Saturday, March 30, 2013

Yangon at last

March 30

I never thought we would actually visit this intriguing city. When we began planning our trip to South East Asia, the idea of including a visit to Burma (Myanmar) was only a vague idea, until we started reading and talking about it. It then became almost an obsession. I read books, articles and the news with heightened interest as the dream started to take form. Maybe my British parentage influenced my decision. Was this country not mentioned in stories as we grew up? I know Rudyard Kipling was here, as was George Orwell. Those Brits seem to have been everywhere!

So here we are. Other than going through hoops to get a tourist visa before we left, so far, so good. For the last two days we have walked the streets of Rangoon (Yangon) and what streets they are! The sidewalks are mostly broken except in the central part of town where the government offices are. Everywhere else are uneven slabs of concrete, missing sections of pavement, and large holes that open into the sewers. Walking is an extreme sport, but if careful it is worth it when people stop and stare at white visitors, ask questions and in several cases thank us for coming to Burma. There are other older Caucasian tourists but we have not seen them on the streets or markets.

                                        Yangon street food: young girl cooking over a fire

                                                                   Open air market

The Shwedagon Pagoda is a huge golden temple that dominates the skyline. It is a very holy place, the original dating back several thousand years.  The whole area is a large marble plaza on which there are many smaller temples. It was an experience to walk through this area, bare feet burning on the hot marble walkway.  Families visit the temples, socialize, pray, eat and talk just as we do at home on a weekend at a park. There are monks of all ages, both at the pagoda and on the streets. They gather alms in the morning and walk through the streets with their alms bowls, asking and being given food or money. We passed a group of school age monks yesterday on our way into the city from the airport, all with their alms bowls, waiting for a bus. And then once on the bus they were jostling each other and acting like any little boys would anywhere in the world. All Burmese men spend some time at a monastery at some point in their lives, some for only a few days or weeks and others for their life.

Although Burma is predominantly Buddhist, there is also a very small Jewish community here, as well Muslims, Hindus and Christians. Temples and churches  of many denominations are found in the city. We went into the Myanmar Baptist Church out of curiosity as it is Easter weekend (No Easter bunnies here!). The guardian was very pleased to let us enter to sit and cool off. He proudly showed me the plaque dedicating the church in 1855. The present day pastor is Burmese, but the names of all the others inscribed appeared to be English.

Pagoda visitors carrying offerings

This can be seen as a decaying city. Buildings are covered with mould that comes from exposure to heat and humidity. The monsoons wreak havoc on anything and without maintenance a building soon rots. That is what appears to be happening to most of the old colonial buildings. But in contrast to that the people themselves are warm and eager to exchange, even if only a few words. Many young people in Yangon carry smart phones, listen to hip-hop music, and some dress in more Western style clothing. Others have no telephone lines but can use phones that are set up at daily at little outdoor kiosks and connected to a phone jack nearby. Telephones calls can be made from these phones for a small price. For every problem there seems to be a solution.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Kings, false teeth and aphrodisiacs

Our second day in Bangkok took us to the Grand Palace, and the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, this Buddha being the largest Buddha in South East Asia. We were disappointed at not being able to see the Emerald Buddha at Wat Phra Kaeo. That is because, curiously enough, this image of the Buddha dons a new outfit for each of Thailand's three seasons and yesterday was the day for a costume change! The King of Thailand himself changes the costume by climbing up to the image that sits on a high gold altar and cannot be lowered for anyone, even the king. Because of this important ceremony the Grand Palace and the temple closed at 2pm, and the Emerald Buddha was off limits all day. His picture is in todays paper however, along with the Crown Prince who is dressing him in his summer outfit.
Visiting the Grand Palace that was the official royal residence of the kings of Siam until 1946, was an experience in itself. The opulence of the buildings and grounds is astounding. And it made me want to see the the King and I (Yuk Brunner...remember?) all over again.

                                             Building in Grand Palace Complex

                                                  Wat Pho Reclining Buddha

At theses sacred places everyone is required to cover up legs and arms and to walk barefoot in the temples, which is in stark contrast to the sidewalk stalls that line every street throughout the city. Here we walked through narrow passageways, often sidestepping around large pots of hot coals over which barbecued meat was cooking. There were kiosks selling movies of all types, essential oils and various herbal powders with supposed aphrodisiac properties. We passed at least four stands selling false teeth...the real thing, with the "choppers" displayed behind glass covers. I wonder how one gets the right fit. And where do these sets of pearly whites come from?
Last night before supper we strolled along the streets near our hotel. The streets come alive at night. There are food stalls everywhere, as well as mobile bars plying their trade from old VW Westfalias. And every second shop is a massage parlour, some more questionable than others. Our guide book describes a lively red light district around the Nana skytrain  station. But the girls we saw sitting in the fronts of these businesses where definitely not the Nanas we associate with the word!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

First night in Bangkok

March 26, 2013,

After skipping a day, we are now in Bangkok, Thailand, breathless and hot, but relieved that so far flights, hotel bookings, etc have gone according to plan.
Our first glimpse of this huge metropolis (between 6-7 million people) was from a taxi stuck in traffic. Just like home, but worse, with motocycles whizzing in and out between cars and buses. They were the only things moving. At least here no one honks and people obey traffic signs, which was not the case in Delhi last trip!  It took 2 hours to finally get to our hotel. So this afternoon on our first outing we made a point on learning how to use the skyrail system which is fast, clean and airconditioned. Ironically, the station nearest our hotel is Nana, a particularly appropriate name that reminds me of my grandchildren each time we use it!
We are learning to beware of entrepreneurial tuk-tuk drivers who will not give a set price on departure and of course overcharge tourists when dropped off. Perhaps if we had agreed to visit his friend the gem dealer, we would have paid less. But even that is taken with a smile it seems.
Beach Travellers contact here  has been very helpful in booking flights, trains and boats. After months of emailing we met her in person, along with her infant son, in her tiny shop on Khao San Road, surrounded by street vendors, the smell of grilled food, massage shops and much more. This is a feast for the senses.
Tomorrow we will explore the historical part of Bangkok, swim in the small hotel pool and enjoy more Thai food. On the street tonight we passed stalls brimming with local delicacies, including deep fried insects. I am not sure whether I will indulge in anything that was creepy-crawly, but the other things look very appetizing. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Ready or not

One week left and we are off for SEA. I have read so many books on Burma that I feel oversaturated...but maybe that will help with adaptation to life there. Burma is the country with the highest incidence of death from snake bite. Now that is NOT reassuring and could account for my recent dream in which I was working in Montreal and encountered four huge snakes with a period of about 30 minutes. I really have to get that fear under control because I have a feeling that where we are going, there will be no snakes.
So off to Bangkok on March 24 and then a flight to Rangoon (Yangon) on March 29. I bought the ticket online and am a little anxious about how real that Air Yangon flight is. We will believe it once we get to the airport. Our trip to Burma (Myanmar) is more or less organized, given the supposed difficulties of making last minute decisions there that could take a lot of time to organize. Otherwise, the rest of our trip will unfold as we arrive in places and decide where to go next and how to get there.