one he bought while we were there.
When I left pre-port the night before Burma, I was convinced I was going to get bit by a Burmese Python and catch some parasite that the clinic would not be able to fix. I was also prepared to see a lot of poverty, a lot of pagodas and a lot of men wearing skirts. I can only confirm the last two were true. Burma is a place I had no prior knowledge about before this voyage. I went into this country not knowing what to expect aside from what I had learned in the video They Call it Myanmar, a documentary we watched in my communications class. Even then, it painted a very inaccurate picture from what it actually is.
Burma is under a military government, and I was expecting to feel a lot of “big brother is watching.” In the documentary, it explained videotaping and photography were not allowed, and everyone you met would be hesitant or unwilling to converse. Tom, the dean who was here the last time the MV Explorer went to Burma, said that he asked one man his name and the man replied with “Why do you need to know?” I was expecting to get off the ship and feel as though I had just stepped inside a very paranoid country.
When we arrived in port, there was a huge banner that read Welcome to Myanmar, MV Explorer! Everyone who I interacted with was very welcoming and kind to us. They were all so intrigued that we were from America, and kept repeating “Obama!” We met one man in the village who had only ever seen German tourists, and was excited to see Americans because the Germans were not as friendly. Burma is a thriving country, even if it is the poorest in Asia. The people all seem happy with where they are. I hope to one day come back and see where they are in 10 years because this country has so much potential. Its citizens are so friendly and warm, and I loved my time here.
ps: I promise my post for Cambodia is coming! It will hopefully be up before I get off the ship for India :) Thanks for reading!