Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Day 46: Walking In Yangon


Poor old Burma - aka Myanmar - doesn't have the best of international reputations these days. Although not included on the Axis of Evil list because it doesn't pretend to play with nuclear bombs, it's still regarded as one of the world's "bad boys". Not unjustly either - the military government does not allow free speech, multiple political prisoners languish in prison, genuine democracy is an impossible dream and sanctions have been imposed by the EU, America, and others. In fact, even writing this is probably an offense and posting it in a public internet cafe is a folly. But a slap on the wrist, a scare, and a quick deportation would be my only punishment; were I to be Burmese, my fate would be a lot more grim - and a lot less internationally recognised.

These are the kind of things you are aware of as you enter Burma, with thoughts of a rogue nation, a police state, and an oppressive military regime flashing through your mind as the plane lands in the international airport of the capital, Yangon - once Rangoon - with a grilling by passport control and customs awaiting. But quickly I've found these images dispelled. Passport control was manned by pretty ladies who asked me no questions whatsoever, and Burness and I both breezed through customs with a smile and a shimmy. The airport was thoroughly clean and modern, and built a matter of years ago by a regime wanting to encourage tourism. And at the exit was a smiling man with Burness's name on a card, who crammed us into a minibus with about ten other foreigners and whisked us to our hotel.

So what I'm saying is that Burma - or Yangon at least - is easy for foreigners. Tourism is being encouraged, and we've found ourselves sharing tourist sights with tour busloads of ageing Italians, or Chinese, or whatever, as they hang about in clumps, tick boxes and move onto the next sight before lunch. Foreigners are officially welcome, it seems, as the government recognises another form of easy revenue. Just as long as we stick to the nice places and don't stray too far into the insurgent north, the opium fields, or the areas hit hard by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which left an estimated 200,000 dead.

Given that I'm here, it's perhaps a moot point to argue the rights and wrongs of visiting such a country, where my money invariably will be going to the government in some manner, whether by visa costs or entrance fees. But it's not a communist country and most of my money is going to our hotel, to nearby shops and restaurants, taxis, or even to the camp hairdresser who chopped off all my blonde locks the other day. And the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi herself has apparently, after years of being against tourism in Burma, said that tourism might actually help Burma, providing it is run through private operations rather than through the government.

But let's not get ourselves bogged down in politics and ethics, let's instead concentrate on the important stuff, such as "stuff I've been doing", which I can break down quite easily into: walking, eating, drinking, and public breakdancing.

Walking

Yangon is a city of around five million people but feels much less. No doubt this is because it is vast and sprawling. But although the roads are fairly busy, compared to the chaos of cities like Jakarta, or the sheer traffic fury of Singapore of Kuala Lumpur, Yangon doesn't feel like a deranged beast high on petrol fumes. One reason for this is because the government have banned motorbikes, thereby eliminating from the pedestrian's perspective a considerable menace (and no doubt making life less convenient for the local populace). Bicycles and car horns are also banned. Together with a general poverty, this means that traffic isn't on steroids here, although there are still many busy roads.

There is public transport but I'll be damned if I can make any sense of how to take a bus here (the system involves a guy hanging off the side, yelling loudly), so the cheapest and easiest method to get around is by walking. On the map, it looks easy; in reality, the distances always seem to be somewhat greater than anticipated, thus every day we've spent hours walking from place to place. It's not so bad in the morning, but by the time noon is approaching, the heat in the direct sunlight is quite searing, and Burness and I have both turned into post-sweat dessicated husks each day so far.

Nonetheless, walking has been a good means of seeing the city. Not just the sights, but the general hubbub of life by the side of the road, which is where much of the city seems to exist, selling stuff, eating stuff, shouting stuff or just sitting around looking at stuff. Dogs wander, monks receive alms, men chew red berries and red spit is splashed across the pavements. Despite the aforementioned tour groups, anywhere that isn't on the visiting schedule is very tourist free: Burma is not on the south-east Asia backpacker loop, and still does not attract a very high number of tourists



Our walks have mostly been to the huge and golden Shwedagon Pagoda, the ninth Wonder on my list, and the fifth I have visited to date. An entry will be upcoming on that, but it is far from the only big pagoda in the city. Just as European cities will be packed with churches and cathedrals, Yangon is packed with giant gold pagodas, which in the local style are large bulbous dome-like objects which often have a precious Buddhist relic enshrined within. They are packed full of Buddha statues, small temple halls, and lots of very ornate decoration. "Bling" is a word I'm going to use a lot in Burma, I feel, as the bright gold and vivid colours reflect, to the Western eye, what would happen if America's hip-hop stars founded a popular religion. The subtly of classical Greece and Rome that has so affected the European sense of style is nowhere in sight in the visual sensation that are Yangon's pagodas.

My favourite of the five I've visited has been the Botataung Pagoda, just ten or so minutes walk from our hotel (the Ocean Pearl Inn: good breakfast, comfortable twin rooms, air-con, odd smell of piss in the corridors). From outside, the pagoda itself looks like all the others - big and gold - but it also has a great interior. Most of the other pagodas I've visited don't have an "indoors", but this one had a single entrance where a hair of Buddha was enshrined. That was all very nice - the hair was a little in the distance and I couldn't really make it out - but there were corridors to the left and right, that walking through appeared to go in a straight line, with museum-like displays of Buddhas and miniature pagodas along the way, and it was only after a couple of minutes that I realised I had walked in a circle. Whether it was intended or not, the effect was like an illusion.
 
We were lucky enough to have visited Botataung Pagoda at sunset, which is perhaps the best time to see the dimming light against the gold before the lighting comes on. There was a bustle of people, but the area around the pagoda was sizeable and the effect peaceful, and Burness and I sat on the ground for a while, just relaxing.


Another impressive pagoda was called Sule Pagoda, perhaps twenty-plus minutes walk from our hotel, and sitting pretty on a roundabout in the middle of downtown. It was in a great location, as the roads around here are in a grid pattern, so during various times over the last few days, Sule Pagoda has come into view from a distance, looking big and gold and impressive in the distance. Up close, well, it didn't quite do it for me. The cynic might say that when you've seen one large gold pagoda, you've seen them all, and while I wouldn't agree, I would say that after seeing Shwedagon and Botataung, Sule seemed like the poor cousin. You couldn't go inside and the area around it was small; its only real plus point is that it is much easier to say.

Eating

Food has been a fairly random experience in Yangon so far. A couple of restaurants we've been to have had English included in their menus, thus making selection much easier. Also helping was the company of two English people we met, both just arrived in the country and both studying Burmese. As you might imagine, Westerners speaking Burmese is a little uncommon, but it was quite useful as they were able to make sense of the menu to some degree.

Without them, we have to rely on pure luck as to what food we're to receive. The Burmese language is written in a script that to the uninitiated such as myself looks like a series of interlocking circles. Most restaurants don't cater to English speakers, so we just have to see what we're offered. Usually, as Burmese are taught English in school, the person serving us knows a few basic words to help us, but my favourite experience was yesterday for lunch, sitting on a plastic chair by the side of the road on a quiet side street. We were given a plate of rice, bowls with something approximating kidney with sauce and "prawn surprise", bitter green vegetables, and what could generously be described as mixed stuff soup. It was very edible and didn't backfire on us later, but the highlight was watching the four or five women who worked or hung out at the stall. They were having a riot. Serving two foreigners was hilarious to them, but so was everything else, such as one of them dropping a pan, or me accepting more soup. Cost, around £1.50.

Drinking


 70p.

But we've mostly avoided the High Class Whisky and have stuck with the local Myanmar Beer, in large 620ml bottles for around £1 or so. It's pretty tasty, and after beer in Australia, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia being disturbingly expensive, it's a relief to have one of our biggest travel expenses at an affordable amount.

Public Breakdancing

No, not really. Sorry.

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