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August 13th 2012
Published: August 13th 2012
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With Buddhist MonksWith Buddhist MonksWith Buddhist Monks

Shwedagon Paya
Dear All

Greetings from Burma (aka Myanmar), country number 71, and as in the words of Rudyard Kipling, as quoted in the Lonely Planet, a country “quite unlike any place you know about”. Whilst still being in the geographical region of South-East Asia, it feels completely different, and with 50 years of military dictatorship and almost complete closure to the outside world, this is not surprising at all. Whilst western brands are completely absent here, with no Coca-Cola or McDonald’s to speak of (good or bad…?), the people also seem strikingly different. Western clothes are not so popular as the local fashion, with men mostly wearing traditional wrap-around cloths called “lunghi” instead of trousers, and women using a very strange flesh-coloured make-up which is applied on the cheeks and sometimes the forehead in the fashion of war-paint. It is a different world indeed.

In addition, travellers are few and far between, and I sincerely hope that this remains so, after having seen the chaos reaped by mega-international tourism in Thailand, and increasingly Vietnam, changing the make-up of a place. Indeed, even Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, encourages only independent tourists, recognising that large-scale mass tourism will endanger the country’s traditional ways and essence. So with not having many travellers here, locals are very friendly indeed, with almost everyone I pass on the street sincerely interested in me, and after giving a smile, graciously and sincerely smile back, saying “hello” and “welcome”. I guess being so cut off from the outside world for so long, it’s nice for them to know that they are still a part of the rest of the world, despite the ways of the country’s military dictatorship.

Differences are also felt in the every day. Thus, whilst driving on the right side of the road, most cars also have their steering wheel on the right. This was the brainchild of one of the country’s previous military dictators, who upon being advised by a clairvoyant that it will bring him luck, overnight changed the driving side from the left to the right, with cars mostly still imported from left-side driving Japan. This makes overtaking and getting out of taxis and off buses extremely dangerous, as you can imagine! “Normal” measurements are also just crazy here, with there apparently being 8 days of the week, Wednesday being divided into two mini-days of 12 hours each, and the official year not being 2012 but actually 1374, 638 years behind the rest of the world. The Burmese apparently also use the “viss” unit of measurement for weight, being 3.5lb, and “gaig” for length, being 36 inches. How odd!

But I am deeply impressed with the country so far, and after being a bit worried about the money situation in particular (only being able to travel with crisp US bank notes in perfect condition, with no international banking system, ATMs or credit in the country), and being only one of around 6 Westerners boarding the plane here from Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, the country is very appealing indeed, I think mainly because it is so different.

On the other hand though, I am surprised also to see how much Burma seems to share in common with its western neighbour India, rather than with its South-East Asian counterparts. The population, as with Nepal, appears to straddle the divide between darker-skinned Indians and the more oriental-looking Chinese, and I can truly see the missing jigsaw piece here connecting India and China – Burma seems exactly half-way in between, both geographically and culturally.

I
View from my Hotel, the May ShanView from my Hotel, the May ShanView from my Hotel, the May Shan

Sule Paya and Central Rangoon
have thus spent the last two days in great admiration and enjoyment of the country, though still only having been in Rangoon (Yangon). On Saturday morning I left Laos, boarding an Air Asia flight south to Kuala Lumpur, and changing there in its dump of a budget terminal nextdoor to its normal airport, to a Rangoon-bound Air Asia flight. Rangoon’s airport is just amazing, and a complete contrast to KL’s, which I would have expected to be more flash. It felt more like arriving in a developed country, with pristine corridors and very friendly immigration officers (the latter point not being of a developed country though…!), but the contrast between that and the ordinary Rangoon street is great. Most buildings appear to have been built during the British colonial period, and have not received an upgrade since. Thus, the city is beautiful in a very ageing colonial state, making it even more attractive than perhaps Singapore’s more gentrified colonial buildings. Wandering the streets in the city centre feels more like a walk through an Indian bazaar – manic and real, while there appear very few modern buildings making it particularly distinct from its booming South-East Asian cousins.

Yesterday was just an amazing day. After having visited the Air Mandalay office and paid for the flights I booked with them back in the UK to take me around the country over the next two weeks as opposed to night buses and trains, I visited the wondrous Shwedagon Paya, the city’s star attraction. This to my mind ranks way up there with the Taj Mahal and Great Wall of China as being one of the great wonders of the world, and being in Burma of course is relatively unknown to the West. The Paya is a giant stupa originally constructed 2500 years ago, just over 100 metres high, and literally coated in pure gold leaf and plate all over. The summit is encrusted with 1100 diamonds and 1383 gems, and is topped off with a golden sphere encasing 4351 diamonds and finally a single 76-carat diamond, which supposedly reflects the sunlight around the area at sunset. Along with its stunning treasures, the stupa is just awesome to be hold, and is surrounded by hundreds of mini-stupas, temples and pagodas. A sight truly worth seeing, and to my mind the most impressive in the whole of South-East Asia. I was stunned with awe, and spent a happy two hours circumnavigating the place, along with hundreds of visiting Burmese from all over the country, all full of interest and smiling at one of around 6 westerners I saw during my time there – magical!

And today I moved to a more downtown hotel, the May Shan, nextdoor to the city’s second major stupa, the Sule Paya, a 2000 year old golden stupa which actually forms a roundabout marking the centre of the city. If I had seen this before the Shwedagon I’d have been impressed, but afterwards it really didn’t seem like much. After a visit there, I wandered firstly the old colonial heart of the city, as mentioned filled with ageing and unrestored British colonial offices and houses, and secondly the “modern” beating heart of the city, mainly made up of Indian-style bazaars, teahouses and shops. And again in my 2-hour wander here, probably encountered about 5 other westerners.

In sum, this place is stunning and so unknown to the outside world. It feels great to be here, and I do hope that the NLD’s suggestion to proceed with tourism with caution takes hold, as it would be a shame for the innocence of the people to be spoiled by such rampant Western tourism as in neighbouring countries. If it unfortunately is, I am glad to be here now before it gets in any way like that.

Oh, and I almost forgot. Amazingly enough, on my first full day here, a block over from my first guesthouse, was the official opening of the NLD’s third district office in Rangoon, in the Pazundaung township. The NLD (National League for Democracy) is the extremely respectable political party founded by the equally extremely respectable “Lady” of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi. The daughter of the country’s independence leader General Aung San, who was killed by the military who subsequently seized power in 1947 and has refused to let go ever since, Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma after having left and married an Englishman, to visit her dying mother in 1988. Whilst here, a number of political dissidents asked her to chair the newly-formed National League for Democracy, to try to wrest power from the increasingly despotic military regime run by a small group of corrupt army generals. Having earned the wrath of the generals in so doing, Aung San was placed under house arrest for most of the time between 1989 and 2010. She is now a member of the country’s fledgling elected parliament, with the country having conducted its first general election for 20 years in 2010 (the previous one in 1989 was clearly won by the NLD, who gained 60% of the votes, but was ignored by the ruling generals to huge international criticism and sanctions from most of the international community). Whilst the party has comparatively little power, this is a huge step for individual freedom in this country, which the vast majority of the people really want. Thus, it was just amazing, and very coincidental, that I happened upon the historical opening of the NLD’s third district office in the city. After officially opening the building’s signboard and releasing a collection of balloons, the party’s chairman,Tin Oo, gave a speech to the small crowd, and I was the only foreigner there photographing the event – check the exclusive pictures!

So it is with great interest and enthusiasm at being here and beginning my two-week journey around this unique country that I sign off for now. Tomorrow begins early at 3.30am (!), for a very early flight upcountry to Bagan, my first stop on my journey after Rangoon. From here to Mandalay, then to Inle Lake and back to Rangoon, and I will try to update (Internet connection permitting) along the way when I can.

Hoping all are well, big hug from Burma.

Alex


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22nd September 2012

Great photos
Thanks for the blog! I am thinking of travelling there next year but at the moment in the mundane everyday working life! Great to discover what I have to look forward to!

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