Myanmar

(February 27 — March 4, 2014)

Bagan

*Note: this was originally published via email on March 8, 2014*

“It’s Me-an-mar, not My-an-mar. This is very important to remember.”

“Alright, Me-an-mar.”

“And remember, do not say Burma. No one says Burma anymore. No one wants to say Burma anymore. This is Myanmar.”

“Sounds good. Me-an-mar.”

“Also, don’t tell anyone that you or your friends practice Islam.”

“None of us practice Islam.”

“Even better.”

This was from a conversation I had with a Myanmar English teacher who guided our group through the Shwedagon Pagoda, the central attraction in our port city of Yangon, the largest city and former capital of Myanmar.

His name was Paing Zay and we met him on our way to the golden stupa in the center of the pagoda that can be seen from miles away in any direction. He saw our group walking along the tile walkway guiding us from the entrance that was sticky from all the people’s bare feet that have touched it (no shoes or socks allowed in this holy Buddhist place) and he was eager to practice his English, so he rushed over to our group and started asking where we were from and if we needed any help explaining the importance of the pagoda. But before we could respond, he was already leading us towards the central stupa while stating important facts about Myanmar.

Paing made it his mission, along with showing us around the country’s most famous pagoda, to educate us on what Myanmar was really like for a typical Myanmar citizen like himself, though most Myanmar people aren’t as well spoken and our new friend. Paing shared with us his opinion of the government’s slow change from a military dictatorship to a democracy, of the people’s support of Aung San Suu Kyi, and of the many exciting new things that will come to the country now that it has reopened to tourists — he says that the country will hopefully get its first McDonalds within a year or two.

A pagoda is an Eastern Buddhist temple that can be as small as a refrigerator or as large as a Walmart, and there are as many pagodas in Myanmar as there are Starbucks in America. These temples can be as simple as a brick hut that only has room to fit one small statue of Buddha or as luxurious as a five-star hotel that houses armies of golden Buddhas. The Shwedagon is the most sacred of these pagodas and, according to legend, was built over 2,600 years ago, making it the oldest standing pagoda in the world.

It is surely the most beautiful pagoda I saw in Myanmar. In the center is a colossal stupa, a special kind of Buddhist shrine that can be found in many larger pagodas that looks like an upside down bell. What makes this stupa so special, and so luxurious, is that it is made entirely of pure gold. Other larger pagodas have some gold stored in their blocked off chambers, but Paing told us that this pagoda was made of almost all gold. It was a rich sight to behold, especially when contrasted with the run down slumps that immediately surrounded the pagoda.

All around the stupa are seven prayer stations, each one for a day in the week, and it is proper to pray at the station on the day that you were born. Each prayer station has a water fountain, a small statue of Buddha, a larger white statue that acts as Buddha’s protector, and an animal that represents that day. The ritual, as Paing Zay demonstrated for us, is to take a small dish from the fountain and pour water over Buddha, his protector, and the animal. I was born on a Monday, so I prayed at the Monday station and my animal was the tiger (I celebrated later that night by drinking lots of Tiger beer).

These prayer stations sit between several smaller stupas that each house golden statues of Buddha decorated in just about anything that you can turn gold into — golden pillars, golden floors, golden carpets, golden walls, golden boxes that accept donations for the Buddhists monks, etc. Behind all the larger Buddha statues were LCD lights that formed a rainbow halo that illuminated Buddha, but to me they made him appear like a Disney character. The pagoda’s choice to cartoon Buddha made me uncomfortable, but I wasn’t about to ask the Buddhist monk next to me taking pictures of the pagoda with his iPad why such a sacred place would use LCD colors to light up Buddha.

Though the pagoda was full of people, and a large portion of them were tourists, nobody spoke above a whisper. The loudest sound I heard was the ‘dong’ of the main pagoda bell that sounded every ten minutes, the rest was silence that sounded like meditation and prayer. It seemed that, though the LCD lights and the Monks with their iPads confused me, no one else seemed to find these modern touches on a sacred Buddhist site disrespectful.

Paing’s insistence to answer any questions we had and to educate us as much as he could on modern Myanmar probably came from his wish to refute any previous negative assumptions that we might have had of his country, since there is so little information available about Myanmar from outside the country. Or maybe he was just being a Good Samaritan and trying to make our travels easier. Either way, we appreciated Paing’s help.

Paing spoke excellent English and he was glad that we could understand him. He told us that it’s very hard for many Myanmar people to learn much English and speak it well since it’s not taught in many schools. But according to Paing, that trend is changing for the better, just like everything else in Myanmar.

Paing also praised President Obama and the United States, telling us that the Myanmar people love Americans and that it’s his dream to come to Chicago, because that’s where Obama is from. He guided us to the Friday prayer station where Obama prayed on November 19th, 2012, the day when he became the first U.S. President to visit the country. According to Paing, this is a day that every Myanmar person knows and that in every market you will find various “O-Burma” shirts commemorating the first six hours that a US President spent in Myanmar. He was even able to point out the exact tile where Obama laid his knees in prayer.

For the rest of our voyage, Paing’s words of caution kept ringing in my ears. Me-an-mar. Was Paing trying to protect the country’s reputation? Did he think we had only heard of the horrors of Myanmar and that we were aware of the current genocide against the Rohingya people in the north lad by Myanmar Buddhist monks? As an American abroad, I try my best in any sort of interaction with any locals to be as polite and as aware of my surroundings to debunk the “ugly American” persona that I’ve been so self-conscious about. Was Paing, for all his helpfulness and kindness, trying to deflate the “ugly Myanmar”? Was Burma the name of the old past that Paing was trying to get rid of, and was Me-an-mar a new chance of being welcomed by the world?

A pagoda made entirely of gold.

In our four days in Myanmar we encountered many people like Paing Zay — strangers who were eager to talk to Americans and share with us their insight into their country that nobody knew about. Taxi drivers would point out historic places along our ride and give a detailed history of that place, restaurant servers always asked where we were going to next and if we needed help getting there, and market owners, instead of shoving their goods in our faces, politely waited for us to come into their shops and negotiated prices that gave us a good deal rather than taking advantage of us, though I’m sure we still overpaid for everything we bought.

There was a sense that nearly every Myanmar citizen was happy and ready for tourists to come and spend money in their country, so they took advantage of any opportunity to show guidance and kindness. It seemed to us that, because the country was trying to move away from its very recent hectic past, this was Myanmar’s time to make a new first impression on the world.

Coming into Myanmar, I had absolutely no expectations. For the first time on my voyage my sister, a SAS alumna whose itinerary nearly mirrored my own, could not offer me any guidance since her voyage did not go to Myanmar. My professors couldn’t offer much more help either, and many of them were in disbelief that Semester At Sea was about to release 550 college students into a country that was still in civil and religious unrest.

The night before we sailed into the country, we were given travel advice based only on last year’s SAS voyage to Myanmar, which all boiled down to one simple piece of advice — keep your mouth shut and don’t talk about politics.

The only thing I could base any judgments on was from Wikitravel, and we discovered while traveling that even that information was outdated. We soon discovered that nobody we knew had a clue what to expect in Myanmar. We were truly on our own.

Because of the time it took to enter and leave the country, we only had four full days in Myanmar, two days less than every country we’ve been in so far save the one day we spent in Singapore. Our travel group wanted to travel to Bagan, an ancient city that, in its prime, was home to over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries and is a future contender for a wonder of the world. We also wanted to fit in a day at Inle Lake, a large freshwater lake known for its scenery and special kind of fishermen who balance themselves on one leg and wrap their other leg around an oar and row their boats. But we were careful not to book anything in advanced, because none of us had any idea how long the buses or trains would take, though we heard the rumors from our professors of nightmarish conditions on the buses and the trains that were often delayed by a day or two.

In Myanmar I traveled with four other people, three of them from all across California (Los Angeles, the OC, and the Bay area) and one from Colorado, so once again I bestowed my Midwestern insight for my lucky group of friends (Euchre anyone?). Throughout the week we picked up more SASers and befriended other travelers, but this was our core group.

Once the shuttle from the ship took us to downtown Yangon, we went to the bus station only to find that all buses for Bagan had already left and that a train would take two days without delays. So now we had an extra day in Yangon, and we had enough time left in the night to take a taxi to the Shwedagon Pagoda where we met our new friend Paing.

After our tour and retrieving our shoes and socks, we got some curry for dinner and found a hotel for the night and all went to bed early, because we all knew that we wouldn’t be getting any comfortable sleep in the next four days.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s home

Our bus to Bagan was scheduled to leave at seven at night, so we spent the day in various parts in Yangon, first at Aung San Suu Kyi’s home.

Aung San is a Nobel Peace Prize recipient who has led her party (The National League for Democracy, or the NLD) to transform Myanmar from a military dictatorship to a democracy, and she is the favorite for the presidency in 2015. She is universally loved by the Myanmar people and is considered the country’s own Nelson Mandela, so we all wanted to see her home where she was placed under house arrests as a political prisoner for fifteen years — we wanted to see Myanmar’s own Robben Island.

Aung San’s home was located off the edge of the city where office buildings are just being replaced by farm huts, but her home looked more like a miniature replica of Fort Knox. Our taxi dropped us off across the street of her home where other tour buses were parked and allowed visitors to take pictures from inside the bus, but we were determined to get a closer look. We couldn’t see the house behind the towering wall surrounded the block that was covered in barbed wires to make sure that no one could come in or out, and the only sort of entrance we could find was the heavy gate that was guarded by a policeman who told us with a smile to cross the street back to the taxi immediately. We were not about to go against the orders of a policeman with an AK-47 strapped onto his back, so we decided that being on the same block as Aung San’s house was good enough.

But we were happy to be in such a historic place, and I am sure that in twenty years this house will become an international tourists destination.

We then came back across the city to the markets of Yangon where we encountered Myanmar paintings, street foods that we weren’t supposed to eat, and trendy clothes that were both of Myanmar and American fashion (Bailey [my sister] — I bought you a longyi, which is a type of garment that everyone wears in Myanmar; it’s like a skirt that changes its shape and length depending on the type of knot you use. Don’t worry, it doesn’t look too dorky).

For dinner we went to Trader’s Hotel and Café, the second nicest hotel in Yangon behind The Strand Hotel and a popular destination for tourist to come and check their emails and escape the heat while also trying gourmet eastern cuisines from the incredible buffet. A nice hotel in a developing country might not be able to touch the nicest hotels in America, but Trader’s was very modern and looked like an architectural event when compared to the slumps of the city that surrounded the hotel. Many SASers were staying here, but we just came for the buffet. We were about to put ourselves through an 11-hour bus ride with no stops, so we figured that we would treat ourselves.

After another round at the markets we took the taxi to the bus station and hop on a crammed bus that would take us to Bagan.

Bagan at sunrise

Our bus got into the station at three in the morning and we jumped into the nearest taxi we could find, and we asked him to take us to the pagoda with the best view of the sunrise. The taxi driver responded with a sinister grin and told us that he knew exactly where to take us, but he would only take us there for 15,000 kyat (about $15 USD), which was three times the amount that any taxi in Yangon would cost for the same distance. It seemed that Bagan had already figured out the tourism industry. But we didn’t want to miss a sunrise in Bagan, so we agreed on the price and made it to the pagoda.

Our group of five was the first group there, so we hiked the very top of the pagoda and positioned ourselves in the dark in the direction of the approaching sunrise. For an hour we could only see the stars above us, then slowly the sky turned dark blue and we began to see silhouettes of hundreds of trees that covered the land as far as we could see. But as the dark blue turned light we realized they were not trees. They were all pagodas. Once the sun climbed above the horizon we saw every tall figure in the distance was a pagoda. Soon hot air balloons hovered next to the rising sun, and once it had fully risen we could see that everything we saw was either a pagoda or a road that led to another pagoda. Not a bad start to a day.

Our taxi driver had come back for us after sunrise and we asked him what he thought was the best way to see Bagan. Without hesitation, and with a less sinister grin, he told us to get in and he took us to an electric bike rental shop. Rent bikes for the day and explore the temples he told us. Excited with the thought of cruising around Bagan on bikes, we paid for our rentals and wasted no time getting on the main road that connected all of Bagan.

From then till sunset we traveled to every corner of Bagan on our bikes and saw as many pagodas as we could find. Some pagodas were right off the main road and were full of local Bagan citizens shamelessly selling postcards and copies of George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” to tourists, but we also came across many acres of temples that were deserted and we spent most of our time there.

It was at one of the bigger pagodas that a shop owner we befriended introduced us to thanaka, a yellowish-white paste that’s made from ground bark that cools the face and protects it from sunburn. We watched the shop owner prepare the thanaka by grinding the wood with water on a stone slab, and she decorated each of our faces with the paste. The thanaka was so wet that I thought I was going to sweat it off, but almost instantly the cream hardened and remained on my face for the rest of the day. We thought that we would feel lest touristy driving around Bagan with faces covered in thanaka, but as the 90 degree heat started to kick in we saw that nearly every other tourist was covered in thanaka and that only few of the locals outside the pagoda surroundings actually wore it. I guess that’s the price you pay for being a tourist.

Many hours of temple hunting passed and we were on the lookout for a pagoda to watch the sunset from when one of our bikes broke down. We were stranded on the ride of the main road with only thirty minutes left, and it seemed that a Bagan sunset was a too-good-to-be-true way to end our incredible day. Suddenly a trio of little boys, none of them older than ten, zoomed past us on bicycles and asked if we needed help. What could these kids do to help us? But we asked for their assistance anyways, and to our surprise they were able to fix the bike right away. They then asked where we were going and we told them to watch the sunset, as if it was already too late. They told us to follow them.

The boys led us to a bumpy clay road off the main road that appeared to lead us into the middle of Bagan, an area unmarked on the maps that our taxi driver with the sinister grin gave us. We were hesitant, but the boys directed us to follow, so we followed. As the sun dipped closer to the horizon and without passing a good sized pagoda we grew anxious that we would miss the sunset. We didn’t think that these boys were leading us into a trap, but a practical joke on a group of tourists who were gullible enough to give them a free ride was possible. The boys were singing all the Justin Beiber songs they knew to reassure us that they meant well, but we were still growing uneasy.

But as the sun’s bottom began touching the horizon the boys finally pointed us to a modest medium-sized pagoda. This was our sunset temple they told us. The boys led us inside to a stairwell that led us to the very top of the pagoda where we could sit and watch the sunset. In front of us we could see all of Bagan with a clear view of the red sun.

While the sun was setting the kids were asking us questions about America and they were entertaining us by singing and dancing to Michael Jackson songs. For all the trouble we went through, this particular sunset felt rewarding, on top of it being in one of the most beautiful places in the world that no one knows about.

Once the sun had set and we said our goodbyes to the kids we had thirty minutes to return our bikes and get to our bus that would take us to Inle Lake. Of course this was the best time for two of our bikes to run out of battery, one of them being my bike. And of course we were on the opposite side of Bagan that we needed to be on to catch our bus that was leaving in twenty minutes.

All I can say about the next twenty minutes was that all my leg endurance that I had built up from six years of cross-country and track had lead to this point. Because these were electric bikes it still had pedals, and we had to pedal as fast as we could from one end to the other. The rest of my group had driven ahead of me to let the bus know that two American college students, both still covered with thanaka, were on their way to the station peddling as fast as they could. There were no streetlights guiding the main road, so we had to keep my left turn signal on as my only source of light.

We made it on with only two minutes to spare, but the bus driver gave me bottled water and allowed me to soak all the sweat off of me and change before I stank up the bus for its nine-hour drive to Inle.

It was a miracle that we made it to the bus on time, and when the bus stopped we celebrated with a two-dollar bottle of Myanmar run. With one man-made wonder of Myanmar checked off, it was now time to explore a natural wonder.

Inle Lake

Though Bagan has the claim as the desired tourist destination, Inle Lake is where all the tourists actually go to. The sleepy lake town of Inle is packed with tourist shops and ATMS, a very recent addition to the country, and along the small dirt roads are massive tour buses that take up nearly the entire street taking tourists to massive motorized boats to ride on the second biggest lake in Myanmar.

We booked a boat guide for the entire day, but we made sure not to use one of the massive boats but a smaller boat that most Inle people use from transportation. The boat was just too big to call it a canoe, but that’s what this little bright lime green wooden floatation device was. With eight people squished together, every little movement nearly capsized the boat over, so our driver warned us to sit absolutely still for the entire ride.

The boat first took us through a long channel that was surrounded by all farmland, then slowly the water widens and soon you come into largest section of the lake. Inle Lake is tucked away in mountains that are full of pagodas and villages where all the fishermen live, so we were already reminiscing about Bagan. On the lake itself there are several buildings built above the water to serve food and other needs to the fishermen. With a mist that covered the horizon and mountains ahead of us, it seemed that the lake went on forever.

The fishermen we encountered on Inle Lake are a special breed of people. To move the boat and simultaneously fish, a fisherman will balance one leg on the back edge of the boat will wrapping his other leg on an oar. This frees up both hands for throwing their fishing baskets and taking in their fish. It is quite a sight, and some of the fishermen did poses for us as we took pictures of them. Like the Bagan pagoda people selling postcards, these fishermen had learned how to deal with tourist, though fortunately no one at Inle demanded money from us.

After crossing the main section we came across another section of the lake that was a mini city. The entire community was built above water and everyone traveled by boat between the homes and shops that made up this special neighborhood on Inle Lake. It felt like we were in the Venice of the East.

Within this water neighborhood we ventured into various shops and even passed a floating garden full of colorful roses. Our driver stated to take us to different shops, but we became sick of the shops so we ask our driver to take the long way back home. We were lucky to catch the beginnings of another sunset over the water as we drove back to the small channel that took us back to the town.

After a shower and dinner we jumped into our third night bus in a row that would take us back to Yangon.

*

We had one last full day before we had to come back to the ship, and the last item to cross off our group’s Myanmar bucket list was to take a three-hour train ride that took us around all of Yangon.

The train actually took us to the countryside where we got a look at a different, much calmer side of Yangon. We saw plenty of the beautiful countryside full of farms, but we also saw lots of landfills that shared the same space as many of the smaller villages just outside the city, and we saw many kids playing in the trash. For a country that is full of richness — the Shwedagon pagoda made entirely of gold, Bagan, Inle lake — it was a shame to see the poverty that reminded us that Myanmar was a developing country that had a ways to go.

Our group sat next to this large family that spoke good English and we began telling them about Semester At Sea and our travels in their country. When they asked us what each of our religions were, one of my friends said he was agnostic and they all laughed out loud at his face. That is not a religion they said. This was a reminder of the strength of religion in Myanmar, where 90% of the population is Buddhist and 70% actually practice the religion. We told ourselves that the kindness of the Myanmar people came from their religious views, but I remembered Paing and how I felt his kindness to come from trying to make the country look good instead of it being a true reflection of himself.

The rest of the day was spent exploring the city until the nine o’clock shuttle that would take us back to the ship. One highlight from this exploration time was a puppet show that was went to based on the recommendation of several SAS professors.

The taxi driver dropped us off at a three-story apartment complex and he instructed us to go up two flights of stairs and knock on the door on the right. We were hesitant and questioned how much we really wanted to see puppets, but we went in anyways since the taxi driver already drove off.

We found the room and inside was a small single room apartment that was converted into a theater with a elevated wooden stage and a large curtain that covered the kitchen that read, “Myanmar Puppet Show.” We decided to stay but we felt better once the director came out and explained the history of his group and how they used to own a giant concert hall that was destroyed in the storm. Now he directs shows out of his apartment because it is more intimate and he likes to perform shows to smaller groups of people.

The show was a lot of fun, and we were even brought to the front of the stage and were taught how to work a puppet. I think I’ve found my true calling.

After a quick dinner we jumped on the shuttle and said goodbye to Myanmar.

*

“I’m in love with this country, but I don’t want to come back,” said my friend who I sat next to on the shuttle taking us back to the ship.

“What do you mean?” I ask, wondering how anyone could have had a bad time in such a wonderful country.

“Because if I come back there will be a McDonalds and a GAP on every other street corner.”

For the rest of the shuttle ride, I was going back through my memories of Yangon and picturing the old rundown buildings being renovated into McDonalds. Was McDonald’s progress? Is that the price you have to pay for opening your country to the world? Myanmar needs the money, but will it costs the country its unique culture? Will longyis, a garment that I had never seen anywhere else in the world, become the hot new trend back in America? Will the temple that I watched the sunrise on in Bagan have to be regulated to make sure that not too many tourists climb the temple all at once?

I don’t have the answers, but I am very excited to see where Myanmar goes from here. The country will always have a special place in my heart for being a place full of wonder and exploration, and I am very lucky to have come at such a special time in the country’s history.