Friday, 16 August 2013

Burma - At last!

Rangoon (Yangon) Day 1 and 2 hours after arrival we have our first meal which is a real gamble as we ask for something Burmese but not too spicy we get a sort of leak and cheese and pork goulash with rice and mild chilli’s and parsley and garlic root side salad - Bloody lovely! This is washed down with a delicious taramind juice whilst sitting on grubby plastic chairs in a seedy looking café. The only foreigners in sight and certainly something for the locals to smile, wave or stare at. Everywhere there are exotic smells of curried cooking. But, as we are to find out, the palette of the Burmese is not spicy hot but spiced just enough to add flavour. Subsequent early meals are equally yummy with a selection of chicken, pork with rice and vegetables at a roadside vendor under a tarpaulin roof by a crossroads with the rain lashing down and Myanmar beer flowing freely and then dosa’s and chipattis with Myanmar tea (Chai style – lots of milk and sugar) in a tea house looking out at the busy stalls and shops across the street. We have great hopes for the food here and trust that all will be as delicious as the first three.

 Walked from our hotel and generally got a bit lost which was cool as we happily just mooched until we eventually found ourselves again. Our tour took us to a lake in the centre of the city with a lovely walk around the outside upon wooden boardwalks both along the banks and across the water like long bridges. At one point Rachel picked up some rubbish and put it in a bin and was thanked by a local for caring for country whilst her fellow citizens plainly didn’t. The walk took us through some lovely gardens which were all interspersed with numerous young lovers holding one another beneath privacy giving brolly’s. Set on the lake there is an enormous floating palace in the form of a Royal Barge – all tiered roofing, gold
paintwork ornate carvings and colourful hangings. Set against the back drop of a huge storm clouds and a distant pagoda the place looked incredible. As we walked we are greeted with smiles and waves all the time. We are still a rarity in this country and so enjoy the full force of the Burmese peoples open nature. It will not be long before tourism changes this but for now we are delighted by our reception.

I had my sandals fixed as we were out walking by a man and wife team who sat upon a flat cart by the side of the road. They poked the broken strap into a hole in the base and stitched it in place whilst I stood on one foot and made the local giggle – 13p! Stuff is cheap here. Food, drink, shoe repairs etc cost virtually nothing. The only really expensive thing is accommodation because it is only us foreigners who use it.

The day ended with the rain getting heavier and heavier and us getting progressively wetter and muddier. The roads have pot holes full of water that are splashed all over the pedestrians that have to walk in the road because the pavements are a shocking jumble of broken paving slabs, street vendors, pipes and gaping holes. It is a virtually impossible to walk with giving full attention to the ground and traffic. Failing to do this would result in serious injury. These streets are crowded and lively and full of smells and characters. It’s India without the madness and less shit. It is charming place half of which is falling to bits and half of which is being rebuilt. Old colonial shells of buildings stand next to smartly refurbished blocks. Mobile phone and electrical shops are everywhere even though most people don’t have sim cards or the funds to buy the electrical goods. Men wear Lungis but have highly gelled hair. It is a place that is finding its way and it is thrilling to be here.

Day two has been another day of wonder for Rachel and I. We were given directions by a man in the street who turned out to be a lay monk (about to commit to full monkeyness for 18 months). We then spend the next four hours with him being shown first the Sula Pagoda – A huge cirucular golden domed building housing alters to Buddha. Here he instructed us in Buddism, various rituals, beliefs and fallacies and showed us how to show our respects to the Buddha. We then hopped on a bus and went to his monastry where we were shown around the meditation and public areas, saw a huge 73 metre golden reclining Buddha which was amazing in its scale and detail, chewed some Bettal nut (apparently a mild narcotic which relaxes the user) and chatted to various monks the best of which was an 83 year old man whose name I forget but who found Rachel taking pictures and
immediately sat her down and made her tea. I found these two cosied up on short stalls in the murky darkness of the monastery – shes such a tart. With broken English and translation from our man Ko Sai we discovered he had once been to England and had been in the navy whilst a young man. He had been good at sports and for his age still seemed remarkably agile although thin and bony in his saffron robes and even agreed to a race down the hall in the monastery but cheated and started whilst I was getting in the starting position. Very funny and a joy to share some silly humour and see him laugh openly with this three remaining teeth on plain view. We ended our day with Ko Sai hearing about the monks (his included) incarceration around 2007 and the hardships that they faced with the government. He eventually showed us to our bus stop and we said our goodbyes and we hope that he follows
his dream of becoming a writer once he has been a monk. And so the day ended with rain once more. So brollys in hand we dashed from the bus to the Strand Hotel – made famous by Orwell and enjoyed a cocktail in the salubrious teak encased setting.

OMG! We think we might explode! So today we got up and walked to the railway station. On the way we pass strings hanging from high up windows of apartment blocks. Each string has a bull dog clip. Pull on the string and a bell rings in the
corresponding apartment. Attach item to bull dog clip. String pulled up and
appropriate payment then lowered down. Brilliant. On the way also pass men putting concrete pathways down in place of crumbling paving slab. For area of 4 x 10 metres first pour in loads of cement then have 5 men wander about with no shoes on in the knee deep cement to ensure well mixed and settled. Have two men flattening with a piece of wood, two men smoking a fag and 1 man to point at things. Another thing we notice is that on most walks there are more condom and underpants stalls than anything else. Finally. There are lots of desks outside shops with three or four phones on the them. These are for the public to use because half  the mobile phones people own don’t have sim cards because there are only limited numbers auctioned by the government. Finally we have not seen any police officials or spies following us.

 The railway station….

 We are here to go on a 50km train journey that runs out and around the surrounding villages of Yangon. It costs 1 dollar and we are told it will be interesting – understatement! It was bloody brilliant! So we deliberately forego to pleasure of upperclass to sit in the ordinary class carriage – two long bench seats either side of the carriage with two small cross carriage seats at either end. No doors, no windows and only 30 seconds stopping at each station. Passengers please mind the gap..when hurling yourselves aboard at 20mph. The train trundles through streets that gradually become more decrepid and dirty and shanty like until we hit countryside. Bamboo and miles of paddy fields with huts on stilts, banana groves, muddy villages and dirt roads, rickshaw drivers and dusty men and women with brolly’s. People become less polished but this does not stop the friendliness shining through. Waves and smiles and greetings are constant as the carriages empty and fill. Hawkers are constantly jumping aboard and selling their wares of bettal nuts, pineapples, sweet corn, sticky rice, nic knacks and hot tea. The locals sleep spread out on the benches and other passengers jostle themselves into positions around them while grubby street urchins jump on and off to evade the ticket inspector.

Suddenly we hit the main market village where the platform is lined with vendors selling vegetables of every description. The gabble of voices drowns out the sound of the train wheels and all hell breaks loose with bundles of vegetables thrown through the doors and windows,  huge baskets of aubergines and corn are
manhandled over sacks of onions and potatoes. People are chucking in bags and sacks and buckets of god knows what whilst the 30 second stop ticks away. As the mounds of food grows higher and higher around us people are having to climb over the top to get into the now moving train and final bunches of green stuff are handed through the window to us to allow someone to leap on and get a hand hold. It is madness and beautiful. With helping hands pulling and pushing and gradually everything is divided up into piles and pushed under seats, depositied on laps, stacked into piles and everyone can sort of calm down until its time to get off. Equally manic but in reverse with individual items being thrown from the train to litter the platform and get collected once the train has moved off leaving customers and produce behind. It’s a great journey because its real with people just living their lives and us being able to witness it. The best dollar of entertainment I think I have ever had.

The journey ended we leave the train and find somewhere to eat. A busy tea house with tea boys running around and shouting out the taken orders. Westeners are rare in this part of town so we are curiosities here and are studied from all sides as we slurp our noodles and  drink our Burmese tea in small cups.

Next part of the adventure is to jump on a bus and get to the Biggest Pagoda in Burma – The Shwa Dagon Pagoda. We are jammed in the bus with about a thousand other Burmese and then chucked around the cabin as the maniacal driver races through the streets trying to kill pedestrians. Its crazy but exciting and amazingly we get the right bus and get off at the right stop – later we expertly do the same in reverse too – we are very good travellers now. The pagoda is…astonishing. Its huge and golden and incredibly ornate. Beautiful towers and turrets and shrines are all around the base of this huge stupa like shape that towers over everything. It takes your breath away and  we are absolutely bewitched. The pagoda has the traditional North, East, South, West entry gates and 8 day deities around the outside as well as hundreds of other smaller shrines and bells and gongs and whistles etc to appease the Buddhists hunger for genuflection. Considering the size and splendour and importance of the site it is strange to find not only minimal foreigners here but also not many Burmese nationals. Possibly the size of the place makes it seem empty, but I don’t think so. Anyway it was cool and a must see for anyone fortunate enough to travel in this very unique country.

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