It was Jessica’s birthday again (She has one every year.) so that means a trip. This time she chose Myanmar, a country that only recently opened itself to tourists. She wanted to go before the masses showed up so we applied on-line for our visas, booked our flights from Kuala Lumpur to Yangon, and packed our carry-ons for a one-week visit. We also exchanged some Malaysian currency for US dollars having read that the American currency is coveted in Myanmar, especially in the cities. But, be warned: the Burmese only want new, crisp, uncreased bills. In exchange, they will give you kyat (pronounced chet) that looks like it had been stuck to the cleats of an NFL player who played every down of the game in a rainstorm.
It should also be noted that, as of this writing, one US dollar will buy you over 1,200 kyat. We point this out as a public service to prevent heart attacks that might otherwise be brought on when you receive your lunch bill of 35,000 kyat.
Yangon, formerly called Rangoon, is becoming somewhat cosmopolitan now that the military has ceded power (at least nominally) to a newly-elected civilian government. Oil & Gas concerns have moved in, banks have opened offices and development is taking place. Hopefully the benefits of increased economic activity make their way to the people of Myanmar, many of whom struggle desperately just to put food on their tables.
Though most Burmese men wear western-style trousers, many still sport the traditional longyi. The man steps into the cylinder, hikes it up, and ties it around his waist. Apparently the knots at the waist is not a very secure one since the guys are constantly untying and retying their skirts. It seemed like too much maintenance to me. I just want to put my pants on and forget them.
Jessica and I began our tour of Yangon with a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, the first of many pagodas we would take in while in Myanmar since the place is absolutely lousy with the Buddhist shrines. Shwedagon is particularly important since it is the reliquary of 8 hairs of Guatama Buddha. In fact, the consecration of other pagodas through the blessing of the umbrellas is done at Shwedagon. Our young, enthusiastic and well-informed guide, Than Naing, spent an hour with us, explaining the symbolism reflected in virtually everything we saw. I have forgotten most of what he told us, but it seemed very interesting at the time, particularly the parts about it being covered in 27 tons of gold leaf and capped by a 72-carat diamond. And make sure that you know on which day of the week you were born because there are shrines at Shwedagon representing the days of the week. The idea is to go to the one for the day of the week on which you were born and pour cups of water over the god-figure as you pray. Just do what the locals are doing and you’ll be fine.
We left Shwedagon Pagoda, stopping on the stairs to its entrance to check the map and plan our next move. A man approached us and very politely asked if he could take a photo of us with his family. I have to admit that it took me a few seconds to process the request but, of course, we agreed at which point four young ones, a woman (whom we took to be their mother) and an older woman (grandmother?) stood beside us and posed for the camera. They thanked us profusely and left us to figure out what had just happened.
“What was that about?” I asked Jessica.
“I’m not sure,” she said.
That was only the first of many requests we received to have our photo taken by the Burmese folks. Teenagers would line up and, one by one, stand between us while one of their friends snapped the picture. Families would stop us on the sidewalk and take a photo. We would often see a teen point her cell phone at us and take a picture surreptitiously. When we caught them, we would smile at them and they would smile back, just a tiny bit embarrassed.
We decided to (actually, we were harassed so much that we had to) accept the offer of a local guy with a bicycle and side-car to take us around the old part of Yangon. It wasn’t long after the ride began that my hips and tailbone made it known with some jolting pains that the side-car seat was both too narrow and too hard for my skinny, under-padded ass. On the other hand, there was the 40°C (104°F) and the air, thick with dust and exhaust fumes from the vehicles choking the streets to make the ride even more pleasant. The Yangon streets which, if they don’t have a reputation for being terribly bumpy and uneven, should have it, did a real number on my ability to sit comfortably while Jessica reveled in the street scenes to which we were treated, snapping photos of the people, places and things that were so characteristically Burmese. Our driver’s intuition was spot on as we saw off-the-tourist-grid parts of the city, places that spoke to its true nature and its real culture.
During the two hours we spent on the bicycle side-car in moderate discomfort, we visited a Catholic church, one of the few buildings in Yangon not associated with a temple that looked like someone cared about it. We passed fish stalls along the murky river and saw piles of executed chickens lying on tables in the sweltering heat. And we watched people doing work that machines did in most places in the world, work like digging holes for utility poles, cutting trenches in streets for laying sewer pipe, and moving heavy loads from one place to another. It was a two-hour education well worth the $20 tuition.
But the highlight of the visit to Yangon for me started with a trek to yet another Buddhist temple that the tourist touts said was somehow different from the other 54 temples we had seen that day. (It wasn’t.) As we were taking our shoes off to enter the shrine, an old man sitting in the entry began talking with us using fairly good English (necessary because my knowledge of Burmese can be summed up as: none). He asked where we were from and, when we told him that we were from the US, he gave us the standard response that we got from any local with whom we had had this discussion: “Oh, Obama!” The old fellow invited us on a tour of the monastery of which the temple was a part and we readily accepted his offer.
As he guided us around the grounds of the monastery, past buildings built during the British colonial period, many having fallen into disrepair but still being used as dwellings for the monks, he explained that he had been a teacher during his work life but that now, in retirement, he had come to live out his days in meditation and contemplation at the monastery. He took us to his quarters, an austere room with four cots to accommodate the monks assigned to this space. The Buddhist caution against desire and grasping was being lived in this place where only the necessities were provided. Our new friend then took us to meet the abbot of the monastery who we found reclined on a sofa, reading from his Kindle and sipping tea. The head monk asked us to join him for a while and we took full advantage of the opportunity to learn more about monastic life. We drank tea, ate strawberries and chatted with the abbot who seemed as curious about us as we were about him. It was an altogether enlightening experience, one of those kismet events that make curiosity and our willingness to say “yes” so rewarding.
Dining in Yangon was not a particularly memorable experience. Frankly, after seeing the chicken carcasses lying under the oppressive sun, I was reluctant to try most of the local fare. The Union Bar & Grille, a favorite hangout for expats, became our go-to place and I can vouch for the cheeseburger. The place is clean, modern, and has a menu that offers both western and local cuisine. And the beer is cold.
The consensus among those who visited Myanmar before us was clear: Don’t travel by train. According to these folks, the trains are dirty, unreliable, uncomfortable and unairconditioned. That’s all we needed to know. So, instead of the train or a stupidly-expensive domestic flight to the city of Bagan, we opted for the overnight bus. My post-worklife (and post-paycheck) sense of frugality also made note of the fact that the overnight bus would mean one less hotel night. Brilliant, right? The concierge at the Taw Win Garden Hotel where we spent our first several nights in Yangon did the honors and booked our bus. We made sure it was one of the new tour coaches, complete with A/C and cushioned seats. This is going to be interesting, I thought. This is going to be awful, Jessica thought.
The concierge gave us a piece of advice as she handed over the bus tickets: make sure that the cab driver who takes you to the bus station delivers you to your bus, not just to the station. We negotiated this task with the cab driver who, in true Yangon taxi driver fashion, seized the opportunity to overcharge us feloniously but thank goodness we did because the bus station of Yangon is an unsolvable maze of buildings, buses, taxis and hucksters. Finding the place from which our bus would depart would be like trying to find the Louvre using a map of Minneapolis. Since we had not yet paid the taxi driver, he was compelled to get us to the door of our bus which he dutifully did.
The coach that would be our home for the next 9 hours was, by Burmese standards, new and clean and boasted air conditioning, too much air conditioning, it turned out. We found it comforting to know that the vehicle generally lived up to its website billing though, as we would learn, the comfort ended there.
So, we said farewell to Yangon, at least for now, and prepared to board the bus for Bagan, our other stop in Myanmar.