Myanmar: A First Impression

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A bus pulls up to the arrivals terminal at the airport. No just any bus, but a vintage red and tan contraption from the fifties or sixties. We were going to Mother Land 2 Inn, which came recommended earlier in our trip. So were another twenty or so tourists. We packed into the bus and I took a seat at the very front, on a bench facing sideways right next to the driver.

The airport is over half an hour away from downtown, and the bus lurched and squeaked into motion. The transmission shifted heavily as the engine roared and we joined the chaotic flow of traffic. It was dark, and the streets are not very well lit. The driver honked his way around the twenty and thirty year old cars and we made our way forward. People cautiously crossed the street. We travelled back a couple decades in time.

Myanmar is very different from the rest of the Southeast Asia we have seen so far. Men were skirts. Well, not really. They wear wraps called longyi, similar to the sarongs found in Indonesia. At first glance, it seemed like many women had yellow mud caked on their cheeks. After asking around, we learned that this was a traditional makeup. It is a powder made from the bark of a particular tree used to lighten the skin and protect the face against the sun.

We changed money for the rest of our three week trip at our hotel. The black market rate is now 850 kyat to a dollar. We changed $1800 for the three of us. The only caveat is that the largest popularly accessible denomination is a 1000 kyat note. Now we are traveling with about a kilo of banknotes which fill up a considerable portion of our day pack.

Streets are lined with food vendors, sugar cane juice squeezers, and micro-shops specializing in such niche things as water valves, remote controls, industrial greases shaped and colored like mounds of ice cream, and springs for truck suspensions. On every corner there is a small stand where a man prepares tiny wraps of spices, sauces and betel nuts in leaves for chewing. Everywhere you look people are spitting reddish-brown into the street. The government outlawed this in the city, to keep the sidewalks free of the reddish stains, but judging from the fact that there are even a few of these vendors right in front of the high court building, it seems that the ban is not very effective.

We’ve spent the first day just walking around Yangon. It is an assault on the senses. Old colonial buildings in a sorry state of despair lurk overhead providing much needed shade from the cruel March sun. People are everywhere, walking around in longyi, chewing betel nut, buying, selling, cuddling kids, and asking the white folk where they are from. Hindu temples and Muslim mosques dot the landscape.

It is a melting pot of cultures. Muslim men in white hats and unkempt beards mill around. Muslim women in various head-coverings buy groceries on the corner. Hindus mill around with Burmese men and women in the ubiquitous longyi wraps. Occasionally, a man or a women in business attire pops up.

We arrived at the inconspicuously large and glittering gold two thousand year old Sule Paya. This large pagoda stands in the middle of the largest traffic circle in town. Inside, people are praying to Buddha statues haloed by flashing LED dharma wheels behind their heads. Others are just laying around and doing nothing in particular. Kids mill around. Everyone is very friendly and many people come up to exchange a few words. Many more people than we would have imagined speak at least some English.

Our trip through the city lead to nowhere in particular. Weronika had her fortune read from her palm on the side of the street. The future looks promising–two healthy kids, lots of happiness, and a small business are the things she has to look forward to. We walked around, and had to take an hour break on the stairs of the Sule Paya pagoda to take shelter from the rain. I passed the time showing photos from Thailand to mesmerized kids who crowded around me on the stairs. People stopped by to talk with us.

Before sunset we went to the biggest landmark in the city. It is the biggest holy shrine I have never previously heard of. The Shwedagon Paya is a sight to behold. The main stupa towers over 100 meters above the hill it stands on and is visible from far away. From up close, it is a dazzling complex of stupas, shrines, statues, and teak temples. Gold glitters in every direction. Buddhas, with their mysterious smiles, cast their calm gaze at you no matter where you stand. The main stupa is just overwhelming. It towers high above you, surrounded by countless smaller stupas, adorned with many kilos of gold, and supposedly untold karats of gems. Legend says that inside it are enshrined a few hairs of the Gautama Buddha himself. It is simply jaw dropping.


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