Monday, April 22, 2013

Myanmar Travel : "Yangon, A City of Reticent Hope"

Her 2013 real life trip to Myanmar ,exclusively for OI Magazine written by
Sita Writer.
Camera pictures provided by and are property of Sita Writer.

"It is all Kipling’s fault…. I wanted to go to Burma… now called Myanmar because of Kipling’s’ romantic descriptions. To me, Kipling immortalized this country in his famous quote from “Letters from the East”, “This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about.” A tall order in this day and age where the world has gotten smaller with the ease of international accessibility and the Internet.

Burma, a country that has been sleeping for 50 years… a 50 -year nightmare is finally waking up --- but waking up to what and for how long? For now things seem to be going in the right direction but that could change at any time. After all Burma or Myanmar is, after North Korea, probably one of the most obscure and obscured countries in the 21st century. In fact, it is an anomaly, and one I explored in March.

Pic 1 : Street scenes, man with fruit stands

When I think of Burma it conjures up magical visions of great golden temples nestled in tropical landscapes, verdant rice fields and mighty rivers, beautiful women adorned with rubies and jade, poppy fields and puppet performances inspired by myths and legends that go on into the wee hours of the night. Myanmar’s very name Suvanabhomi means the Golden Land and I wondered if it would live up to my imagination and expectations.

Pic 2: Street scenes 2, Burmese woman and food
Pic 3 : Street scenes 3, Burmese woman and flowers

Myanmar is usually described as a product of times past – it has an endearing, leisurely charm and innocence that was said to be pervasive throughout S.E. Asia fifty years ago. Unlike the rest of Asia, until recently, Myanmar remained reclusive. The first five things I noticed upon arrival was that you will see few Burmese dressed in Western garb, there are no Western commercial aspects (yet), no cookie cutter chain hotels, restaurants or atms, no skyscrapers, and although they drive on the right (a rather recent government mandate) all the steering wheels in cars are on the left making taxi rides very interesting experiences.

I traveled to Myanmar to experience a sense of the “real” and authentic Southeast Asian culture and from the very moment I stepped foot in Myanmar, I had to agree with Kipling; I knew I was in for a truly remarkable experience.

"My journey began in the former capital of Myanmar, Yangon, founded in the 11th century by the Mon and located in the Ayeyarwady Delta area. The British seized Yangon after the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852 and it soon became a great commercial center. Typically, the Raj built colonial styled houses, public buildings, spacious parks and gardens amidst traditional wooden Burmese structures and golden temples.

Pic 1: Colonial building
Pic 2 : Another colonial building with the Burmese flag

In many ways, Yangon is stuck in a time warp – it has no skyscrapers, and only a few high- rise buildings some commercial others apartments no more than ten stories or so high. Today, downtown Yangon is known for its leafy avenues and fin-de-si├Ęcle architecture and has the highest number of colonial buildings in Asia. Sadly, many of the colonial buildings are in a state of disrepair and one wonders if they will be torn down because they are symbolic of foreign subjugation or if they will restore to their former glory.

"My first stop in Yangon was the famous Sule Pagoda in the heart of downtown. Sule has played an important part in Burmese politics; it served as a rallying point in the 1988 Revolution and the 2007 Saffron Revolution. The name the Saffron Revolution that connects monks’ protests against the military dictatorship is a bit misleading because the monks of Myanmar wear claret colored robes unlike the saffron colored monk’s robes of neighboring Thailand.

Pic 1 : The Sule Pagoda

The history of Sule Pagoda is bound up in the mythical prehistory of Myanmar. Two monks traveling from India established it because it contained a hair relic of Buddha. The actual name Sule can be linked to the Sule Nat, the guardian spirit of Singuttara Hill. Sule, an octagonal, zedi or stupa as it is known in the west, is shaped like a bell and inverted bowl; this architectural style originated in India. It sits in the middle of an intersection like a great golden traffic circle. Inside the pagoda’s shrines and images are four colorful Buddha’s with neon halos behind their heads.

Pic 2 : Zoomed out on the Sule Pagoda

Wandering around the Sule Pagoda area I was amazed at the striking examples of colorful architecture, shops, markets and parks. Strolling through the markets and outdoor teashops gives you a feeling of how little life has really changed here. In the crowd I saw many smiling and curious faces. I would like to think faces full of hope.

Pic 3 : Interior of the Sule Pagoda

Pic 4 : Zoomed interior Sule Pagoda

"The next temple I visited was Botataung… it was exquisite. An Allied bomb destroyed the original temple in 1943. During the clean up and rebuilding of the temple, a golden casket in the shape of a stupa was miraculously recovered and was found to contain a hair and two other relics of the Buddha. I was excited to visit this temple because this 140 -foot (40 meter) bell shaped golden stupa is unusual. The stupa is hollow and you can actually walk around the inside of it. It was a surreal experience to walk around floor to ceiling golden walls all intricately inscribed with whimsical looking Burmese script embellished by beautiful floral offerings placed throughout the sanctuary. Outside the temple are thousands of turtles swimming and sunning themselves in pools of water. I bought some turtle food from a nearby stand and feed them in hopes of acquiring merit for a future existence.

Pic 1: The Botataung temple
Pic 2 : The Botataung, another angle with offerings
Pic 3 : Close up of the Botataung temple offerings

Although I did not stay in the best hotel in Yangon, which is a toss up between the historic Strand Hotel and the elegant Governors Residence, the hotel I choose had an excellent view of the Shwedagon Pagoda not only from my room but also from the restaurant.

Pic 1 : The Shwedagon Pagoda Temple

"I like temples and Shwedagon simply put, took my breath away. “Shwe” is the Burmese word for gold and “dagon” means three hills. The temple is situated on Singuttara Hill and is considered to be the holiest of the countries pagodas. Shwedagon was built over the shrine that contains the relics of the Buddha. Countless smaller pagodas made of gold leaf and lacquer, silver, marble; tin, teak, iron and brick, built one after another through the centuries are to be found here.

I will never forget taking off my shoes and socks as is customary in Myanmar and climbing a seemingly endless gold gilded covered staircase barefoot to the high marble terrace of the Pagoda for the first time; what I saw when I reached the summit was like a golden ray of hope glistening in the darkest of nights.

Pic 2 : The Shwedagon Pagoda temple and crowd
Pic 3 : Architecture close up of the Shwedagon Pagoda

The Shwedagon Pagoda is an architectural masterpiece -- it is a golden fantasy forest of gilded stupas, serene Buddha’s mythical beasts, planetary posts, glittering glass mosaic alcoves, and grand pavilions in every architectural style all of which is a backdrop for meditation, prayer, renewal, pilgrimage and merit.

Pic 4 : Rooftops of the Shwedagon Pagoda temple

"The Pagoda is said to be 2500 years old and to have more gold on it than gold in the vaults of the Bank of England. The main stupa soars nearly 330 feet (100 meters) above the hilltop and is a treasure trove inside and out. Inside it is said to house eight hairs of the Buddha as well as three other relics. On the outside, the stupa is plated with 8,688 solid gold slabs; the tip of the stupa is set with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, along with sapphires and topaz. As if this was not enough, a huge emerald sits in the middle of the main stupa’s spire to catch the first and last rays of the sun. All this is mounted on and above a 33- foot umbrella built on seven gold plated bars and decorated with 1,485 bells, 1,065 are gold, 420 are silver. Surrounding the main stupa are more than 100 stupas, buildings, pavilions, halls and administrative buildings.

Pic 5 : The Bell of Shwedagon Pagoda temple

For me, Shwedagon is an ultimate example of the timelessness of faith and hope. There isn’t a time of day that Shwedagon isn’t beautiful or for that matter crowded with families, monks, and pilgrims paying homage here – although it is so large, it never really seemed crowded. To say it is opulent is an understatement; it is also much more because it exudes spiritual serenity and energy reminiscent of the all -knowing eternal smiles of ancient Egyptian gods and kings.

I saw hope in Yangon - a reticent hope to trust that change will continue and things will proceed in the right direction. Quick political transformation here is unlikely as there are still many places off limits to foreigners as well as things the government definitely does not want the outside world to see. Change in tourism will also come slowly – the infrastructure is sadly lacking not only in terms of world-class hotels but also in terms of rail, air and auto travel. Is Myanmar in transition? I would have to say absolutely but what course the changes take depends on the complexities of the people themselves, the government and Myanmar’s strategic location and wealth in natural resources and, most importantly, how Myanmar will interact – or not with the world.

"In my next installment… I will take you to the mythical city of Mandalay and to enigmatic Began.

Thank you for reading my first installment about my recent trip in 2013 to Myanmar (Burma) , my name is Sita Writer, OI Magazine journalist."