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Published: March 18th 2012
Barring nations mired in active armed conflict, countries with the most problematic travel considerations are usually the most rewarding. Myanmar adds to this catalogue of nations where once the restrictions and conditions are successfully surmounted, the rewards are immense. Due to financial sanctions placed upon Myanmar, where credit cards and travellers cheques are effectively useless, it necessitates all travellers obtaining a collection of clean, crisp, unfolded and unmarked US notes. This appears easy in many countries, but in Thailand, where banks are fond of marking foreign currency with all manner of notations, this proved to be a difficult task. After visiting a least half a dozen banks and money changers with eraser in hand in order to remove any pencil marks, I was able to successfully obtain the necessary funds.
Visas must be obtained prior to arrival, and this was effortless by comparison, as one simply lodged the forms with the required photos and funds at Myanmar’s Embassy, with collection being a few days later. An equally simple procedure followed at Yangon’s surprisingly modern airport a week later – I’ve been questioned far more stringently on arriving in the UK then in Myanmar.
My first three days in Yangon
enabled me to form initial observations of this country that were reaffirmed during the following four weeks. The state of motor vehicles is the worst I’ve seen, with the dilapidated taxis of Yangon earning a special mention; they never contained a radio, air-conditioning nor electric windows, which is no bother, but their lack of even essential accessories brought real surprises. One particularly memorable example contained only one window handle for the whole car, so it was passed around the vehicle so each passenger could take turns to wind their window to the preferred height.
My first journey in a taxi between the airport and hotel in one of these rusty old sedans with a poor suspension was a portent of future journeys. The trembling vehicle jostled with all manner of overloaded buses, trucks and the occasional modern vehicle in progressing through the dense traffic, and being evening, it was difficult to discern much of this scene as it was only barely illuminated due to the paucity of street lighting.
The sidewalks all contained numerous people walking, and these included the conservatively attired women, who looked beautiful in theirlongyi
(a long cloth worn around the waist and extending to
Monk at Shwedagon Paya, Yangon, Myanmar
The informative monk showed me around the temple.
the ankles). I have never experienced a country where Buddhism was so overtly displayed or practiced. Maroon-robed male devotees – from young children to venerable men – were regularly seen in all parts of the cities, with an obvious congregation around temples.
Even with the country’s main city of Yangon, power outages were not uncommon. Often one would be watching television when it would suddenly blink out of existence, only to return a few minutes later. I also had the misfortune to be the only occupant in an elevator descending to a hotel lobby when one of these outages occurred. The elevator halted and everything briefly went black, but the situation improved when a faint emergency light flickered to life; however, my greatest concern remained, what if the elevator suddenly decided to plunge a few floors. I pressed the alarm, but upon receiving no response, repeated the action. Shortly afterwards a thickly accented voice stated “It will be okay sir, you will be out soon,” and sure enough, within another minute, power was restored. The lights within the elevator resumed at full brightness and the door opened to reveal that I was already on the ground floor, thus my
Crowded public transport in Yangon, Myanmar
I seem to have caught an unfortunate expression on the face of one occupant.
concerns about plunging lifts were irrelevant. Entering the lobby, I was greeted by smiling staff, which is one of the most noticeable aspects in Myanmar, the number of smiles that grace this country. Thailand’s claim of being the land of smiles has been easily usurped by its neighbour.
The first full day in Yangon was spent scampering around the city in those infamous taxis to pay for accommodation and flights that had been prebooked from Australia. Due to the financial sanctions, one can only finalise the transactions for any of these services after arrival, so half of those crisp clean US notes accumulated in Bangkok were soon whisked from my possession. The daylight revealed a city ravaged by neglect in a humid clime that caused many buildings to look older than their years, with peeling paint and black blotches frequently on show.
Finally, it was time for sightseeing; the plan was originally to spend three days photographing Yangon during my frequent visits to this transport hub, but that didn’t eventuate (for reasons that will be explained in a future blog) so the visited sites numbered only two. The first was the colossal androgynous edifice of Buddha at the
Chaukhtatgyi Paya (Paya means temple), the size of this reclining statue being significantly than its more famous counterpart in Bangkok. Adorned with precious jewels in this crown, this imposing edifice was surprisingly frequented by only a few worshippers and tourists.
There is one temple in Yangon whose picture is used in every brochure promoting the county. There is debate as to whether the site of Shwedagon Paya has been used as a place of worship for more than two millennia, but there is little disagreement that the iconic 98 metres tall towering golden stupa towering has been standing for two centuries.
There are four entrances to this massive complex of approximately five hectares, which is not just a single gold stupa but a collection of numerous shrines, temples, statues and other religious paraphernalia. Walking into the ground, one espies a colourful collection of worshippers and visitors. Groups of Buddhist nuns, wearing long flowing pink robes, would sit quietly in prayer, whilst monks in maroon garments would elucidate the most significant parts of the temple to shaven-headed boys wearing similar attire. Other worshippers clothed in traditional Burmese garments also arrived to perform the required duties, such as ablutions, burning
incense or praying.
The clouds wore a beautiful patchwork pattern on this day and resting on a step, I watched the skies slowly darken. Late afternoon is the prime visiting time at the Paya for sunset prayers are always well attended. A group of women, each carrying two large brushes, moved in a line to clean the great expanse of the Paya’s ashen tiles prior to sunset prayers. The crowds thickened as the appointed hour approached.
Whilst waiting, I witnessed truly shameful behaviour of some foreigners. What appeared to be a photographic group had arrived to record this wonderful scene in the fading light. However, some members thought it their right to shove cameras into the faces of worshippers during the prayer practice of lighting candles. The worst incident occurred when a young child was besieged by three people with large cameras stationed less than an arm’s length from the boy’s face. The mother who was seated nearby did not raise any concern, but not because such actions failed to cause offence, but more likely due to the courteous and gentle nature of the Burmese, even though permission to photograph at such close quarters was not sought from
either child nor mother.
There is a certain etiquette involved in obtaining portraits, but intruding upon the personal space of a child performing a religious prayer without prior permission is patently inappropriate on many levels. In hindsight, I should have approached this photographic group and berated them for such behaviour, but one is often wiser upon later deliberation. It is no wonder that a number of countries perceive Caucasians as arrogant with no regard for local customs or sensitivities whilst inconsiderate individuals tour the world believing that they are owed any manner of photographic moments.
My attention was redirected to the spectacle provided by the cloudy canopy. The tessellated sky deepened in hue as the increasing crowds perambulated around the stupa, whilst others knelt in silence or lit long candles whose smoke curled and evaporated into the night. Amongst this bustle lay a serenity, as each individual sought a connection with the divine and a power beyond comprehension. The amber electric globes gradually cast their colour on this temple, whilst the scintilla of remaining natural light provided a glorious backdrop.
For an hour I watched this serene scene unfurl before me, and eventually the sky wore a
black countenance that obscured those beautiful clouds; whilst below, this peaceful glimpse of heavenly enlightenment rejoiced in the warm glow of amber lights on sacred buildings, and the warm sensation of reverent faces deep in heartfelt prayers.
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