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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Yangon Diary



23-05-2008
Left home around 10:30 am with Sangtea who dropped me off at the airport. Our flight was surprisingly right on schedule and I was in security by 11:45 am. My friend David was also on the flight as were some others who were to go on the Deccan flight about half an hour after us. It was a pleasant surprise to meet up with two guys from HCU outside the airport- guys who’d been real nice while I was there at the Hyderabad University in January. While we were sitting in security, John Schlitt and the Stone Java band guys made their way in and I managed to steal a picture on my mobile with John just before joining the queue for the plane…never miss a chanceJ
The flight stopped for half an hour enroute to Kolkatta at Imphal- I hate these stops but there was no choice-I had a wrong day!! We took a room at the airport but only used it for a bath and to freshen up then took off to City Centre for a movie soon after we settled in the room. We saw ‘Chronicles of Narnia’, the second in the series and it was a great movie. After the show, I walked into the mall very quickly and got a pair of goggles cos I’d mistakenly picked up my old glasses instead of my gogs on the way out and had to have Sangtea take it back.
Bathed, had dinner at the airport hotel and then proceeded to the international terminal where we got through our immigration details and waited for the Thai Airways flight to Bangkok. It was 1am when we took off.


24-05-08
Bangkok airport was huge and lovely…everything was so well-maintained and technologically advanced. They had escalators that not only went up and down but straight as well. To top that, there were small open cars to take passengers from one end to the other, and one could hire them for a price if the way was too long for a walk. We didn’t have much time at transit so got through our formalities quickly and proceeded for departure. There was a young Asian male who I’d noticed at Kol airport and I was surprised to find him waiting for the Yangon flight as well. But I didn’t approach him and never did get the chance to talk to him cos after he boarded, I never saw him again. The flight to Yagon on Thai took an hour and it was a very pleasant flight. The Yangon airport was really impressive too- newly built and fine by any standards. The only thing missing was a large crowd and shops-duty free or otherwise..more of this on the return trip.

The hotel we were to stay in had sent a car for us and we were met by a very polite driver who barely spoke English. I was really impressed when I asked if he had water in the car. He didn’t, but stopped on the way to buy a bottle of mineral water for which he refused to take money. The courtesy with which he was dealing with a first time visitor has left a lasting impression on me.
Our hotel was one of the better medium-range ones in Yangon and had possibly 3-star standards though international standards are not applied here. The lobby was friendly and the room comfortable. Since our timings had been rather odd and because mine had been a long trip to take after having been ill for a bit, the rest of the day was spent lazing in the room. Managed to catch a short nap but thought the day was too precious to be wasted. So we went out in the evening after exchanging a 100 dollars for Burmese kyats. We went downtown to the Super One supermarket and I got myself a cap and a skirt. All the stuff they sold looked absolutely appealing and the prices were pretty reasonable- except for the readymade tops which I found were almost entirely imported from Thailand and cost quite a lot of Burmese kyats. The value of their currency is so low it is almost impossible to find anything below a 1000K. But with the Indian rupee worth around 25K, the exchange rate was friendly and that was a huge help.

Didn’t have that long a time at the store cos they closed rather early- it must’ve been around 6:30 when we walked out and were not allowed back in. this trend, I was told, was a recent one, a post-Nargis one, to be more specific. But the streets remained alive and there were people moving around on foot. On the sidewalks were small open shops selling Burmese food which were prepared there in the open and they put up small tables and chairs on the street. I had a chance to eat a hearty Burmese Mohenga for 2000K at one of these places and I treasure that experience more than any other meal I had at all the more exotic locations during my entire stay. Back at the hotel, I took a long and luxurious bath, relaxing in the warm tub perfumed with the beautiful scent of the hotel’s flowered soap. With the healthy appetite I had taken with me, I still showed up at the dining hall at night for a glass of wine and some light snack. The bar was alive by then and we decided to step in for the English covers by the professional band playing there- I think they were called ‘The Rainbow’. They did some very widely popular numbers and were quite good tho I suspect their lyrics were written in Burmese!! Opted for some coke as we sat at the counter making small talk with other guests and the locals. There were a few people on the dance floor and a specially adept guy who danced with different ladies to a few of the songs. I later learnt that he was the dance instructor who practiced at night with his students while lounging in the bar- he was pretty good! I stayed put on my barstool, drinking a local Cola just taking
in the people and the relaxed atmosphere- a deceptively calm and prosperous feel within the walls of luxury, three weeks after the devastating Nargis.



25-05-08
The Sunday plan was to take a trip to Irrewady delta, the worst hit area and visit some relief camps to actually assess the situation. But we learnt that the delta was a full 5-hour trip from Yangon and that entry to the relief camps were a highly restricted affair. The plan had to be shelved and we made our way to the Shwedagon Pagoda- the single most religious place in the country, just a few minutes’ walk from our hotel. Legend has it that two brothers brought eight hairs of the Buddha to be enshrined in this sacred location, inaugurating the Shwedagon Pagoda. We had to pay a 7000K ($6) entry fee while it was free for locals, at the Southern entrance from which an elevator took us up to the main platform. We got a guide to accompany us and though there were some stories I didn’t quite get because of the language barrier, it was a good thing to have him around- there were a lot of things we would not have understood had he not been there. The guide cost 5000K.
The Pagoda was busy and friendly and there were people milling all over the place. We were told there was an even larger crowd as it was a Sunday and a holiday. There were devotees praying at the foot of their favourite statue- there are reportedly more than 2000 Buddha idols. Then there were those who’d come as families or in a group with their lunches, or their small tea kettles and cups, sitting down for lazy chats. The Burmese have an 8-day week, the conventional Wednesday divided into two…and an animal for each of these days. At the Pagoda too, there were eight shrines at the foot of the stupa for each day of the week, each with its own Buddha, where people prayed at the shrine of the days of their births.
Two favorite objects of devotion were umbrellas and gold leaves. Small umbrellas were offered to the Buddha, to shade him from the harsh sun and gold leaves were rubbed on the idols. Many people also poured water on the statues in the open to cool them down and put them in a favourable mood before submitting their supplications. Major donations have been made to the Pagoda by devotees from all the world over time and many smaller Pagodas and shrines have come up within the platform, as have water containers, umbrellas and others. On the way back, we decided to walk down the stairs of the Eastern walkway with its shops selling curios and interesting souvenirs. I managed to get a few small souvenirs with a local friend bargaining for me. Although the shopkeepers are friendly and pretty honest, most cannot resist the chance of naming a slightly higher price than usual when they find out you’re a foreigner. This was specially true in my case, because most of them spoke openly in Burmese- I must look absolutely like one, judging by the number of times this happened- and on finding I cant understand them, gleefully proceed to price their ware in dollars.




After the Pagoda, I decided to make more of the day by going off to Bogyoke Aung San Market (Scott Market) downtown. The market houses small shops selling everything from gems to slippers and everything in between. The place was alive even on a Sunday and I loved going through all those precious stones on display even though I didn’t buy any, afraid I might be cheated. I mentally saved some pieces to be bought on another day out with a local but sadly, there never came another time. Bought some traditional wear and beautiful fabrics while I just stood fascinated at the display of lanes and lanes of slippers and exotic hand paintings.


After a sweaty time with the crowds at Scott, I moved back to the hotel to freshen up and make yet another trip out in the evening. This time I took the help of the friendly reception staff at the hotel and decided to go to the Karaweik Buffet Restaurant, located on Kandawgyi Lake. The actual restaurant is within a huge boat that rests on the lake and the lake compound also boasted of some traditional shops within beautiful surroundings, an open lawn with swings and park benches, with live music in the evenings. There were young Burmese couples enjoying the refreshing evening breeze and romantic local music, seemingly unconcerned with the rest of the world.

The restaurant itself was another experience altogether. At the entrance I was greeted by beautiful, traditionally attired hostesses who took me inside the boat through a long and interesting walkway. Inside was a large and beautiful dining place and the highlight of the fare here is the one hour cultural show from 7:30 to 8:30 pm where one gets a taste of Burma’s rich and varied folk culture complete with a puppet show. The food was good too, featuring a selection of Burmese and Thai cuisine.

The waiters spoke a spatter of English and since the place was rather empty that night (only three tables including mine), it was easy to have them all on attention and every wish was met with delight- says quite a lot about service and the traditional Burmese hospitality again.

It was after 9 when I finally left, one of the waiters was kind enough to see me off at the gate while someone else got me a cab from the streets. It was while I waited for the cab that I walked around the place and was delighted to find young Burmese couples and groups enjoying a quiet night outJ

26-05-08
Monday turned out to be a quiet day, since I shamefully overslept, missed breakfast and finally moved out of the hotel at lunchtime. Went downtown again and walked the streets of Bogyoke Aung San Road, taking in the shops- big and small, the hotels and the cinema halls- strangely comforting to find that two of them were showing Hindi movies, probably catering to the large Indian minority in Yangon. Ate lunch at an Indian Muslim place which wasn’t all that great or clean but had a friendly air about it. I also browsed through the many small bookshops that sold all kinds of books- many secondhand and really old English books and magazines. It was at one of these places that I found an old out-of-print book on the History of English Literature for which I paid the grand sum of 1500K (about Rs.55). There were some old foreign cars around too and on looking up one, a man immediately approached and asked if I wanted to use it- he said it was a ‘black taxi’ which I understood as a private vehicle that works as a cab without a permit. These were especially pimped to attract the attention of curious tourists.

In the afternoon, I visited a Mizo house where I was so well-received, more so because of my late aunt who had been there a long time ago and had been thick friends with them. We sat talking for ages and they were happy to help me out in whatever way they could on my interest in Buddhist folktales. We made arrangements to eat there the following morning as well. From the balcony of their apartment, we were able to see the railway station which presented a pretty sight although the immediate border on our side was the living quarters of railway employees which was in shambles, more so after the cyclone. I was also told that the streets had earlier been lined with huge trees that the cyclone had uprooted. Their car had also been crushed by a falling tree!


27-05-08
Determined not to miss another complimentary breakfast, I was up with enough time for a bath before moving down to eat. Made my way downtown after a heavy breakfast to meet with the leaders of the Yangon Zofa Society who were meeting to discuss ways of helping the Mizo population around Yangon who’d been hit by the cyclone. Their gesture of kindness and action in expressing solidarity at such a time was impressive. And so was their genuine goodwill and willingness to answer my curious and at times, difficult questions. We later watched a video of the devastation the cyclone had wrecked around the Irrawady delta. There were times when I had to close my eyes because I just couldn’t bear to watch the sorry sight of dead bodies lying around- some in the waters and others on land.
It rained heavily for much of the afternoon and we had to sit indoors even though I had wanted desperately to go on a train ride around Yangon. But fortunately, there was Lalnunsanga from T-Melody around and he was kind enough to sing a few songs for us- that made up for some light entertainment on a rainy dayJ
After the rains passed, we were off to Scott market again and spent a much longer time there than I had anticipated because there was so much to see. We actually spent ages at a small curio place where I picked and tossed necklaces and bangles finally picking a few and having matching jewellery made for them to take home with me. I also got a traditional (unstitched) Burmese wear as a gift- something I will always treasure. The evening was quietly spent at the hotel, except for an interesting conversation at the bar and the gift of a ‘Kon’, the Burmese zarda paanJ

28-05-08
The following morning, I missed breakfast again, not because I overslept but because I got up ultra-early!! I was up at 5 to get ready for my day trip before leaving Yangon in the evening. I accompanied one group to sites on the outskirts of Yangon to give some relief money to cyclone-affected families and it was here that I got a taste of how a poor Burmese family lived.
The houses I was taken to see were small thatched structures that stood on flimsy bamboo poles elevated from the ground. There were families as large as eight living in such homes that would have measured an average of five or six feet by eight feet. On my way home, I started reading ‘Daughter of the East’, the autobiography of Benazir Bhutto, and on reading how some political prisoners had been kept in four feet by five feet cells, the thought that entered my head was that the houses I saw in the outskirts of Rangoon were not much better than the worst punishments meted out to political prisoners elsewhere!

Most families had somehow re-done the worst of the damage from the cyclone of three weeks earlier. Some even had what seemed to be signboards or posters, probably blown off by the cyclone, on their walls, as a ready substitute for the thatched walls the others usually had. The surprising thing though, was that most of them seemed to be cheerful inspite of their woes- the children running around in carefree abandon while the adults (who I’m sure had a lot on their minds) only seemed concerned about going forward and getting on with what little they had without lingering too much on what they had lost. Their loss to us may have been little in material terms, but to think much of what they had accumulated through their hard earned labour was gone forever was something which occupied my thoughts for a long time after.


The army quarters we visited did not fare much better and I was shocked to find one family living with their sow right inside a very small space of living quarters allotted to them. There I was told that the little money we’d brought with us would be used to buy rice because the one they had been rationed was not edible and that they had already incurred quite a lot of debt with the shopkeepers who sold such essentials as rice. This was rather surprising because I’d seen lots of pictures in different media where the heads of the military government had visited affected families, distributing aid. One of the accounts I heard told a very different story. A man recounted how he and many others had stood in a queue for a long time because they’d been told that rice and cooking oil were to be distributed. After standing so for almost the entire morning, some high official in uniform came by and pictures were taken of him with the supplies and the long queue waiting to be given those supplies. After those pictures, the official took off and all the supplies that had been on display, purportedly for distribution were summarily stored again and there was nothing to be had for the time spent in queue. If this was an account of the norm, I just could not begin to imagine the fate of those whose very existence depended on those timely supplies!
The trip taught me a lot about humanity and universal brotherhood. The sentiments that were aroused in the heart of a stranger for these suffering people, the physical pain that came out of watching dead bodies floating on the waters- with outstretched arms as if crying for help- were things I had not imagined could be my own experience. It brought me closer to understanding the hearts of missionaries, of aid agencies who would bet their lives on bring relief to those in need.

More than anything else, I was touched by the honesty, sincerity, friendliness and hospitality of the people as a whole. Like I said, I must really look like one of them because everyone cared to speak only in Burmese with me, some pressing on even after I’d repeatedly try to communicate in English. The people I found were those who did not take what was not theirs. On the long road trip to the outskirts, I was told that I could leave my things unattended in an unlocked car and no one would touch them. I did and they didn’t! this was so refreshing after having lived all my life making sure my things were always safely locked up or attended to avoid their loss.


One rather funny incident at the airport was our attempt to carry beer cans which we learnt later were not duty free. The Yangon airport was beautiful but almost completely empty except for the bare essentials. When I saw a signboard saying ‘Shops/Café’, I was quick to ask whether there actually was a café and I was told to go straight. Once there, I realized their idea of a café was not exactly like mine. There were two young girls and a young man behind a small table with a few cigarettes, bottled water and two chicken rolls. Behind them was a small frig filled with soda and beer cans. They also had a coffee machine between the two with no place to sit- either for them or the customers. This was located a few steps from the security and departure enclosures so I assumed they would all be duty free. Just to make sure, I asked if they were but the wall of Babel came up against us once again. Confident in my assumption, I got some cigarettes and a beer can after a cup of coffee and one of their chicken rolls. Walking the seven or eight steps to the enclosure, I was promptly asked to fish out the beer and finish it off before I moved down to the departure lounge. When I pointed out that the sign they displayed outside actually allowed for liquids in a separate plastic bag, they answered ‘Yes, but you cannot’ and that was that!! Their solution- which I enjoyed so much I was smiling and laughing the whole time through, was: ‘You have one hour, finish it off” and though they were actually thinking of sending us back near the ‘café’ to finish the beer, I asked if we might sit in their enclosure to do so. Being the genuinely good-natured people they were, they allowed the request and we all shared a hearty laughJ

There are so many other small gestures and sights that would fill a lot more pages had I the power to express them in a way that would justify the way they have enriched my experience. But lest I kill the joy of the experience, let me just say my Yangon diary cannot come close to the depth of emotions the trip worked on me and I am now home with every intention of going back should there ever be an opportunity…and I regret having to refrain from mentioning all the lovely people I met, for fear that the appearance of their identities on a public forum like the Net might not be welcome…but it is because of them that the memories of the Yangon week are so special.