Face Tattoos and Eye Patches; the Ordinary Story of a Pirate in a Chin Village.

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“You are now entering a war zone.  Please be careful and don’t go to any strange places.”

That was our welcoming warning by a Burmese man as we stopped for morning coffee in rural Rakhine State, Myanmar.

The warning didn’t seem inappropriate just a little late; it had felt like we had already been in a war zone.  For the past 14 hours or so we had been crammed into a minibus doing a night run through the mountains that separate Rakhine State from the rest of Myanmar.  The minibus constantly broke down and even more constantly stopped to load and unload goods.  Its other passengers were about as welcoming as the seats were comfortable – that is not at all.

What was most disconcerting was the warning not to go to strange places.  That wouldn’t do at all.  The very reason we were making the trip was to visit strange places.  Mrauuk U itself had the allure of the unknown and strange as did the villages we hoped to visit which are inhabited by the Chin ethnic group and feature women with full face tattoos.

Despite being in a crammed bus and being extremely tired the view of rural Rakhine State out of the window was amazingly beautiful.  Rocky mountains merged into rolling hills and green plains as small streams flowed into massive rivers.  Ribbons of wild growth, at times spares hardwood trees at other times dense jungle gave way to lush green paddy fields glistening with morning dew.  Goats, pigs and chickens fluttered in villages as we drove past while farmers walked buffalo and other livestock on leads to water holes.  Hay bales were carried on heads to other animals.  Whilst blurry and less detailed than it would have been to most viewers, the images that presented themselves as we rolled through Rakhine State were amongst the most beautiful I have seen.  Outside the bus the sun was rising with increasing intensity and the bus was feeling even more crammed.

 

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The outskirts of Mrauk U

 

After too much travelling we finally found ourselves in Mrauk U and got fed and watered.  We had had a run of bad luck with the bus trip and Mrauk U was turning out not to be the friendliest town on our travels but we were absolutely blessed to come across Ko Pauk Sa.  Ko and his family run a tea shop in Mrauk U which is well worth visiting and he also offers tours of the area.  He is very proud of Rakhine State, particularly the Mrauk U area and loves sharing it with visitors.  We needed his help to get to the Chin villages we hoped to visit and in engaging him as a guide we also gained a great friend whom I hope to visit again.  I will give more details in regards to Ko Pauk Sa, including his contact details, so if you are planning a visit to the area make sure to get in touch with this generous man.

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Ko Pauk Sa – If you need a guide or a friend in Mrauk U this is the man to see!

Early on our second day in Rakhine State we began our journey with Ko to the Chin villages.  After a bumpy pick-up ride to the Lay Mio River we continued on boat for two hours or so.  Such boat trips give a unique view of river life in Myanmar.  Boats ply back and forth carrying passengers and any number of goods; fishermen work in trawlers and with hand nets and little villages cling to the upper banks.  I miss most of the detail as we go but I use my camera to shoot at the colour and movement I perceive to enjoy later on a computer screen.  I would love to be able to see things properly as they occurred but the act of trying to photograph them creates an extra challenge and level of fun.

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Life on the Lay Mio River, Rakhine State, Myanmar

 

I similarly knew that once we reached the villages that I wouldn’t be able to see the face repeated word  tattoos of the Chin ladies in person but I was still keen to visit, take some photographs and experience at least a little village life in this remote part of Myanmar.  We were worried at first that it  would just be a commercial experience where we would take photos of stoney-faced women for a fee and be hounded to purchase tourist trinkets. Admittedly there was a tiny bit of that though the hand weaved goods on sale were top quality, attractive and reasonably priced.   Their makers and sellers were also good fun.  Walking through the lush, green villages with pigs, goats and chickens darting and lounging about was a great experience.  Chewing beetle nut, joking and laughing with the villagers  was a lot of fun and learning about the tradition of the face tattoos was extremely interesting but the highlight of the visit was when these elements melted into the background and real conversation, despite the language and cultural differences occurred.

 

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Lunch with this woman was a lot of fun!

 

 

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Showing off her handiwork

 

One women we visited had no interest in selling anything – she could find nothing to sell even when I repeatedly asked.  She was however very keen to have visitors in her house as she very much wants to share the story of her face tattoo before the tradition is lost forever.  As  a child she desperately wanted a face tattoo like the other girls and women but at first her parents were reluctant to let her be tattooed.  She begged to be allowed to receive the traditional tattoo and when her begging didn’t work she became depressed and refused to eat.  Thankfully her family relented and she proudly wears her tattoo as a symbol of her tribe, her tradition and her own  strength.  She is very sad that she had no daughters to pass the tradition onto and also very sad that she was one of the last to get such a tattoo.

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Ma and her face tattoo which is unique to her tribe.

As she told her story I noticed the person sitting next to her give her a polite nudge and point out to her that I was wearing an eye patch.  Whilst I often struggle to see and interpret body language I could instantly tell that this exchange of information was done with respect rather than them making pirate jokes.  The Chin woman, I’ll call her Ma from now on as I believe that is the Chin word for woman, quickly stopped her story about her face covering and asked me about mine.

I let her know as best I could that I have to wear the patch to cover one eye as it is the only way I can get a bit of useful sight in the other eye.  I couldn’t explain the exact reasons – that is hard enough to do with people whom I share a language with and have medical degrees – but I let her know that I wore it because I have many eye problems and have poor eyesight.  She was interested in my eye patch because tragically her grandchild had recently lost an eye.

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With the sharing of this information  we started talking together.  Yes, we still needed an interpreter but we could both we could also understand each other’s feelings and experiences without having to use words.  I could feel her sadness and concern in regards to her grandchild’s future.  I could feel that her sadness and concerns were similar to my mother’s in regards to me.  I quickly forgot that she was a tribal woman with a face tattooin an isolated village in a state that is described as a ‘war zone’; she was just a woman, a human, the same as the rest of us.

Ma thought it odd that I, as a Westerner, still had eye problems and strange that the doctors in my “clever country” couldn’t just fix it so I had to explain that we aren’t as clever as we often make out – I could tell that she also viewed me as a fellow human rather than a foreigner or a visitor.  Ma was an instant friend, an instant family member.

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Giving the white cane a workout!

We were both near tears as we talked, listened and sat  so to try and lighten the mood I stood to show her my white  cane and its uses.  As I stood a spare, new eye patch fell out of my pocket and I instantly turned and offered it as a gift to Ma for her grandson.  She seemed genuinely moved to receive it.  She delicately took the patch and had it carefully placed in a bag and put inside her house. Whether or not it will be used or useful I am e sure but it was a heartfelt gift that will hopefully be a reminder that a story was heard, understood and cared about.   I was further humbled and moved when I received by email a few weeks later a photo of this woman  with her grandson wearing the patch.

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This little champ is the latest member of the Pirate Ninja Alliance.  Ma and her grandson.

With perfect timing, another Chin lady made her appearance with a bamboo walking stick instantly making us all laugh as we saw the universal usefulness of a humble stick!.  We quickly compared our sticks and their uses.  It was at first decided by the women that my white cane was inferior as a walking stick as it lacked strength compared to the sturdy bamboo version but they were impressed when I demonstrated how I used it as a mobility aid.  They were even more impressed by how I was able to fold it up.  This bit of engineering magic particularly impressed my ever-thinking guide Ko Pauk Se who took great delight in folding and unfolding my cane over the next day and a half; figuring out how it worked and how he could use the same technology himself.

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This woman not only had an awesome bamboo cane but also had an awesome sense of umour.

I would love to be able to return to this village and its people again.  It would be an honour to spend more time with Ma and meet her grandson.  Obviously it would be great to be able to help or at least show some support but ultimately a return would be a catch up with friends rather than any kind of humanitarian mission.  I would love to spend more time there to witness and photograph daily  village life to tell their story and show that there is a lot more to the ladies of the village than just face tattoos.  I’d also love to get some gardening tips from these enterprising people!

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Preparing beetle nut.

We had originally wanted to go to strange places and meet strange people.  Tribal women with face tattoos promised to offer such strangeness but instead they were beautifully ordinary.  Eye patches, face tattoos; bamboo or graphite sticks – it really doesn’t matter.  Strange people, blind people, tattooed people, tribal people, western people – we are all just people.

*This trip would have been impossible without a good guide and interpreter.  Thankfully, In Ko Pauk Sa we not only found that but also a friend.  Ko went well above duty in helping me get around and experience the village and people.  Alsways their with a helping hand to get up and down steep steeps and barely there tracks but also quick to help us understand the people and places we visited.  I also spent a day exploring themany temples and sites at Mrauk U itself which was a great experience for me and extra hard work for Ko!  He has a great knowledge about the area, its people, the temples and Buddhism in general and is happy to share – ask him as much as you can and he will let you know.  Ko can be found at his tea shop in Mrauk U which he runs with his family.  Tours can be organised their and bus tickets out of Mrauk U can also be bought there.  You can contact Ko Pauk Sa on email kopauk.311@gmail.com or phone 09421721059.  Please let him know that Kristan from Australia with the eye covering sent you!!

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The best tour guide in Rakhine State

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Buffalo and Buddhist monastery, Mrauk U

 

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Ploughing the banks of the Lay Mio River.

 

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Pilgrimage to Pyay; the Spectacled Buddha

Bagan, Inle Lake, the Shwedagon in Yangon; these and a few others are usually the first places to make the ‘must visit’ list when planning a trip to Myanmar.  One place that doesn’t usually make people’s intimacy at all but was always going to be an important destination in mine is the Shwe Myethman Pagoda  otherwise known as the Golden Eyeglasses Buddha or Spectacled Buddha which is located in southern Myanmar,  14km south of the town of Pyay.

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The Spectacled Buddha and his golden rimmed glasses

 

As someone with numerous eye diseases it was a no-brainer that I would want to visit this place which features a giant statue of Buddha replete in golden rimmed glasses.  Whilst the huge and happy blind Buddha doesn’t rate highly to most international tourists it is a place attracts many Buddhist pilgrims from across Myanmar and other Asian countries.

SUch sites only become places of pilgrimage due to the power they hold.  In this case; many believe that praying to the Buddha and making an offering has the power to heal numerous illnesses particularly those to do with eyesight.    The power isn’t necesarily  the exact power expressed in the narrative that accompanies the site; the power lies in the meaning the place has for individuals and how that can equate to shared experiences and strengthening of bonds.

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A pilgrim prays

 

The narrative that accompanies this site began in the 4th century A.D., during the Pyu period.  The King, Queen and the entourage were on a pilgrimage to the Shwenettaung Pagoda when.  During a sleepover the Queen dreamt that she prayed to a nearby Buddha image which offered the power of healing.  The King, the Queen and all their men searched for the spot and located it when they saw flashing lights ascending to the skies.  Here they erected the Buddha image.  Over the years the Buddha has had numerous pairs of large glasses donated as adornments with some being stolen and some one display with the Buddha.  These tributes were made as thanks for or as hope for cures of eyesight problems.  Many, many more pairs of glasses and donations in the form of money has been left by thousands of pilgrims over the years in the hope of their own miracle.

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Myself with some of the many donations to the Spectacled Buddha

 

I must admit though that I don’t believe in miracles and my desire to visit the site wasn’t in the hope of sudden healing.  My eye problems and years of wearing glasses myself did of course create the initial interest in the site and I did admittedly share a quiet word, or prayer with the Buddha as I do believe in respecting such sites, but miracles weren’t the thing that imbued the place with meaning for me.  What gave the spectacled Buddha and Pyay in general meaning for me was the fact that my brother had previously made the effort to go there when he visited Myanmar in 2014 and that he was keen for me to also visit the place.

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The Spectacled Buddha and the Blind Backpacker

 

When my brother first visited Myanmar I was coming to the end of what seemed like a marathon of eye surgeries – all of which and only lessened my eyesight.  I was obviously unable to even think about visiting such a place myself at the time but Caleb was attracted to the site straight away as a visit, a prayer and  an offering to the Spectacled Buddha was at least something he could do to try to help.  His visit didn’t result in a miraculous recovery of my eyesight, in fact I was back in hospital for more emergency surgery not long after but it did at least sow a seed.  As we planned this visit he was adamant that we go there so that I could visit the big Buddha myself.

Whilst not being Buddhist myself, the visit and lead up to it was very much like a pilgrimage to me because it had meaning.  Other statues of Buddhas I had seen all around Myanmar were impressive for various reasons but ultimately they were just statues.  The Spectacled Buddha however seemed like a friend.  A long-lost friend or someone I had heard a lot about before we finally meet.  His serene smile, calm but dominant pose and golden spectacled gave off a feeling of strength and comfort.  He didn’t seem to say to me that he could offer miracles,  maybe just a little understanding and empathy.  A feeling that while things aren’t perfect, there are many of us in the same basket together and within that weaving can be found strength.

 

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Offering some eye patches in case he needs them…

 

Along with the other pilgrims there at the time I said a quiet word on bended knees to the giant Buddha.   I put in a good word for my mother as well as a young boy from Rakhine with eye problems  whose grandmother I had recently met.  I didn’t ask for a miracle for either of them as just things are foolish; I just offered a hope to the world that things go as well as possible for them and those around them.  I didn’t ask for a miracle for myself either; I said a heartfelt thank you that I was able to be there in rural Myanmar in front of the Spectacled Buddha.  I said thank you that I was able to see the little of him that I could and that I was able to experience the country he resides in.  I said thank you for those people I had met on my travels in Myanmar who look to the Buddha for guidance.  I said thankyou for my brother saying his own prayer at the site a couple of years earlier and for making that seed grow and flower by helping me visit there and other places myself.  I made sure to say this thank you to my brother as well as Buddha.

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Blind leading the blind

 

The rest of our time in Pyay was spent not doing too much at all.  We didn’t visit any other temples, stupas or statues in the area though there are many that would be interesting but for us the Spectacled Buddha is the king of the area and anything else would have seen like a support act.  Pyay was an enjoyable place to do not much though.  There is a large river to laze by and plenty of options for food and drink.  By the end of the night we had probably visited a few too many of the drinking establishments making for one of those memorable nights when you can’t remember too much!

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Making new friends at the Shwe Myethman

 

Don’t wait for miracles – hit the road and make some memories and create your own meaning!
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Are You a Tourist or a Traveller? Inle Lake and the Phaung Daw Oo Festival.

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Mingalabar! and welcome to Nyaungshwe.

“Are you a tourist or a traveler?”  What’s the difference and does it even matter?  In this context a tourist is one who is focused on seeing the major sights in a limited and well organised time schedule; who eats and sleeps at eateries or hotels that best remind them of home and basically let guidebooks dictate their experiences.  A traveler on the other hand takes things as they come; is more interested in local people and foods than the major sights or the comforts of home and lets the local conditions, environment and actions influence their movements and experiences rather than a guidebook.

In reality we all have at least one foot in the tourist  camp.  We have to plan our wanderings at least to some extent and be conscious of our time due to restrictions such as visas, finances and other constraints There are usually speciic sights we want to see or places we want to go based on other people’s experiences..  Often though the most memorable moments of a trip come when in traveler mode; when going with the flow and taking things as they come. The experience and extent of both forms of travelling are heightened by being legally blind. My time in the township of Nyaungshwe on the edge of Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar provides a good example of both types of traveling.

 

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Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar

 

 

The Phaung Daw Oo Festival is an annual Buddhist festival that takes place on and around Inle Lake in September or October each year.  Four Buddha images, which are usually kept with a fifth at the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, are paraded along the shores of Inle Lake to surrounding villages over 18 days.  A replica royal barge is used to convey the images around the lake and is towed by long boats powered by leg rowers who are unique to Inle Lake.  Great excitement and honor is held in each village when the procession and Buddha images  arrives and stay overnight.  The excitement is at a peak as the festival makes its way to the lake’s biggest town, Nyaungshwe where it stays for three nights.

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Devotees place gold leaf on Buddha images at the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda.  The middle, rounded figure is an original Buddha image now obscured by many layers of gold leaf.  This original Buddha image is kept at the pagoda whilst the others travel as part of the festival; the newer images take their place.

 

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So much gold leaf has been placed on the Buddha images over the years that their original shape is unrecognizable.  The central, newer image travels with the older images in lieu of the one that stays at the Phaung Daw Oo pagoda.

 

 

 

The tourist in me had been anticipating this festival for months before.  I was looking forward to witnessing the ancient festival and austere religious event.  I had, as best as possible, organised in my mind where and when the procession would be and how best I could see it all.  As the festival procession got under way though the tourist in me had to depart and make way for the traveler.

My lack of eyesight meant that I just couldn’t witness the festival in the usual manner; I could barely see the boats or their leg rowers as they made their way down  the canal in to town.  The outfits and ornaments of the rowers, their boats and the others involved in the procession were basically none existent to me.  It would have been easy to get disappointed and depressed about going to the effort of  attending the event but not being able to see it but instead I decided to channel my inner traveler and go with the flow.

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Everybody wants a pic of the procession

 

Instead of concentrating on the visual elements that made up the procession I listened to the aural.  Traditional Myanmar music reverberated across the water.  Melodic yet abrasive, tuneful yet seemingly random in its rhythms and time signatures, Myanmar music takes a bit of working out.  I still have a lot of working out to do;  it often seems that each musician is playing a different song together at the same time but hearing the music being played in such a setting was a great experience.

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Travellers constantly arriving and departing Nyaungshwe during the festival

 

The activities draw a large crowd as people from many surrounding villages and all over Myanmar converge on Nyaungshwe for the procession and festivities.  My limited vision and lack of local language made it difficult to truly appreciate the crowd but it was very interesting nonetheless to take in the atmosphere.  Pa-O, Inya and other ethnic groups were in attendance in traditional dress, most strikingly the Pa-O with their colourful, cloth headwear.  The more typical conical farmer’s hat was also well represented in varying degrees of decoration.  Monks in their red robes intermingled with teenagers in tight jeans and western tops featuring pirates (yay!) and hello kitty (not so yay!).  Each boat of leg rowers in the procession represented a different village so it was interesting hearing the nearby Pa-O women point to various boats abd mention the village names; from their smiles and laughter I am guessing that some comments were made in pride about their village or villages of friends and family whilst other comments were good natured jokes and gossip about other villages.  Iit was a lot of fun just being amongst the local crowd and enjoying the colourful atmosphere.

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A festival of hats and colour

 

The tourist in me thought I would just witness a colourful yet austere  Buddhist ceremony with perhaps a market or two to satiate the crowd, instead the traveler found a town that transformed itself into a carnival for four days or so.  A small number (but large in size) of carnival rides had made their way to the edge of town as had a larger number of sideshow skill games, market stalls and food/beer stations.  Exploring these stalls with the procession of people they attracted was much more enjoyable than the formal procession itself.

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Colourful outfits that can attract the eye of even a legally blind person!

 

Market stalls offering the latest fashions; traditional and contemporary, lined the makeshift streets along with tattooists offering a more permanent fashion statement.  Vendors selling sim cards and spruiking the latest in technology sat beside piles of wood ready to have its bark crushed and turned into the thanaka that many female and young male Myanmar people wear as protection from the sun and as a form of decoration and expression.  It was ‘touristy’ in that it drew a crowd but the crowd were mostly locals and they were keen to have a good time.

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Fellow travellers at the fewstival

 

Walking around the town and carnival in the heat requires sustenance and that was on offer everywhere.  We came across an eatery beside the main bridge in Nyaungshe which didn’t look like much but provided heaven in the form of some shade and one of the most delicious meals I have ever had.  Shan noodles seemed to be the main thing on the menu so that’s what we ordered and we were well and truly rewarded.  The noodles and accompaniments had just the right crunch, just the right moistness and well, just the right everything.  It was mouth watering and was only made better by the woman sitting next to us offering an unknown biscuit-ish item to dip in the noodles’ sauce.  I’m not sure if this place is there all the time or was just set up for the festival but if you find something resembling this description there go for it!

 

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Passersby enjoying the sight of an impromptu dance

 

 

Nyaungshwe has many other eateries and beer stations, all of which are worth exploring but sitting, eating and drinking at the makeshift stalsl amongst the carnival was perhaps the most entertaining.  Watching the people walking past, waving, smiling and saying hello or mingalabar was enjoyable enough but was heigtend by the occasional impromptu dances that accompanied the music emanating from the beer stations.  It was great to see many of the people who had previously been involved in the procession having fun once the formalities were over.  The leg rowers were particularly keen to enjoy their time in town.

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Inle Lake leg rowers quenching a hard earned thirst.

 

Many skill testing games were on offer with  prizes of alcohol, cigarettes, soft drink and money.  In some cases it involved throwing or rolling a hoop over an object or knocking it over with a ball.  There was no obvious signs of slight of hand or cheating and no giant teddy-bear on display and small teddy’s occasionally given out; here it was a simple situation of if you knocked it over you won it.

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My brother attracting a crowd and trying his luck.

 

 

My brother and I both tried our skills on a couple of games and whilst we were unsuccessful the locals at least enjoyed watching our attempts.  We enjoyed watching theirs too.  A highlight off our time was enjoying a drink while watching a monk at a skill game across the path.  He was constantly throwing tennis balls at a shelf of bottles and cans earning himself a drink or two,  For what seemed like nearly an hour he threw ball after ball.  He seemed mostly oblivious to his surroundings and was totally concentrated on the task at hand.  I’m not sure if such carnival meditations lead to enlightenment but the monk did end up with an impressive collection of ‘free’ beer so at Ute end of the day he was a winner!

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Monk in deep concentration at a skill testing game; Phaung Daw Oo Festival, Nyaungshwe, Shan State, Myanmar.

 

Such experiences can’t be predicted or summed up in a guidebook and thankfully so.  They are the experiences of the traveler.  Similarly, the rollerskaing rink in Nyaungshwe doesn’t seem to be a popular destination amongst guidebooks or travel forums but it can be a great place for travelers to stumble across.   Many teens and young adults were whizzing around the rink obviously enjoying the freedom that movement, loud music and not being at home creates but one group of men in their early twenties were having a fantastic time showing off their skill.  Whilst they seemed to be able to skate well that wasn’t the skill the wanted to show off; no, it was the skill of crashing and falling down they seemed to enjoy the most.  It appeared that the more spectacular the fall the more it entertained them – and us.  An impression of Running Man before a fall seemed to be top of their list and never failed to make us laugh.  We spoke for a minute to one of the skaters who was  from a nearby village but currently studying away at university doing a business degree.  He was back in town for the weekend and keen to make the most of his time with his friends – which meant getting back to skating and falling over.

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Nyaungshwe roller-skating rink.

 

Our time at Inle Lake and Nyaungshwe was forcefully extended when the bus we had originally hoped to catch out of town was full.  This could induce great frustration and problems for the tourist but for the travelers in us it was a blessing.  We were more than happy to go with the flow and enjoy more of the festival atmosphere.

With extra time on our hands and a desire to explore the local surrounds we found ourselves peering into little bamboo shacks.  We came across one where we thought we might get a meal but were instead greeted with a rice wine shack.  The rice wine was incredibly cheap and surprisingly good tasting.  The proprietor was right to be proud of it.  We sat on woven mats enjoying the rice wine and cheroots while we surveyed the scene and the locals surveyed us.  The longer we stayed (and the more we all drank) the friendlier our drinking partners got and while we couldn’t talk much due to the lack of shared language we were all more than happy enjoying each other’s company.  We were sitting there while the afternoon’s deluge of rain came down and there was no where else I’d rather be.

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The perfect place to spend time during a downpour.

 

As a legally blind person I have no choice but to be a traveler rather than a tourist.  I have to go with the flow and take things as they come.  Yes, I still need to plan, in fact I probably need to plan some things more than a sighted tourist but I have to be prepared for the plans to go out the window.  I have to take my enjoyment and make my memories from the random rice wine shacks rather than see the details of an anticipated Buddhist procession.  I need to be amongst the laughter and smiles rather than stupas.  I need to take things as they come.  I can’t rely on a guidebook written by a sighted person, I need to find my own traveling path.  As I go I hope to continue finding this path with help from my brother and all those I meet on the road.  As I go I hope to travel and experience life as it is rather than life as a guidebook says it is.

Are you a tourist or a traveler?
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Boats and bridges; ready for travelling

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Snakes on a Train! The Yangon Circular Railway and Twante Snake Temple.

Snakes on a Train!

Snakes on a train!?  Is my Charles Bonnet Syndrome taking over again or have we entered a bad Hollywood prequel?  Thankfully neither is the case; instead this is a story of  just two things you can do on a trip to Yangon.  Visit the Twante Snake Temple and ride the city’s infamous Circular Railway.

 

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The Snake Temple near Twante.

 

Visiting the Snake Temple was high on my ‘things to do in Myanmar’ list.   As is often the case though the journey to and fro ended up being more interesting than the destination itself.  To get to the Snake Temple the first thing you need to do is get out of Yangon on the ferry to Dala.

The ferry ride across the Yangon River is over quickly but full of life while it lasts.  Sit on the bottom deck and you will see and hear all manner of local snacks being carried (in hands and on heads) in front of you.  Not hungry?  That’s OK, toys, clothes and other goods are also paraded and offered to all.  One of the many things I love about Myanmar is that a market can spring up anywhere and at anytime!

Once in Dala we chose our taxi (after many offers) and made our way to Twante.  The drive to Twante was my first chance to see a glimpse of rural Myanmar.  Palm trees and rice paddies along with bamboo shacks and the occasional livestock surrounded me.  The joy and excitement of seeing this new environment, if only a blurry glimpse of it, overtook any fear created by our increasingly speeding driver on roads which appeared to have no rules.

We were dropped off on the outskirts of Twante and began the fun of getting a ride to the Snake Temple.  Since we didn’t know the name of the temple and the locals didn’t understand English we did our best to mime the actions of snakes to a group of motorbike drivers.  Many puzzled looks and laughter were shared by us and a group of motorbike drivers until we all managed to see eye to eye.  If you are planning on visiting this temple I recommend saving a picture of it to show motorbike or taxi drivers – this tip holds for any other places you may want to visit throughout the country.

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The welcoming commite at the Snake Temple.

 

 

After a 20+ minute motorbike ride we arrived at the Snake Temple.  I had previously read that the Burmese pythons that live at the temple are fed pop-corn dipped in condensed milk by the caretaker nuns.  With this I had imagined a Dr Suess meets Indiana Jones type atmosphere, instead it was a very subdued one.

The pythons that were there were more concerned with lounging about and sleeping than they were with eating popcorn and their caretakers were content to do the same.  With low vision it was hard to see the snakes at first and I was initially disappointed.  I was hoping that the nuns that look after the place would be active in showing off the temple and its inhabitants but all was quiet.

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A Burmese Python at the Snake Temple.

 

 I was thankful to have my brother there with me as he was able to point out the snakes that were hiding in the roof and in the donation box.  I doubt I would have even seen the ones that were on the floor without help so I am glad that Caleb pointed them out before I discovered them with my white cane.

I quietly circled the temple a number of times and whilst not a place of much action it was enjoyable just experiencing the peace between human and snake; two creatures who are often better known for their destructive deeds.  It was hard to see them at the time I used my camera to try and capture their image so that I could at least see them later.

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A python amongst Buddha figures.

 

From the temple we decided to walk the kilometre or two to the motorbike/taxi stop on the main road back to Dala.  I must admit that I found this walk just as enjoyable as the temple itself.  It was hot and  the scenery itself wasn’t spectacular but it was great just to be walking in rural Myanmar.

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A Myanmar Mobile – I can’t always see them well but can always hear them!

 

With ferries, taxis and motorbikes taken care of, next on the to do list was travel on the Yangon Circular Railway.   The Circular Railway takes approximately 3 hours to travel the 46 kilometre loop.

 

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The Circular Train.

 

A train whose destination is the same station as where it departed from doesn’t sound particularly appealing.  The uncomfortable seats don’t help.  The ride on the Ynagon Circular Railway is however an extremely enjoyable experience.  Over its 39 stops the train travels from the city centre, through the suburbs and into the outlying rural areas.

I found it a fantastic way of seeing the area.  Legal blindness  obviously means I can’t see as much when looking out the windows as others.  Constant movement can make it even harder to focus on things or realise what they are before they pass b., Despite this, being on a train has its advantages for the blind traveller.  Once aboard I don’t have to worry about my own movement and bumping into objects and people.  I don’t have to exert all my energy in trying to deal with my surroundings.  Instead I can sit back and let my surroundings unfold before me.

 

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Life on the tracks.

 

Daily Myanmar life carries on just outside the open window.  Small scale food vendors and larger markets; people walking to work and home and monks collecting alms; rice paddies and piles of burning rubbish  all went by and I happily soaked it all up (OK, could do without the burning rubbish).  It is a great taste of Myanmar life from the relative comfort of a train seat.  Many people that we passed carried on the age old tradition of waving to the train passengers which made an already enjoyable experience more memorable.

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A smiling passerby – something you’ll have to get used to in Myanmar!

 

It is not just outside the windows where this play of daily life is put on.  The train itself is not at all just a tourist train but is used by local commuters.  Families, friends and solitary travellers constantly get on and off the train at its various stops, filling the carriage with colour and conversation while they are on.

 

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A family enjoys the view.

 

Vendors use the train to carry their goods from market to market and the aisles of the train of course become mini markets themselves as all manner of foods pass by.

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A vendor on the Yangon Circular Railway.

 

We stopped at one of the main markets on the line and I highly recommend others do too.  Navigating the market that fills the train platform with low vision and a cane was at first difficult but with help from my brother it was doable.  We made our way to the back of the market, past the rats and over the paths that at times resembled small rivers and found a suitable place for lunch.  I cannot tell you what it is that I ate but it was delicious and at 1,000 kyats (or approximately 1 dollar) for a large lunch it was great value.  Conversation was limited but lunch was served with numerous smiles from the staff and other market goers.

 

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Lunchtime

 

 

With 39 stops there are many other options to break up your train journey and of course if you don’t want to travel the whole loop you can also disembark anywhere and catch a taxi back to the centre of Yangon.  Early mornings are the best time to travel if you’d like to see the carriage full of market vendors and their goods but the train trip can be enjoyed all day.

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One of many markets along the line.

 

For me the Circular Railway was a definite highlight of my time in Yangon.  A chance to sit back and witness a glimpse of daily Myanmar life.  Even while being legally blind there was plenty to see and experience.  I will defiantly take the journey again should I return to Yangon and highly recommend the experience to any others planning on visiting the city.

 

 

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Train tracks coming to life.

 

 

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Upon arrival in Yangon there was only one thing to do; forget about any concerns I may have about travelling blind and dive in to this city and country’s sensual delights.  That’s right, it was time to  eat a grasshopper

No, I can’t blame this on choosing the wrong food due to not seeing it properly as is sometimes the case.  This insect eating wasn’t an accident but something I was looking forward to as a way to immediately put my other senses to work and to get  in the mind frame of trying something different.  The  fried grasshopper wasn’t bad either.  Not a lot of taste but a lot of crunch – a great beer snack.

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A pile of fried grasshoppers just waiting to be devoured.

 

19th Street is a treat for all the senses.  The sounds of laughter, talking and enjoying a meal mingle with the music that spills out and over from street food vendors, restaurants, beer stations and buskers.

The aroma of fresh fruit, flowers and BBQ’s in action waft and drift, often just in time to obscure some more offensive or factory experiences.  The little sight I have highlighted a rainbow of colours from people’s clothes, their fruit stalls and flashing lights designed to attract attention to stupas and street stalls alike.

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Market stall in the vicinity of 19th Street Yangon.

 

We found a table and let the food find us.  I’m not sure if the establishment we first visited actually sold anything themselves but the service was impeccable.  We ordered some BBQ which they didn’t have so out into the street they went and got it for us.  We ordered beer which they didn’t have so out into the street they went and got it for us.  We ordered more food that they didn’t have so off into the street they went and got it for us.  I loved this aspect of Myanmar; businesses work together rather than in competition.  You can take a drink from one establishment into another whilst snaking on food from the street unlike in Australia where each business makes sure you only consume what you buy from them.  This business model not only seems to work for the business owners but makes for a relaxed and enjoyable experience for the customer.  .

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19th Street, Yangon.

 

The taste buds were very happy with this experience; the food was delicious and the beer was incredibly good – Myanmar Beer is up there with any international brew.  I was quickly falling in love with the place and fears about travelling blind were soon pushed to the edges of my mind – yes it was hectic but the people were friendly and the food and beer cheap and delicious.  Finding out that whiskey is even cheaper than beer and hearing a family of street buskers while enjoying said beverage was the clincher.

The music was incredibly good, just voices and basic rhythm from dad and the kids but beautifully tuneful, interesting and enjoyable.  If you are lucky enough to hear and see them when you visit Yangon make sure to give them some Kyats as it is well deserved.

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A family of street performers in 19th Street, Yangon.

 

A number of pleasant evenings were spent in similar fashion in 19th Street though occasionally a less busy part of the city provided an alternative place to sip after meal whiskeys and sugar cane juice.

The blind or low vision traveller does need to be careful when navigating the streets of Yangon including 19th.  Footpaths are often overcrowded with market stalls and the roads busy.  Many market stalls feature BBQs which must be carefully avoided and people don’t necessarily have the time or opportunity to see or recognise the white cane or other devices so go slow and carefully but enjoy.

When you’re there don’t forget to enjoy a Myanmar Beer and a grasshopper or two for me!
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Nighty-night Yangon.

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Blind in Burma (Or Myopic in Myanmar)

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    Crossing the road in my rural, Australian home town is still a daunting and somewhat dangerous task; travelling Myanmar with a visual impairment however was a relative joy.

    Before making the leap across the seas I had a number of concerns about international travel due to being legally blind.  How will I get around in a totally unfamiliar environment?  Will I be able to see and/or experience the major sites and sights each place offers?  Will I be able to enjoy the delights  of a smile, a street scene or a seaside sunset?  Will I bump into this or walk in front of that?  How would I know what to eat and who to meet?  Would it be worth it and would my experience be diminished compared to a sighted traveller?  Could I do it?

    A month in Myanmar has helped answer some of those questions and more.  Come along for the journey and see what I saw (and what I didn’t see) and how I saw it.

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Following my cane through Seddan Cave.

    I was very lucky and appreciative to have my brother Caleb travel with me.  Having Caleb as a guide and travelling partner took a huge weight off my mind and shoulders in regards to my fears of travelling.  Things like navigating airports, bus and train stations, city streets and menus can be daunting things to  do for those with visual difficulties so it was a relief to know I would have help in doing so.  Help from someone who is extremely thoughtful of others whilst being laid back; most importantly – someone I can trust.  The fact that he had been to Myanmar before and had a solid grasp of the cultural practices and best drinking places was a bonus.

    The sight of two westerners, particularly one wearing an eye patch and using a white cane was a novel and humorous sight for many locals across Myanmar.  Thankfully though the laughter usually seemed to be in good humour; they weren’t laughing at me or making judgements but seemed to be enjoying the experience.

    It appeared that many didn’t know exactly what the white cane was but when they realised it meant something they were quick to offer assistance and learn about it.  Their approach to the white cane and assistance in general was much more positive than people in Australia.  For example, when at a pub, restaurant or anywhere in Australia and I ask for directions to, lets say, the toilet, people will generally just point and say “over there” and walk off.  Time and time again in Myanmar when I asked for directions people would kindly and without a fuss take my arm and gently  guide me to where I needed to go.  They didn’t do it for kudos or to try and earn money, they did it because they genuinely care about helping people.

    Often it would be after helping me that people would ask what the cane was for and become interested in my vision.  Some were keen to try the cane for themselves which was always good fun and provided a laugh for us and them – always laughing with each other rather than at each other.  Such an attitude to the cane was a welcome surprise as  at home in Australia the cane seems to make people scared. Scared that it might slow them down or might be a burden on them.  It makes adults pretend to ignore the cane holder and embarrassingly whisper when their kids ask about it.   Not in Myanmar though, adults were happy to ask about it, laugh about it, learn about it and generally respect it.

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An after lunch try of the white cane in Bagan.

    The most profound instance of the cane and eye patch being a conversation starter rather than ender came in a remote village near Mrauk U in Rakhine State where cultural barriers melted as I the eye patch wearing pirate bonded with a Chin  women over shared experiences  This particular experience deserves a piece of its own which will follow.

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A beautiful woman and I.

    Many other conversations, albeit often stunted due to language barriers, occurred with people across the great country of Myanmar.  Stories of life under a military regime, fighting against it and reserved hope that things are slowly changing intermingled with language lessons, tutorials on how to correctly tie the ubiquitous longhyi and questions about where we were from.  The people were genuinely curious about us and our attire as we were interested in them.  Many asked for selfies with us and more asked for nothing but an opportunity to share their lives with us.

    When eyesight fails other senses like touch and feel can be utilised.  Shoes are a no-go in Buddhist temples so one is immediately intimately linked with the surrounds through feel and touch.  Smooth, slippery, over polished ground mixes with rocky, rough hewn paths.  The hot and dry mix with the cool and wet.  Hands and fingers can explore the walls, figures and statues, taking in those carved from solid stone and those of metals.  Shapes of figures can be felt and a guide’s narrative can be followed by your fingers.

    A good ear can also be useful, not just to listen to a guide but to take in the sounds of the other visitors; chants and prayers along with excited conversations and laughter.  Listening to the people can also highlight the importance of visiting historical sites; yes the structures themselves are impressive and often awe inspiring but it is the people that visit, prey and live their lives in and with them that creates the meaning and the history.  History has no story without people.  Yes, it would be fantastic to see the sights in detail but missing out on one aspect of them is much better than missing out on them altogether by staying at home.

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A family of buskers on 19th Street, Yangon are a treat for the ears.

    Travelling isn’t just about following the guidebooks and seeing the results of other people’s achievements.  It is an opportunity to push boundaries and create your own personal achievements.

    Climbing Mrauk U’s highest mountain with my cane and excellent guide Ko Pauk Se (details below) was an achievement as was  riding a motorbike along a secluded beach.

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Sunrise on Mrauk U’s highest mountain.

    Dealing with the traffic is also a huge achievement for all! What at first seems like chaos and an extreme sport for a white cane user actually works though.  Road users know that they need to expect and be ready for anything so they are naturally attentive to what is going on around them.  This compared to many western drivers who speed around without any idea of what or who is around them.  Whilst in the west we usually use our car horns for aggressive purposes everyone constantly beeps when approaching someone else in order to let everyone know where everyone is.  Generally people will give you time to go where you need to go without feeling that they are being slowed down.  They realise that they all have to share the roads so it is in each other’s best interests to help each other get to their destinations in a timely and safe manner.  Protip; a little beer and whiskey seem to make being a pedestrian a little easier.

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The traffic is colourful to say the least.

    The beer and whiskey lead me to a serious point.  As much as travelling is about seeing the sights it is also about enjoying yourself.  Whilst I have spoken about my brother Caleb in regards to his help in guiding me it was fantastic just to travel and have fun with him.  Whilst golden pagodas and temples are what fill the guidebooks some of the most memorable (if a bit hazy) moments were those spent having a meal and a drink; a conversation and a laugh with my brother, locals and other travellers.  Blindness doesn’t have to limit these experiences.

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Whiskey and sunsets are always winners.

    A month in Myanmar has completely resolved the questions I had in regards to blind people travelling.  Yes it is possible.  Yes it is worth it.  Yes it can be a challenge but that is part of the fun and adventure.  Things will go wrong at times but they do for all travellers.  Decisions such as whether to travel solo or with somebody who can see is completely up to the individual.  Personally I would have struggled travelling Myanmar solo but I’m sure other blind people could.  For me, having my brother as a travelling partner and guide was a huge confidence booster; it made situations enjoyable rather than intimidating.  I am extremely grateful for the opportunities he has opened up and for being someone I can travel with who I can trust to help me when needed but also trusts me to do what I can do.

    I would highly recommend Myanmar as a destination for any traveller and most definitely to blind or vision impaired travellers.  Yes it has its challenges and difficulties but any negatives are outweighed by the positives.  It is the people that are the heart of Myanmar and if anything, having a visual impairment will only highlight how good theirs hearts are.  It will only heighten the experience of having your heart stolen by them.

    Thank you Myanmar and thank you Caleb.

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(If visiting Mrauk U and surrounds I highly recommend my guide Ko Pauk Se.  He is extremely friendly and helpful and loves sharing Rakhine State with visitors.  You can find his tea shop in town which also advertises his tours and the availability of bus tickets.  You can email on  kopauk.311.com@gmail.com  Please tell him Kristan with the eye cover and stick from Australia sent you!)
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Welcome to the Journey!

Are you looking for a legally blind guide to show  you around the world?  Want to know how to and what its like to ‘see the sights’ when one can hardly see at all?  Then you’ve come to the right place.

Welcome to Blind As A Backpack!

Like you, I have long had the desire to travel; ‘to see the sights and have delights on every foreign shore’.  Those dreams  have largely been unfulfilled though with most of my ‘adventures’ taking place in various surgeries and doctors rooms (over a dozen surgeries in the past 5 years alone).

It is time for that to change though.  It is time to fill the backpack, grab the white cane and see the world!  Er, well, kinda see but taste, hear, smell and bump into the world!  And you are invited to come along for the journey.

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Cane, backpack and able

A month’s meander through Myanmar is booked in for October 2016.  India, Nepal, China, and North Korea   is also on the horizon for 2017  Hopefully there will be more additions to that list soon.

The trip to Myanmar cannot come soon enough!  Many impressive Buddhist pagodas, stupas and temples are on the list to sample as are remote villages, exotic street foods and festivities such as the Phaung Daw Oo Festival on Inle Lake.   Most of all though I am looking forward to meeting and talking with the people of Myanmar.  Those who I have spoken to that have been there have all reported that the Burmese are incredibly friendly people so it will be the perfect place to kick off the Blind As A Backpack adventures.

Travelling such places will of course provide many challenges.  Language barriers, culture shock and other such hurdles confront all travellers but I can’t help wondering ‘will I bump into this? will I miss out on seeing that? will I walk in front of a bus and over a cliff whilst getting on the wrong flight?’ and other such questions.  Finding the answers to those will be part of the fun and experience.

The aim of the blog will be to provide some entertainment, information and inspiration for all travellers; sighted, blind, low vision and anything in between.

Being Blind As A Backpack should be an eye opening experience – come along fo the journey!

 


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