Breaking Burma Day 84: First Impressions

After snoozing a fair bit of the flight from Singapore to Yangon, the plane prepared for landing but what I saw out of the small oval window to my right looked nothing like what should be the largest city in Myanmar. Outside that very window I couldn’t help thinking that I was looking at pure nothingness, as if the pilot made a mistake and was about to land in the middle of some random field. Surely, Yangon would have a larger footprint on the area. All I could see after getting past the mountains and below the sheet of clouds was a disheveled patchwork of rounded out square fields most likely used for farming. Beyond that, only the occasional home, shack, or more precisely bamboo hut stood in sight. Upon touching down, all that stood between me and Myanmar was immigration, which I passed through all too easily. Next step became extracting Burmese kyat currency the ATM. Since roughly 1000 kyat equals one U.S. dollar, I felt like a rich man ready to let it rain. Also, I hoped to exchange that very money for more U.S. dollar but they had no plans on giving away that almighty, highly demanded green. Thank goodness I exchanged for the amount of U.S. dollars that I did otherwise my Burmese adventure would have come to a close shortly after it had begun. Sure enough, more than enough taxi drivers were calling for my business. Normally I would have called off the dogs to have some peace of mind to think but when I had been going off a pitiful three hours or so of sleep, I caved in and hopped aboard. All along the roads that my taxi took for the hour plus drive needed to reach my potential guesthouse, I saw males wearing skirt-like garments and mostly females wearing yellow face paint on their cheeks (later to be found out that it is used as a sunscreen). I believe those skirts are called longyi (aka a sarong) depending on my listening skills and look like when a man has just exited a shower and wants to protect his precious cargo from any passersby. Even though Yangon is chaotic as any large city would be, it did not seem too overwhelming but then again anywhere outside of Bangkok is a healthy, natural step down. More than anything else, I liked that I was seeing very, very few Westerners. I am not coming to Myanmar to feel special because I already know I am but I like the idea that I am in a way stepping back in time to a place more true to its roots than the other Southeast Asia countries have turned into. As luck would have it, I was granted a bed in the Motherland Inn guesthouse dorm. The staff spoke English, are more than welcoming and accommodating, and even gave me a free breakfast. Despite being tired out of my wits, I still wanted to explore the city of Yangon. My first stop on the Myanmar tour ended up being Botataung Pagoda. To enter, all guests must remove their shoes and socks; I don’t mind it since it is quite freeing. This Pagoda has an interesting hallway that wraps itself around the main relic and Buddha image. The path zig zags back and forth through the gold leaf encrusted hallway from the floor all the way to the ceiling. The pagoda itself is quite beautiful, shining a searing bright gold in the full blown light of the sun but I can’t help feeling that they are all starting to blend together. A pond off to the right is filled with tiny green turtles and just above it a wihara style capped bridge leads over it to more rooms of worship. Another interesting note is the relic of Buddha’s teeth that sits in a gazebo shaped building. The teeth looked more like pebbles or smalls bits of rock but I will roll with it. Before leaving the area, I relaxed and listened to a monk singing the afternoon prayer. Sule pagoda sits at the center of one of Yangon’s most trafficked roundabouts. Again, beautifully golden but I had sort of seen that, done that. Even in Europe, the sheer number of churches began to grow old but still some managed to stand out from the rest and required more time to fully appreciate. I had gotten some advice that a three hour train ride around Yangon was worth doing and for thirty cents why the heck not? Luckily I met an American while aboard to pass the time with. The circle line cut through the heart and soul of Myanmar in my opinion (in a good way, not a stab you in the heart manner). Through the windows that could not bring in enough breeze (sometimes I wondered if I could have outrun the train it moved so slow; you could see the cabins rock between sections of the train), I saw people working in the flooded tea leaf fields (the water reaching well past their waists), young men playing a form of soccer and volleyball which involved hitting a hallow ball made up of some sort of thin wood over a net, and colorful markets bursting with a wide variety of aromas and energy. Unfortunately, but reality isn’t always so kind, we saw the many bamboo huts that lined the railway with whole family’s living in a small room. On the other hand, despite all that, the Burmese people looked so happy, blissfully unaware, with children smiling, waving, and saying hello. While this documentary of Myanmar unfolded just outside of this rolling, teetering, and old train, people were selling goods and treats, with some of them walking the length of the train with their baskets balanced precariously on their heads. Throughout the journey, I was amazed by the sheer diversity of people living in this country; Chinese, Indian, Thai, etc. Since we both had yet to see the main attraction in Yangon, we decided to split a taxi to Shwedagon Pagoda. On the way up, little kids begged for money and were quite persistent about it too. As much as it killed me, I didn’t give them anything. The way I look at it is that they are told by some adult to do this, to prey on people’s emotions, for some spare change. I don’t want to be the one that encourages this behavior of kids being taken advantage of when they don’t know any better. Up to the gilded stupa we went. This most sacred of pagodas to the Burmese Buddhists sits on top of a hill filled with many buddha relics. Before getting inside, I was told my shorts were too short for entrance so I had to buy a longyi. While I fiddled around with my longyi, the two of us got separated. After I got my whole business taken care of, I explored this vast holy site. The sun was setting so the light hit the many golden sections of the pagodas and Buddha images just right. Being on top of a hill with little in the way of my sights, the deep orange and red glow of the sun was within view until it faded below the buildings of downtown Yangon that lined the horizon. Despite thousands of people filling the area at this most perfect time of the day, the American and I managed to find each other. After taking in the awe inspiring sight of the golden stupa once more, lit fully by the surrounding lights, we left to find some grub. Down at 19th eat street, we sat down for some grilled shish-kabobs and Shan noodles with an accompanying Myanmar beer. Although the meats looked foreign to me (I think I had some kind of egg, fish balls, and liver, amongst others) but they all had their own unique diversity of flavors that went well with their spicy dipping sauce. Along the wall near where we ate (luckily after I consumed my fill), I saw a couple of rats scurry past. I just hope that none enter the rooms that I will be sleeping in. After hanging out a little more chatting about life and other bullshit, we went our separate ways. After hiring a cheap taxi ride to my guesthouse with the help of some random stranger who truly wanted to lend a hand to a lost traveler, I fell into a much needed deep, serene sleep. For my first day in Myanmar, I am quite happy with my decision to come here. While walking around and whatnot, I have found Burmese people to be so friendly and genuine. I can’t wait to see how they are outside the big city life.

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