Myanmar, finally, I was in Myanmar. It is not a common destination yet it has always intrigued me. Few Americans travel here. Squeezed in between Thailand and India, Myanmar has, until recently, been one of the most isolated and repressed countries on Earth. With trade sanctions lifted and a new democratically elected government in power, Myanmar is preparing for an onslaught of tourists. I wanted to visit Myanmar before the locals became jaded by tourism and money.
With our VOA paper in hand (Visas on Arrival) we breezed through immigration and customs. Our first goal in any country we travel to is to get a Sim chip for our cell phone. In Myanmar three years ago there was only one government cell phone carrier, an extremely limited network, and a required $1,000 USD deposit. Now with three competitive networks and a fifteen dollar payment we were on our way with 5gb of data. We prepaid 6,000 Kyet ($5) for the 45 minute cab ride to our hotel at a counter outside baggage claim. The other option is to bargain with the numerous cabbies that swarm you as you make your way out to the curb.
I loved the cab ride. It was just a cab ride, but for me the first cab ride in a place I have never been is magical. Especially one that I had been anticipating for so long. Who hasn’t read George Orwell’s Burmese Days, Animal Farm or 1984? Before this leg of our journey I picked up a copy of Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin. Myanmar, the inspiration for George Orwell’s “Big Brother is watching you” was conquered by the British, only to be overrun by a brutal military junta days after having its independence restored in 1948. Thousands died on the streets that I so casually traveled down. I looked at the streets, the traffic, the buildings and wished they all could talk.
We left the restaurant and decided to walk off our lunch. With no destination in mind we set off to casually explore our new surroundings.
We soon found ourselves outside the beautiful Sule pagoda in the middle of downtown Yangon. The Sule Pagoda is a Burmese stupa located in the heart of downtown Yangon, occupying the centre of the city and an important space in contemporary Burmese politics, ideology and geography. The pagoda, known in Burmese as the Kyaik Athok Zedi, is surrounded by busy streets, a market and colonial era buildings like the Supreme court building and Yangon city hall.
According to legend the pagoda was built during the lifetime of the Gautama Buddha, about 2,500 years ago.
The Sule pagoda is named after Sularata, the Sule Nat (spirit) who lived at the spot where the pagoda now stands. According to legend Sularata, a Nat millions of years old found the spot where relics of the three reincarnations of the Buddha were buried, and the location where the Shwedagon pagoda was to be build some 2,500 years ago. Nat spirits have been worshipped for centuries in Burma, even before the arrival of Buddhism.
The Sule’s golden Mon style pagoda measures 44 meters high. Unusual in its design is its octagonal shape, that continues all the way up to the spire. The pagoda is topped with a hti, a multi tiered ornamental element shaped as an umbrella. The Sule Paya is highly revered because it enshrines a hair relic of the Buddha. A steady flow of Burmese devotees make merit and bring offerings.
Around the pagoda is a circular structure housing small shops where services as astrology and palmistry are offered. Four entrances topped with multi tiered Pyatthat roofs provide access to the Sule grounds. Shrines around the pagoda house images of the Buddha. Bronze bells are rung by Buddhist devotees making merit.
Immediately upon leaving the Sule Pagoda the skies opened up and began to pour rain.
We continued our walk, in the rain, and came upon this woman selling bananas. She had the warmest, friendliest smile! We found that the Burmese people are extremely warm, helpful, and so quick to smile.
Except for this woman tossing corn kernels at the birds!
We took shelter during the heaviest downpour!
The rain let up a bit and we continued our walk. We stopped to buy some Myanmar pan fried cakes.
This little boy was more interested in us than the cakes!
His family was really friendly and spoke a little English so we enjoyed a chat while waiting.
Turning a corner we came across an open wet market. In Yangon this is what’s for dinner!
Sometimes it is a good thing that pictures cannot capture smell. Meat, poultry, fish, and produce are kept outside in extremely hot, humid weather without the benefit of refrigeration. This was actually one of the cleaner markets we came across.
Beautiful people quick with a smile. These women, like most Burmese women and children, are wearing Thanaka are their faces. Thanaka is the name of a slow-growing tree that thrives in the arid central parts of Myanmar. The paste is made from grinding the bark against a flat, wet stone and then applied to the face. Although parts of the Thanaka tree are used medicinally in other parts of Asia, it is only in Myanmar that it is used cosmetically. It is said that Burmese have been using Thanaka this way for 2,000 years. According to locals, Thanaka is good protection from the sun, lightens the skin, works against acne, and is an anti-inflammatory.