Friday, May 19, 2006

Pagoda to Pagoda

So it was that Dave and I landed in Yangon (Rangoon) about a month ago with 4 weeks ahead of us in Burma (Myanmar) and not too many ideas of what to expect…


We had earmarked Yangon as a place to depart pronto, but in the end a mixture of our procrastination in obtaining tickets and liking of our surroundings led us to stay a few days.

The shock of arrival from India was significant from the moment we landed and the taxi-driver said “don’t worry we are Buddhist in Burma, we will not rip you off” (such phrases I take with a huge pinch of salt, but here it turned out to be largely true). The shere contrast from Calcutta to Yangon made me feel I had flown half way around the world rather than a couple of hour hop.

From the crescendo of noise, smell, over-crowding, rip-off merchants and immense poverty of Calcutta, to the relatively quiet, spaced out nature of Yangon, full of people who smiled and would bend over backwards to help you. The negative-image of Calcutta and indeed quite unlike any other Asian city I have visited.

The shaded avenues bustling with small markets, beetel-nut chewing men and more little shops and eateries then I could count are great for walking around. Occasionally we would join in with a game of cane-ball (Takraw in Thailand – basically keepy-uppies with a ball made of cane), or just people watch - the men wearing almost universally their traditional longyi (type of skirt that has to be re-fastened every 5 minutes or it falls down) and the women likewise with faces smeared to varying degrees in a kaleidoscope of interesting patterns with a type of yellow mud/paste that protects against the sun. As usual the people in Asia are trying hard to whiten their skin while I am doing my best to darken mine.

A quick mention has to go to that Taurine advert – I mean my word how wrong can you get!

There are some interesting colonial buildings such as the beautiful cathedral, but the prize for most startling building undoubtedly goes to Shwedegon Pagoda. Now, there are many impressive pagodas in around the capital and indeed throughout this very devout country, but Shwedegon stands out, just as I believe it does against famous landmarks in other capitals such as the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben. Try and picture a large pagoda strung hill rising from the city, crowned with no less than a 98m high shining golden stuppa topped with a huge jewel encrusted umbrella.

To walk around it, sit and contemplate, meditate and or take part in ritual, is a quite startlingly peaceful experience. This is further enhanced by the subtle but striking changes in lighting and ambiance as the sun goes down lighting the gold-leaf up in a reddy glow. The huge diamond at the pinnacle can be seen to refract the whole spectrum of colours by moving backwards and forwards in certain places. Magnificent.

As for the presence of the infamous regime in charge, I have to say it was surprisingly limited. Yes the people occasionally made hints at limitations, the shops were full of Asian products rather than Western products and it seemed the police and army were the only people we met who scowled rather than produce that truly wonderful smile that makes many travelers fall in love with this country. The capital is not though where the worst atrocities of the regime are carried out.

So after an enjoyable couple of days and a very interesting night in which I took a further disliking to sex-tourists (a Singaporean man was shocked when we politely turned down his offer to buy us both top quality prostitutes at a price of 30,000 Kyat / $25 each) and ended up the last people in a club moshing to Green Day, we were ready to head north. We jumped on a dozen or so hour overnight-bus with limited leg-room (in Burma the aisle is routinely filled with people on mini-chairs) and a distinctly fishy smell (dried fish that smells like fish-food is a heavily transported food product and gets all over your bags) and eventually ended up in the old capital of Mandalay.


I found Mandalay a profoundly strange city. It just does not feel like a 5 million people Asian city. It seems so spread out and lacking in the usual buzz. Like most places in Myanmar it simply has no nightlife beyond men-only beer gardens that shut at 10.30 pm and the occasional cinema (even more male dominated rooms with TV showing mainly football and a bit of porn). Picture 50 men in skirts sitting around Fulham v West Brom while chewing a shit-load of beetel nut and smoking loads of harsh local cigarettes and cheroots (local cigar). It also has severe electrical supply problems and can be almost entirely with out light at night. Imagine it, seeing stars in such a big city.

The main palace looks impressive though we did not wish to pay the government entry charge or pass through a gate with a banner commenting on how the army will crush their enemies or something of that ilk, so we spent our time at the quainter old capitals that surround the city. Anapuna was impressive and the serenity of a series of traditionally fished lakes surrounded by pagoda and spanned by a multi-century old teak bridge meant a lazy hour in a cane chair watching the world ever so slowly unfold was a must.

My favourite sight was undoubtedly the old capital of Inwa. It is a series of impressive temples on a small island in the Ayerawaddy surrounded by lush fields that you navigate via a horse-cart ridden by a grumpy old man. The highlight that surpassed all the rest including the teak monastery where we found her was a little girl without a voice.

I simply cannot describe how wonderful this little girl was (see photo of 3 of us). Never have I seen such a sweet pleasant smile or cheeky, clever nature. She grabbed hold of us and took us all around playing games, hiding, peeking, explaining by gesture and even going as far as to try to set us up with a couple of Portuguese girls. It is rare that you see another human being that is so full of life, light and beauty and it did a good job of bashing some cynicism out of me. She wanted nothing but company. I am so glad that people like this exist.

Alongside eating a great steak (no red meat for 2 months in India) some minor stomach troubles, problems with internet (government restricted – no hotmail etc) and the obligatory walks, a chain of events leading from a climb up and down the 1400 steps of the Mandalay hill took up most of our time and that will receive its own entry.


At 5am in a daze we took a trishaw from our guesthouse to the bank of the mighty river that is the artery of the country and set off on a 12 hour journey down stream past padi and pagoda, buffalo and fisherman.

Suddenly I awoke to remember I had fallen asleep on the floor of the top-deck and found myself surrounded by the noise and confusion of dozens of people selling goods amongst numerous passengers. The most conspicuous of these were a bunch of German package tourists being journeyed from a to b to c. Far more interesting was an older Chilean couple. Although he looked rather like a strange amalgamation of Colonel Sanders and Ho Chi Minh, the husband was a particularly interesting and very well traveled guy. We also met a 60 year old Australian called Larry for the first time, but we will talk more about LLL later.

All in all it was a very pleasant boat trip watching the lush country slide by, though in truly scorching conditions and nursing dodgy stomachs. Long periods of heated serenity were broken up by short stops on the banks where people would stream on and off along precariously placed planks balancing trays of food and goods.

The sun went down majestically over the river. We said goodbye to the locals accompanying us and set foot on the island plain of Bagan. Described by the bible (LP) as the equivalent of all of Europe’s medieval cathedrals being squeezed onto an island the size of Manhattan. It had a lot to live up to.
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