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.

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