After almost a month of traveling in places where the internet is spotty at best and completely unavailable at worst, we’re back in the land of connectivity. Our withdrawal symptoms are starting to subside, and we’ve got a lot of catching up to do! So where did Brian and I go for our mystery trip?….
When Aung San Suu Kyi lifted of her tourism boycott of Burma (Myanmar), travelers like Brian and I felt that we could in good conscience visit this mysterious country at an historic juncture of perhaps unprecedented national optimism. Whereas nine months ago, people were too terrified to even mention Aung San Suu Kyi’s name, today posters and t-shirts emblazoned with her face are sold on the streets of Yangon. Living in India, so close to Burma, and knowing that the country may change dramatically in the coming years, Brian and I couldn’t resist the temptation to visit.
When our plane landed in Burma, we felt that we were being let in on a secret. While Yangon is in fact a bustling, clean, and relatively modern city, outside its boundary the country is frozen in time. There are few opportunities in life to explore what feels like an undiscovered land, a place where comparatively few outsiders have been in recent times and a landscape that has been little touched by modern life. This is the experience we had in Burma.
Trekking through the countryside, the only hint of the 21st century is corrugated tin roofs on palm-sided huts. Farmers driving their bullock carts and women digging up crops by hand dot verdant hills. In houses standing on stilts over a murky lake, women spin thread from lotus fibers, and rafts of gardens float outside their windows on the water. In a wide expanse of the plains that stretches all the way to the horizon, thousands of Buddhist pagodas sprout up, seemingly organically from the ground. At every remote train station, people smile and wave, curious and eager to befriend out-of-place travellers. The sun sets and the moon rises as fiery red balls of light. Burma felt almost like a mythical land, and the sense of discovery that always accompanies travel was magnified ten fold, both because of Burma’s seclusion from the outside world and a magic the country has kept hold of.
I could narrate pages and pages to try to convey the travel experiences we shared with our companions Chuck and Mark, friends from the U.S., but I’m going to let the (annotated) pictures we took tell the story.
Shwedagon Pagoda is the star attraction of Yangon. Celebrating its 2600 year anniversary this year, the pagoda stands guard over the city, sparkling gold in the sun during the day and illuminated by the glow of yellow fluorescent lights at night. The complex of temples within the pagoda’s pavilion is enormous, and we spent hours exploring. A friendly young monk offered to give us a tour, and he explained fascinating history and religious significance of what we were seeing. A few highlights: the stupa and its regular renovation is funded by donations of the faithful. If you look through the binoculars, you can see that the umbrella at the top of the stupa is decorated with rings and other jewelry, given in obeisance of the Buddha. The stupa is topped by a SEVENTY-SIX CARAT diamond (gasp), and if you stand in just the right spot at the pagoda, you can see the diamond glint blue, red, and green.
Everyday an army of women walk through the pagoda, sweeping to keep the well-trafficked religious site in pristine condition. A little seemed rather confused by the whole process.
Changing our money was one of the strangest experiences we had in Burma, and one that gave a small indication of the lunacy of the junta. Burma deals only in kyat, the local currency, and U.S. dollar bills. And not just any dollar bills. Perfectly pristine, uncirculated bills – preferably Benjamins. If you try to hand a hotel cashier, a fruit vendor, a waiter, anyone a US bill that has a microscopic tear, a worn out face, a wallet crease, even a smudge, he or she will politely hand back the bill and say “I’m sorry Madam, but I cannot accept this.” This becomes problematic when you want to spend money.
Brian and I had a mixed bag of bills, some crisper than others. So to ensure that we would be able to change enough bills to get us through our trip, I laundered money in our hotel room – literally. I soaked the bills in the sink and then ironed them to give them that fresh-from-the-treasury feel.
The official moneychanger headquarters is 50’x50’ store that is ringed by six or so different bank kiosks. Each kiosk has a bevy of people responsible for judging each and every bill you present. Luckily, ironing our bills had crisped some of them up enough to pass the scrutinizing eyes of the moneychangers. Some kiosks took our hundreds for the going exchange rate of 812 kyat, some took our fifties for a reduced rate, some took our twenties for an even further reduced rate, etc. The old, wrinkly one dollar bills didn’t pass the beauty test.
We spent a large portion of our time in Burma traveling from one place to another this was an excellent way to see the countryside. We spent a fair amount of time on trains with wooden benches and open windows that let the breeze, crossing the rice paddies, blow through. We chugged across scorching plains and up through wooded hills. We stopped at remote village train stations, where women would come to the train windows hawking watermelon, steamed corn, rice with dried fish before the train whistle blew and we began to slowly pick up steam.
During one of these journeys, Brian and I sparked a friendship with a young boy in the preceding train car who waved and smiled at us as the train rolled along. Finally, at one of the station stops, the boy’s grandmother came to our window and presented us with a gift – a bag of watermelon slices and wide smile. We reciprocated, walking up to the boy and his grandmother’s train car and presenting them with the only thing we really could offer that might appeal: an energy bar.
While we rode trains and in a van (whose air conditioning we thought was broken so we baked for eight hours before realizing our driver didn’t realize we were hot and the air conditioning worked perfectly well), the primary mode of transportation in Burma is bullock cart. We must have seen hundreds of them while we were there.
There are so many more pictures and stories of Burma to share! I have been a delinquent blogger of late, so I hereby promise to (try to) keep them coming regularly over the next few days. More soon…