Monday, February 12, 2007

Myanmar: Yangon: 24 January, 2007

So now I will begin my tales of this magical country.

I am infinitely glad that I had done a lot of reading about Myanmar before arriving; it's a country that is so different from the rest of Southeast Asia and I really had to see it to believe it.

A ridiculously early morning in Bangkok - chocolate cake (thanks James) at 5am, in the taxi at 5.30am, at the crowded new airport at 6, and the flight was at 7.45am. Surprisingly, the flight was relatively full; lots of Thai people, but also American businessmen, as well as a handful of package tourists. I overheard an American couple say they had booked a package tour through a German company that went to Myanmar for 3 days. They would arrive in Yangon, take an afternoon flight to Bagan, stay 2 days, then leave back to Thailand. I had heard stories of the package tourists in Myanmar but I had, really, no idea what was to come.

Upon arrival at Yangon airport, nothing is shocking or makes a huge impression. I clambered onto the very old bus (perhaps late 70s) and was reading the signs in Japanese: "Be careful when getting off the bus," "Watch your step," and the like. Maybe it was the early morning start (but more likely my denseness), but I thought, "Wow, there are enough Japanese tourists coming here that they have all these signs in English?!" - I soon realized that the bus, along with the grand majority of those in Myanmar, was an old Japanese bus that had been bought cheaply by either the government or businesses in Myanmar.

Before arriving, I had contacted a person on CS that was in Myanmar, and he works at one of the most popular guesthouses in Yangon. I wondered how I was going to find him, but as I stood in line to get my passport stamped, I was greeted by a huge smile and wave, and I met my friend Nyein Lwin. At the guesthouse, I was shocked at the number of people both staying and working there. It seemed all my imaginings of barely touristed areas were not to be true here. I was exhausted, and had planned to take a rest before heading into the city, but as soon as I put my bags down, I felt I had to go out and seize the day.

The Motherland Inn 2, where I stayed, is located about 1km east of downtown. Walking on Anawratha Road into town, it is like stepping through time, borders, religions, and cultures. Life in Yangon (and much of Myanmar) simply happens on the street. The sidewalks are covered with tarpaulins that have an immense variety of wares; books, CDs, watches, staplers, car parts, nails, and really, I think, anything else you could think of. I was getting stared at a lot, and not so many friendly faces. I smiled, then people would smile back. Every block seemed to have as many different ethnicities as you might see in an evening in Tokyo; Muslims in traditional dress, people that look Indian, Bengali, Chinese, Burmese, and many many others I couldn't identify. All of them wear longyis, traditional sarong-like garments that tie in at the waist, with beautiful colors and patterns. Many are chewing betel quids, and when you walk close enough to someone chewing, you can smell the spicy nut, and you don't have to get too close to see the red-stained teeth or hear the violent spitting sound. Tanakha, a paste that is made from the bark of the tanakha tree, is used as makeup/sunblock/perfume by women, children, and some men, and it was fascinating to see the people with this golden paint in different patterns all over the city.

And, of course, the food. Miniature plastic furniture around ladies and men with piles of different noodles, spices, and vegetables, frying stations of samosas, bananas, and various other such oily delectables.

I bought a Burmese/English dictionary and phrasebook, passed Sule Paya, a 46m high golden pagoda in the center of downtown, and wandered around Bogyoke Aung San Market, where really, anything you could want (or not want) is sold. Continued walking up to Shwedagon Pagoda.

Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen. A 98m high solid gold pagoda, surrounded by hundreds of other pagodas and buildings, and a very important site for the people of Myanmar. Monks walking around, monks resting in the shade, pilgrims chanting, having their photo taken by freelance photographers in front of the pagoda...a very good introduction to religious sites in Myanmar.

Back at the bottom, I got in a minibus to Sule, missed the stop, realized this as we were nearly at Shwedagon again, got off, got in a different bus, got down at Strand Street with 2 ladies who made it their mission to help me, and walked, walked, walked back to the hotel. I was exhausted - it was 6pm and thus I had my 12 hour day already.

Showered and went back out with Corinne, a Swiss girl in the same dorm, and we came across the Good Luck Food Center. There, we met Kyan Du Sok and Huo Zo, ages 16 and 13, busily running around, assuring us very authoritatively that they would take care of us, and urgently brought us tea, water, Shan noodles, Coconut oil soup, a Thali set, and sat with us, watching us eat. We hung out with them for awhile, making origami, arm-wrestling, looking at guidebooks.

And that was all in one day. I was head over heels in love with Myanmar already.

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