One small town in Myanmar

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Lewis Lorton
I am addicted to SEA and, when I feel a little low in spirit I look back at my pictures to give me some cheer.

Here are some that might be of interest, not so much as super images, but as an idea of what a truly third world country is like - in the nicest possible way.

1)
This is one end of the main street in Hpa An, a town in South Eastern Myanmar, in the early morning. We had come up the Thalwin river on a twice weekly ferry. The town is the headquarters of one of the Shan armies which does have an agreement with the Government of Myanmar to run this area and to smuggle goods from Thailand. The warlord of this army happens also to be the abbot of the temple you see.

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2) While paints fade quickly under this sun, everything seems a hue and saturation that we just don't see in the west.

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3) In this temple, this old monk sat and braided thin golden cord and then called me over and gave me a Buddhist blessing.

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4) There just aren't many tourists in this town, perhaps ten a week, and all the children are pleasant and happy and just tickled as hell to get their pictures taken.

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5) This is Kyauk Kan Latt Pagoda and there is a way to get to the very top - but I didn't do it.
I had three broken ribs, suffered in a fall a couple of days earlier, and wasn't up to much exertion.

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6) It seems that one gains merit from actually giving funds to make and place the statues of the Buddha, but once they are in place, no more - or at very least - not much care is given to them. That is a good example of the very basic differences in thinking that often confounded me. We were taken around by a university educated chemist who spent a good part of the time explaining how belief in Buddhism and belief in nats, spirits, can co-exist perfectly. I imagine that many religious schema popular in the Western world are equally bizarre to him.

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7) This tertiary (to say the least) road led out to a large series of caves that ran entirely through the mountain. Even though we made this trip at 5-10 miles per hour maximum, our car suffered a broken shock absorber. Interestingly the monastery associated with this cave is the site of very large religious meetings and hundreds of trucks and buses negotiate this 3 or 4 miles from the paved road road.

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8)
This is the large portion of the cave with many, many statues and several stages. Behind me the cave ran back for a half mile or so of fairly rigorous climbing and walking to the other entrance. I opted to sit our front and drink beer, nurse my sore everything and eventually to give an English lesson to a young monk.
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There are many more pictures of Myanmar at this link - my own site

I have put up a set of 38 pictures entitled Just Walking Around a Small Townthere just to give the idea of what one sees in one small town, Hpa An in south east Myanmar.
(The pictures are there for the documentary value rather than the image value. ) They are best seen by clicking the slide show link on the upper right side.

The following is a little narrative about the town written by Mike who sometimes travels with me.

Hpa-An, 40 kilometers up the Salween River by twice-weekly ferry from Mawlamyine, looks pretty much like any other Southeast-Asian one-water-buffalo town. Dusty ragged streets, tiny stores and restaurants, cheerful children and their watchful mothers, harassed-looking pariah dogs slinking by.

Some things, though, are subtly wrong, subtly off. The rice shop is so stuffed with bags of rice, stuffed to overflowing, that the owner and his clerk do their sums not inside where it's cool but out on the sidewalk, with more stacks of rice-bags as a desk. The children are particularly cheerful, playing on complicated Chinese- and Thai-made plastic riding toys.

My hotel room cost $25 a night, twice what I had paid at Mawlamyine, and the electricity, water, and sewage systems are all far from reliable, but the room is provisioned with full-sized tubes of Close-Up and genuine Sprite instead of the local equivalents. There are more hotels in the town than there are tourists (after a day we know the name, nationality, and quarters of any white face we see) but every hotel claims to be full.

And the reason for all this is different from what is obvious to Western tourists.. Myanmar is said to be at civil war, has been since at least 1962, by far the longest-lasting war in modern history. Actually, calling it a war is something of a misnomer. It's more like the warlord period of China before the Communist takeover. Almost every one of Myanmar's 130 ethnic groups has its own army, and each army constitutes something like a government-without-portfolio in whatever territory it controls.

The Burman people, being the majority ethnic group, have the largest and most powerful army, the State Peace and Development Council or SPDC, so it gets to be called the government, it issues the currency, credentials ambassadors to other country, and so on. It maintains shaky truces with several of the more powerful of the other armies, and puts some effort into combating the rest.

The local Karen people are represented by at least two such armies. The smaller is the Karen National Union [Most of these armies use Union or United in their name the United Wa Army, the United Shan State Army when they really are warlord-led private armies] Almost defeated, the KUN lurks just across the border in Thailand, where they can recruit from refugee camps and train with retired US soldiers, who are there to pick up a few bucks and some jungle cred working as mercenaries.

The dominant army is an offshoot of the KNU called the DKBA, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Association. Despite the benevolent name, they are a full-fledged army. I had never seen warlord troops before and was expecting something like a slightly more organized street gang - young men in sunglasses and track-suits, flashing useless, ridiculous weapons like Mac-10s and pearl-handled .45s.

No, these guys were real soldiers: camo fatigues, badges and patches, a strip reading D.K.B.A. in red above the name-tag. And well-armed with what looked like AK-74s and American Vietnam-era M79 grenade launchers. The closest thing to a gangbanger touch was the staff-car: a big Toyota Cressida professionally painted in a high-gloss camouflage pattern.

The grenadier interested me particularly. He had the grenade launcher, which looked like a fat shotgun with a barrel you could almost stick your fist in, slung over one shoulder and both a bandoleer and a belt full of grenades. But a grenade launcher is not much good for threatening people. At any distance short enough to convey a threat by words or gestures, the grenade is almost as dangerous to the grenadier as to the target.

The DKBA is financed by smuggling. The SPDC, the 双fficialarmy controls the border crossing and imposes heavy official and unofficial tariffs, food, clothes, medicines, toiletries, even cars and heavy equipment, are floated across the Moei River from Mae Sot, Thailand, on bamboo rafts, then transferred to buses, ordinary passenger buses stripped of seats. The buses, sporting official DKBA placards in the windshield, are driven to Hpa An, where the goods are loaded on to huge 10-wheeled lorries that have ordinary Myanmar license plates and registrations and therefore can drive all over the country. It's a rare hour in downtown Hpa An when you cannot watch a bus being unloaded or a truck being loaded. The salaries of the men who do this work, and of the men who guard them, are what keeps Hpa An prosperous; just negligible skimming is enough to keep the shops stocked full.

The substantial profits from this traffic support the DKBA army and, I suspect, pay the large franchise fee owed to Yangon for the dispensation to operate. The DKBA is in a shooting war with the KNU. In fact, the head of the KNU, Pado Mahn Shar, was assassinated two years ago, allegedly by DKBA operatives (although other sources claim it was rival KNU officers), which would make it a local civil war inside a provincial civil war inside a national civil war). The war is at some level a religious one the KNU is too Christian for the DKBA purists.

One might ask why the SPDC blocks DKBA trade at the border, but not in the interior of Karen State? Just to save face with the Thai border guards? Conversely, why do they bother to establish anti-smuggling checkpoints even after they agreed to let the only actual smugglers through? Perhaps the DKBA wants it that way, so the SPDC assists in suppressing competitive smugglers; perhaps the SPDC is genuinely hoping to maintain a semblance of order.

The simplest economic arithmetic says that trade cannot go in one direction. What goes out to pay for all the stolen Toyotas, the toothpaste, the rice that come in? If you ask in Bangkok, everybody knows: drugs. Any Thai will tell you that while the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, most of the world's opium came out of Myanmar. Now that the less-efficient Americans roam the Kandahar hills, allowing the poppies to bloom, Myanmar has been forced to branch out: methamphetamines, MDMA, even rohypnol.

In Hpa An I asked about the outbound drug trade. Everyone assured me that it was the neighboring Shan people to the North who did that, no Karen would stoop to trafficking in drugs. In Yangon, I had been told it was the Wa people who controlled the drugs, an even more implausible suggestion, as the Wa are on the border with the thinly-populated Yunnan province of China. Smuggling there wouldn't be impossible, but it would be a long trip to any airport or seaport or even a city wealthy enough to indulge in smack and meth.

Despite the heavy presence of warlord troops and DKBA stevedores, Hpa An is a remarkably clean town. I don't mean physically: it has the usual Myanmar snowfall of litter and plastic everywhere. But there are no bars, no brothels or street-girls, no drugs, at least none visible to the casual observer, and the only casino is a closet-sized arcade of video-poker games and pachinko-like pinball machines. The players are mostly chain-smoking local boys, too young even for a warlord army.

Perhaps the discipline comes from the DKBA leader, a man known as the Seado, which means 鍍he Abbot He's called that not from any (un-Karen-like) sarcasm, but because he is in fact the abbot of the Hpa An monastery. The prior of some dozens of monks, the pastor to much of Hpa An's population, the commander-in-chief of a respectable-sized army, the governor of a territory twice the size of Connecticut, the Godfather of a large and effective smuggling ring, and, I was told, something of a real-estate developer he must be a busy man; I didn't meet him, but I saw his picture, he looked unexpectedly serene.

Interestingly enough, more than any other town I saw in Myanmar, the Central government has large billboards all around town, with pro-party slogans that are more than a little reminiscent of the novel -1984; maybe that these billboards are the real limit of the central governments power in this section of Myanmar.

Immediately adjacent to the Internet shop are two stores, one selling tickets for the bus to Bago and points beyond, the next for the bus to Yangon.

Although the actual bus station is on the outside of town, the buses will stop in clocktower square for passengers. When, later on, we get tickets the tickets and the seat spaces don't have our names but merely the term 'foreigner.' When I buy the ticket, the vendor says,'Yes, you are the foreigners staying at the Tiger Hotel.' Small town, Hpa An.



Lew
 

LyndeeLoo

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Lew, it's funny you posted this. I was just now sitting here thinking about how much I miss Indonesia, and trying to figure out when I could possibly go back to visit. I adore SEA. The countries...the cultures...the people...the food...everything just appeals to me.

Thanks for posting these; seeing your images brought back some great memories of my visits to Asia. I think your shots are great and the last is just lovely...
 
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thanks lyndee,

These are much more just record shots than good pictures and I invite you to look at the shots in the link which are nicer, I think.

Lew
 
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I learned much reading your excellently presented post. Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences. I am looking forward to viewing your own site.
 
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Nicely presented, thanks for sharing. Hope the bumpy road was before you broke your ribs, or it must have hurt.
 
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Thanks Steve,

One thing I didn't say is that central power is only from 11 PM to about 5 AM so any lights, fans, and the occasional AC is run from small local generators and these are quite expensive to run so, for the most part, everything is hot except for the water to the shower.

If you like travel and have a little toughness and experience then travel in Myanmar is as exciting, fun and rewarding as any place I've ever been.

Lew
 
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Bill N

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Lew, Your photos told an interesting story and Mike's narrative that followed was icing on the cake! The slide show over on your site was wonderful. What a very interesting part of the world I hope to visit one day. Thank you for sharing.
Regards, Bill
 
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Lewis Lorton
Thank you Dan, Rob and Bill.

For those photographers who like travel, SEA is a treat. The costs are low, the people are wonderful and friendly and the photo opportunities are unmatched - except perhaps India.

Lew
 
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@ Mitchell

Thanks. These are really just documentation of some aspects of the trip. It is difficukt for Westerners to appreciate how dramatically different Asian society is from our own. European and American societies are very much alike especially when compared to the Asian or African countries. I thought seeing non-pretty pictures of day-to-day life might be interesting.

My website has a much fuller example of life in a small town and also many more of the better (IMO) pictures.
 
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Myanmar is incredible, i have visited every SEA country but the Philiphines and Brunei (pretty much a none country) and put Myanmar on top of my most favorite countries down there. The people and the country itself are truly photogenic, definitely want to go back there someday.

Thanks for posting them.
 
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KongThaiHoop99

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Thanks for the photos. They bring back some memories.

I spent a good deal of time along the Thai-Burma border back in the early 90s when the KNU were still a formidable presence. I even visited Manerplaw, the capital of their little mini-state along the banks of the Moei and Salween Rivers. A combination of in-fighting and the withdrawal of Thai support doomed them in early 1995. It's truly a sad, sad situation for the Karen.
 
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Lew, have you taken the balloon over Bagan ride before? I plan to do it in a few months and am trying to determine which focal length(s) would be ideal. Do you think a D700/14-24 combination is too wide?
 
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