Big Question Marks

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Our Burmese Days Pt. 1: Yangon

Oh Burma! Where to begin? It'll be a difficult task to try and describe all that we saw in three weeks, but it was a place that had a real impact on us-- perhaps one of those challenging trips that ends up really rewarding.

It's hard to believe we only managed to visit about six places in our three weeks there, but in Burma, travel takes a great deal of time. We landed in Yangon on May 23, not sure what to expect. Would the airport be fully of stern military soldiers with huge guns? Probably, we decided. We had our answers prepared on our occupations, and were hoping we wouldn't have to declare our electronics (as we'd heard we would have to), as having a computer, 2 iPods, a tape recorder, a video camera, an SLR, and a digital camera might just slightly look as though we're into media! Surprisingly, there were no questions and we were through customs in a flash. Coincidentally, staff from the guesthouse we were hoping to stay at was waiting to pick people up and it was a seamless ride into the city.

We probably rode the whole way into town with our mouths hanging open. Everyone we saw walking on the street, male or female, (including our hotel staff) wore a long sarong of sorts, called a longyi. The streets were busy enough, but there weren't any motorbikes or bicycles-- we learned these had been banned by the government within the city. Instead, it was all cars (mostly old), ancient buses spouting dark grey exhaust, and something like cattle trucks for people, where the back would be jam-packed with standing passengers (and the trucks looked like they'd been made in about the 1940s or so). It was grey and rainy outside, which made the dismal, pollution-stained buildings of Yangon look even more dingy. And actually, there weren't really sidewalks as much as there were sometimes concrete slabs placed over the open sewer/drains which ran along the streets. Walking the streets of Yangon was a real exercise in concentration-- there's no looking in the air, as you'll likely fall in a hole somewhere along the way.

Our hotel, the Motherland Inn, was absolutely lovely-- great staff, giant free breakfast (eggs, toast, orange juice, coffee, bananas, cake) but was a bit out of the centre of town, in some sort of marine-supply district (which meant also trying not to trip on massive ropes and anchors on the sidewalk too), on the corner of the Indian district. On our first meander into the centre of the city, we could barely keep up a conversation because so many people-- usually it's just kids, but here it was the adults too-- wanted to say hello, or "Mingalaba" (hello in Burmese). A friendly bunch for sure! We were halfway to town when we came upon a grimy red Victorian-looking building which took up a whole city block, and in searching our Lonely Planet we found it was an unlabelled grey square on the map. Very mysterious! While snapping some photos and pondering whether we should jump the barbed wire fence and try to explore it, a man came up to us and started sharing the history of the building-- the former British parliament, it was left to rot after the British left. And it was also where Bogyoke Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi's father), still a big nationalist hero who was instrumental in gaining independence, was gunned down with most of his cabinet in 1947 shortly after elections. Creepy stuff.

We didn't know what to make of our new friend who had found us by the British parliament-- in many of our past experiences in Thailand and Vietnam, generally if someone befriended you, they wanted something from you. Alfred was different (and actually, this was very characteristic of Burma)-- he was out for a stroll, and even more up for a chat. Newly retired, he'd lived right around the corner from the parliament his entire life and had some crazy stories about Yangon. Being 67, he was around for all of Burma's recent and turbulent history, sort of a Burmese Forrest Gump. He was born during WWII when his mother went into early labour because of the loud shelling by the Japanese. Alfred went to grade school with Aung San Suu Kyi's brother, was around for several coups, and last year found himself being interviewed on CNN after Cyclone Nargis devastated Yangon and the Irrawaddy Delta. He'd been a professor in the far north of the country, studied orchids, lived in Japan for two years working in hotels, and had a tailoring business after that. He was a fascinating guy.

We toured some of Yangon's sights with Alfred the next day-- Shwedagon Pagoda, a massive gold-leafed Buddhist pagoda on a hill in the middle of the city, where worshippers donate their most prized jewellery to enamour themselves to the gods (the spires are covered in gold and jewels, bracelets, pendants, earrings, etc), and checked out the city's huge Bogyoke Aung San Market, housed in an grand old building made by the British. We were constantly dodging downpours, as rainy season was in full force in Yangon. We left the market with a few souvenirs (and Adrian had a bellyful of fried crickets, a local snack) and stacks of Myanmar cash: as there are no ATMs accepting foreign bank cards (thanks to international banking sanctions), the only way to get local currency is to bring US$ notes-- which we heard are only accepted in crispy mint conditions. We handed over our notes with delicate hands and received 1080 kyat for $1USD (quite funny b/c the official exchange rate, according to the government, is 6.54 kyat to $1! As the best rates are in Yangon, we exchanged a few hundreds, which made our bags heavy with stacks of bills, and we were a little uneasy carrying so much cash! Luckily robbery is pretty nonexistent in the extremely Buddhist country, so it was more inconvenience than anything that we felt.

We met some fellow travellers that night in our hotel and shared big local beers (about 1200 kyat for one) and bewilderment on the country we'd found ourselves in. We also found ourselves invited into a Hindu temple, where we witnessed a bizarre and colourful ceremony, complete with lots of singing, dancing, and dressing up a cow and her calf in flowers, feeding it masses of bananas, and tossing around cow pee. You know, the usual. The next day we visited the the river and were shocked at the destruction still left from last year's cyclone-- rusted-out boats stuck in the mud banks, a concrete dock completely twisted like it was made of aluminum foil. Yangon was definitely not a pretty place-- but maybe someday it will be. The next day we hopped a bus north to Mandalay...

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