Land of Thousand Pagodas

Part 1: Yangon

I looked out the window of the plane at the plain under the ragged clouds and wondered where we were even going to land. During the descent towards the airport, it appeared that the ground was riddled with water capillaries. Wherever there was even a bit of a riverbed, a lower part of the field, it was flooded with muddy brown water that spilled out in all directions. The meanders said that there was a broad plain below.

I knew that I was coming to the country in the monsoon season, but I still did not expect such a flood. So far, I have experienced the rainy season as a heavy downpour around five in the afternoon, of which two hours later it was only a bad memory in the form of a puddle on the sidewalk.

A former colony that supplied the British Empire with rice, it is now one of the poorest in Southeast Asia, sharing its infamous position with Cambodia. The Bamars, who brought Theravada Buddhism and Burmese language to the country in the 9th century, now the official language of the country, are the largest ethnic group with 65% of the population. The frequent friction between the peoples living there led to internal conflicts, and defenders and opponents of the communist ideology added their own. Clashes between 135 ethnic groups, which have lasted more than 60 years, are considered the longest civil war in known history. Before that, the British needed three wars to subdue the country and exploit it, as only the British knew how, to enrich the aristocrats and the Empire. During the last world war, the Japanese moved there from occupied China towards the British colonial territories on the Indian subcontinent. Clashes between them and the British also took place on Burmese soil. Burma, as the British called it, finally became independent in 1948, but this did not bring it prosperity. The constant internal strife was ended by a military coup in 1962, which, except for a few short-term intervals when it signaled concessions to freedoms, never left the reins of power.

The country has oil and natural gas, fisheries, forestry, and agriculture also participate in exports. They also have jade and precious stones, which are strictly controlled by the military junta. Only individuals who are close to the top of the military get benefits. Annual gross domestic product is around $1,500 per capita, but that’s an average, the vast majority of people get through the year with much less. With an area of 350,000 square km, the Golden Triangle, the border region between Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and China, is the second largest producer of opium in Asia.

Before visiting Burma, actually Myanmar, as the country was now called, Marijan and I had already visited Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. In three different trips, not all at once. Whenever I’ve been to Southeast Asia, I’ve been more bothered by the humidity than the heat. Sweat rolled off me like piglet’s over an ember. The only good thing about it was that I also shed weight during the month-long trip, and the purified skin pores did not allow that characteristic “smell” of sweat to show up for quite some time after returning home, even if exposed to a lot of effort. The rest – prices, food, tourist infrastructure – was acceptable.

After arriving in Bangkok, we filled out visa forms at the Myanmar embassy and bought plane tickets to Yangon. After 4 days in Bangkok, we flew to the capital of Burma, 600 kilometers away, on a two-hour flight. You have to go by plane, there are no land border crossings for tourists.

The airport building in Yangon is nothing impressive, hence the black hole in my memory. Apparently there were some autocratic-socialist pamphlets, all in the same green color, bilingual of course, as befits an “international” airport. Above the mostly poor English translations were lines in native, Myanmarese characters. Marijan imaginatively characterized their writing as “knots”.

But I detected the location of the infamous airport currency exchange. Shortly before our arrival, they abolished the rule that every foreigner had to exchange 350 US dollars right at the airport. The exchange rate was bad, I think one’s got almost half less than in the city. The country needed foreign currency and the mandatory exchange at a miserable exchange rate was a tourist welcome. The clerk at the currency exchange got bored as we passed by.

About the camera

Sometimes I wonder if a person would remember more events on a trip if he didn’t have a camera, or if the memory is better over time precisely because of the pictures taken. Maybe the camera is just a trick that the memory part of the brain is more “off”, saying that I will remember everything when I look at the photos. At the time of writing this article, it will be 18 years since the trip. Memories got lost and faded. I still remember some places and events well, but not all, yet I will remember some details when I look at the photos.

I didn’t have my camera on my first trip to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Not just any of my own, none of them. After my return, I was criticized from my colleagues that one does not visit such exotic places so recklessly. My old Smena 6 didn’t work anymore, Zenit 8 disappeared on a trip to Turkey, I still don’t understand whose fault it was. The following year, I borrowed a Sony compact from a colleague for Vietnam. I bought my camera a year later during a stopover in Singapore on my way to Indonesia, a year before traveling to Myanmar.

I was able to afford a compact Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z3. I was satisfied with the stronger optical range it offered, and the photos were quite solid in good light. In my holy anger at spoiling something like a photo that will later remind you of good times, I deliberately eliminated the display of the date and time on the recording. Satisfied with this success in managing the settings on my first camera, I didn’t even think that it would still be a good idea to set both in the “background” to help me decipher the trajectory now. At the time, I didn’t know there was an EXIF that stores the data of each shot. The consequences are here, now I don’t remember exactly when I was in Myanmar, and I only recognize the change of date by some evening photo. Well, even by different locations. Anyway, it’s not that bad again, I wouldn’t present to you a three-week trip around the country as a longer day trip, I’ll just avoid expressions like “the next day”, “in the morning”, “afternoon” and the like. But if I do use them, it’s purely for narrative purposes.

And that wasn’t the only problem. I only had one memory card, which had to be copied to CD from time to time. I had the CDs with me, I didn’t trust the shops in Bangkok, because on “Asian” ones bits of the coatings of that shiny yellowish emulsion could quickly peel off and make the CD unreadable. Since the camera used AA batteries, rechargeable or not, with the frequent blackouts and poor electricity supply in Myanmar, they soon went to… well, there. The batteries available from their to sun and humidity exposed shops, basically more tobacconists, were half the weight of “our” batteries, and they couldn’t even switch the camera on. I don’t know for what purposes the locals used them, maybe some radio played them anyway. I had to be very careful about how many times I would use the camera. In a land where people slow down when they see that you want to take their picture, and top it off with a genuine smile, I was a bit technologically handicapped. Well, enough about that. At that time, I didn’t even know how to take a good photo, although I have to admit that I have some talent for it. I was proud of some successful “Burmese” recordings for many years.

Yangon (Rangoon)

With 5 million inhabitants, it is the largest city in Myanmar. In the fall of 2005, the year I visited, they transferred the title of capital to Neypyidaw, a megalomaniac, bizarre, empty and soulless city further north.

We found a hotel that had 3 floors in the 11-storey building. From the ninth up, the rest were apartments. To get basic information, we asked the people at the reception and were glad that they spoke English. I took some shots of the surroundings from the balcony, then we headed out into the city. On foot, as we were almost in the center.

We got out of the elevator only as far as the entrance to the high-rise building. It was not possible to continue without an umbrella. There was a relentless downpour on the streets and the water couldn’t drain fast enough to keep from flooding the streets. While chatting with the hotel staff present, it was seen that people were not too bothered by all the wetness that surrounded them from all sides. The rickshaws were pushed forward by drenched drivers, on a street that was not that busy, a car also slowly passed by, almost up to its threshold in water. Some brought a ball and played whatever it is – water football. A whole team of people was pushing some kind of cart in the heaviest downpour, probably somewhere drier. When I asked the hotel manager, a serious older gentleman with glasses, if it was like this every day, he said no, but only for half a year. I think he was messing with me a bit.

It finally stopped raining and we went. Walking around the streets, gathering first impressions. And, of course, a plain, foldable umbrella. I never took it with me on a trip. If necessary, I bought it and then gave it to my mother at home, providing I hadn’t forgotten it on a bus before. In accordance with Murphy’s Law orbiting around me, I reasoned that the rain would stop as soon as the umbrella was paid for. But it was not like that, even Murphy is not pardoned by the monsoon. We treated ourselves to dinner and went back to the hotel after dark. It poured down so much along the way that we couldn’t even talk because of the rustling, the pounding of heavy and thick drops of water on the leaves of the trees, the asphalt and the water courses in the middle of the roads.

Marijan did not drink anything alcoholic, preferring to enjoy sweet 7up, Sprite, Pepsi and Coca-Cola. To my taste, I preferred to pour some of their beer down my throat. Two corners before reaching the hotel, we stopped at an empty bar on the street with modest plastic tables and stools, probably made to hold only locals without any fatty additions to their bodies. Even the parasol, a sunshade that was supposed to protect visitors not only from the sun, but also from the rain, performed the latter function more poorly. It was leaking in quite a few places. We carefully sat down and looked for a position where we received the least amount of rain through the canopy or spray from the side. Even yoga doesn’t have such poses, we looked like two spiders. It was pouring so much that it threatened to tear the sunshade to the end. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I realized that it could, that the scale of noise a monsoon downpour can make is limitless upwards. The couple at the next table didn’t mind. They were probably in love or had a better sunshade.     

The next day was mostly sunny. As already mentioned in the title, Myanmar is the land of pagodas, and we decided to visit one of the biggest attractions in Southeast Asia – the Shwedagon Pagoda. Before that, in a foggy morning, we walked to the nearby Sule Pagoda, where the Tourist Info Center was located. The Sule pagoda is very beautiful, tall, shining golden yellow in the middle of the roundabout. Armed with some new information, a tourist brochure and the location of the bus station that we will need to continue our journey, we turned right towards the north of the city. The path goes slightly upwards, and the pagoda is on a hill above the town. Covered staircases lead to it on all four sides.

We added another 500 meters to the less than 4 km way from the Sula Pagoda, because there was a barracks next to the road that led straight to the attraction, and the guard showed us that we had to go around. Suspicious foreigners are not allowed to pass the entrances to military facilities.

Shwedagon means Pagoda of the Golden People. The 112 meter high Buddhist stupa is an imposing building. Even the wide covered stairs that lead to the top of the hill are architectural works of art. It is said to be thousands of years old, although the first written mention is from the 14th century. The base is made of bricks, and the entire exterior of the pagoda is surrounded by gold plates. Many of them are donations from all over, especially the Buddhist world. On the platform next to the pagoda is a complex of many smaller elaborately designed shrines and altars with gilded roofs and a Buddha statue in the middle of the interior. Before entering Buddhist temples, you have to take off your shoes, but they didn’t have any requirements about shorts. We had to put the sticker that we got when paying the entrance fee in a visible place on our clothes. Let the pictures do the talking.

Yes, we boys never really grow up when it comes to guns, planes and similar inventions of destruction. On our way back, we stopped by the empty military museum to see what their cowboys and gendarmes used to shoot at each other. It was full of various pamphlets about the army and socialism, photographs of generals and military leaders in uniform, many weapons and a few planes. There were few English translations. Marijan, an enthusiast of everything that flies (and is the work of human hands), went to see the planes, and I photographed the employee of the museum, who chose the old bullet-proof limousine for rest. I also took a restful 15-minute nap at the ticket seller on a very stable chair with a semi-circular backrest. Getting up at 2am european time day after day sometimes felt a bit much.

Already after dark, we were returning to the hotel along the same route, when we realized that the road was closed with anti-personnel barriers with barbed wire and some soldiers. There’s probably a government office down the road. We should be walking around again, so damn tired from walking all day. We didn’t have a tank, but we went straight through, past the obstacles, and waved at the soldiers who were sending us back, completely ignoring their instructions. They didn’t shoot at us. I hope their superiors didn’t pull their ears the next day because of the incident.

We spent the rest of our days in Yangon mainly walking around the city. We found that there is a market in almost every side street. They sold many things, including used tools such as wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers and the like. All rusty, but still usable. Fresh, but not like in our country, really fresh fruits and vegetables were offered in many places, with no stands, just a few crates on the ground, a nylon mat or woven round trays were enough. We were checking out if there was any fruit that we had not seen before in SE Asia.

We also enjoyed vegetables in their cuisine. The plates of soup made from rice noodles or spaghetti, pieces of meat and vegetables were delicious. The food was not hot like in Thailand and Malaysia. If you wanted to clear your sinuses, you should have said so. Many restaurants had menus in English. For a late afternoon lunch (I think there is a rarely used term in slovene for this sort of meal, linner/lupper in English) I ordered a duck to a young waiter. When he wrapped it up by repeating what he had ordered, he said “das.” We corrected him so that it is not “das” but “dack”. He said “Yes, no problem, das” with a slightly longer ss like the German word dass and pointed to a chosen line on the menu with an English translation that said “duck”. His persuasive smile raised the hope that we would still get something that we Europeans are used to, and not some fried salamander. Later in the trip I realized that the Latin letter combination c+k is pronounced as s. This observation no longer surprised me, since k+y is also pronounced as ch.

Kyat is their national currency, so pronounced “chat”. We didn’t see any money changers, but we just found a seller in a small shop. The exchange rate was good, so we decided to exchange 300 dollars each. No commission, everything was great, he appeared honest and reliable, but there was one problem. He didn’t have that much money, $600 is a fortune. He went somewhere across an empty gravel area and disappeared for a while. When he came back with a white plastic bag in hand, it looked like he had gone to the store to get a snack. There were seven packets in it, each with 100 notes of 1000 chats. Then we got to count it all together. They were only conditionally dry, the moisture also ate into them. Some bills were so torn in several places that I would sooner dare to lift a thin slice of mortadella than such a bill. If it was torn in only one place, usually in the middle, it was already acceptable, he generously exchanged the most damaged for better ones. Counting was time-consuming, because the 1000-chat banknotes are quite large, to the touch as if they were pulled from the dirtiest and dustiest drawer, and besides, there was a perceptible stench of mold spreading around them. We each left with our fizzing plastic bag. “Chats” remained in it, the bags were given the function of a slightly larger wallet or a slightly smaller safe.

We also visited the zoo. I’m not exactly a supporter of such institutions, because I feel sorry for the animals that wander around a much larger territory in their natural environment. Still, I took some comfort in the fact that at least some of them were pretty well taken care of, judging by their exuberance. The otters really enjoyed that wetness, mom hippo and her little hippo as well. I don’t think they had polar bears.

In the first days, we devoted most of our communication to the younger generation. The children, who were selling sets of postcards and some souvenirs, quickly approached us. But they didn’t bother during the meal like they do elsewhere in SE Asia. They approached earlier or later, but if food arrived on the table during their visit, they left and waited outside. Restaurants also do not like their guests to be disturbed during their meal, so the owners and waiters probably set criteria for when, how and what. Marijan took a photo with the little monk.

From Yangon we went to Kyaiktiyo via Bago.