Friday, October 25, 2013

Decent Into Darkness: Myanmar, Day 1

Hi! These next few blog entries will document my trip to Myanmar (formerly Burma, used interchangeably throughout this series of posts) from October 18th to the 23rd. I will break the trip down into daily entries and each entry will be broken into two parts: the events linearly from my perspective and my observations and feels about anything/everything. I do plan on adding a bit of narration to these posts, to spice up the story telling and frame the trip in a particular manner. I'm not necessarily saying embellishment will happen, but I am saying that I'm shooting for specific feelings/thoughts/laughs invoked from my readers. I hope you enjoy!

Things that are now things that have happened:
Just a few years ago, I would have never thought entry to Myanmar would be something on my "Bucket List," much less checked off of said list, due to its oppressive military regime, tight control on information and Western visitors, and freedom as a whole. However, the former military regime began falling to its subjects, now citizens, and international pressure and has given way to a more democratic government and much more free and open Burma (you can read a fascinating and abridged version of its recent history and the amazing life's work of Aung San Suu Kyi here). With this in mind, and being stationed in Myanmar's next door neighbor, I had grown incredibly curious about this burgeoning democratic country and infatuated with the thought of being among the "first" people to visit it (and definitely beat many major multi-national corporations and the other millions of eventual tourists) and experience Burma as Burma. However, I don't think I can really tell you what I envisioned Burma to be. War-torn with little to no infrastructure? Relatively modern, courtesy Britain's one hundred twenty four year occupation? A place just as curious about foreigners as they are of it?

With October being bpit term (semester break), going to Myanmar was number one on my desired travel destinations. I floated the idea to good friends Colin and Jes, and they seemed excited by the prospects of seeing it as well. We, along with our respective partners, Ammy, Adam, and Nadia, purchased tickets, made some relative plans, and got read to explore! As the trip eventually was upon us, us PCVs received an email from our Security and Safety Officer that there had been a recent string of bombings, as recently as a few days prior to our departure. While this definitely rattled my friends and I, Peace Corps did not restrict us from going, while following orders from the U.S. Department of State, noting "While there is no indication at this time that any of these IEDs [improvised explosive devices] were specifically directed toward U.S.citizens, the Embassy asks that all U.S. citizens exercise an appropriate level of caution when traveling around Rangoon and/or Burma. Extra attention should be taken when in public areas such as parks, markets, and bus stops." While I sort of appreciated this cautionary note, the fact they ask citizens to exercise an "appropriate level of caution" is laughable. What the hell is that? Regardless, the way I calmed myself was thinking about the Boston Marathon tragedy, actually. IEDs detonated there, and they would not scare me from potentially visiting there. Why should this be any different? (Yes, I know. Contextually, to compare Boston to Rangoon/Burma consists of nothing short than a million fallacies, but it's how I reconciled the fear and potential danger of visiting.)

I was struck by how lush everything looked from the plane
Alas, our day of travel arrived, and we were very excited. "We're going to BURMA!" The flight itself was a quick hour jaunt from Bangkok's Don Mueang airport, and we made it through all security/immigrations/customs with notable haste. Nadia and I had changed our Thai Baht to American Dollars, as we were told that many people and businesses will accept them as currency in complement to the Myanmar Kyat. With the conversation rate of 1 USD to ~970 MK, it's safe to say we'd need to carry a dump truck in our pockets to hold all of the potential Kyat that two hundred and seventy good ole' American clams would have purchased. Courtesy my perfect 20/20 hindsight, I can now state it would have been useful to at least convert some. We left the airport and got to the city center easily enough via a taxi. I was in complete awe as we navigated through the town- old bikes, traditional and formal dress, modern city block grid, prevalent English, busy streets, active people (More on all of this later in this entry).

With our initial choice of guesthouse unable to accept us, we found another, Okinawa Guesthouse, with cheap prices and comfortable rooms willing to house us for our few days in Yangon (Rangoon). I was pleased with how warmly we were greeted by our hosts, both at the guesthouse and otherwise. While we were met with numerous stares (which I largely attribute to the attractive trio of (non-Burmese) women), by and large people were curious about us, but welcoming. After we checked-in and relegated our belongings to our rooms, it was time to explore Yangon.

We were all rather famished at this point and decided food should be in order. We learned of a market within a few blocks of our hostel and made our way there. Initially, we admired the various shops in the market but took note that was a dearth of places to eat; and when I say "dearth," I actually mean zero. Zero places of consumption. Ammy asked some guy hounding us to look at his shop or some other thing about where the food was, and he then insisted on escorting us there. I figured he expected some sort of recompense for his great effort/acting job, but we all just moved past him, sans donation. We entered a sort of clearing, though on a car-less (though my picture above says otherwise) street of sorts, where innumerable people were socializing and eating, and were instantly bombarded with two people yelling at us, insisting on sitting us at two respective, particular tables. I was oblivious to what was presently occurring, but wasn't too keen on just standing around looking at tables, while simultaneously looking like an idiot, so I was about to make the choice just to sit where I could. That's when Adam piped up, "They're fighting over our business. These tables are two different restaurants." Well, this certainly made more sense now, but definitely didn't change my perception of things to want to actually move or really even care. I was sitting, and I wanted food. 

We ate Burmese versions of rice, noodle, and soup dishes for about the equivalent of $2.75 (~3,000 Kyat) a person and decided to wander more through town, towards Shwedagon Pagoda. Shwedagon is Myanmar's most famous pagoda, and the one that all Burmese Buddhists hope to travel to at least once in their lifetime. While walking there, I again felt like a huge doof (and tourist) because I was amazed by everything going on around me. Not only did I feel thrown back in time fifty years, but I marveled at all the physical and social chaos (structural disarray, hundreds of people with hundreds of agendas) and the feeling of being some place completely foreign to me, regardless of some of its similarities to Thailand. As noted by Nadia upon returning home, Burma is incredibly photogenic.  
Every photo yielded numerous interesting sights. Photo by Nadia
Nearly everywhere one turns, there is something noteworthy in its novelty, strangeness (to a Westerner), antiquity, and uniqueness. Within the same frame and moment in time, a Western traveler could see hundreds, if not thousands, of new and/or different things. This curiosity and wonder made it rather difficult indeed to traverse the broken utterly in shambles sidewalks.

Photo by Nadia
We made quick detour from our path to Shwedagon to view another temple and take additional pictures. There was a sort of service taking place while we visited. The women overseeing entry to the temple were kind and offered us entry, despite the fact we'd merely be observers to what was presently happening. I felt she was happy to do her part in sharing part of her country and culture with us, and I appreciated it. We entered respectfully and took a seat on some rugs, amid a few stares and comments. It was peaceful within the temple, enveloped in the chanting. We paid our respects with a bow to the Buddhas and smiles to the occupants and took our leave.
Shwedagon Pagoda from the road

Shwedagon Pagoda was only a few more minutes away, and when we got there, I observed something that I thought I never would in this lifetime- organization actually worse than Thailand! Shoes had to be removed and stored, women were required to wear sarongs, tickets had to be purchased, lines had to be traversed, metal detectors and x-ray machines satisfied, and people taken on a lift to get to the pagoda. Workers were shouting to people, people shouting to anyone who would listen. Visitors were being escorted every which way, lines were more of the blob sort. In spite of the workers best efforts, we were able to manage all the pre-requisites and found our way to the stairs that lead to the pagoda, as taking an elevator and missing sights interested nobody.

As we made it to the top, we were greeted by such beautiful sights- The main pagoda spire, multiple Buddhas and golden spires, people paying homage to the Buddha (and as luck would have it, it was a special night, too)- It was all magical and brilliant, and a wave of happiness swept over me like I had never felt. This was truly a magnificent opportunity we had stumbled upon, and I could not have been more excited.
Picture by Nadia
Picture by Nadia

The night being celebrated was that of the Buddha's last night in Paradise before returning to the Earth. To properly celebrate, the individuals depicted in these pictures walked around the pagoda (likely around half a kilometer) three times while holding lanterns and other decorations, singing songs, and chanting prayers. Additionally, there were many Buddha statues around the pagoda at which patrons could pray and/or cleanse. The participants finished their circles as night fell, and one final task remained, the lighting of the candles. These candles ran all the way around the base of the main pagoda, meaning there were literally thousands upon thousands of them, as the track of candles were in columns of five. Lighting these candles required the help of as many people as possible, and our hosts were eager to explain the celebration to us and let us share in it as one. It was an absolutely unique and amazing experience, one for which I am eternally grateful.
Photo by Nadia
Photo by Nadia

Unfortunately, this is about the point at which the trip turns into the shits.

Observations and feels:
Immediately, I felt like I traveled backwards in time fifty years. At first I was unable to understand what about Burma made me feel this way, as I imagine, this is a pretty unique way to feel about a location. I kept this question at the forefront of my thoughts and tried to pinpoint what it was exactly that invoked this feeling. I slowly started to put it all together:
Formal and traditional dress
Men playing board games in the street

Kids NOT playing video games and actually entertaining themselves

Really ancient bikes

Women balancing and carrying massive amounts of weight on their heads
Next, I was able to begin reconciling my previous experience with how to conceptualize Burmese culture. In Thailand, they are often subject to classism, yet immigrate here for better job opportunities, pay, and conditions. As such, the only role I have seen them in is often service and labor positions. While I did not think anything less of these individuals, I did have a very limited view of them and Burmese culture, and I feel this invariably influenced my concept of Burmese. I was happy to see a culture, much like any other- Busy people, nice people, hard working people, helpful people, interested and interesting people, and so forth. Many have jobs, others don't. Some are highly educated, some are not. Some Burmese had very dark skin, some had light skin. What I mean to imply is that I saw people that resembled me and cultures I'm familiar with in some ways, but maybe not in others- People being people. I could feel their pride, their hard fought freedom, and their culture. 

All things considered, Burma as a city was surprisingly modern. Aforementioned, I wasn't entirely sure what was going to greet us upon arrival. Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, had city blocks, public transportation, some relative infrastructure, and what appeared to be a burgeoning working class. On one hand, British occupation had to have done some good in terms of development, and I think those were evident (aforementioned, in addition to a prevalent amount of English). However, with the military regime and the decades of violence and in-fighting, I also thought evidence of a warn-torn country could be as equally likely.

The kids we encountered were often confident and exuberant. In stark contrast to Thai kids who are shy around Westerners, and even more shy to practice their English skills (because they lack them considerably), Burmese kids were super excited to have an opportunity to speak with foreigners. It was a pleasure being greeted with short English conversations and an abundance of smiley faces. Kudos, Burmese kids.
Finally, it was wonderful to experience that "first time in a completely new country" feel again. The thrill of traveling to a new place is so intoxicating, and I was pleased to have felt it once more. However, with it came frustration being unable to speak Burmese. Granted this happens in a majority of countries to which one travels, but in this particular case, as I've been learning Thai for the past nine months, I couldn't help but feel a bit helpless at times because I didn't understand anything that was happening around me, as opposed to my usual ten percent that I usually feel in Thailand. It's humbling, however, and that's a good thing.

Here are a few additional photos that I would like to share with you, to get an even better impression of Yangon, Myanmar.

Picture by Nadia
Picture by Nadia
Picture by Nadia

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