Yangon and Myanmar’s mysteries

Wednesday was a travel day, so we were up at 6 for the hour-long taxi back to Inle’s airport at Heho.  Myanmar’s roads are tough on tummies and rough on Sue; we move her to the front seat and I wedge between the boys in back, using the NY Times crossword puzzle app to pass time… it’s good for their vocabulary and spelling.  The flight out of Heho is delayed by fog, but soon enough we’re aboard and we rise above the quilt of colorful crops below.  An hour later we touch down in Yangon’s domestic terminal, and with the taxi negotiated, we’re honking our way to our hotel near the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Yangon’s airport is modern and the roads are better, but the traffic is horrible… we spent more time stopped than moving during our one hour drive to our hotel.  Yangon’s hotter and more expensive than the resto of the country too: to escape the afternoon heat and humidity we priced than passed on our preferred pools at the Chatrium and Governor’s Residence… settling instead on the indoor/outdoor pool at the Jasmine Hotel.  That did the trick, and we enjoyed the cool pool and city views until dusk called us to our day’s big site.

Legend holds that Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda is 2,600 years old, though archeologists estimate it’s half that age.  Either way it’s one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites, and after having followed Buddha’s bare footsteps through 5 countries and past thousands of statues, stupas and pagodas, Shwegadon still drops jaws.  Soaring 325’ above Yangon’s flats, its shining spire – encased in about a $1 billion worth of gold leaf* – draws one’s eye from any city roof.  Atop the spire balances a bud of diamonds; below protrudes a 4’ gold vane (weighing in at 1,000 lbs.).  Bejeweled layers of ornateness sparkle down the spire.  Surrounding the temple, arranged about its 14 acre terrace, are dozens of buddhas, historic bells, worshipping platforms, smaller pagodas, reflecting ponds, bodhi trees… plenty of places to reflect and worship.

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By day Shwegadon teems with tourists, but in our dusk hour mostly monks and families pray and prostrate.  Some take an interest in our boys… we expect rural pilgrims may not have seen many westerners.  The Burmese love children, and ours tower over the locals: they are giant young curiosities, and we find ourselves posing for monks and families that want photos of those big friendly American boys.  It’s good to be a friendly ambassador in these xenophobic times.

After Circumambulating Shwegadon (always clockwise!), we take a seat on one platform near the north entrance and plan our dinner.  The grasshoppers and beetles must be attracted to the Pagoda’s light as they’ve gathered on the Pagoda’s swept marble plaza.  Ben and I imagine one as a running back dodging defenders – the bare feet of worshippers walking the site.  “He’s broken around the end and sees daylight… he’s at the 50, the 40…He Could. Go. All. The. Way!”  And pilgrim’s foot inevitably crushes the beetle… “Oh that was a brutal hit – the linebacker flattened him!” Then “ SHHHHHHHHH!”   A stern look from Sue reminds us that we’re too loud for this sacred spot… cut to a commercial.

To avoid traffic we opted to walk to dinner.  Choosing the road less traveled makes all the difference, so Max fired up Google Maps and navigated us down a dark side street, then on to a main street where we took in the Yangonese night’s life along the way: the inevitable stray dogs, impromptu street food stands with locals sitting on plastic children’s chairs, a shop specializing in unfinished Buddha statues and Monk ware, hotels, small markets, and of course plenty of cars.  But no motorcycles:  apparently a military dignitary outlawed them in Yangon when his son was killed by one (or while riding on one?).  The lack of motorcycles does cut down on the honking and emissions… but I wonder if it also might slow the traffic: one must assume some would-be-bikers have traded up for cars…

20 dark minutes later we found our restaurant, a small, hip pasta joint with South African wine at western prices.  No matter, we are checking out of the Burmese culture, and we trust the kitchen enough to enjoy some salads, and our reflections on this misunderstood land.

I’m surprised by how easy it was to travel here.  The people are lovely, with that kind Buddhist ethos so prevalent in SE Asia.  Culturally it’s diverse, with dozens of tribes and ethnicities mixing relatively peacefully (with the notable exception of the western Rohingya, who appear to face genocide). The cuisine doesn’t yet compete with Thailand or Vietnam, but it’s improving.  The climate and terrain are arguably the most varied and dramatic in the area: unnamed islands and epic diving in the Andaman Sea, broad plains surrounding the Ayeyarwady, tropical jungles and temperate lakes, and 20,000’ Himalayan peaks… California eat your heart out.  Our 9 days here could only provide a superficial sampling – Myanmar’s many mysteries beckon us back.

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* NOTE – Thanks to Max for the traveler’s math… he had to research the Pagoda and gold’s value then convert currencies and weights to arrive at his $1b valuation.

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