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|
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|
|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|
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.