Mingalaba

21st December : The overnight Train to Bagan

 

Last night we gathered together in the meeting room on Level 5 & perused the faces of fourteen other Intrepid group members booked as participants on the 12-day Burma Experience tour. It proves an interesting & diverse group of youngsters aged mainly in their twenties or early thirties, except for Peter, the Greek real estate agent from Pyrmont (with apparently a young Chinese wife and two young children he’s left behind visiting relatives in Taiwan), who is around fifty-ish and has similarly booked on both tours (the other is “Burma to Thailand” tour that piggy-backs onto the first); and Brian who’s been bald – & possibly surprisingly quiet-thoughtful-and-generous as an east-coast American gentleman – since he was eighteen.

For a number of the ‘Aussie kids’ it seems booze will be the focus of their days.

Still, introduced to our affable guide, Tun Tun – and his vast swatch of communication skills – I do hope he’ll be able to ‘handle’ the group, particularly the thoughtless Aussie/Kiwi couple who choose to disregard cultural practices and blatantly turn up drunk while baring too much skin including a bulging, reconstructed ‘shelf’; and even after non-specifically being  handed a copy of the Dos and Donts for Tourists booklet (by Tun Tun) that rather clearly & simplistically states what’s appropriate & therefore inappropriate behaviour – & the expected tourist dress requirement – when traveling through Myanmar, especially when visiting temples.

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At 7 am we venture to the first floor restaurant & share our breakfast table with Peter. We find the plain omelette, bananas on toast and 2 cups of Lipton tea is more than adequate after we hand over our ‘Breakfast Coupons,’ chat about ‘home’ as we eat, then sit on the verandah stools overlooking the goings-on in the street below, while otherwise flicking through yesterday’s captured moments on the trusty Olympus

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until we regroup in the foyer for the group City Walking / Orientation Tour, breathing in fresh air rather than the recycled ‘conditioned’ variety that fills our windowless room.

Setting off as a straggle of bodies, Tun Tun leads us like the Pied Piper in his longyi while toting an umbrella though chooses to avoid all the religious & most of the historical sights, focussing instead on the people & their daily practices:

the betel-nut vendor underneath the bridge,

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the ‘domain of the cheap’ manicurists

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the water vendors promising affordability for all

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the Hindu temple (showing our shade-preferring Tun Tun) & the thanaka-covered, sidewalk  map-seller of indeterminate gender)

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the extensive number of rogue pigeons too numerous & flighty to count

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the Hospital where we’re informed by Tun Tun of San Suu Kyi’s promises of health affordability for all citizens of Myanmar now she’s elected to parliament

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the overpass walkway with its great view towards the central Sule Pagoda

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the roadside chick pea-pancake seller (though we fail to indulge)

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the super commercial Chinatown area

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… what an amazing selection, of everything …

the tragic state of the footpaths

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and ongoing break-up & repair methods promising improvements down the well-beaten track

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the busy, popular ‘tea-house-aka-bakery-outlet’ where Ben orders white tea & selects a simple cake from the offered plates of pastries (you pay for whatever you choose from the plate, though drink luke-warm, tea-potted Green tea for ‘free’)  as we watch the others indulge in all manner of culinary treats while I settle for bottled water. Ah, get me outta here!

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Back at the hotel I order another cup of Lipton Tea. When it arrives at the table there are two tea bags suspended in a very small cup of the deep-black liquid. I try to drink it but can’t get past the bitter taste of the first three sips. Nonetheless the Fried Rice & Veges is super tasty though Ben splurges on Spanish Fried Rice & Chicken seasoned with curry (though he leaves the chicken pieces untouched on his plate).

After lunch I head off to find a collection of sweet mandarins and a torch to easier negotiate the promised dark passageways through the temples of Bagan, and organise to have my Olympus camera charged up in the foyer by the desk staff since we’ve needed to check out of our room by 12 & I subsequently determine my incredibly low battery rating will diminish to nothing on the train overnight.

While we wait for the bus to take us to the railway station (for a 4 p.m. train departure) we take in the sights of Yangon from the narrow terrace,

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PC200176.JPGor otherwise laze on the lounges in the foyer surrounded by the group’s deposited backpacks & disorderly assortment of luggage that quite resembles any haphazard arrangement in a teenager’s room. No need to mention our boozers have purchased a plastic carton they fill with ice and dozens of cans of beer, especially loaded up to share during the over-night train journey!

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The train is waiting in all its ingloriousness & relative majesty, each compartment an independent unit. It’s obvious Burma’s British-built railways are less developed than others in Southeast Asia, but like all train travel they’re a wonderful way to get around and experience the country at ground level with the journey becoming as much of an adventure as the cruising through the countryside; regardless of the super-dusty seating & the tortuous nature of the travel we’re about to be exposed to throughout the night.

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Having paid 16,500 kyats ($17 US) and with our passport numbers noted, we’re apportioned an Upper Class Night Berth ticket (though without necessarily sitting in the designated coach because we settle on our carriage companion by personal choice.

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Along with one of the young couples from Mildura – the pair of lovers who’ve made the ‘lurve connection’ nearly a year ago through a dating web-site – we toss our luggage into our compartment which contains two upper berths and two lower sections, firm wooded seats with light cushion coverings that are meant to be chairs by day, beds by night. There’s no Dining Car though a basic (& relatively clean by Asian train standards) toilet in a corner section of our particular  compartment.

With  no access to other carriages  (a factor which is somewhat of a delight really, given the esky of chilly beer that’s plonked like an invitation to a private dinner in a lonely letterbox in one of the carriages up ahead), there’s  no possible way of moving – or being cajoled into moving – between compartments to grab a tinnie-purchased-with-the-intention-of-offering-around-to-the-party-makers-of-the-group, and that certainly settles us on the sideline of the anticipated fun events of the night, something that includes the illumination of the countryside by roving torchlights.

Still with the night yet not quite upon us, we settle into our seats, the windows fully opening up the view to unsuspecting, curious eyes.

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The view is clear, and often quite confronting:  images of filth, even overwhelming, widespread poverty & homelessness, scenes that become etched into my brain because they’re just too numerous to be photographed as unitary snapshots: of the family of three lying parallel in the dirt amongst piles of rotting garbage to achieve even the smallest degree of warmth; the problematic plethora of plastic replacing streams & lifeless waterways too huge to capture on a single lens.

 

I ponder:

‘The state of the waterways is such a sad reflection of the city’s inability to care for both the land & the people at the same time; perhaps because education- about sustainability – is limited to those who have the resources to sustain their lives with dignity, elsewise one must do whatever one can with whatever  little available space there is at hand simply to survive the next hour (or-twenty-four hours) regardless of whether this improves or vastly deteriorates future matters over a day, week or month … these people are merely existing, not living … only villages seem to fare better.’

So I come to understand the power of community; to get things done &  make things happen in other than an ad hoc way;  when so much more can be achieved that’s of benefit to the many when the load is spread … or a volleyball is bounced over a net between mates.

As the evening approaches we sit in a compartment lit only by the twilight before discovering there is a switch & overhead lighting.

When it gets going the train develops an exaggerated back-end-forth sway, and water sloshes from possibly the reservoir on the rooftop through the open windows, drenching us like cattle, quite unexpectedly.

And then the bumps begin. The sway soon gives way to a new sensation. Not little bumps…  Not occasional big bumps …. Instead … we’re thrown violently around the carriage when we dare to stand up to change position. ’

The carriage shakes violently and ‘jumps’ loudly, clattering & clanking with metal grinding against metal.

‘My goodness, the train could easily and inevitably derail if it keeps jiggling & bumping around like this!’

‘And the repetitious sounding of the warning bell as we near a crossing or a station is wearing my nerves rather thin!’’

Soon enough it’s time to put on the light pink jacket, still the cooling breezes sweeping in through the window spaces seem to require more than what I’ve planned; and when it’s time for Ben to convert seats into bedding, there is only a light sheet … and no sign of a substantial blanket.

We nibble & snack along the way. Just as well because the’ dinner ‘our guide organises becomes a shamble of ‘missed opportunities’ before foam sachets are shoved through the window at one of the stations late in the evening, too late since we’ve settled in for the night (around 7 p.m.), both sharing the lower bunk (like our carriage partners, but they’re a couple & naturally choose to sleep this way) merely to generate warmth into our super-chilled toes;  though otherwise regenerating recollections of the family laying snuggled up in the dirt, trackside, just beyond Yangon.

We try lying down on our newly constructed “bed,” only to have our bodies lift up to half a foot in the air with the bumps. At some time throughout the long, loud, rugged night-time journey I do venture up the ladder to the upper bunk, though doubt I sleep very much at all, though dream of being rugged up in something more … until I climb down, scrounge through my backpack to locate my lilac beret and the fortuitous scarf I’d forgotten I’d wrapped inside it. Bliss.

I’m surprised the light in the toilet compartment reveals the hour to be merely ‘one’ when I eventually dare to venture for a little relief, vacating my seat & my bladder for the first time during the entire journey – ah, double bliss! – though I’ve counted the ‘usual’ handful of visits made by Ben, and prayed for his body warmth to return. And  my son brings the promise of Triple bliss until he steals the super-thin blanket and hits me in the face with his heels!

Off to Syriam for Half-day Tour: Part 2

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Not to be outdone in style, propriety & magnificence, the gilded temples and pagodas of the sparkling Kyauktan Ye Le Pagoda (built under King Bawgasena) sit on an island atop an elevated brick terrace, accessible via a set of conical steps which lead up from a once-or-sometimes-existent strip of sandy beach depending on water levels.

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… Ben waiting waterside for our tourist-grade transport …

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…not the type of boats assigned to tourists …

While the locals may journey in open boats like gondolas, ours is more like a launch-type ferry with a blue tarpaulin strung overhead for shade, and little plastic chairs along the sides and a smattering of life jackets positioned like possible saviours above our heads.

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Of course there’s a wooden stool to help a foreigner get into the boat with dry feet at the riverside joining point, making for far more elegant boarding than for local women as they approach the small boats lined up on the bank.

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 … somewhat inelegant though dutifully supported … 

Concrete steps and other pilgrims greet us at the temple site …

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where we must first negotiate a path, bare-footed of course, around other visitors & locals already setting up family picnics in circular arrangements on shiny dappled tiles …

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… feeding hungry teenagers …

while others feed the impressive-sized catfish that poke open mouths through the surface of the water looking for the expected large chunks of food doled out by tourists & locals in equal measure.

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… hungry temple catfish … 

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… zooming in on a diligent local …

The temple complex contains several richly decorated structures with fine wood carvings and golden decorations topped with a multi-tiered, spired roof commonly found in Burmese royal and Buddhist architecture, especially pagoda compounds, monasteries and palace buildings.

‘We call such things, Pyatthat,’ says Lily. ‘The edges of each tier you may notice gold-gilded designs made of sheet metal, with decorative ornaments called du yin at the corners. Three-tiered, five-tiered and seven-tiered roofs are called yahma, thooba, and thooyahma, respectively. Before the British colonised Burma such tiering of the roof-lines were a prominent feature in the royal palaces, symbolizing Tavatimsa, a Buddhist heaven. Always above the main throne in the king’s primary audience hall was a seven-tiered pyatthat, with the tip representing Mount Meru and the lower six tiers representing the six adobes of the devas and of humans. ’

Traversing timbers suspended above the water, we visit a number of beautiful rooms & gather sufficient photos for memories alongside an abundance of other visitors & worshippers: families, couples & giggling girls keen to fill their phones with times spent clutching onto a foreigner.

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We pad our way through the place, taking in the beauty of the buildings & the people; noting the tallest pagoda with its golden spire and the large Buddha image residings at the centre of the terrace between two smaller Buddha images.

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capturing some super quirky shots of our silhouettes …

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with Ben in his Element … we find the compound hosts an impressive collection of paintings, sculptures and other fine demonstrations of Burmese Buddhist artwork and craftsmanship.

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We mill with a reasonable crowd waiting for the journey to the mainland with hungry crew capable of doling out a delicate arrangement of vegetables & meat for themselves, in company … before adding a dollop of cooked rice …

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to where drivers and a line of tourist buses wait near the busy marketplace for their customers to return. But it’s too sunny & hot, and much too overly-crowded & busy to involve ourselves too much in the perusal of typically-tourist merchandise.  And interesting prawn fritters, Myanmar style …

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though I consider the putchase of a pretty shade-giving hat  …

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We find our driver and bypass the National Races Village.

‘I would like to stop at the eye-catching temple I simply glimpsed before, with its huge Buddha image and separate stupa.’

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‘I’m not interested,’ says Ben; so he waits as I climb the stairs to explore the top section alone, running back to retrieve my camera from Miss Lily

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 … oops …

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 … Miss Lily to the rescue …

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after noting four quite quirky reclining or seated Buddhas positioned at the compass points… PC200148.JPG

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 … one of the decorative cardinal buddas …

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 … and the remaining image …

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 … exquisite patterning …

Back in the Toyota we drive towards our drop-off point, the Hotel K, again crossing the very long bridge built with the help of the Chinese, and quite fortuitously at the same time as a passenger train!

After flipping through some of the days forgotten snapshots of Kyaik-Khauk Paya …

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Kyaik-Khauk Paya

and farewelling Miss Lily with grateful smiles,

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we find Hotel K is a palace when compared to our last night’s accommodation. However though tastefully decorated we’re positioned in an internal room devoid of windows.

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Beyond any wishful thinking of dining on seafood, in the Hotel restaurant we order sufficiently satisfying Fried Rice & Mixed Vegetables plus spring rolls.

Yummy.

 

 

 

 

 

Off to Syriam for a half-day

20th December

Though payment of $60 US for a room at the 30th Corner Boutique supposedly includes ‘breakfast’ there’s no sign of a kitchen, a table or a piece of toast, only something resembling an urn tucked away on a corner of a different desk near our room. I’m awfully glad (regardless of issues of global warming affording me feelings of guilt) we used a fair quota of electricity to balance out value for money!

It’s hard to pinpoint the highlight of Yangon so far.

Perhaps being free to wander through the Mahabandoola Garden with its impressive Independence Monument  honouring the site of prodemocracy skirmishes when occupied by soldiers (1998-90), on land opposite City Hall.

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Perhaps the cruise around a few of the minor side streets before our anticipated pick-up by Ms Naw Lily Htoo from Exo Travel for the day trip to Syriam, glimpsing five-star residences, or watching breakfast breads ‘set to rising’ on the inside walls of reconstituted concrete mixers .

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Maybe the cup of tea Ben enjoys at Thone Pan Hla made on condensed milk though I otherwise have no joy in getting it across to the young staff members I’d like ‘black tea’ and must therefore settle for a bottle of Alpine water and the redelivered cup of white tea that must sit on the table as a piece of mistaken identity until we’ve left the place …

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Not even our restaurant of choice is open for breakfast when we return so we settle for the bananas and a few nuts I’d packed in case there’s nothing else I want to eat.

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Following a querying phone call from the young guy at the Boutique desk, our guide, a beautifully presented Lily, arrives almost instantaneously,  ready to help with the transfer of our luggage into a black Toyota sedan with the aid of her betel/quid-chewing driver.

We settle into the back seat and Lily proves pleasant & affable, doling out information in a delicate feminine manner as we cross the Bago River, heading east towards Thanlyin (previously named Syriam), a major port city on the Irrawaddy Delta & once the base for the French East India Company,  but today a forgotten suburb of Yangon (though situated close to the ultimate reason for deciding to take this tour:   the Island Pagoda of Kyauktan, a religious highlight situated  in the middle of a murky tributary and built by King Zeyasana, the seventh king of the Pada Dynasty in the third century BC.  Now a soaring example of graceful architecture, apparently the first Pagoda was only 11 feet high.

On the way various sights (in random order) get captured by the lens of my trusty Olympus as we move towards the Thanylin Bridge: one of the longest bridges in Myanmar. With its single rail track in the middle and a motor roadway on each side, it’s worth noting the construction of a second bridge began in 1985 but was suspended for about eight months from August 1988 to April 1989 due to unstable political conditions following the 1988 uprising with the total cost of the bridge being 1.65 billion kyats, including a 207 million yuan interest free loan from China;

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the legendary marketplace of Thanylin township, home to Myanmar Maritime University, (one of the most selective universities in Myanmar) and also a vast collection of cats (& lactating dogs!):

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with everything leading to the much-anticipated Kyauktan Ye Le Pagoda (Island Pagoda),  situated in Hmaw Wun Creek, a tributary of the Yangon River:

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Glimpses along the way:

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Arriving at the marketplace, painted faced & longyis are on show everywhere.  Otherwise the place is ablaze with plastic, colour & smiles:

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while noticing the epitome of womanhood-  a demure &  focussed lady of style, so elegantly presented & positioned

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observing the essential & abundant ingredients of quid production so neatly arranged in typical style:

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… determining to make a quid

with dried fish of every imaginable variety on display within easy reach:

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Anyone wanting seafood?

even a huge tempting assortments of fresh vegetables & flowers:

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… almost too much choice for a bloke to endure …

but best of all an exquisitely photogenic Myanmar woman, so intensely proud of her banana, coconut & flower stall…

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… my favourite photograph of the moment …

 

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… getting ready to be off & away … 

After a further short drive we arrive at the Kyaik-Khauk Paya, a gilded Mon style stupa of historical significance; its history dating back ‘to the rule of Emperor Ashoka and when Gautama Buddha breathed his last.’

Kyaik-Khauk Paya is perched on the Shin Mwe Nun Kon ridge, and found when heading towards Kyauktan to the south of Thanlyin, a place harbouring some of the archaic colonial buildings that date back to the British Raj.

The paya comprises a beautiful impressive pagoda in the same style as the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. The pagoda is believed to have been built more than 2,000 years ago, after which it has been enlarged, revisioned and renovated many times following earthquake damage, lightning strikes and violent storms.

 

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We remove our shoes, Lily arranges payment on our behalf and we’re given our Foreigner Sticker and a brochure containing great information:

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Apparently Kyaik- Khauk  is revered because the brick zedi (pagoda) enshrines six strands of the Buddha’s hair (and perhaps forehead bones and sacred remains obtained from Ceylon).

In 927 the  hti, the gold & gem studded finial ornament that tops almost all pagodas in Myanmar as the umbrella,  was donated as a gift from King Bayinnaung. When this hti was destroyed by further earthquake damage in 952, King Nanda’s wife donated and reinstalled a new gold framed, gem studded hti.

in 1277 the daughter of Thanlyn Township Officer, U Tha Dun Aung, replaced her father’s donated hti with one that was nine-tiered and 4.27m high, only for it to be destroyed by a severe earthquake in 1292 after which the pagoda was rebuilt to a height of 56.24 metres.

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a proud moment for Ben

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retouched with a dab or two of paint …

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… levering a lunge in a longyi …

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a zillion and one decorative tiles to marvel at

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… and a little bit of quiet contemplation before we view some of the more ancient ruins, including Natshinnaung’s Tomb …

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A grandson of King Bayinnaung, even as a youngster of nine, the prince participated in King Nanda’s campaigns to reconquer Siam in the early 1590s. In November 1600, he killed the captive King Nanda without his father’s permission. Later,  as a mere viceroy of Toungoo, he became deeply dissatisfied with his reduced status and secretly made an alliance with Filipe de Brito e Nicote, a Portugese mercenary and the ruler of Thanlyin;  and to take revenge against King Innwa, invited de Brito to attack Toungoo. When de Brito’s attack failed, Natshinnaung accompanied his “blood brother” de Brito back to Thanlyin where he was pressured to switch to Catholicism.

Remaining as strange colleagues of power during a month-long siege, when refusing a pardon offered by King Anaukpetlun – “You prefer to be the slave of a foreigner than serve the king of your own race” – the pair were crucified and executed.

Natshinnaung was considered by many to be the greatest yadu (a classical genre) poet in Burmese history. The themes of his poetry were often of love, nature, and war. Natshinnaung employed the use of vocabulary and rhymes and, as a warrior, advanced many military strategies and tactics of Burma. Some of his yadu poems describe the infantry and the elephant troops. It has been claimed that Natshinnaung sent his poems to the love of his life, Princess Yaza Datu Kalyani (and intriguingly Natshinnaung was 18 years younger than Yaza Datu Kalayani who happened to be his uncle’s wife),  via a parrot! After 11 years of courtship he married to Datu Kalayani at the age of 25, but she died 7 months after the marriage.

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Waking to Muse on Worship: Day 3

20th December

I sleep very well for eight hours before being jolted awake at 4:20 am by sentences going through my mind. Grabbing paper & pen I duck out to the illuminated corridor  to pen my thoughts before tumbling back between the sheets.

Otherwise, as for the state of the nation outside our boutique window, Prayercast.com is a very informative site. When bolstered by information gleaned from an article in The New  York Times written by  Sewell Chan (1 Feb.  2016), the situation in Myanmar is summarised very succinctly:

Myanmar, formerly Burma, is the largest nation in Southeast Asia. Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand border it on the west, north, and east. The Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal are on its south.  The Irrawaddy River, along which most of the people live, flows through the center of the nation and provides fertile land for agricultural production.  Myanmar is also known as the world’s second largest supplier of illegal opium. The people of Myanmar have lived with warfare since 1942.

Until the most recent elections  which resulted in the first freely elected parliament giving rise to ‘a moment long awaited by  Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the nation’s democracy movement’ as she walked through the doors of parliament in Naypyidaw, the capital, for a stretch of forty years (until  8 Nov.   2015) the government was under the control of a military regime, forcibly repressing popular democratic movements, and exploiting the country’s rich natural resources, such as natural gas.

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The Generals’ actions have left the economy of this nation in trouble and have placed the people in poverty. ‘In the country’s fragile transition to democracy,’ now only twenty-five percent of the seats in both houses of the present government are occupied by military leaders. At least 110 of the party’s 390 members in the new Parliament are former political prisoners.

Freedom of religion is allowed in Myanmar, but any group the previous government considered  harmful to the state was harassed, persecuted, and often imprisoned. This has included Christians. Buddhism, no longer considered the state religion, was actively promoted by the military regime and most of the population is Buddhist (though a strong missionary presence assured the foundation of Christianity.  Many of the Christian nine percent are well educated and hold positions of responsibility in the country).

There being a Muslim minority population in Myanmar, and a rather busy mosque near the Sule Pagoda quite close to where we’re staying, I’m wakened for a second time by the adhan, the muezzin, the call to prayer, around 5 am. Forbidden to join in this men-only time of worship,  feeling otherwise confident & immensely courageous as a 65-year old divorcee, it provides time for me to glance out of the window, or simply flick through the images on my Olympus to reflect on what’s been seen so far when given the freedom to move:

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Throughout our wanderings we’ve noticed the white paste worn across the cheeks and smeared across the arms of women, children and even young men, supposedly to protect against the sun’s burning rays (though it also symbolises a beautification ritual). The eponymous paste is derived by grinding the bark of the thanaka tree on a flat, smooth stone with water to produce a milky yellow liquid that dries quickly when it is applied to the skin. Supposedly it keeps the skin cool, stops oiliness, tightens pores, improves the complexion and adds a pleasant, soft fragrance to the skin. Medicinally used it treats acne, fungus, skin sores, measles, epilepsy, poisoning and fever.

 

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I remember the guy who sold us three bananas for 200 kyat had black stumps where his teeth may have once existed. A chewer of betel, along with many other Myanmar men spitting was part of the business of his daily regime. But then again, like most places throughout Asia, being busily engaged in doing business while imbued with a true sense of dedication  (and always with a strong commercial intent) creates the chock-a-block hours of most people’s days. Worshipping the arrival of kyat into their hands as ‘lucky money,’ they take to the streets with anything to sell, even offering a choice between three used mobile phones positioned on a cloth on the footpath to capture the eye as a possible ‘sale victim’ prepares to walk across an intersection. Or perhaps a puffy pastry created by a podgy youngster to be grabbed by a hungrier passer-by.

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I’ve already figured it may be best to know a little of the Burmese language  as fewer people in the street speak English (though it may be that I’ve tried to initiate a conversation with the wrong ones!) Still the young waiter at the Schwe Htoo Restaurant did understand exactly what we’d selected from the menu (‘minus the meat’ and ‘without any tofu’) andthereafter was able to direct me to the Money Exchange booth next door so I could return cashed up with sufficient kyat to pay for our meal since the restaurant (like most places in Yangon, and wider Myanmar) didn’t accept the required equivalent American dollar, or two.

Of course, though my dollars lie flat and even across my belly in a money belt that’s kept firm and straight by my passport, at every Money Exchange every inch of each greenback is inspected for any tell-tale creases that will invalidate worth. So we learn fairly quickly only pristine greenbacks are worshipped by a population whose currency is considered worthless outside of their country’s borders.

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First day in Yangon

19th December

Yangon takes quite a bit of getting used: firstly while being part of a long line of insufficient queues to efficiently cater for the necessary passport checks and official stampings before glum officers, and then during the rather chaotic traffic scenes inside and outside the international airport.

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Apart from the myriad of painted faces, what’s immediately evident is the huge amount of construction taking place at a slow and relatively inefficient pace: the high rise building projects attached to the airport and throughout many parts of the city.

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After first catching our attention in the Arrivals area, Chit Chit passes us over to a young driver who fits our luggage into his Toyota, heads off towards our hotel and does much to promote his services for future ventures in and around Yangon. A nice young man dressed in camouflage trousers and singlet, I’m drawn to the huge watch that swathes his wrist in masculine glamour. It’s easy to slip into conversation as his English is no doubt well-practised on tourists. An affable young man he soon announces, ‘I plan to marry my fiance next year in a simple ceremony, to save on expenses.’

I’m pleased to be contributing to  a young guy’s plans for the future though the traffic we must otherwise endure at this time of our lives is extreme, bumper-to-bumper and apparently normal for Monday to Saturday travel in Yangon. Even supposed short-cuts take a while to negotiate so as to make an inch or more of headway. Still there’s time for a few snapshots:  our first fleeting sighting of Schwedagon PagodaPC190012.JPG.jpg

and of the sale of betel nut quids,  where we’re told a pack of three possibly costs around 100 kyat (10 cents US)

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‘Besides it’s big business designing “quid” for a customer at a roadside stall by swiftly coating leaves with lime, adding areca nuts, a sprinkle of tobacco, flicking on more lime and bagging the package…

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Earning kyat from designing quids

‘Betel nut chewing has a mild narcotic effect and is highly addictive. Spitting betel nut onto the streets is technically illegal and carries a prison term of up to one year,’ says our driver. ‘But you’ll soon find out, the law is ineffective. The red stains are everywhere, so common they’ve become almost like a red trademark on footpaths.’

I learn through an article by Hilary Whiteman entitled Nothing to smile about: Asia’s deadly addiction to betel nuts, these  potent parcels of areca nuts and tobacco, wrapped in a lime-coated betel leaf and often spiced with cardamom, saffron cloves and sweeteners are staining the teeth of regular users a reddish-black; not only giving the users a ‘lift’ but oral cancers. “Having one is okay, but the danger increases when you start having the second one. When you reach a certain point, people will get cancer,” said Professor Ying-chin Ko, vice president of China Medical University in Taiwan who conducted some of the first studies into the link between betel quids and oral cancer in the 1990s. Though it’s unsupported by evidence some believe it’s due to the excessive use of pesticides and insecticide on the lime leaves.

‘Some drivers consider it a herbal remedy, to keep them alert. Others for staving off a toothache or acne; sometimes even as an aphrodisiac. But health officials face an uphill battle in convincing addicts it’s not worth the buzz.’

While the glamour of the boutique hostel is etched into my brain through photographs on the Viator booking site, as for many travellers thrown into the unknowns of a new city our hostel is immediately visually disappointing from the street.

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Welcome to the 30th Corner Boutique hotel

There’s honesty in it being described as being ‘on a corner’ and rather ’boutique’ in nature : a stylish small hotel, typically one situated in a fashionable urban location. However without a proper vestibule to capture our traveller’s hearts, only steep dirty cementy steps lead to a first floor check-in point, a tiny affair with a couple of vinyl lounges and a desk.

‘I know I’ve already booked, but (considering other visual discrepancies), can I check out the room first before we decide to tote our bags up additional stairs?’

‘Oh no bother, we will carry for you.’

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Our  view of Yangon’s streets

The room is OK by expected simple standards, though we’re immediately redirected to a room with a window at no extra cost. And there’s plenty to catch our attention or to be captured by a zooming lens:

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A camera lens turns me into a voyeur of sorts

In a rabbit warren sort of place, the plumbing and communal facilities are fairly basic. Some toilets are already signposted as being ‘Out of order.’ I find others that need a similar sign.

Without allowing too much time for further disapprovals of scant sheeting and the army of ants that’s already climbing corners and invading carry bags, we decide to brave the streets of Yangon, even while the mid-day sun shines down on a Vietnamese non-la, our feet heading towards Sule Pagoda and the nearby hotspots of activity and residual British architectural influence and historical relevance, cameras slung round necks, fingers poised as if on the trigger of a gun:

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We return to the Boutique to rest up and catch a few action-packed movies on our wall-mounted TV before I decide to venture to the bathroom. The shower is cold but adequate enough to wash away the considerable dust of the streets. Besides it’s nice to freshen up however we can. I wash shirts, undies, and Ben’s socks, peg them to the curtain where they surely will fully dry overnight in the wintry heat that indicates summers in Yangon would be oppressive. Ben sleeps for a couple of hours while I mildly concern myself with an occasional niggle in my left ear.

At 4 pm we head across the road to a well-chosen tourist eatery, the Schwe Htoo Restaurant that delivers reasonable fried rice and mixed vegetables that prove tasty enough though far too large a plate even for two.

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Unable to pass off our left-overs to beggars we eventually give our containers to a gratefull fellow at the boutique desk (though after a rather podgy monk knocks them back, obviously because it’s too late in the day for a monk to even consider the gift of food).

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Wandering along the streets we felt we were getting the hang of the place.

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Following a monk earlier in the day near the central Sule Pagoda.

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And though it’s not my favourite city, I thought the large number of people taking advantage of the city’s central park – most men dressed in longyis – delivered a nice touch of familiarity on a beautiful afternoon that sported gold-edged clouds and brilliant expansive sunbeams from a slowly-disappearing sun, a perfect backdrop for the Independence Monument.

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PC190050.JPGWe learn a longyi is sarong-like tube of fabric worn by both genders; called paso when worn by men and htamein by women, though mostly everyone merely referred to the cultural uniform in its gender-neutral term “longyi”.

Men tie theirs by pulling the fabric tight against the back and tying an elegant knot in front. Women tie the longyi by pulling all of the fabric to one side, folding back at the hip and tucking into the opposite side of the waist, usually topped with a fitted blouse worn just to the waistband.

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The Myanmar public travel in low class buses bearing high class signs. Mobile phones thrive in the hands of Myanmar youths. Men walk together, one hand around the other’s shoulder openly showing friendship rather than indicating a ‘gay’ tendency.

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Crossing the road becomes significantly more than a leap of faith; and venturing down side streets reveals much about the state of communications.

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Like in Hue & Dalat, we find the footpaths take some careful negotiating to avoid a foot or leg vanishing into the slushy darkness between wonky concrete slabs.PC190036.JPG

Birds are evident in far larger numbers than in Hanoi or other cities we’ve visited previously in Asia: flocks of pigeons, little wrens, and even one hoppy crow!

Before considering settling in for an early night, the city is viewed as alive & throbbing: horns blaring … whistles blowing …

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the streets alive with construction and the jumbled webs of electrification ;

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even hawkers and friendly shoppers,PC190031.JPG and tempting chefs of all things great, small, battered & fried.

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all making preparations for rush-hour …

Eventually the sounds morph into long languid moments of relative silence as if the city’s streets are taking a breath somewhere between 3 and 4 am.