Thursday, December 31, 2015

Myanmar - end of the year!

traducerea în limba română va urma...
With the end of the year approaching I have a few thoughts about the country, its recent past and its future.

Today the best word to characterise the country is CHANGE. It is a characteristic of developing countries and it should happen. Nevertheless pace in which change in Myanmar takes place is so high!

Here we are, one year and a half after we arrived and settled in a country which kept so few of the initial features we discovered mid June 2014. Opening a small parenthesis here, it was indeed very good that I decided to finalise my book and print it very fast after one year. Even now, many things which are described in the book have changed in part. I hope however  that it will remain an interesting read over the years. 

Politically, Myanmar was very often on the international front page this year, especially regarding the first democratic vote which took place in more than two decades, on the 8th of November. Given the clear election results, the country seems to be on its way to a better future. Nevertheless the complicated reform process will take time to bear visible results and this will put the patience of Myanmar's people to the test. As everywhere in the world, in developing and transition countries, the people hope for democracy and all the freedoms which come along with this. However, probably even more important for them is the social and economic development, at least, for the future of their children.

Indeed the economy is booming, no doubt about it. Change is happening everywhere, in every sector. From tourism to extractive industries, from construction to telecommunications. Recently the Yangon Stock Exchange was launched in a lavish ceremony with the first companies preparing to be listed at the beginning of next year. In the short term this agitation will bring little or nothing in terms of tangible benefits for the majority of the people. I fear the rich will become richer and the poor will remain in the same situation. Like a low-income friend told me some time ago: in this country the rich are too rich and the poor are too poor! And the six-grades hard working young lady was so right.

But there is hope and the vast majority of people are still showing the same kindness. And I am happy about it. Of course, they are now far more used to foreigners, less people ask you to make a picture with them, less and less are staring at you. Instead, they are happy to see you and smile trying to start a conversion even if it is in the Myanmar language. This happened to me lately in the circular train during a train ride which I enjoyed with one of our friends who is visiting Myanmar for the first time. I believe there is a lot of trust in people from outside, from the Western world, but also a lot of expectation. People's hopes are high and seeing so many foreigners and tourist strengthen their belief in a better future for their country. Environmental protection, the equal distribution of wealth resulting from the country's immense natural resources are but some of the items which are high on the agenda, as is the peace process. After the change of Government in April 2016 these burning issues will require the urgent attention of Myanmar's authorities. 

Even if environmentalists, both from inside and outside the country, rung the alarm bells long time ago nothing had more impact than seeing the Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi, picking up trash in one village. Of course, everywhere where she is making public appearances the media follows in a frenzy. She is an icon and is almost revered by the people in Myanmar. Putting aside the fact that it was more for her public image, the gesture I believe meant so much and had a huge impact for the people and potentially for changing their behaviour. Following this I saw on television other public officials showing the same example in their area. Now I have a reason more to tell the Myanmar people with whom I interact that they should preserve their country's natural environment and for instance not throw trash on the street and to take example from the Lady. It was not the case a few months back when being with a local friend she casually threw away on the street the candy paper in a gesture so naturally that I felt my observation would be out of place and even strange. 

But, I also seem to have lost my hopes for that Myanmar could one day become an eco-tourism destination like many had hoped that Myanmar would become. In a recent trip around the country, at the start of the tourist season, I was worried at the sight of scores of buses at the U Bein bridge in Amarapura (forget it, you will not be able to find a boat for the sunset; they are booked by the tourist agencies well in advance) and in Bagan. It is due to lack of infrastructure that the buses park close to the lake and bridge in Amarapura and the hotels lack capacity to host everyone. But what I hope is, in the future, at least that some areas may be included in some of the international protection programmes so that their natural beauty and richness is preserved for the generations to come, like the unique Mergui Archipelago in Southern Myanmar. 

We are living safe in Yangon and able to travel now, without any special permits, in most of the country. But we must not forget that there are still armed conflicts between the government and some of the ethnic groups. Before the elections a peace agreement was signed with some of them. But fights still occur in the country. Recently, in our visit to the Shan state, we saw the fighter jets flying overhead and later we heard that bombs had been dropped. We cannot forget the hardships and cruelty which come along for the locals in these areas, most of them displaced, especially for the most vulnerable ones children and women, from trafficking to rape to disease and child birth fatalities. 

Pages can be written about Myanmar's past and future but I limit myself to the things dear to my heart: education. Without education there is no future for the country as so many like to point out. So many things come to my mind that I need to stop a few minutes to think. I recall the stories from the "On the road to Mandalay" book which tells the stories of  children which have to drop out of school to work because either parents fell sick or their fathers left their families. I think about my smiling girl in Ava selling jade necklaces to tourists (whose picture I took a while ago), I think about girls who give up school so that their brothers can continue studying as they need to earn the necessary income as housemaids to support the family. I think about the teashop children seeing them work the whole day and even being sometimes served by them in downtown Yangon. And these children are not a few. And some are not children anymore. What will it happen with them in the future? The sad thing is that they do not have many perspectives for a better future. And even more saddening is the fact that they wish to study but have no possibilities or none are offered to them. There are no Government evening schools which they could attend! Without attending school they cannot get a diploma or certificate and they cannot develop their skills. Some small children are kindly taken in by private, monastic and NGOs facilities and learnt how to write and read. I really hope that for the future government this will be a top priority and funds will be put aside to reopen the evening schools all over the country or at least, in the beginning, in the big cities where most of the children and young adults are coming to look for work.

I end this article wishing all Myanmar people a bright, democratic and equal rights future! Never stop dreaming and may all your wishes come true! Happy New Year, Myanmar!

Sunset over Irrawaddy in Bagan, 30.12.2015

Monday, December 28, 2015

The picturesque boat trip to Samkar

versiunea în limba română mai jos

There are not necessarily a lot of different things to discover in the village of Samkar that you would not find elsewhere in Myanmar. There are some interesting and old pagodas dating back to the 12th century AD. The structure of these temples resembles the ones in the Indein village. Probably if you will only have one full day to visit the Inle lake you will limit yourself to the lake itself, its floating gardens, workshops and the beautiful Indein pagodas' complex. And it should rightly be so. 

Having one more day on the lake or being a returning expat, do not hesitate to book a full day trip to discover the Samkar village. Samkar lies two and a half hours south of the Inle lake, at the end of a narrow creek. This part of the lake is not natural and has formed in 1970s after the Government built a dam and the land flooded. That is why there are now two villages, the old and the new Sankar. 

In the old village you will admire old stupas and pagodas and walk on the village's dusty and sleepy alleys. You are in the countryside and there is a calm and friendly atmosphere. In the new Samkar you will see how the rice wine is made and have the possibility to buy some with different alcohol percentages, 40 or 60 degrees alcohol. In the village there is also a rice cracker family run workshop. You will then visit an interesting and well preserved complex of pagodas called Thar Kong Pagoda. 

Wild honey the tourists can buy in new Samkar
But the most beautiful and interesting of all is the boat trip to Samkar and back passing picturesque landscapes, a narrow and long meandering creek, and interesting villages with houses on stilts. In the morning you will leave your hotel at around 8 a.m. and you will pass by houses where the women wash their breakfast plates in the lake's water. The men leave the house to go fishing on their boats and the children play in the sun on the balconies. 


In the evening you will watch the locals wash in the lake after a long day in the sun, washing the dust from working the fields. At some point, we were lucky to spot a large herd of cows swimming across creek. During this time of the year the fields are full with flowers and the surrounding hills and mountains have beautiful brown, green and orange colours. What a beautiful country!


 O plimbare pitorească cu barca înspre Samkar

Samkar nu are obiective turistice noi pe care nu le-ai putea vedea altundeva în Myanmar. Există câteva pagode vechi care datează din secolul 12 d.Hr. cu o structură asemănătoare cu cea a celor din satul Indein. Dacă ai timp doar o zi să vizitezi lacul Inle te vei limita la o excursie pe lac pentru a admira grădinile plutitoare, atelierele de meșteșugari și frumosul complex de pagode din Indein. Și ai luat o decizie bună!

Dar având o zi în plus sau fiind un expat care se reîntoarce pe lac, nu ezita să rezervi o excursie de o zi pentru a descoperi satul Samkar. Samkar se află în sudul lacului Inle, la capătul unui canal îngust, unde ajungi în două ore și jumătate cu barca. Această parte a lacului s-a format în anii '70 ca urmare a construirii unui baraj de către guvern prin care s-a inundat zona. De aceea există acum două sate, cel vechi și cel nou.
În vechiul sat vei vedea stupe și pagode vechi și te vei plimba pe aleile satului prăfuite și adormite. Ești la țară și te bucuri de o atmosferă calmă și prietenoasă. În noul Samkar vei vedea cum se face vinul din orez și poți cumpăra vin cu 40 sau 60 la sută alcool. Mai sus vei vedea o poză și cu miere locală. În sat există și un atelier familial în care se produc biscuiți din orez. La final de excursie vei ajunge la un interesant și foarte bine conservat complex de pagode care se numește Thar Kong.

Dar cel mai frumos și interesant moment al zilei este excursia cu barca pentru a ajunge la Samkar, admirând peisaje pitorești de-a lungul unui canal întortocheat, cu sate interesante și case construite deasupra apei, pe piloni din lemn. Dimineața vei pleca de la hotel în jurul orei 8 și vei trece pe lângă case unde femeile spală vasele de la micul dejun în râu. Bărbații pleacă la pescuit pe bărci, iar copiii se joacă pe terase în soarele de dimineață. Seara vei privi localnicii care se spală de praful de pe câmp, după o zi lungă în soare. La un moment dat am fost norocoși să vedem o turmă mare de vaci care înnotau de-a lungul canalului. În aceste luni, câmpiile sunt pline de flori, iar dealurile și munții din jurul lacului au o paletă bogată de culori de la maroniu, verde și portocaliu. Ce țară frumoasă!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

It's beach time: Ngwe Saung recommendations!

versiunea în limba română mai jos

Once in Ngwe Saung you will forget about time and worries while enjoying the endless palm-fringed beach and the welcoming sea.

View of the Eskala Hotel

The quietness of the beach is sometimes interrupted by the passing motorcycles which run on the hard sand close to the is not bothering but rather interesting. Of course, you may still spot local curiosities like a passing bullock in the morning :).


This year the locals are trying to rent ATVs to tourists. Another sign the area is developing, but not necessary in the right direction. These indeed are more noisy and it is quite bothering when instead of resting your eyes on the sea you look at the vehicles and their owners. They park on the beach, quite close to you, scanning the tourists for potential clients. During the weekends there are more clients, especially from Yangon, but on the week days you do not see the ATVs so much.

However, in this post, I wish to let you know about the Garden Breeze restaurant which opened some time ago and which has quickly become the best restaurant in the area. The restaurant is on the right hand side once you enter the Ngwe Saung village. It happened that we spent one full week at the beach in November so it was quite important to find a good spot where to have our meals. While we also tried some other establishments we felt nowhere as happy, spoiled and so "at home" like there.

Of course, being guests almost every day we got to know the owners, their sweet daughter (who never wanted to go home in the evening and ended sleeping with her head on the table) and the staff, including the uniformed chef! The owner who speaks very good English will take your order and will explain you about the catch of the day. Do not forget that you are by the seaside so seafood needs to be on the menu daily. The best is fresh barbecued fish with sauce on the side!

Sometimes we had special requests like locals soups or even lobster which was readily prepared for the next day. Once we were spoiled enough to have a big barracuda on the grill! It all depends on the luck of the fishermen. What more to add than to say that the food is delicious, the atmosphere pleasant and the prices are more than correct.

The owner of the restaurant serving a special prepared soup (gourd seafood soup with thin vermicelli) on our last evening.

Do not miss the fried banana for desert! 

The other restaurant we really liked is Silver Blue Sea, close to Eskala hotel. It is, like Garden Breeze and most of the restaurants in the village, a family-run restaurant but because they have less clients the preparation of the dishes takes a longer time as they will go to shop for some ingredients, depending on your order.

And I recommend you to have a massage while on the beach! It is the first time we met Mr Kyaw who massaged us almost daily. It is very relaxing, as you can imagine, being directly on the beach! Call him and get spoiled as well (one hour 5.000 Kyats, 30min 3000 Kyats):

Este timpul de plajă: recomandări la plaja din Ngwe Saung!

Odată ajuns la Ngwe Saung vei uita de timp și griji în timp ce te bucuri de plaja plină de palmieri și de apa mării îmbietoare.

Liniștea este întrruptă din când în când de trecerea motocicletelor care circulă pe nisipul tare de la te deranjează, mai degrabă este interesant. Bineînțeles, poți să zărești și curiozități locale cum are fi trecerea pe plajă a unui bivol dis de dimineața (vezi poza de mai sus) :). 

Anul acesta localnicii încearcă să închirieze ATV-uri turiștilor. Este încă un semn de dezvoltare, dar nu necesar în direcția bună. Acestea sunt într-adevăr mai zgomotoase (să nu mai vorbesc de miros și poluare) și este destul de deranjant atunci când, în loc ca ochii să se odihnească în zare, pe apa mării, se opresc pe aceste vehicule și pe posesorii lor. Parchează pe plajă, destul de aproape de tine, urmărind turiștii sperând să găsească clienți. La sfârșit de săptămână sunt mai mulți turiști, în mod special din Yangon, dar în timpul săptămânii nu prea vezi ATV-urile.

În orice caz, în articolul meu vreau sa vă recomad restuarantul Garden Breeze, deschis de ceva vreme și care a devenit în scurt timp cel mai bun restuarant din zonă. Acesta se află pe partea dreaptă când intri în satul Ngwe Saung. În noiembrie am petrecut o săptămână întreagă la mare și a fost important să găsim un loc unde să servim prânzul și cina. Chair dacă am încercat și alte restauranate, niciunde nu ne-am simțit atât de bine, răsfățați și "acasă" ca și aici.

Bineînțeles, fiind oaspeți aproape în fiecare zi i-am cunoscut pe proprietari, pe fetița lor simpatică (care nu voia să plece seara acasă și ajungea să adoarmă cu capul pe o masă din restaurant) și pe angajați, inclusiv pe bucătarul șef în uniformă! Proprietarul, care vorbete foarte bine engleza, îți va lua comanda și îți va explica despre ce s-a pescuit în acea zi. Să nu uităm că te afli la mare și fructele de mare sau peștele trebuie să se regăsească în comanda ta! Cel mai bun este peștele proaspăt la grătar cu sosul separat, alături.

Câteodată comandam ceva ce nu se regăsea în meniu cum ar fi o supă locală sau homar care erau pregătite a doua zi. Odată am fost răsfățați cu un barracuda la grătar! Totul depinde însă de norocul pescarilor. Nu mai pot adăuga nimic decât că mâncarea este delicioasă, atmosfera plăcută și prețurile mai mult decât corecte.

Să nu uiți să comanzi banane prăjite pentru desert!

Un alt restaurant care ne-a plăcut mult este Silver Blue Sea, aproape de hotelul Eskala. Este, la fel ca și Garden Breeze și celelalte restaurante din sat, un restaurant de familie, dar pentru că au clienți mai puțini va trebui să aștepți mai mult până când mâncarea este preparată. Pentru anumite feluri de mâncare trebuie să meargă să cumpere ingredientele, depinde de ce comanzi.

Și în timp ce ești la plajă îți recomand să faci un masaj! Este pentru prima dată că l-am întâlnit pe dl. Kyaw care ne-a masat aproape zilnic. Este foarte relaxant, după cum îți poți închipui, fiind direct pe plajă! Sună-l și răsfață-te și tu (o oră 5000 Kyats, 30min 3000 Kyats).