My arrival from Kathmandu to Bangkok was a splash! I had just experienced temperatures of 0C just days before only to arrive in Bangkok where I was to spend a couple of days before heading to Myanmar, to temperatures of 40C! I also chose the hot and dry season to visit Myanmar. Yes, this is the worst time of the year to come but it was Thingyan (Water Festival) which marks the beginning of the New Year. As in Bangkok, it is celebrated with the throwing of water at anyone who dares to walk in the streets. I had dropped into the biggest water party I’d ever participated in. It was the wildest, craziest party I’ve ever participated in and it lasted three days. This would never happen in the Western world; stop everything and throw water at your neighbors for three days. NEVER! The water represents three things. Firstly, the cleansing of the body and spirit, helping to cool down during the hottest time of the year and lastly, it marks the visitation of King Nat Thagyamin, to tally his annual record of the good deeds and misdeeds humans have performed. Villagers place flowers on their doorsteps to welcome the
king of the nat. His departure on the morning of the third day marks the beginning of the New Year.
I left the Bangkok airport which is fully westernized, for Yangon. The Bangkok airport even has a Starbucks and the tall, decaf, non-fat, no foam latte costs more! I arrived to a place where time has stood still for over a century. Myanmar still has not been totally overwhelmed by the western way of life even though one can find some evidence: Britney Spears t-shirts, Coca Cola and Sprite, baseball caps and skinny jeans are here too but mostly worn by young men. The majority of men dress in long skirts (longyi) and the women wear a special paste of traditional make up (thanakha) on their faces to protect themselves from the harsh rays of the sun and as fashion. Not much has changed since the British colonial times due to the stifling military rule but as you know things are changing. Following the last year’s election, a quasi-civilian government was sworn in and Aung Sun Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest. The decade long tourism boycott has been lifted and the recent majority win of the
National League for Democracy in the by-elections should bring even more changes for a better future for the gentle people of Myanmar. The people are everything the regime is not; gentle, humourous, engaging, and considerate. They even have their babies blow kisses at the tourists as they go by.
First stop was Yangon. It was stifling hot at 40C and humid. It is the biggest city but no longer the capital although it remains the commercial and diplomatic capital of Myanmar. One of the first things I noticed was that the taxi driver was a right-hand drive but also driving on the right-hand side of the road. There were absolutely no motorbikes on the roads. Rumour has it that a high ranking military official was hit by a motorbike and had a ban issued on all motorbikes in Yangon. Everything and everyone is asleep by 9pm at night in this city; there are no late nights here. Well, ok the odd dog is still barking and wandering about but dogs don’t really count. One of the oddest and mysterious things I noticed straight away was the innumerable red stains on the streets, sidewalks and stairwells. After a
day in Yangon, I discovered the truth behind this mystery – Betelgeuse! Almost every man chews or sucks on the stuff and the red toothed smile is to die for – NOT! This is betel nut country. The other oddity about Yangon are the loads of kinky sex stalls that sell everything from flavoured condoms, condoms of every colour, penis enlargers and rings with hair and beads for sale. Sorry, I don’t have photos of these stalls I was too embarrassed to stop and take a photo. The city is a living relic of British colonial architecture due to over fifty years of international isolation but smack dab in the middle of this city is a golden temple. In fact, the Sule Paya, a 2 000 year old temple is in the centre of a traffic circle. It stands 151 feet high and is surrounded by government buildings and commercial shops.
The most important and most recognized landmark of all of Myanmar is located in Yangon the magnificent Shwedagon Paya. It is considered the most sacred of all Buddhist sites, one that all Myanmar Buddhists hope to visit at least once in their lifetime. It is visible from almost
anywhere in the city. We visited early in the morning where we observed Buddhists, monks and nuns praying and chanting in this peacefully beautiful complex. The next stop was to Ngathatygyi Paya. Legend states that at this site fifty years ago there used to be a giant standing Buddha poking his head above the temples and monasteries here, but one day he got tired and collapsed into a heap on the floor, later being replaced by the giant reclining Buddha that is present today. After a hot and muggy morning of temple hopping, we stopped at a landmark hotel, The Strand Hotel for a drink. The Strand opened in 1901 and hosted the likes of Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell. During WWII, the hotel was used by the Japanese troops and Burmese nationals were not allowed to stay in the hotel until 1945. The hotel has charm and history and truly feels as though you’ve stepped back in time since everything seems to be as it once was.
Later that afternoon we transferred from our hotel to the central rail station where we were booked on an overnight train from hell! It was a 19 hour train ride with
no AC, no fan and no air. Oops! I mean only hot air - 40C!! It was the second worst night of sleep I’ve ever had. The worst was in Tibet just a week before (if you’ve been paying attention) where the temperature was 0C. Be careful what you wish for! We arrived in Bagan¸ a land dotted with over 2 000 pagodas, at 10:30am the next morning......
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