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Discovering Rangoon
Rating: ( 5.0 ) ( 70 votes )

Rangoon (Yangon), Myanmar
Nov 19, 2002 07:57

Pros: Kind anf friendly people, beautiful pagodas, good food
Cons: none

Finally the day has come and we would be going to an entirely new country which the world knew until 1989 as Burma. We heard many strange stories of this isolated land, so naturally we were nervously excited.

Flying Myanmar Airways was something which the Canadian Consultate travel site warns against, but when we brought this up to our travel agent days before he just smiled and said "don't worry, your's will be a big plane and those don't crash as much". Okee Dokee then. Upon landing in the capital city of Yangon (formerly Rangoon), it struck as eerie to see only one other plane at the airport. Its single terminal was a no frills, uncolorful place which couldn't help but make an impression upon us that these folks didn't have very much. Kevin, thanks for the survival book as the lesson on how to pass a 'gift' proved quite useful to have us change less of their foreign exchange certificates.

After negotiating a 3 dollar cab ride into town, we were on our way. Along the way our driver stopped at a road shack to purchase 1 dollar of gas which was delivered via hose and funnel. When we arrived at our eventual guest house, the owner asked us, with all seriousness (as it would impact his business), how many people were on our plane. Then it struck us, this sense of quiet desperation of this place. After all Yangon has 3 million inhabitants, and in no other cities of this size the world over would a single plane impact anything.

The next day we sprung out of bed for our routine powerwalk. Yangon was already bustling by 6AM. As we proceeded we noticed barbed wire all over the place, sometimes in use stretched across to baricade or otherwise just littering the sidewalk. We walked by the Democracy garden, the very place where Aung San Suu Kyi riled public support campaigning for election in 1989 which she went on to eventually win and earn her a decade of house arrest (damn the military dictatorship) and the Nobel Peace Prize. There was no denying that we stuck out here like sore thumbs, some alien like tourists who were not only from another land, but were also performing exercise. Everywhere heads turned, jaws dropped and eyes peered. All this attention was met with a courteous smile and to our delight it was almost always reciprocated except for what was surely awe struck mind freeze. These people have so rarely seen foreigners, after all the entire country sees only 200,000 visitors per year which is peanuts compared to Thailand's 10,000,000 per year. Plus the genuine warm smiles were welcoming indeed, even though just by our presence we caused a sensation.

Over the day, as we explored on foot, many people would come up to us just to say hello, ask where we are from and then bid farewell. This was refreshing after Bangkok where only those who wanted something from us would even greet us. Yangon was a melting pot of eastern peoples. Sure Burmese were the predominant ones, but also standing out were Hindu Indians, Napalese and other Myanmar peoples which we would later learn to better identify. Under the British, Burma was eventually made into an Indian provice, something which was apparent in city. Even the food was strongly Indian influenced, with most restaurants serving chicken/pork/mutton curry and maybe other food too. Among our favourite was New Delhi restaurant where we ate some of the best Indian food we had, and paying some 3 dollars for a large feast.

Yangon's most celebrated sight is the Schwedagon Pagoda, a national treasure of a pagoda visible from much of the city. Hiring a tour guide proved well worth it as we got the inside scoop about Buddhist rituals and pagoda history. We even got to make water offerings to our birth animals. Mine was an elephant with tusks (born in AM, otherwise PM would be without tusks), and Debbie's was lion. This pagoda is special to the Myanmar people, many of whom have donated their personal jewelry for its decorative beauty.

Luck truly befell us that evening as we were looking for a restaurant in a park north of Yangon when a voice directed at us softly let out "Can I help you?". We looked over to see a robed monk, holding a copy of a London travel guide. Surely enough he was kind enough to show us the way, happy for this opportunity to practice his English with those that knew it better. We learned that his name was Acchariga, meaning 'surprise' in the Pali language, and that all monks receive a new name in Balinesse when they enter the monestary. Acchariga was in his mid twenties (we guessed), and has been in the monestary since the age of five. After much conversation he invited us for a trip to pagodas around Yangon the next day.

As promised, Acchariga and two fellow monks came by early the next day. Our mode of transport was a public bus with a paltry fare of 4 cents. As we reached places outside of the city the stares got more intense. Acchariga suggested that perhaps these people had never seen a pale skinned foreigner. Truly amazing. Our first destination was the Kyauk Khout pagoda. Next we went to Kyaik Hmaw Wun Ye Lay Celti Taw (got all that?) pagoda. This pagoda was built on an island in a river and is used to enshrine a sacred hair of the 4th Buddha. It was recently renovated under the direction of the government's Pagoda Restoration Commitee. Another attraction was getting attention here, the giant catfish for whom large balls of popcorn were available for feeding. The kids seemed amused.

Lunch conversation with our monk friends revealed some of the challenges a modern day monk faces, and how some of the old rules are impractical in this ever-changing world. It was a unique lesson about their world, and we loved learning such as this.