Shannon Conrad, '98, was an International Studies major. She taught English at Hangzhou University after
she graduated, and remained in China some months after that. In February 1999, she and a friend began a five-month
trip through Asia. In these two e-mail letters, she describes her adventures in Phnom Penh,
Angkor Wat (Cambodia), and Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay
and Inlay Lake (Burma). The story ends in Calcutta, "City
of Death, City of Joy." There are useful travel tips here, as well as details of life and politics in these
places, and Shannon's priceless experiences, such as getting kissed by a Buddhist nun -- on Valentine's Day!
Dear Friends and Family,
Greetings from sweltering Thailand. Claudia and I have been here for the past 5 days working out visas and cheap
air tickets for our trip. We are leaving this evening for Koh Tao-- a small island about 14 hours (by bus and boat)
south of here. There I will do my advanced course for Scuba diving, and Claudia will do some intro dives.... and
aside from that we will just laze about in a hammock somewhere, remembering exactly how cold it is back in China
After leaving Hangzhou on Feb. 3, we flew to Shenzhen (city on the southern border of China) and took the KMTR
train into Hong Kong. We stayed with Morten ( a Danish friend from Hangzhou) at his posh house out in the New Territories
(Sai Kung). It was amazing-- such a different Hong Kong experience for me, as I've always stayed downtown in either
the touristy or business district. Morten's place was close to a wonderful vista of the South China Sea -- wonderful
Feng Shui up there.
Claudia was a bit sick when we arrived -- she had just been teaching in unheated classrooms for the 10 days prior
to our leaving in a heroic attempt to make as much money as possible for our trip. thankfully that worked, and
she was happy. We had a wonderful time with Morten in Hong Kong -- met some of his friends from the company, and
had some wonderful dinner parties. Most memorable in our days in Hong Kong, is cruising around in Morten's convertible
-- up into the hills of the Northern Territory, and in the downtown area. Chinese New Year was relatively quiet,
aside from all the firecrackers and dragon dancing outside, and we made it to a nice hotel to see the fireworks
over the Hong Kong harbor. We spent a bit more time than we estimated in Hong Kong, as all the businesses (read:
travel agencies) were closed for the New Year. As soon as they were open again, we found an incredibly cheap air
ticket to Cambodia (200 US dollars), and headed down to Phnom Penh to visit a friend from North Dakota (actually
the son of my mother's friend and his wife) who do NGO work there.
So after 6 days in Hong Kong, we flew to Phnom Penh. We were able to get our visas in
the airport on arrival and Michael picked us up on his lunch hour. He gave us a brief tour about town, and pointed
out some simple landmarks so we could find our way around. After he went back to work, Claudia and I borrowed their
bicycles, and biked around the city-- in similar biking fashion to china (read: road rules are merely "suggestions"),
it was great fun. We biked by the Palace, Democracy Monument, and some of the old Wats (temples) in town.
Staying with Michael and Dora in Phnom Penh was wonderful, as we got some great insider information about NGO work
in developing countries. Maybe next summer I could do some NGO work in Phnom Penh before grad school.... who knows.
Cambodia was definitely an eye opener-- we saw naked babies, about a year old on the side of street corners, their
stomachs swollen from worms, begging for money... "hello, hello" he said, while holding out his hand--
probably the only word the kid knows...Where are the parents? Are there parents? Or is he just a little street
kid, abandoned...How could I -not- give money (I'm going to have problems in India, I know). There were so many
people begging there -- Amputee's – most had been in the army, then were discharged after "discovering"
a mine the repercussions of not receiving any disability assistance. (And we've just read in the Bangkok Post that
the NGO doing de-mining is closing next year, due to a lack of funds... it takes 5 dollars to create and plant
a landmine, but 500 to remove it......Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world-- at an
estimated 4-6 million landmines, there is nearly one mine for every rural inhabitant. Much of the usable farmland
is mined, and at the rate of clearing it's going to take 25 to 30 years to finish.. -if- this NGO does not go belly
And some stats from The NGO poverty assessment book Mike got us...
*AIDS is the third biggest cause of death in Cambodia after Tuberculosis and Malaria. In the next 15 years, the
AIDS epidemic in Cambodia is estimated to rival that of sub-Saharan Africa, due to brothels and ill equipped hospitals.
Current estimates of infection are 2-3 % of the population.
*it's one of the poorest countries in the world, 140 out of 174 on the UNDP (United Nations Development Program)
*Per capita income is 280 dollars a year.
*average house hold size is 5.8 people
*marriage still commonly arranged average age 17-19, lower in rural areas
* 46 percent of adults 15 and up are illiterate
* average schooling ranges from 2. 7 years (poor) to 5 years (rich)
* huge internal displacement/genocide under Pol Pot's regime
*Cambodia has experienced more than 2 decades of civil war, and between 1975 and 1979 75-80 percent of teachers
and secondary school students fled or were murdered in an attempt to create a peasant-based agrarian communist
society (right after the Cultural Revolution in China which had similar goals)
And it's incredible for me to know the violent history these people endured, yet also see how warm and friendly
they are. It's an amazing contrast, and one that I can not quite fathom.....
And we did a lot of touring, one day Claudia and I took a motorbike out to the killing fields and the school-turned
prison to learn more of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot's regime.... on a happier note, we also visited the palace,
and Silver Pagoda (the floor is made from actual blocks of silver), we discovered an inexpensive gem shop (rubies
emeralds and sapphires are mined in Cambodia), and discovered the joys of getting a fruit shake and watching Cambodian
street life pass us by.
After 4 days in Cambodia, we took a speedboat up to Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat is located.
Ever since my Junior year art history course, I've wanted to visit. ( Thank Buddha flights from China to Bangkok
were sold out and we had to take the circuitous route to India !!!!). We bought the 3 day Wat pass, and saw temple
after temple. It was incredible, and incredibly hot and sticky.
On Valentines day we watched Buddhist monks lining up for their lunch... there was a huge procession outside one
of the watts, with monks and novices lined up as far as the eye could see. We sat and watched for awhile, and took
some pictures. Surprisingly, we found that people in Cambodia love to be photographed (my double flash red eye
reduction was a hit). As we were taking pictures, a nun came up to us to talk, but spoke no English, and our Khmer
is limited to, "hello", "thank you", "cow" and "monkey". She asked us for
a donation, and I gave her a dollar.... a rather generous one, as there are 3500 riel to the dollar, and the usual
donation is 500 riel. She was ECSTATIC..... and gave me a big kiss. It was rather funny as I was totally caught
off guard, and was almost knocked over by her enthusiasm. That was Valentines day..... and being kissed by a Buddhist
nun on Valentines day of all days has got be augur good traveling karma, I think. After that, we visited a few
more temples, and hiked to the top of one to watch the sun set. A truly amazing end to a beautiful day.
The next day we were a bit templed out, and instead visited a monastery near town, where we met two monks who spoke
English, Dara (19) and Kyme (21). We spent the morning talking with them. They both entered the monkhood as they
did hot have money to pay for more schooling. As a monk they were required to meditate in the mornings from 5-7,
then they had the rest of the day free. Dara taught English to other monks and laychildren, and studied in his
free time. His dream is getting a scholarship to study in another country, and then eventually working for an NGO
or other organization that would help the Cambodian people. He knew nothing of Buddhism before becoming a monk,
but enjoys his life as a monk, for as he said, it gives him a place to live, 2 meals (brekky and lunch) a day (they
are not allowed to eat in the evening) and lots of free time to spend as he wishes. They invited us back in the
evening to watch our last Cambodian sunset from the roof of the monastery....which of course we agreed to. They
were such great guys-- so interesting and open. It's easy to romanticize the austere life of a monk, but once you
actually befriend some, and hear talk with them about their dreams of the future ( Dara wants a foreign girlfriend),
and watch them joke around while wearing your sunglasses and hat, it provides a much more realistic view of Buddhism
here--a wonderful vehicle for education and merit for families.
On the 17th we left Siem Reap, bound for Bangkok. We chose the "hard core" overland travel option, and
12 hours and 17 dollars later, we arrived in Bangkok. The trip overland from Siem Reap to the Thai border was "adventurous"
as promised. We were crammed in the back of a pickup, and the roads were terrible. And I don't think one knows
exactly what I mean until you see them. Potholes two feet deep and 5 feet wide... bump bump bump. Claudia even
decided to be even more adventurous and ride in the back of their pickup truck, on top of our bags amidst the swirling
dust. She said that it was much more comfortable, even in the sun, than being crammed in the backseat.
At times the roads were so bad we had to drive in the rice paddy fields though one of the most heavily mined areas
of all Cambodia (followed the path that other cars had taken), and arrived at the border without incident.
It was such a funny border crossing-- we could have just walked across and no one would have checked out papers.
After a bit of time in line, we were officially stamped out of Cambodia and into Thailand. the journey to Bangkok
was MUCH more pleasant-- there was an air-conditioned bus to Bangkok for 4 dollars that left every half hour. We
got to Bangkok, and our little guesthouse here on Khao San road (2 dollars a night) in time for dinner.
We've been in Bangkok for about 6 days now, and have visited nearly every travel agent looking for the best price
to India. Many tourists have problems here as they buy air tickets, which are incredibly cheap here ion Thailand,
but once they get to the airport, their ticket is only a waiting list ticket, or it's already expired.... we've
met a few rather sketchy travel agents, and finally found one we liked today. WE got our ticket on Bangladesh airlines
form here to Burma (Yangon) for the 5th of March. On the 19th we fly from Yangon to Dhaka, and on the 20th we continue
on to Calcutta. I will be celebrating my 25th birthday in an airport hotel in Bangladesh this year. And all of
this for only 180 US dollars.
As we have two weeks in Burma, we are going to do a little triangle tour around the country, and avidly support
the black market. We've already met a few people who have been to Burma, and are already getting advice on how
to get out of changing the obligatory 300 dollars each into Foreign Exchange Certificates (which directly support
the government). There is absolutely no way we could spend 300 dollars each in two weeks, unless we stay at 5 star
hotels every night....and then it is next to impossible to re-exchange the FEC's for dollars. We've been advised
to either bribe the guy at the exchange window by giving him a $10 "present" for allowing us to change
300 between the two of us, to hiding out in the airport bathroom until a mass of people go through, to saying we
only have 300 dollars total with us, and wait there for 2-5 hours until they get tired of us, and let us through
anyway. I'll let you know in a future email which devious plan we attempt (unless we do all three). Oh, adventure!
Right now I am sitting in the lobby of a guesthouse off Khao San Road (backpacker haven) typing all of you before
boarding the bus to Koh Tao tonight at 7. Claudia has just gone on a Street food- Pahd Thai (fried Thai noodles--
for 30 cents-- mmmm) run.
I will be in touch with more adventures in a couple of weeks again...most likely from India, as I'm not sure how
easy it will be to email in Burma.
Burma, Bangladesh, and India
Dear Family and Friends,
After our wonderfully relaxing stay in Thailand, Claudia and I flew off for two weeks in Myanmar (Burma) as a stopover
before reaching India. We leave for Calcutta, vis a quick overnight in Dhaka tomorrow. We a night and a day in
Dhaka, Bangladesh, and now are in Calcutta.
Traveling in Burma has been fascinating -- it is both one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, and one of
those least touched by western influence.
When arriving in the Yangon airport, I was extremely nervous about bribing the official to let us change only 300
dollars between the two of us, instead of the required 300 dollars each. Luckily the official was very nice, and
just asked if we could give her a "present" instead (which we assured her we could) and let us off easy.
We assumed she had just taken the aforementioned present out of the envelope of Foreign Exchange Currency (FEC)
she gave us, though when we counted it outside the airport, we realized we had gotten away without giving a present!
Wonderful: that saved us 5-10 dollars there!
We then took a taxi to our guesthouse in the middle of downtown. Guesthouses here are relatively cheap from western
standards, though high for Asian standards at 3-4 USD per person. Being here is almost like being in a different
world -- or at least being back in time. Most people -- men and women wear the traditional Longji , or sarong-type
skirt. Women and children paint their faces with a paste made out of a yellow root for sun protection (pictures
to follow). Burma is still relatively unvisited by many tourists, and even in the capital city we were a bit of
As we only had 2 weeks there, and wanted to see as much of the country as possible in that time, we arranged to
leave Yangon for Bagan in the north as soon as we could. After purchasing bus tickets to Bagan (about 16 hours
and 6 dollars away), we did some sightseeing around the city. We visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is located
in the central part of the city-- about a 20 minute walk from our guesthouse. This pagoda is the most sacred pagoda
in Burma, and it is absolutely stunning. It's absolutely huge, with many large gold pagodas, some topped with diamonds
and other precious stones. There we met a man who explained the significance of some of the rituals we watched.
There are different shrines for days of the week. Burmese horoscopes are determines as to the day one was born,
rather than the year (Chinese) or month and day (western). My birthday 3-19-75 was on a Wednesday, and my astrological
sign therefore is an elephant with tusks (as opposed to one without tusks for those born in the afternoon of Wednesday).
(Claudia, by the way is a Tiger -- Monday). He helped us locate our shrines, and there we poured water over the
various structures and gave an offering of kyat (local money) for good luck in the following year. Fascinating.
Claudia and I sat there and watched the sunset at the pagoda, while listening to the Buddhist nuns sing and chant
in the background -- truly a magical experience. As was typical in China, a foreign face was more of a tourist
attraction than the temple itself, and I think I had pictures taken with at least 10 different groups of people.
The bus trip, in itself, was rather uneventful. Just long and uncomfortable. We were unable to sleep more than
2-3 hours. All in all it took 16 hours which included one hour for changing a tire at 4 am. Though the distance
is not all that great, the roads are pretty bad, and we seems to stop every 15 minutes or so (toll booths??).
The bus was a very very very run down version of long distance busses, yet it had have air-conditioning, and a
TV/VCR combo as well as a tapedeck -- half way into the ride we heard the songs, AChy breaky heart, and Hearbreak
Hotel sung in the Burmese language. And don't tell me that western pop culture does not permeate even the most
far removed areas of the world!
We arrived in Bagan around 9 in the morning, and after checking into our guesthouse, slept until early evening.
We've found that for every day of overland travel here, we need at least one day of rest to recuperate afterwards.
The following day we rented a horsecart (major mode of transportation there) and went out to old Bagan to see some
of the thousands of pagodas dotting the countryside. There was something magical about Bagan -- not only was it
not heavily touristed, but the people were so warm and friendly.
We stopped at a local market in Bagan, and bought some longji's and fitted blouses that Burmese wear with them.
The women we bought the longji's from had such a good time with us -- they decided to paint our faces with the
local root/sunblock so we would "really fit in". People really appreciated it when we wore the local
clothing -- The women then invited us to their house that evening for dinner! Imagine something like that happening
in the states, or in Europe: go shopping in the market, and then are taken home to meet the vendor's family. Wonderful.
they were so kind.
Our horsecart driver (Coco) and horse (Madonna) were great also..... though Coco developed a bit of a crush on
Claudia. He let me have the reins and drive the cart back to our guesthouse one afternoon, and confided in me that
he liked Claudia, and would like to marry her, and asked if I could arrange it. "Well Claudia is a very expensive
girl to marry" I joked. "she costs at least 10 dollars" He assured me that 10 dollars would be very
easy for him to get in Bagan for Claudia, and asked when she could come back for him. He was dead serious. He then
told us that after they were married, she could help im drive the horsecart, and could go by the name Claudia Coco.
Ugh! How to get out of that one? I felt awful that he didn't realize I was joking and was actually thinking about
the day he would have a "Claudia Coco" of his own....
One morning we went to old Bagan -- a bit outside the city to see the sunrise over the pagodas. Afterwards, as
we were walking through one of the pagodas I heard a lot of noise, and looked for Claudia to find that she was
no where in sight. When I found her she was surrounded by 100 Burmese tourists, who had obviously never seen a
westerner before. It was such a humorous thing to observe: Claudia in the middle of a ring of people, all trying
to touch her hand, her hair her face. I tried to get a picture of it, but was soon surrounded myself. One kept
motioning to my camera: ahh... they wanted us to take photos with them. They were so happy to see us, shake our
hand, have their pictures taken next to the foreign girls. It was defiantly an intense feeling of love directed
at us that day... really difficult to put it into words aside from saying that those few moments were intensely
From Bagan we took a riverboat up to Mandalay -- this "speed boat" did the trip in about 12 hours.. we
estimate that a proper speedboat would have done it in 3-4. Yet the pace of rivertravel was wonderfully relaxing.
this was the most comfortable part of our travels. After the first hour all of the locals got off, and we then
only shared the boat with the crew, kitchen staff, and three Israelis.
Regretfully we had only 2 weeks in Burma, so we couldn't stay longer in Bagan. (It really is a place where the
days slip away from you..) we arrived in Mandalay, the second largest city in Burma.
I defiantly experienced a bit of culture shock after the haven of Bagan, as Mandalay was a bit rougher, and people
were much slower to smile, and more reticent to speak with us on the street. But we had a mission. A friend I met
diving in Thailand told us of a man who ran a great vegetarian restaurant in Mandalay, and said that he was the
one to speak to about the current political situation. So, as soon as we recovered from our trip-lag, we went to
Richard is half Karen (ethnic minority that is mostly Christian) and half Bangladeshi-Burmese, but is a devout
Christian in country that is mostly Buddhist. He was actually able to sit down and talk with us when there were
no Burmese customers in the restaurant, as he said that Burmese are really unable to trust other Burmese now due
to the governmental situation.
The universities are still closed, and the only option of education available is via correspondence courses. It's
hard to imagine the realities of the government closing down universities countrywide -- what are they doing to
their country?? Without a degree, its difficult to get a proper job, without a proper job its almost impossible
to make a decent living... they way things are going now, all the intellectuals and educated people will either
flee the country (as Richard himself is planning to do -- he was a physics professor, and during the time schools
were open was making maybe 50 dollars a month- high estimate. he told us his only hope for a future, for the future
of his family is to leave Burma. He is currently investigating ways to get into Thailand and then hopefully to
the US or Canada or other country that will grant him political asylum. The government does not want an educated
class in Burma, as it threatens their right to rule.... they want to keep people ignorant and uneducated and "happily
Aung San Suu Kyi (Burmese Nobel Prize winner, author of the book _Freedom from Fear_)is once again under house
arrest -- they will allow her to visit pagodas for religious worship, but she is pretty restricted aside from that.
There was just such a sense of hopelessness in Richard, it was very difficult....especially when we think of all
we take for granted in the west -- freedom from fear that is an inherent part of Richard's daily life -- fear of
being overheard in his candid conversations with foreigners, fear of being summoned by the police should they deem
his education and ideas politically "dangerous" and being carted off to prison, a hard labor camp, or
death. Fear of never being able to leave Burma, having his 1 year old daughter growing up with out an education.....
Claudia and I gave him our smuggled in copy of Aung San Suu Kyi's book, Freedom from Fear (very very banned in
Burma -- thankfully we did not get our luggage searched in the airport). He was so thankful tears came to his eyes,
as he said that no one really knows what had happened in the past with her, and that book was one compiled by her
husband about her efforts to help Burma rise to a brighter future. (I strongly recommend all of you read it if
possible). We also gave him copies of other books we had finished reading, and out old Newsweek and Economist magazines,
as English books, and world news are also difficult to come by there.
He gave us his address, urged us to write postcards from our travels(but nothing political) and said he would email
us when he got out of Burma.
A heartbreaking story: hope it turns out well one day -- that Richard gets out of Burma, and is able to find work,
political asylum somewhere. But the thought of all of those who will be unable to do so, unable to change the system
they are living under.... it is so sad.
Well, after that intense afternoon of political discussion, we visited Mandalay hill to see the sunset over the
city, talked with some monks who go there every evening to practice their English with the tourists, and then took
a mini-taxi to the Moustache brothers Pwe show (traditional theatre)
And more discussions of politics there.
The moustache brothers were a group of three Burmese comedians/Pwe artists who preformed all over the country.
Pwe is a form of traditional theatre, dance, storytelling, puppet show and comedy. Sadly, one of the three moustache
brothers preformed at a political rally at the home of Aung San Suu Kyi one night in 1996. They made some cracks
at the government and was subsequently arrested and taken to a labor camp in the northwestern part of Burma. The
remaining brother, who did not attend the performance, still continues performances out of his home in Mandalay,
and loves to talk to foreigners about the oppressive government.
When we were there waiting for the show to begin, he took us up to his room, double locked the door and got some
papers and pictures out of a place he had hidden them inside an empty beam in the wall (This is the part when I
really felt I was in a James Bond movie). He showed us a brochure Amnesty International put out about his brother's
arrest, and also copies of stories in international newspapers about it. He said that the only reason his brother
has not been killed yet is due to international pressure from Amnesty and other groups... However, lead is being
put in the man's drinking water so his health is deteriorating rapidly. The remaining Moustache Brother expects
to be arrested eventually, as he is quite vocal about his anti-governmental views, and just asked that we also
write Amnesty International and send them his picture, so the day he is arrested/taken away they can start campaigning
for him, and hopefully he can also avoid being put to death. A second emotional/political discussion of the day.
So, in a nutshell, our few days in Mandalay were very intense. However, I've come away with a much better understanding
of the current political situation... really unsure of what the future holds for the Burmese though....
Claudia and I were both emotionally exhausted after the few intense days in Mandalay, and looked forward to the
placidity of Inlay Lake in the Shan state....we looked forward to it even more after a hellish 10 hour minibus
ride that left me vomiting out the window in the middle of Shan state ( though I luckily missed the monk with the
begging bowl by the side of the road, otherwise all the good karma I've acquired on the trip would have been canceled...)
The town around Inlay lake is roughly the size of Medora, ND. (very very small for those of you unfamiliar with
it). Not only did I have a miserable bout of carsickness on the way there, but I also arrived with a bad eye infection
-- my eye was almost swollen shut. So after our much needed post-sleep deprivation sleep, I ventured out to find
the local clinic/doctor. And it was great. The clinic was about a 15 minute walk from our guesthouse -- it was
really just a little shack, though it was clean. As is the custom when visiting pagodas, guests/patients remove
their shoes at the entrance, and walk around inside barefoot. There were windows in the shack, but no screens or
shutters, though it was quite clean inside, and the doctor spoke excellent English. The waiting room was partitioned
off from the examining room by 2 shelves, and after just seeing my eye, he found the appropriate eye drops from
me, and the swelling went down immediately. And in the end, the cost of my doctors visit, and the medicine he gave
me came to 80 cents US. It seemed that all of the medicine in the clinic was from either China or India.
Which also brings me to a new topic: Chinese and Burmese relations. It is quite common knowledge (in Burma) that
the Chinese government is actually contributing arms and money to the Burmese government. Thus, they are in effect
helping keep the military regime in power. But what are their interests there, aside from Teak and other hard woods,
and gemstones?? But there must be something more.....will they one day try to also "liberate" Burma?
I think that if the US really wanted to make China nervous, it should try to instill a democratic government. This
would be a fascinating topic to explore.
Anyway, after my trip to the clinic, Claudia and I went on a little bike trip down to the "hot spring spa"
by the lake. The woman at the guesthouse told us that it should take an hour or so to cycle out there, only we
got very lost and wound up taking the "scenic route", so 30 kilometers over bumpy bad roads and many
mini detours later we arrived at the hot springs, and it was the best hot spring spa ever -- nothing like one would
imagine it -- just a medium sized cement hole filled with naturally heated water out in the middle of the countryside,
surrounded by grazing water buffalo... but it much needed after our trip.
After only 3 short days in Inlay Lake, we had to get back to Yangon to confirm our tickets onwards to India. We
took a little pickup to the bus junction, packed high with baskets of tomatoes and women making their way to/from
the marketplace. These women were from one of the ethnic minorities -- forgot which one -- but they were beautiful
in their traditional dress. I photographed them as we drove. Then one pantomimed to me that she wanted a picture
of me too -- and as soon as I got out my remaining passport pictures, everyone wanted one --and in some cases two.
It was quite humorous.
Once again Claudia and I experienced another painful bus ride that left both of us vomiting behind a shed. (Burma
had been the first place I've been carsick in my life).. but we've chalked that one up to a really great roommate
and traveling partner bonding experience, as well as a KODAK moment. ha! Sadly we didn't eat very well during our
two weeks in Burma -- we counted ourselves luck if we ate one meal a day -- mostly survived on plain rice and mushy
bland veggies, powerbars I imported from the US for such an occasion, peanut butter (which after being sick on
it I vow I will not eat ever again... or at least not for a very very long time) and rehydration mixture. And all
of this prior to India where we are expecting the worst.
After arriving in Yangon we sought refuge in Big City Food -- there was a western café close to the nice
hotels, and we took advantage of their salad, pasta and coffee with little embarrassment. Afterwards we tried to
email from the Shangri-la Hotel there -- but there is no internet access from Burma, so we had to wait. But we
thoroughly enjoyed sitting in the business center watching the BBC news, CNN and reading the international newspaper
in air conditioning. Thank Buddha for international hotel chains.
One image that will never leave me of Burma though -- especially of Yangon -- though is the guns. They were everywhere
-- man standing in front of a church with a big machine gun, men blocking off the streets that surrounded Aung
San Suu Kyi's house with semi-automatics, men with guns guarding parks, etc. The government is so afraid, it seems.
The universities are closed down, and have been since 1996 as the public at large are so upset with the government,
but it is only the students that are able to protest/revolt, as in the school setting they can really trust one
another. We asked Richard why the monks don't rise together and overthrow the government. But he told us of how
the government really cosies us to the monks, by providing electricity and huge amounts of money for the monasteries,
and buying them satellite dishes, etc.
It was incredible to actually visit a monastery that had STAR WORLD and the BBC. All for the purpose of helping
the monks study English of course. Pagodas throughout the country are illuminated at night by both big flood lights
and Christmas lights -- all that energy wasted while the average Burmese still use candles to light their homes.
We left Yangon in the afternoon of my birthday. Claudia woke me up with coffee and cheesecake (amazing) and afterwards
we went for a decadent brunch at the Traders Shangri-la. After a bottle of Champagne with the brunch we found everything
quite funny and were ready to brave the unknown in Bangladesh and the reported squalor in Calcutta. -Plus- we still
had some leftover birthday cake to eat if all else failed.
I went through exit formalities with little problem, and Claudia took longer, as per custom -- she is traveling
on a dependant territories passport as she is a citizen of Bermuda -- still a British colony. As I waited for her
to get through, I saw her hand the customs official my leftover birthday cake. ??? It turns out that that official
was the same one we had bribed, but forgotten to pay off in Yangon on our arrival. As Claudia was being stamped
out of the country the woman sweetly asked, "Do you have a present for me now??" And Claudia hurriedly
gave over the remains of the birthday cake -- barely a piece left. Satisfied with the cake box, the woman waved
Transit to India was actually pretty comfortable. Our plane left about 2 hours late, as per custom (Birman Bangladesh
has to keep up its reputation as being one of the most unreliable airlines in the business) and we met a number
of travelers along the way. You meet some of the most interesting people abroad. Adrian was a young doctor from
England, born in South Africa, who was on his way to Bangladesh to see the WORLD VISION child he's been sponsoring.
Another guy -- Yes -- just finished being on MTV's ROAD RULES semester at sea edition, and now is getting away
from all the paparazzi in the states, and instead exploring Burma and India.
We arrived in Dhaka on the eve of the Bill Clinton's visit. The airline put us up in a modest guesthouse (though
it did have CNN) and all flights out of the country were cancelled until Clinton left. Therefore our 8 am flight
was changed to an 11 pm one, and we were pretty much stuck in Dhaka with not much to do. We were discouraged from
leaving the hotel/hostel as there were crowds on the street due to the numbers who turned out to welcome Clinton.
But Claudia and I left with two men in tow (Yes and an English guy) to explore a bit, find some lunch, and see
if there was a place to email. We did find email, though it was horribly slow, and also ate some Bangladeshi food
before we returned to CNN coverage at the hostel. the roads were blocked so we couldn't go into the city to explore
further. At one point we had about 40 curious Bangladeshi men following us down the street. Definitely an interesting
experience, and truthfully I would have been a bit intimidated had the guys not been with us. but they were a friendly
bunch, and all turned out well.
Calcutta, "city of death, city of joy"
We arrived in Calcutta around midnight and had a slight problem finding a cheap hotel room for three (Yes came
along with us), but eventually did. We had missed all of the HOLD celebrations which had taken part that day (Lots
of colorful powder is thrown on people to mark the coming of spring -- foreigners are prime targets of such "happiness"
Calcutta day one: Claudia and I went past through all with the "Holi hangover" people with pink and blue
and purple all over their faces, hair and hands (even the goats in the street were a target for Holi) to get to
the Museum while Yes searched out the Anti-Clinton protests taking place across the city. After the museum Claudia
and I went out to the street to also watch the protests. It was great -- as Claudia has a big camera everyone thought
that she was a journalist, so they pretty much left us alone. We were able to climb onto a cement block in the
middle of an intersection to get a better view.
That day it was the Communist league protesting -- their posters said "Go Back Enemy of Humanity Clinton"
and pretty much chanted the same thing, "Clinton Go back go back, Go Hell, go Hell" The Police were following
the protesters in case things got out of hand -- good thing too though, as towards 5 o'clock they tried to storm
the American embassy. Bricks were thrown, there was teargas, police used their big cane-sticks to force the people
away from the embassy. It was scary to actually view this in such close proximity -- we were maybe 100 feet away
from all the action. (Hope the photos come out!) What was really scary though, was when the crowd turned and a
couple thousand of people came running straight towards us -- away from the police. Claudia and I ran into a garage,
along with some 100 other people, and they closed the gates for safety and we watched from the open-air windows.
Things quieted down after about 5 minutes -- seemed the police just wanted to dispel the crowd, and we were able
to leave and walk home, although with our hearts still beating rather fast.
Yes was actually in the middle of the crowd when the riot broke out, and he got most of it on film.
That night we had dinner on the top of a hotel here on Sutter Street, with a harvest moon rising over the city,
a great view of victoria monument in the distance, and the call to prayer in the background. Great memory.
The next day the three of us went to Calcutta University to see more demonstrations. These were done by the Democratic
association, and were protesting imperialism -- seemed that many people thought that Clinton was a symbol of such.
These protests were really well organized, and were much less emotional than the ones we had seen the day before.
Again, everyone though we were journalists, and at one point someone handed Claudia a note, asking her to represent
this better in the media, and to not let it spoil her impression of Calcutta, and me one saying that not everyone
agreed with such radical political views -- that these people were sorely misled, and to please present both views
in my article.
It was great to see protest and dissent. This really made me realize how much I've missed living in a free country,
where one does not have to be afraid of saying/writing/emailing the wrong thing (Burma is much much worse than
On Yes's birthday we went to Mother Teresa's mission, and walked around some of the poorer areas of Calcutta. We
stopped in front of a mosque at call to prayer, and watched the prayers from the street.
Crowds of people -- children, older women, men coming out of the mosque gathered around us to have their pictures
taken, and to shake our hand and find out a little about our country. There people were defiantly pro-Clinton.
There is such warmth here -- especially in the poorer areas.
Sickness in the city of Death --
Yesterday I was sick. As sick as I've ever been -- fever-bodyaches-intestinal and stomach problems -- I have never
thrown up that much in my life -- it was almost hourly. I couldn't even keep water down (bad). Claudia got me some
anti-vomiting medicine, yet I couldn't keep that down either. Today I feel better, not 100 percent, but I'm able
to drink water, and am going to try my luck with some vegetables at a nice (read: clean) restaurant down the street.
If I get really sick again, I'll see the doctor.
Right now I am typing this from a cramped little internet place on Sutter Street. Out the door I see women walking
around in colorful Shaval-kameez and saris. I can hear the tinkling of goats running down the streets, still colorful
from Holi celebrations a couple of days ago.
In the next few days we will make our way to Gaya -- a Hindu pilgrimage place, then to Bodhgaya, a Buddhist pilgrimage
site -- where the Buddha found enlightenment. And after that: Varanasi, home of the Ganges.
Thanks to those of you who managed to get through this long emai l -- it's taken me about 6 hours to write out,
as I haven't been able to do it in one sitting.
I will be sending photos of Burma in the next day or two -- as soon as I figure out the scanning process.
I would love to hear from all of you soon -- about the things that may seem trivial to you now, are rather far
off and exotic to me at the moment -- daily life in a free country, movies, pop culture, food that doesn't make
you sick, etc. =)
Much love to all,