It would have been reasonable after a 26 hour flight from L.A. through Tapei to Yangon, for us to aim straight for a shower a bed and some rest. But we never said we were reasonable people – that’s not how we roll.
So, one hour after arrival at the airport, that would be one hour through hellish traffic in Yangon, we arrive at our guest house, drop off our bags, and launch our adventures with a visit to Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda. We are headed to a market, but the taxi driver mentions we are very near to this famed Pagoda, and so we stop here first.
We are back in Asia!
Our shoes are off, we are surrounded by monks and golden buddhas.
The Buddhist temple complex is superlatively golden. There is a soaring central gold stupa which is around 2500 years old, not only a remarkable architectural achievement, but also a massive reminder that the culture of Buddhism permeates all aspects of Burmese life.
This Pagoda is the holiest of holy temples for Burmese Buddhists and a symbol of Burmese identify. Incidentally, in recent decades it has been a rallying destination for the pro-Democracy movement.
Shwedagon Pagoda is a carefully laid out set of temples, smaller stupas and altars organized in a geometric configuration. We arrive at midday and the sunlight is bright and the ground is warm underfoot. Walking barefoot: one of the pleasures of being in Asia.
As we leave our shoes at the entrance of the Pagoda, the shoe check woman is eager to share her Thanaka. Thanaka is a yellowish white paste, the ground bark of several trees. It has been used by the Burmese people for about two thousand years as a sunblock and is also believed to act as an anti-sceptic. Peta obliges and for the rest of the day wherever we go, people look, smile, point to their faces and give her the thumbs up sign.
I (Ben) have wasted no time before ‘going local’, having seen at the airport and on the way to the guesthouse that almost all men wear longyi, not that different to the ones I have worn in Indonesia and India. I of course, brought my favorite longyi along (which I purchased in India). I just have to learn how to knot it in a bundle in the front, the way it’s done here. By making a move to integrate ourselves with locals, we immediately send a signal that we respect their local practice.
After our first (immediate) immersion into the serene, at the Pagoda, we head to the nearby Chinatown, to get our first meal in Yangon. Myanmar is bordered by Thailand, China, Laos and India. All these neighbors and cultures have intersected throughout the ages and influenced Myanmar’s history and food in a myriad ways. We have been spoiled with street food in Viet Nam and Thailand and are hoping that Yangon will deliver some tasty morsels as well
In Chinatown, Peta selects a longhi (cost: $3) and the woman who sells it to her, tells us where we can find a seamstress who will add a waistband which helps to secure the longyi. Chinatown is hectic and bustling. Our first meal in Myanmar: Shan noodles, at a street-side stall. Instantly obvious: there is lots of street food in our near future.
Might have overdone it just a tad, after a long plane flight, not a huge amount of sleep and some jet lag. We start to fade and it is time to face Yangon’s traffic once again. The traffic jams here are awful. We had heard about them and they require an inordinate amount of patience in a city that has just grown too fast as the country is opening up to the outside world.
(Hint: slight detour below into Myanma’s political background and evolution which is leading to Myanmar getting itself ready for an influx in tourism)
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Myanmar is emerging out of a tightly run military dictatorship and we are here at a historic time of transition to democracy. Aun Sun Suu Kyi is known to much of the outside world as Asia’s counterpart to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. The daughter of a national hero, she is the leader of an opposition party that has been a vocal opponent of the military regime for decades. She was jailed, then put under house arrest for over 15 years, and after her release, she immediately returned to political life and emerged as a peaceful leader committed to force and then nurture the movement toward democracy in Myanmar. A national election, a few years back, had put her as the winner in the last national election, but the military at the time refused to give up power.
The international community has put significant pressure on the government to find a productive and peaceful path to rehabilitate Myanmar as a member of the international community.
In 2015, another national election was held and Auun Sun Suu Kyi was the clear winner, again. This time, the military junta seems to indicate it is willing to gradually manage a transfer of power in ways yet to be determined. The world is watching Myanmar at this crucial time in history and we are excited to be here at this turning point in a country’s future.
For us, political instability is not a valid reason for us to avoid a country. We moved to Nicaragua soon after the election of Daniel Ortega, a nemesis of the United States (for 30 years.) When we were in Thailand last year, we were in Bangkok at the time of the military coup. The overwhelmingly positive reaction of the Thai people all around us illustrated once again the gap between “the news” as it is reported and viewed from a TV set many time zones away, and reality on the ground, which is usually less dramatic.
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We did not come to Myanmar to be surrounded by concrete and traffic, however. After one day, we are ready to launch our adventures into the beautiful and serene Myanmar, which we know beckons beyond the urban jungle.
When we wake up pre dawn, we start talking about our options…. We decide that after a long flight we are certainly not ready to sit for 14 hours on a bus. So we decide that our best strategy is to make our way slowly North by breaking up the trip and stopping at places along the way.
We are heading North ~ toward Bago, en route to Bagan.
We have missed the early morning bus, and so opt for a taxi to take us to Bago. The benefit of having a taxi means we can stop when we like. Trains here are notoriously slow and have a tendency to derail. Taxis on the other hand are a good value for covering short distances.
We are quickly surrounded by open fields and driving through small towns. As soon as we notice a market, we stop!
We always look for the market place first ~ markets are the center of life and activity. It is here that we get a first sense of a local community and how much of a language barrier there is and whether people are comfortable interacting with us. It’s also a great place to determine what fruits are available and often a good place for street food.
Our first market is an explosion of petals. The vegetable and fruit market is fronted by woman selling brightly colored flowers in bunches. The ethnic mix at this busy marketplace is noticeably different.
The plant based paste of Tanakaha for sun protection is way more prevalent and pronounced here. Old women and young children either have large patches of it on their cheeks or in some cases, covering their whole face, exception being the nose.
We find ourselves some tasty tidbits, a mochi like mini rice crepe rolled up with fresh coconut and honey inside… yum. Hot juicy corn on the cob, and some quail eggs. Watermelon and papaya for later.
Ben’s tendency is to stop the car at virtually every temple along the way. I prefer we pace ourselves, knowing that there are many Theravadic Buddhist temples in our near future. We stop at one and enjoy observing the people and seeing what the food stalls are offering. People are not used to foreigners outside of the big cities and are definitely as interested in us as we are in them. Its a mutual discovery process. We take pictures, they take pictures on their omnipresent cell phones. We get offered tastes of food, even off a woman’s spoon. (Pate-like bright pink and white fish cake wrapped in a banana leaf with an oily sauce.)
Our destination lies 45 mintues from Bago. It is a bird wetland and sanctuary (Bird sanctuaries are a rare treat we have grown to love, since our first visit to one in Rajahstan in India 10 years ago, which provided a stop over point for birds during their annual migration.)
Lunch a stop on the side of the road with our young driver Wenda and a friend who speaks some English and knows the way to the bird sanctuary. We enjoy our first ‘mohinga’: a Burmese classic (usually eaten for breakfast) of noodles, soup broth made from fish, tiny pieces of chopped green beans and a crunchy type-cracker on top.
The contrast between our Yangon habitat and our next room for the night could not have been more extreme. Our room is perched over the shallow wetland waters. No horns. No sounds, but the sound of birds.