Two Weeks In Myanmar

by Robert Salisbury, December 18, 2013

But first, the tourist holiday part of the show:

Yvonne and I finally got out of Sittwe for a much needed vacation. We met my sister in Yangon and spent a couple of weeks seeing what the rest of Myanmar is like. This was a different world to what we are used to. We were TOURISTS, and we wondered about all the implications involved. I shuddered at the sight of all these large white pasty beings with their cameras and sunglasses, and knew I was one of ‘em… Euuuuuw. Be that as it may, the places we went were amazing, and the break from the pressure and strains in Rakhine State were a relief. What follows are several letters my sister Sarah wrote about her experiences. I have pieced them together with some very gentle editing.

Our Best to all, Cap Rainbow & Yvonne

* * *

The Internet is all but impossible, but I want to let you know that I arrived safely in Yangon. Here are some impressions:

From the air: the elegant sweeping curves of wide brown rivers and meandering streams. Small fields, lush with ragged edges. A stupa square footprint, red, with gold trimming each of the stairstep levels, closer to landing: another, large pointy and ornate. The city similar to other large tropical cities of my acquaintance; green encroaching on tire shops, crumbling roads, food stalls.

No, correction: the city encroaching on the green. Bananas, bougainvillea, silk trees. Not afraid of color here! Walls are turquoise, magenta, orange, lime green, as are the women's clothes, the men's more drab, but both wear longhiis (we might call them sarongs, tho’ a longhii has a seam, making the length of cloth a tube). Cement buildings with corrugated metal or tile roofs, ornate grill work on derelict buildings.

It's muggy and hot, but not unbearable. The air is thick with smells: fish sauce, open drainage canals. Bicycles abound, some with chickens hanging from their feet from the back, some with loads so big as to be comi­cal, some with passengers. A common transport vehicle is a short bed pick up with a steel roof, sort of a mobile porch.

A driver from my guest house picks me up.; it's a long drive through the city to the Motherland Inn 2, with its friendly and helpful staff and clean rooms.

I settle in and go looking for the Lucky 7 Tea House. Only occasionally are the street signs in English, but the map is not hard to follow. The script is fascinating: all circles and half-circles atop and aside each other with nary a straight line to be seen.

Buddhist monks slap along in maroon or burnt orange robes, heads shaved close. There are giant avoca­dos sold on the street: can they possibly be any good? Also giant BUGS toasted sold for munching (no, I didn't try), checkerboards painted on the sidewalk, players use bottle caps for checkers, one side blue, one side green. An odiferous city! But sweet-smelling flowers can be bought for devotional purposes or for dressing the hair of hanging from the rear-view mirror, or, in my case, to hang around the neck and sniff when the outside scents are too appalling.

*Recommended reading: “The River of Lost Foot­steps” by U Thant's grandson (grampa being the Secre­tary General of the UN when I was growing up): lengthy detailed history including tales from his own family his­tory. So many kingdoms, so many declines, so many ethnic waves washing over the country. The author's the­sis being that when there has been unity of the country, therefore strength, it has been brought about and main­tained by a strong military leadership and this, in turn supports the current military leadership (not that he's in favor of that, but it helped me to remember that these “bad guys” are operating from a place of their own val­ues, just as we all do — different values, of course.

* Pursuing the country's history further, I spent an afternoon at the National Museum. Much gold bedecked stuff from the last kingdom. All I can say is: beautifully crafted demonstration of the follies of indolent mon­archs. Some of the clothing of court retainers is quite spectacular: stiffened somehow so that winged ruffles are created as if wind-blown. Think images of devas and boddhisattvas on clouds. A collection of musical instru­ments and photos of dancers made me realize that I've not seen nor heard of performing art since I've been here. Wuddup? People so poor that there is no leisure time to pursue? I've since heard that there will be more of this in Mandalay. Looking forward to it!

* * *

                Getting out of said Yangon took all day. No, really. Oh, never mind, it's Burma. When we did arrive by plane , our faithful driver, May Maung Thun was waiting for us at Heho, north of Yangon. Great guy, good driver, warm rich voice. We drove in the dark through faintly moonlit fields of silvery cabbages, rimmed by eucalyp­tus, acacia, giant banyans, pines, stands of huge bamboo. Cooler here, fresh, around 3300-3800 feet. These are the famous red hills of Shan State.

Give me hills anywhere in the world and I feel at home. Our hotel is delightful, a little nursery of orchids provided the tiny flowers with which our pillows were artfully strewn. Red hibiscus, antherium, elephant ears. We walked to a restaurant down the way, enjoying the cool air and the quiet. The restaurant was large, like a lodge or chalet, all big timbers; good carpentry, says RB (and he should know). A pleasant walk home under more giant banyans (you could live in these things), limbs resembling elephant limbs and trunks. Best night's sleep since I left home.

An early morning trip to the local market (it being market day and all) where we saw an extraordinary array of vegetables and fruits, and flowers. We were able to find snacks that we liked and exchanged smiles and gig­gles and “Mingala ba” greetings with many.

Then the walk to the “Golden Caves,” home to 8,907 (or some such outlandish number) of Buddhas, all painted gold! And yes, it really is a cave with several smaller attached caverns, like chapels along a church nave. The Buddhas are big and small, cement, stone, brick and mortar, plastic, maybe wood; they nestle against each other under pendulous stalactites of lime­stone. Some of the smaller chambers are claustrophobic, some of the passages so narrow that I and my backpack can barely squeeze through. And there are hundreds of people, mostly Myanmar folk, shoulder to shoulder and haunch to haunch. Some kneel to bow/pray, some take photos with cellphones, with cameras, with tablets. There are monks and toddlers and sweethearts and teenagers.

The Buddhas are dedicated to or in honor of people not only from Myanmar, but from all over the world. A Swiss woman, a French guy. “For my parents, Austin and Joan, by Austin Murray, Jr of Venice, CA.”

I am fascinated by the faces of the Buddhas. Some smile; some gaily, some peacefully, some smile not at all. Some have downcast eyes, some closed eyes, and one stares starkly straight ahead.

There are delicate white parasols suspended above some of the Buddhas and at least one statue of a wor­shipper.

Somehow, even with the garishness of all that gold there is a sacred feeling, a reverence in the caves. Many people have brought their sacred feelings here. As I leave I see the thing of which I have heard so much: people buying small squares of gold leaf and pressing it onto the base of the stupa just inside the entrance.

We leave the caves by a different route than the one by which we approached. We had walked up many many concrete steps under corrugated metal walkways. We stopped and perched on a concrete bench for our picnic: salted mixed nuts , seeds and beans, a large cracker-like affair with crunchy yellow peas in it, some bland cow cheese (RARE!) and peanut brittle and brown cake for dessert. We trekked on and found another cave with a large white seated Buddha, another cave with a smaller cave with Buddha seated half in and half out , at last reaching a point beyond which the hill began to curve. A young monk with teeth stained red with betel nut juice, carrying a sling shot greeted us pleasantly and guided us to a narrow track that led us eventually down through poinsettias and hibiscus to just near our bungalow. On the way we passed a tidy house and yard with two bouncing boys greeting us. Their pretty mother was scratching the side of an enormous sow with a stick so that she would remain lying still so her 2-day old piglets could nurse safely.

Later in the afternoon we have a visit from a former colleague of Yvonne's, a doctor whose home village is nearby. RB and I fell for her easily as we sat in a tea shop chatting. She invites us to come have lunch with her family tomorrow on our way to the balloon festival. It is, for me, always the best, juiciest thing to have some personal contact and time with people of the place I am visiting.

Next day we drove to Yin May's village and visiting there, was, as I had anticipated, a delight, a small win­dow through which we might glimpse a whole world. It appears to be a prosperous village and her family well-off. We met at the family business, a small warehouse stacked with grain sacks from which her mom sells cab­bages and other produce. It is common to see women in business here and generally running things (at the vil­lage/family level anyway). As it happens, Yin May's father is disabled by diabetes (not uncommon here; all that white rice!) and was once a more active part of the family business.

We walked up from the town center to a couple of pagodas. Nice to be out stretching our legs and seeing big views — the small fields of green-yellow safflower, the rich red earth, the silver cabbages, the green of, well, greens. The pagoda at the highest point of our walk had unusual carved figures at the corners of a stupa: plump birds with human (female?) torsoes and faces (it was our driver, May Maung Thun, who told us they were uncommon; he even took photos himself).

The lunch at Yin May's family home was more prop­erly called a feast! Absolutely the best food I've had in Burma. Many many dishes, some spicy, others less so, all full-flavored. Many of the vegetables grown in the gardens surrounding the simple old two-story wooden house: chilis, pumpkins vining up into the trees and along fences, basil, potatoes; others from their commer­cial fields farther away. Yin May sat to eat with us, as did our driver, but the older sister who had prepared this banquet did not, nor did mom or dad. Ancient laws of hospitality, though a bit uncomfortable for a prim Yan­kee like me.

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