Yangon Part Two – Tourist Or Walking Oddity? – Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon Part Two - Tourist Or Walking Oddity?
Yangon, Myanmar

The next day Toe collected me at Motherland 20 minutes late (admirably punctual by Myanmar standards) and we headed out in search of cultural excitement. We started at a market/bazaar that was only a short walk from Motherland that Toe assured me tourists never visited and judging by the neck-breaking double-takes people were giving me the whole time, I believed him. I was particularly popular with the robust fish ladies who were skinning and shredding fish, while enjoying unladylike sized betel chews. Toe paused our tour and allowed me to work the room, flirt and take pictures. Again, my marital status was questioned and the answer was met with universal, undisguised horror. As we left, the women, suggested that when I was finished with my travels that I might like to return to Myanmar to find a wife. I told them with a wink that I was seriously considering it.

Amorous fish ladies
Amorous fish ladies
It was at this point that I finally asked Toe to explain why the majority of women had gold/yellow powder smeared on themselves. Usually just the cheeks were covered, but children in particular often had it on their foreheads, noses and even their arms. Toe led me to a place in the market where they were selling the lengths of sand wood that are ground down, creating said powder that is commonly applied to the faces of women and children and sometimes men if they are “the gay.” It is believed that the powder protects the wearer from sun exposure while being generally good for the well-being of one’s skin. Furthermore, wearing this conspicuous powder is akin to what western women try to achieve by applying makeup, a general beautification of the face, though it must be said that swiping on a little sand wood powder takes a fraction of the time of what western women put themselves through each day and Myanmar boyfriends and husbands are undoubtedly more sane as a result. And it really works. Once I grew accustomed to it, seeing this powder had a sweet, pleasing effect. Some women would go as far as to apply the powder in unique styles or designs, e.g. using a comb to make dozens of perfect, smooth parallel lines on the cheeks or a specially shaped sponge that they used rubber stamp style to make flawless circles or squares.

Next we boarded a series of hair-raising buses to get across town to Yangon’s contribution to the world of over-sized Reclining Buddhas. The public buses in Myanmar have to be personally experienced to be truly appreciated. A bus ride is a grand departure from the otherwise laidback way Myanmars conduct themselves. The driver careens around town with one foot on the gas and, if I had to guess, the other foot on the horn, with an announcer/passenger coordinator guy hanging out one of the “doors” (usually the actual door is detached), announcing their line number and direction to the people standing at the bus stops with an urgent scream and then hastily pulling people on the bus, while shoving others off. The bus often never comes to a complete stop. Toe explained that the reason behind this hysterical behavior was that Yangon had several independent, competing buses companies working the exact same routes and so quite simply the faster they went, the more customers they got and the more money they made. The result was that passengers were crushed, yelled at and manhandled for the pleasure of a break-neck trip across town. Toe and I were lucky in that we were able to squeeze into the actual bus itself rather than the less appealing option of hanging out one of the side or back doors or clinging to the roof or hood.

After two of these horrific journeys we arrived at the Reclining Buddha, A.K.A. Chauk Htat Gyee. Toe coached me that Buddhists walk around these things clockwise for reasons of spiritual harmony and at 216 feet long it ain’t a short walk. And you can safely rule out getting the whole thing into a single decent photo frame without a tripod and a special panoramic still camera. Yangon’s Reclining Buddha is a popular hangout. Apparently this is due to the cooler than average temperatures provided by the Buddha’s canopy. Locals were all over the place during our visit, despite being the middle of a work day. Most had brought along thin, bamboo mats to sit on, with some munching on picnic lunches, sleeping and a surprising number of couples quietly getting in some quality time and even scandalously holding hands!

Once again I was quickly surrounded by a small crowd of curious natives wanting to see what the foreigner was up to. Toe led me to a place to sit where I could be comfortably ogled and answer the numerous, odd questions that were being relayed to me through Toe. My ongoing comparisons to English football players was going strong in Myanmar, but here everyone thought that I resembled some guy named Michael Owen. I made a note to Google the guy when I got back to Thailand seeing as how my days of impersonating David Beckham were coming to a close.

After holding court at the Reclining Buddha for over an hour, we made our escape and after seeing me visibly cringe at the thought of another bus ride, Toe opted to hop in a taxi to get lunch at a traditional Myanmar restaurant which had the added advantage of being just a few blocks from our next objective, Shwedagon Paya. While in Myanmar I would eventually see more payas in 10 days than most people see in two lifetimes, including most Myanmars, but none of the subsequent payas could hold a candle to Shwedagon. First off, the place was immense. Aside from the towering main stupa, which was disappointingly half covered in bamboo scaffolding for cleaning, there are 82 other buildings in the complex, some being simple zayats with a single modest Buddha, while others were exceptional pathos that if they were standing on their own would cause a tourist to take pause and desperately grapple for the camera. The stupa itself and some of the surrounding buildings, statues and religious artifacts are over 1,000 years old according to archeologists, though Myanmars will testify that it is closer to 2,500 years old. With various royalty and Myanmar’s rich and famous donating their own weight in gold leaf to cover the stupa over the centuries, it was estimated in 1995 that there was 53 metric tons of gold covering the thing with only the security of a bunch of monks watching over it. Very telling of the Buddhist mindset, eh? A similarly rich and unprotected goldmine like that wouldn’t last seven seconds in any major city in the U.S.

I went native yet again at Shwedagon. Despite my best efforts I had not gotten enough sleep the night before and our decadent lunch had dropped me into a drowsy food hangover. Toe suggested we join the dozens of Myanmars napping in the countless zayats. At first I wasn’t too sure about this. I am regrettably picky about my sleeping arrangements and laying down on a filthy, hardwood floor in a public place in a mid-afternoon heat that could liquefy hair was pretty much as far as you can possibly get from my ideal napping conditions. Nevertheless, I was virtually dead on my feet and was willing to try anything for some relief. And by god if I didn’t fall asleep almost instantly. It wasn’t for long mind you, probably less then 30 minutes, but I was definitely out for the count. Toe was dying to take a picture of me, but my camera was in my day bag which I was using as a pillow.

Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya
Newly refreshed, we set out to take in the wonders of Shwedagon. The entry price to the paya is US$5, a fortune by Myanmar standards, but it was worth every penny. We walked around for hours, during which time I rarely shut off my camera. Every structure, every Buddha, every angle was stunning, unique and seemingly going to be the greatest picture ever. We ducked into a past and present photo display of the paya that included close ups of the staggering amount of gold, silver, jade and jewels hanging off the top of the main stupa (allegedly over 5,000 diamonds and 2,000 other rubies/emeralds). The women watching over the photos were very taken with me (something I was beginning to really get used to) and Toe once again, took this as a sign to sit and chat and let them fawn over me. They gave us each a handful of some kind of tea candy and ultimately offered to watch our shoes for us (one must remove their shoes when entering any place of worship and we had been hauling our shoes around in plastic bags as we intended on exiting the Paya directly opposite from where we entered which was nearly a kilometer away).

Next we visited the Single Bell, not the largest bell in Myanmar (that was waiting for me in Mandalay), but still big enough to cause trouble. During their occupation of Burma, the British decided that they were going to relieve the residents of the Single Bell and loaded it onto a barge on the Yangon River, headed for home. Minutes later they fumbled the possession and dropped the enormous bell in the river. After failing to extract the bell, the British generously decided to give the bell back to the Burmese people who promptly refloated it using a rudimentary bamboo system. Ouch.

During yet more wandering through the compound, a small parade and ceremony commenced for the children being inducted into the monastery. This was a big deal and Toe was thrilled that I was getting a chance to see it. Families offer their children to the monasteries at a shockingly young age to begin their Buddhist training. What these people think a child that is barely old enough to speak is going to absorb from Buddhist teachings, I don’t know, but then I’m just a judgmental tourist. Anyway, the novice ceremony kicks off with a woman leading the procession, throwing out candy to the children spectators. Next comes the inductees, kids that appear to be between the ages of four and eight, being carried through the procession by a parent. Bringing up the rear of the procession was my personal favorite part, the young, female, virgin escorts. The kids were dressed in ceremonial robes, orange for the boys and a weird peach-like color for the girls, and all were wearing funny little decorative hats. Everyone arranged themselves in front of the main stupa and the kids were put through some kind of oath while a team of photographers and videographers documented everything including, at one point, me as I stood off to the side taking photos.

After this Toe and I settled down at a good vantage point and waited for the sun to go down. Huge spot lights are trained on the main stupa after dark and this was reportedly the only time when one could hope to catch a glimpse of the jewels shimmering 321 feet above. Toe tried his very best to position me perfectly, even taking my head in his hands and fine tuning my angle, but I was never able to see anything more than a non-descript flicker or two, though the general sight of this gargantuan illuminated gold spire was enough of an overall kick for me.

Finally we left Shewdagon, taxied back into the city center and ate dinner at the same place I ate the previous evening. Toe insisted on giving me a lengthy Myanmar most-often-used phrases lesson, which turned out to be pure gold for me during the remainder of my stay. I wrote down and later memorized such phrases as “thank you,” “delicious!,” “it is very hot!” (referring to the weather), “hello, how are you?,” “I’m fine,” “what is your name,” “how old are you?,” “You are very beautiful,” “I am ### years old,” “how much?,” “too expensive!,” “Discount! I am Myanmar!” (this line killed every time) and “I already bought that” to be used on the postcard kids. I also memorized the numbers and the refreshingly easy large number counting conventions. Using this small arsenal of language drove my popularity through the stratosphere everywhere I went and I resolved to memorize similar phrases for every new country along the way. Toe also urged me to make some changes to my itinerary. I originally had intended to go Yangon-Bagan-Inle Lake-Mandalay-Yangon. His main concern was that I would be going to Bagan, a wonderland of pagodas and Buddhas, too early in the trip and it would cause my appreciation of subsequent temples to zero out. He also insisted that I go directly to Bagan from Mandalay, so as to have the opportunity to take the scenic ferry connecting the two cities. As I had not purchased a single bus/plane/train ticket up to that point, I was flexible and took his advice. After much deliberation, my new itinerary went Yangon-Inle Lake-Mandalay-Bagan-Yangon.

Toe and I parted ways after dinner. Though I asked him repeatedly, he would never volunteer his exact fee. He said that he just asked people to give him what they felt was appropriate. Well, it was my first full day in Myanmar and I had no fricking idea what would be appropriate. I ended up just giving him 12,000 kyat (a little over US$13), which he insisted that I put directly into his pocket and he wouldn’t look at it until he was home. Apparently this was pretty generous because when I saw him again a week later during my swing back through Yangon, he was ecstatic to see me and treated me like an old friend.

A man trying to attain reclining Buddha enlightenment
A man trying to attain reclining Buddha enlightenment
(SHAMELESS TOE ADVERT: If you’re heading to Yangon and would like to contact Toe for guiding services, you can reach him at: batin at mptmail dot net dot mm or alternately, if you wander around Sule Paya and the Independence Monument long enough, looking like an aimless tourist, he will probably find you (and so will a thousand less qualified poseurs). He’s endlessly knowledgeable, infallibly kind and a priceless resource on everything Myanmar. Please bear in mind that the going rate to send or receive an email in Myanmar is US$1 a shot, which is a fortune for the locals. If you’re going to contact him, please be as complete as possible, including all details such as dates that you will require his services, your accommodations arrangements, so he can find you, and anything special that you’d like to see all in the one email to save on his email expenses.)

I stopped at Soe-Win-Naing’s tea stand on the way home as promised. He had been busy thinking of stuff to show me all day and even though it was after 9:00 p.m. and I was exhausted, I let him lead me around the neighborhood for a while, admiring the monastery where he lived (though he was never a monk apprentice, so I didn’t understand the living arrangements) and the stupa where he went to worship. The stupa had the now familiar contemporary Buddha enhancement, a halo of colored lights radiating out from his head. These jazzed up Buddhas were all over Shwedagon and Toe told me that people refer to this type of display as “Disco Buddha.” When I made this crack to Soe-Win-Naing, he was not pleased and earnestly explained that these lights served to represent how Buddha’s powers literally exuded from his head, kind of like how Christians exhibited images of Jesus. I wanted to tell him that though I was far from a regular church-goer, I had never seen a “Disco Jesus” anywhere and that furthermore, in my humble opinion, the unnatural lights only served to cheapen the image of Buddha, making his image unnecessarily showy and that if a devout Buddhist were ferried through time from 500, 100, or even 50 years ago, he’d probably go into horrified conniptions at the sight of Disco Buddha. I managed to restrain myself from this lecture and instead yawned dramatically and, begging forgiveness, took my leave and headed for bed.

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