Yangon, Myanmar (a.k.a. Rangoon, Burma)

October 14-19, 2009

Buddha overload at the Shwedagon Pagoda.




Yangon is a bit reminiscent of Calcutta, India, although much smaller. Signs of its English colonial past are everywhere, with crumbling, moldy brick buildings and an ancient railway that chugs along slowly out our hotel window. There is very much an an air of gritty decay about the city and a heavy patina covers every surface. Well-worn vehicles from past decades still ply the streets (Pete, your VW van is still going strong here!) Our taxis are dented, shocks long since worn out, with broken door latches and window handles. All the local transport is packed to the gills -- riders hang off the back of the pickup truck buses with one hand on the rail and one sandal on the step. In 2005, the military government moved the capitol north, creating the new city of Nay Pyi Taw (someone told us they have constructed enormous underground bunkers for their command center, in preparation for an attack by the US), and Yangon feels a bit like no one is in charge, nothing is repaired, nothing is cleaned, everyone is left to struggle on their own.

But there's also a vivacious energy on the bustling crowded streets, with local markets and street food stalls everywhere. Greasy street-side machine shops rework engine parts, and welders use the sidewalk as a work bench for their repairs. Like Bangkok, it's humid and sweltering and we sweat our way along as we walk around the city streets gawking at all the interesting characters. The city is a melting pot of many different Burmese ethnicities as well as Indian, Nepalese, and Chinese, descendents of the work force and militia brought in by the English. And it turns out to be one of the most interesting cities we've seen in Asia.

I think this may be the only place we've ever visited where non-western dress is the common attire. Most men wear the longyi -- a handsome swath of checked material that wraps around and tucks in at the waist. Myanmar is (mostly) a Buddhist country, and well-used, shiny golden pagodas are sandwiched into crowded neighborhoods throughout the city. I'd say this is one of the more exotic places we have been to.


Night taxi ride through crowded streets.







At times our amble in Asia feels like we are traveling from one shrine to the next, but surely the most amazing temple we've seen yet is the Shwedagon Paya in the heart of Yangon.

We wake at 4:30 am and arrive in the predawn light at the bottom of a long wide covered stairway. We leave our shoes at the entry and ascend onto the expansive outdoor marble promenade surrounding an enormous golden stupa. We wander through the vast array of shrines and Buddhas (many with hypnotic swirling colored LEDs flashing behind the gilded figures). As the sky takes on a bluish purple glow and devout families, workers, monks, and nuns stream in, I have the feeling we've been transported to another planet, where glittering transmitter towers communicate prayers up and into the ether.

Worshippers are all business as they come to chant, meditate, and make their morning offerings of flowers, beautifully folded paper parasols, and fruit, stopping at certain shrines to pour nine cups of water over nat figures. We don't understand any of it, but its hard not to feel the mysticism of this place.

Sound Recording:

Sunrise at Shwedagon (2:57).

Nuns buying offerings.

A yeti (hermit monk) prays.

Women carefully apply thankakha to their faces, and sometimes arms and necks. It protects their skin from the sun's harsh rays, and, after my initial surprise wore off, I agree it looks quite lovely. Little sticks of thankakha wood are sold at all the markets, and every household has a large humped grinding stone to prepare the paste.



Look closely at these crisp one hundred dollar bills. Do you see the wrinkle through Ben's forehead and nose in the two upper bills, the slightly faded look to the upper one? Those $100's are unacceptable in Myanmar. If a US bill has a tiny stain, an area of faded ink, a crease, or Buddha forbid, a microscopic tear, our money is absolutely worthless. We knew in advance there would be no ATM's in Myanmar, so we brought what we thought would be plenty of cash from the USA, more than enough for three weeks in Myanmar. But as the days progress and one bill after another is rejected, we are getting very nervous about running out of money.


We spend one afternoon carefully sorting our money from least pristine to most -- Mark wants to buy an iron -- and discover two nearly perfect $100's and five crisp $20's! We carefully place our money inside a stiff envelope, and protect them from further wear and tear in the back of our journals. We carefully transport these bills to a fancy hotel downtown, rejecting twenty offers to change money on the street, and succeed in exchanging three nearly perfect $100's for kyat (pronounced "chat"). We receive 105,000 kyat for the absolutely pristine one, and 103,000 kyat for each of the two that are judged to be less-than-perfect (both are better than the remaining bills in our stash...) Since the highest denomination available kyat is 1000, we are now lugging around gigantic stacks of kyat.

Check out the filthy, torn, taped and mangled bills we receive in return for our perfect money. These bills have been circulating for a long, long time, but that doesn't seem to matter on the streets of Yangon.

We are surprised to find that almost everyone we talk to keeps up with world news (they love Obama!) by listening to the BBC or Voice of America on their transistor radio or watching France-24 News on satellite TV, and they have easy access to the internet at one of the many tiny, bustling (hot...) internet cafes that dot the city. There are several independent newspapers available, but the scary government mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, is everywhere.