Myanmar or Burma?
When I heard about it for the first time, it was called Burma. It was when they screened the beautiful melodrama “Indochine” on the Polish TV. Later, I saw the Luc Besson’s movie “Lady” about Aung San Suu Kyi fighting the military dictatorship. Lady did for Burma what Lech Wałęsa did for Poland. And then, there we our travels to Asia, always with Burma somewhere in the background. Finally, the time came to go directly there. In the meantime, a lot has happened in Burma. Years after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, lady Aung San Suu Kyi turned out not to be as democratic as the West perceived her. Of perhaps the fight with the regime wasn’t as simple as it seemed to be after the first few victories? No journey is ever easy, but this one was particularly difficult because of the political situation in the country. Should we go there or not? That was the question we were asking ourselves after several months of preparations, when in August 2017 the world witnessed the persecution of the Rohingja people. A few weeks later we went there. And if you want to read more about the name of the country (is it Burma or Myanmar), check here: https://econ.st/2QTJdSG.
Yangon welcomed us with heat of 35 degrees and a few peculiarities. In this former British colony, until 1970 one drove on the left – which was changed over one night by a general who was foretold by a soothsayer that a right-wing revolution was coming. To beat the imagined right-wing enemy, the general organized a “right-wing revolution” himself and in one night he changed the law from driving on the left to driving on the right side of the road, claiming that in this way the revolution had just taken place. The problem is, all cars here are old and have the wheel on the right side. And so now they are driven by two people: the driver and his pilot, who looks out when overtaking and informs the driver if he can change the lane. That’s how they drive here. But at least the general was safe… Because of this chaos, the government also forbid scooters, extremely popular in Asia. And so the only five scooters we saw in Yangon belonged to the police… there wasn’t a single one more. When we arrived in Yangon, celebrations for the end of the rainy season were in progress. People were visiting temples, called pagodas, offering thanksgiving to Buddha. There are innumerable pagodas there, on the first day we visited a beautiful one called Shwedagon, 2500 years old. Erected on top of a hill, it has an escalator (!) to make it easier for the faithful to get there. When we hanged around the city, people pointed their fingers at Ninka and smiled at us, sometimes they laughed. After some time we realized that there are no children in prams here, and especially no children in prams with a dummy in their mouth. It was such an attraction for the locals, they all wanted to have pictures taken with Ninka and the pram, and with Iwo on the side. Sometimes over a dozen people were crowding the child, with their phones out (!). The children weren’t too happy to be celebrities, maybe they’ll want it at some point, but for now it’s not a good role for them ?.
Yangon by night
At night, life in Yangon concentrates around various stalls, just like in most Asian cities. Whole families gather around tiny plastic tables to eat, and whole families work at the stalls. Very often small children help their parents, or simply accompany them at work, when they cook in the streets. And a bit of everything is sold in the streets. The biggest surprise were tiny birds, several dozen of them crowded in each small cage, and bowls of leeches for sale. Placed in front of temples. I wondered who would buy that, and then I saw old ladies who paid for several birds and set them free. Maybe they made a wish?? But the leeches remain a mystery. At night, the noise never stops, just like during the day. They honk here when changing the lane, they honk at pedestrians at infrequent zebra crossings and everywhere else, because a pedestrian is an obstacle you have to bypass, even if he’s standing in the middle of the road, they honk when overtaking and my impression is that they honk just to express their general frustration. And it’s not a short signal, but long honking, which rings in your ears for a while… and inside that cars – typical Asia – 4 passengers in the backseat are a norm, 3 in the front, and two more packed in the trunk. Used to European strict rules, even having experienced the Asian standards before, we cannot get used to them. In the pictures, apart from nightlife, you can see another pagoda (Sule Pagoda).
In search of the colonial era
We spend our next morning under the banner of the colonial era. We searched for the architecture of those time and we weren’t disappointed. We started our trip at the cult Strand Hotel, which was built by the owner of Raffles in Singapore – both hotels are great for afternoon drinks, and – if needed – for morning ones too… Classic colonial buildings are also: the telegraphic office (!), former building of the Supreme Court (now the court was moved to the new capital) and the monumental building of the Secretariat, where the most important colonial offices were located, and which was also the seat of general Aung San, father of today’s leader and the creator of independent Burma (he was assassinated). On the way there, we visited a local market, but we were so tired by the trip that all we could do was to get on a train, an not an ordinary one. Circular Line – a three-hour ride in style which today is really difficult to encounter. Open doors, the speed of about 40 km per hour, and only local people (you can count on one hand the number of tourists on the train). Various sellers walked around the train: of iced lemonade, grapes, purses, water and millions of other gadgets indispensable to survive the heat. And while some of us were lulled to sleep after the difficult trip by the monotonous rattle of wheels, other were making true Polish-Burmese friendships, and still.
In the meantime, we travelled 700 km north of the capital and landed in Mandalay. On the one hand, millions of stupas and pagodas around Burma, on the other – in 2005 the United States listed the country as one of the “bastions of tyranny”, together with North Korea, Cuba, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Iraq. In the same year, without any advance notice, general Than Shwe moved the capital of Burma from the biggest city, Yangon, to a small town in the middle of the country. When we visited Yangon, it was the 12th anniversary of that event, and the date of 6 November at 6:37 was set by the general’s personal soothsayer. Everyone were shocked by that decision, but probably the most stunned were country officials, who in one day had to move hundreds of kilometres to Naypyidaw, which means “royal city”, but in fact was only being built. It was an artificial new town, with an army of country officials and a small bunch of actual residents. With a motorway having maybe seven lanes, and just a few cars during the day. We didn’t reach the capital, but we visited Mandalay, where – like around the whole Burma – local people were very nice and still wanted to have pictures taken with the children. Iwo was eager to allow them, but Nina usually refused. In Mandalay, there were more tourists. In the 6-milion city of Yangon they were invisible, but here we passed them all the time.
Pagodas, pagodas, and then more pagodas
And we encountered on our way Kuthodaw Paya, a pagoda with the biggest “book” in the world: marble slabs with Buddha’s teachings i.e. Tipitaka. 729 marble slabs with millions of words (!) written on them. Sandamuni Paya, on the other hand, contains 1774 slabs with comments on Tipitaka. That was really something to admire. Add to this the beautiful Mandalay hill with a view of the city. And on the hill, yet another pagoda, obviously ?
Still more pagodas
The next step in our journey was a village called Mingwan, famous for two pagodas and one bell. Not an ordinary one, but the second biggest in the world (the biggest one is in Moscow). We were greatly impressed by Mingun Paya, a unfinished pagoda with impressive cracks, remnants of an earthquake from the 19th century. A great bell was made for the pagoda, but it was never hung there… Tired by the attractions, we used village taxis – actually wagons pulled by oxen. We also visited farmers working hard in the heat. They were planting onions and ploughing the field for peanuts. In the end, we searched for some cool in local waters. But I actually wanted to write about something else. About Lala. She was one of the children trying to sell us something in front of the temple. One of many children running after tourists to sell them beautiful flowers for Buddha or incense. Some ignore their pleas and continue in silence, others drive them away with a resolute “no”, and just a few buy flowers for the temple and incense. Nina and Iwo love to burn incense and hang flowers for Buddha (as well as toss donations into glass boxes – they call it voting), so we bought some from Lala. From that moment on Lala wouldn’t leave us, other children ran to sell goods to other tourists, but Lala accompanied us on the over hour-long tour of the temple and more. She was one of those children curious of the world, who despite being shy, followed their interests. She was walking with us in silence, but eagerly answered all our questions. She was 9 and had two days off school. Thanks to her, by total accident somebody opened for us the school where, thanks to the Germans managing that project – children learned English and computer science. All the laptops at school were covered with tablecloths not to get dust on them. And it’s been a long time since I saw a child so proud and radiant when I praised her English. It was a truly beautiful morning. Thanks to Lala.
On the way to the Kingdom of Pagan
Roads in Burma are a nightmare for tourists and ordinary everyday toil of the local residents. Dusty, full of holes, narrow, with three or even four cars overtaking at the same time. You want to go straight? You turn on warning lights. The right of the way? Whoever’s first at the crossing, is the first to turn or to go straight. That’s the basic rule. You overtake? You honk. You pass, drive around, thank for something – you honk too. We drove 179 km from Mandalay to Bagan. It took a whole day. A whole day along dusty stalls, houses built from pressed (or rather beaten with a stick) bamboo and roofs from banana leaves. Sometimes asphalt, sometimes chippings. Dust and smiling people – constantly. We stopped at a temple built on a volcano (Mount Popa). The view was unearthly. The mountain is inhabited by 37 Nats or spiritual beings who, according to Burmese beliefs, live among people. Nat can cause something bad to happen to a person, but when won over, they become guards and defenders. That’s why people make offerings to them, very often substances such as alcohol, betel, but also pickled tea leaves, bananas or rice. We were a bit afraid of Nats, but in the meantime we had to face the monkeys. Armed with sticks, we went up the 777 (seven is a lucky number here) stairs to the top of the mountain. We divided our team into reconnaissance and defensive rear. We managed to repulse the attack of one monkey, and there were thousands of them. The others didn’t even come close, although they left many smelly mines which we had to avoid. And let me add that you enter each of the temples (including the stairs, even if there is 777 of them and covered in monkey mines) barefoot.
The second part of the story – Burma part 2, from the Kingdon of Pagan to Ngapali Beach, you will read here.