Author Archives: Jeff C

First Look at Burma (Myanmar): Yangon

The start and finish of my three weeks in Burma were in Yangon. I’m still sorting pictures from the rest of the trip, which included everything from remote tribal villages to famous golden Buddhas to a stunning hot-air balloon ride over a thousand-year old sacred city.

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Young monks in their living quarters at Naga Hlaing Gu monastery in Yangon.

 

The United States officially recognizes the country that lies just east of India, south of China, and west of Thailand as “Burma,” even though Burma’s current government wants to be called Myanmar. Today Burma has a population of around 50 million.

 

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Shwedagon Pagoda, already busy even before dawn

 

Burma was a British colony, starting in 1824 after the first Anglo-Burmese War.  Before the Brits, the area – like most of Asia – was governed for many centuries by a series of kings, dynasties and empires. Britain’s control of Burma was mostly lost during World War II; Burma was given its independence in 1948.  A “military junta” ruled Burma for most of the last 50 years, though its grip has been loosened somewhat in the last decade. The military renamed the country “Myanmar” in 1989, just months after an especially brutal suppression of dissenters. Perhaps because that origin, the new name has been slow to catch on, and the U.S. still hasn’t officially recognized it.  I prefer “Burma” mostly because it has one less syllable and is straightforward to pronounce.

 

Also renamed was the now-former capital city: Rangoon is now “Yangon.” I stayed in Yangon three different times in my three weeks in Burma. It’s a city of about 5 million, which makes it bigger (in population) than Los Angeles, though its downtown commercial skyline looks more like Wichita Falls. Only in the past few years has the Burmese government made it feasible for ordinary people to own cars, so terrible traffic overwhelms the city streets, perhaps also trumping Los Angeles on that front, too.

 

The most famous and prominent landmark in town is the Schwedagon Pagoda. It’s a huge Buddhist temple complex dominated by one towering golden “stupa.”  Legend has it that it’s 2,600 years old, though history and archaeology apparently peg it at closer to 1300. I got there long before daylight and it was already brimming with visitors.

 

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The girls in pink are nuns; the boys in dark orange or maroon are monks.  It sounds odd to Americans to hear of young children being monks and nuns, but those terms have different meanings in Buddhist practice than they do for the Catholics. Most Buddhist boys are monks at some point in their youth – perhaps only for a week or a month. It can be about like going to church camp. They can (and frequently do) leave at any time without any resistance or stigma, so it’s a very different type of commitment. As the pictures with smartphones and toy guns hint, they’re mostly typical kids. That young nun with the umbrella looks like a set-up shot, but it’s not. We caught her walking down a city sidewalk as we hopped of the bus.

 

A Buddhist "nun" near the Naga

A Buddhist “nun” near Naga Hlaing Gu in Yangon

 

All those boats operate as rush hour passenger ferries, taking folks across the Yangon River. The activity was intense: I think they had a ferry leaving at least every 30 seconds during peak rush hour traffic. We were told that foreigners weren’t allowed on those boats – because the government is concerned about safety (of foreigners).

Bangkok 2015: Wat Pho, And Other Important Questions


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Did you know that Buddhism is the second most practiced religion (behind Christianity) in 13 western U.S. states (including Oklahoma!)? I didn’t (until recently, anyway). Nor did I really know a darn thing about it. So I brushed up a little in preparation for my January Asian adventure.

First stop:  Bangkok.

The most visited sites in Bangkok include a handful of huge Buddhist temple complexes (“Wats”), mostly arrayed along the Chao Phraya river that runs through the heart of town.  There’s one at the Grand Palace called Wat Phra Kaew; there’s one right next door called Wat Pho, and one just across the river (with the tall towers) called Wat Aron.  Wat Pho is home to a 160-foot reclining Buddha – a Buddha statue the size of a US Navy patrol ship, casually lying on its side with its head propped on its right arm.  The legend is that a “reclining” Buddha isn’t sleeping or resting – he’s just so “enlightened” he’s practically floating: that’s the standard pose in Nirvana.

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Depending on your definitions, Buddhism isn’t necessarily even a religion at all. It’s theoretically “non-theistic” which means it doesn’t (necessarily) involve a god or gods. Buddha himself is believed to have been a teacher/philosopher who lived 2500 years ago in India. Technically, he’s not considered a god, and in theory neither he nor those statues are worshipped or prayed to – though to an outsider that’s just what it all looks like when Buddhists bow down with their palms pressed together in front of their faces. (Come to think of it, though, they did pretty much that same thing to me when I walked into my Bangkok hotel lobby).  They say those ever-present gilded statues of Buddha are just there to remind them of the qualities and teachings of Buddha.

Bangkok was just a short stopover on the way to a three-week stint in Burma, so there’ll be much more to come from my foray into the Buddhist world.

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Bangkok isn’t solely about ancient Wats and Palaces. This was the view from the balcony of my hotel room along the River.  The main part of the city’s skyline was behind me.

 

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If you’re like me, you can’t think of a visit to Bangkok without thinking of the 1980s song “One Night in Bangkok.”  Written by a couple of members of ABBA, it’s actually about an international chess tournament set against the backdrop of some of Bangkok’s seedier aspects.  

Bangkok 2015: “The King and I” at the Grand Palace

One of a handful of posts from a couple of days’ stopover in Bangkok, Thailand.    

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If you’re a Yul Brenner fan, you’ll be interested to know that King Bhumobol Adulyadej of Thailand — a.k.a. Rama IX — is the modern-day King of Siam.*  It’s a shame I didn’t get to meet him on my trip through Bangkok. Between the two of us, “The King and I” have a combined US$30 billion, control 3,000 acres of downtown Bangkok, and have reigned over Thailand since 1946. Admittedly, most of that is him: he’s the World’s Richest Royal, and the world’s longest-reigning monarch.  They say Rama IX is well respected, but then it’s against Thai law to not respect him, so take that for what it’s worth.

 

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This sign stands next to the river, in front of the Grand Palace. Notice that it’s (exclusively) in English. Signs and advertisements around the airport and the historic, shopping and tourist areas were just as likely to be in English as in Thai.

 

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Outside the temple of the Emerald Buddha, you could sprinkle yourself with sacred Buddha water using a symbolic lotus flower. I opted out, but a couple of folks slung water my direction anyway.

The grounds of Rama’s Grand Palace look more like Disneyland than many parts of Disneyland do.  If you go on a Sunday, let me just warn you that you’re making a mistake: you’ll be elbow to elbow with a sea of locals and international tourists alike. Touring the grounds is as much about Buddha as it is about Rama. There’s an enormous “Wat” (temple complex) on site with Buddhas galore, including the tiny-but-most-revered Emerald Buddha (made of jade, not emeralds). You don’t see much of the King, aside from a handful of grand portraits. The faces around the Palace are Palace guards in formal pink uniforms, backed up by more conventional-looking military guards in green.  Over at the Wat, cameras were prohibited in the Emerald Buddha room — I saw one of the guards literally spank a woman with a handheld “No Photography” sign.  Some of the same folks enforced a strict dress code. You can’t show your legs or shoulders – or your tattoos.  And if you come unprepared, they make you rent pants.

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On guard at the Royal Palace, it was this guy’s turn to be serious.

 

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See what I mean about Disneyland?

 

 

* Before he was Ramses and before the Magnificent Seven, Yul Brenner played a 19th Century King of Siam in the musical “The King and I” in 1956.  His favorite word was “etcetera.”  The iconic role earned Brenner a mention in the 1990s pop song “One Night in Bangkok.”  “Siam” is what the rest of the world called Thailand for centuries, but the Thais never used it themselves.  Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country that was never under European colonial rule.   I was hoping to wedge the phrase/pun, “Yes, Siam!” into this writeup, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Scotland: Skye and the Outer Hebrides

 OKAY!  Finally — the last of my pictures from Scotland.  Yes, I’ve been home for quite a while, but these were some cool places and I still wanted to share what they looked like.

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Dunvegan Castle has been the headquarters of the MacLeod Clan for over 700 years.

Not surprisingly, Dunvegan Castle, the home of the MacLeod clan chiefs for the last 800 years or so, was chock full of old paintings of men named MacLeod wearing kilts and high socks.  After my visit there, I headed for the ferry from the Isle of Skye out to the Isle of Lewis & Harris, and the big semi next to my car said, “D.R. MacLeod Transport.”  Two of the workers who were getting me checked in on the ferry had name tags with the last name MacLeod.  Apparently the MacLeod clan is alive and well on Skye and Lewis & Harris, just like they have been since before Columbus sailed west.

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The harbor town of Portree — the biggest ‘city’ on the Isle of Skye — was my home base for a few days on and around the Isle.

The Outer Islands have their own culture.  The area is known for its strong religious heritage – mostly the Presbyterian-ish Church of Scotland, as I understand it.  On Sunday, there was almost nothing open: I finally found one café and one gas station that were (apparently) heathen-operated.

The highway and other signs in the area are written in both English and Gaelic, but a long-time local I quizzed thought that was mostly symbolic.  He didn’t believe there were many people who spoke only Gaelic. I was surprised that I had no trouble understanding the Scottish accents in the Highlands and islands, even though I could barely understand the folks down in Glasgow.  (I was briefly concerned that I was going to be detained at the Glasgow airport because I was unable to understand and answer the several security-screening questions asked in Glasgow-accented “English”).

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These 600-year-old carvings of swords, displayed inside St. Clements Church on the southeast tip of the Isle of Harris, probably once marked the graves of prominent members of the MacLeod clan.

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Looking east from the southeast coast of the Isle of Harris, with the Isle of Skye on the horizon.

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This igloo-looking monument on the Isle of Harris is a modern memorial to a group of protesting local farmers from the late 1800s. A part of it marks the spot where the local sheriff (literally) “read the Riot Act” to the protesters. The Riot Act was English law; if an unruly group gathered (creating a threat of a riot) the sheriff could read a section of the Act ordering them to disperse or else be arrested. I knew the modern idiom of “reading someone the Riot Act” — giving them a strong scolding or warning — but never knew its history!

Before I made the trip, I learned the words and music to “Scotland the Brave”.  It’s the anthem (sometimes regal and sometimes eery) you always hear Scottish bagpipers playing as an iconic musical symbol of the country.  At a minimum, I knew it would be running through my head while I was there, and I wanted to be prepared in case I was caught up in any pre- or post-Independence vote revelry and felt compelled to amuse, or to show some local musical allegiance.  I was ready play it on either guitar or ukulele.  Among the resulting disappointments:  no occasions arose where my would-be barroom antics would have been appropriate; no real patriotic revelry erupted anyway; and — worst of all — I learned that the song was a 20th Century creation (written perhaps in the 1950s).  Somehow I’d imagined it being played for those kilted soldiers who fought alongside Braveheart in the 1200s — not something written for a potential gig on the Ed Sullivan Show.

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My most-remote destination was the Uig Sands area, on the west side of Lewis & Harris. At low tide, there was a mile or so of flat sand between my 400-year-old guest house and the water. At high tide, the Sands were flooded and the water was only a few yards away.

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In one sense, the Outer Islands were a lot further from home than the mileage might make it seem.   I started toward home at about noon on a Tuesday.  A drive to the port where the ferry would leave the next morning; hotel overnight; ferry to an Inner island; drive to the town where I’d rented my car; taxi across the bridge to the mainland; train to Inverness; another train to Glasgow; taxi to Glasgow airport hotel; morning flight to Newark; airport tram; flight to Houston; parking shuttle; then my trusty Chevy Tahoe back to the house on Thursday night.  I spent almost my entire two weeks in Scotland on the out-of-the-way islands rather than seeing the major cities and sites.  I didn’t even make it to Loch Ness to see the monster.  I had a great trip, but I don’t think I’m ready to cross Scotland off my list.

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Coastal sands on the Isle of Harris

 

 

Scotland 2014: Lighthouses, Sheep, and Dead Economists


Yes, I’ve been home from Scotland for a while, but I’ve got a few more batches of pictures to share.

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For 190 years, the Eilan Glas lighthouse has sat on the small peninsula off the Isle of Scalpay (a prior lighthouse was on the same spot in the 18th century).  Scalpay is a tiny island recently connected by bridge to the Scottish Isle(s) of Lewis & Harris.  The peninsula it sits on sticks well out into the Minch – the branch of the Atlantic Ocean that goes between the Inner and Outer Hebrides – which is presumably the reason someone thought a lighthouse was needed there in the first place.  In better light, you can see back to the Isle of Skye.

Honestly, it’s probably hard to be more photographically trite than a bunch of cliched pictures of a lighthouse with a sunrise in the background.  But my pre-dawn hike through the sheepfields of Scalpay was a pretty special experience, and – if I may say so myself – these pictures turned out pretty well.  I only got lost (and wet) a little on my two-hour hike — taking the long way — through coastal sheep fields back to my car.

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Much of the land in Scotland’s outer islands is part of a Common Grazing system. Local committees generally supervise the land and decide how much livestock each farmer is allowed to graze.

This area of Scotland has lots of sheep, and lots of land dedicated to “common grazing.” In a common grazing system, grazing lands are controlled by the town or by some sort of semi-governmental cooperative, and the individual citizens have some ability to put their livestock on the land for grazing. But nobody owns the grazing land (or maybe everybody sort of does). This is especially interesting (to me) because there is a famous principle of Economics called the “Tragedy of the Commons,” which analyzes the ups and downs of common ownership of resources like this (mostly the downs – thus the term “tragedy”).   The grazing tragedy occurs because every farmer with access to the common grazing land has the incentive to graze as many animals as possible on the seemingly free public land, so the land becomes overgrazed and barren and thus no good for anyone. This rarely happens on privately owned grazing land, because a property owner tends not to spoil his own land. The moral of the story is that when nobody owns the land (or other resource), nobody has a great incentive to care for it.

Solving the “tragedy” can take two seemingly opposite courses: heavy governmental regulation (like the Grazing Committee); or private ownership of the lands. Environmentalists analogize to the concept to argue that something must be done (i.e. regulation) to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the “common” air we breathe and water supplies from which we drink.  Because nobody owns the skies or rivers, people are unfortunately inclined to abuse them absent some government control.  On the other hand, conservatives (more precisely: capitalists) point to the “tragedy” concept to teach that private ownership of resources (where possible) is the best way to ensure that they will be well cared for and preserved. Both these arguments are mostly correct, and that’s why the Tragedy of the Common idea is such an important, interesting concept.

Somehow it’s also interesting that Scotland was also the home of Adam Smith, the 18th Century economist and author of Wealth of Nations. Smith is the one who taught the modern world that a capitalist system – where people act in their own financial interest – generally creates better outcomes for a society because private ownership and profit interests usually lead people to direct resources to their most productive and valuable uses. It’s a little ironic that the odd pocket of common grazing systems persists in the country that is Smith’s homeland. He may be rolling over in his Edinburgh grave.

So if you ever wonder what I think about on a two-hour solo hike through quiet Scottish sheep fields on the way to and from an isolated lighthouse, now you know.

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Sheep graze near Uig Sands on the Isle of Lewis