An account of my first day in Yangon, Myanmar
10/20/2006 - 11/10/2006
It was my first full day in Myanmar and the pre-travel reading I had done had apparently not prepared me for the machine gun barrage of the senses that was assaulting me in Yangon. I was overwhelmed and I was beginning to think I’d made a mistake.
Menacing thoughts began to creep into my mind.
Sure I’ve traveled, but have I really traveled enough to cut it here?
To be honest, I had made no real plans for Yangon other than to set my bearings, figure out a tentative route for my three weeks in Myanmar and to get on my way as soon as possible. I figured I should also pay a visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda, because it seemed like a good start, and well, because it was there. What can I say? I’m a poor man’s George Mallory.
And so I set off on foot for what I was told would be an easy 20-minute walk to the 100 meter golden pagoda that dominates the Yangon skyline. Legend holds that the Shwedagon Pagoda was built 2,865 years ago by King Okkalapa to enshrine eight hairs of the Buddha. When the “20-minute walk” turned out to be closer to an hour, it seemed like a small price to pay for a kid from Colorado to see a sight that people from rural Myanmar may wait their entire lives to see in person.
Unlike Mallory, I did not need to climb an 8,850 meter mountain to reach my destination, though I did have to step over a decomposing dog carcass on the shambled sidewalk, endure oppressive heat and humidity (kryptonite to the Colorado-borne) and find my way using street signs bearing words that looked more like a game of hangman than indications of where I was standing.
By the time I arrived, I knew I needed sustenance. A cursory look around yielded no “get-out-of-jail-free cards”, otherwise known as western-resembling food establishments. There was, however, a small street-side restaurant located adjacent to the towering golden spire I had endeavored to find. A trip to the bathroom in the back revealed people cooking over a woodstove surrounded by sanitary conditions that were best ignored.
Thinking that a tall Myanmar Beer would wash away these concerns, and possibly any unwanted parasites, I ordered one and sat down to a surprisingly tasty meal of chicken and fried noodles.
Maybe it was the beer, or more likely the fact that my young waiter would frequently return with friendly, innocuous questions about where I was from and what I thought about his country, but I was beginning to feel much more at ease with Yangon. With a full stomach and a renewed confidence, I left with a “chezu ba” (thank you) and headed over to the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Upon entry, I was asked if I had any long pants that would cover my knees. Embarrassed at my negligence, I admitted that I did not. It then occurred to me that I did have a traditional longyi in my backpack that had been given to me by a travel agent the day before. A longyi is an ankle-length piece of fabric worn by men throughout Myanmar that in the West would better be described as a “man skirt”. Wearing this, I was told, would be much appreciated and one of the young men gave me my first lesson on fastening this along my waistline.
Entering the massive temple complex was as mesmerizing as it was daunting. The literature I was handed informed me that the site “remains a symbol to the Myanmar people and is the essence of Myanmar, indestructible, indisputable and unforgettable”. This in mind, I set about on a mere wander, feeling somewhat guilty that I might not be able to soak in its true significance to the Buddhist religion and to the people who hold it such high regard. It was a quite a sight to see and for the moment I was happy just for that.
Within moments, I was rather confidently joined by a young novice monk in burgundy robes. He held under his arm an old copy of the Myanmar Lonely Planet. Oddly, there was no formal introduction or discussion of what his intentions were. He merely walked alongside me, speaking as if we had known each other all our lives and were simply running into each other again at the Shwedagon Pagoda. The cynic in me thought, okay, let the scam begin.
As I walked along snapping photos, trying not to commit myself too much to this conversation, he would casually describe what we were looking at. Then, the ominous clouds that had been building let loose a heavy and steamy rain, turning the marble floor into an accident-waiting-to-happen under my unaccustomed, bare feet.
He grabbed me gently by the hand and led me to cover. Sitting under the slanted roof of one of the surrounding temple buildings, with the scent of joss sticks wafting through the air, he introduced himself as Wa Ra La Ba. The book he held was given to him by another traveler he had met and he was using it to practice English. Learning English, he informed me, was of the utmost importance in his life and the reason he would like to continue speaking and walking with me (if I didn’t mind). With an abundance of Buddhist temple ignorance, yet a pretty good grasp of the English language on my side, I figured this seemed like a win-win situation.
Thus, when the rain subsided, we continued our walk and Wa Ra La Ba continued to be a pleasant and knowledgeable companion.
Having nearly rounded the entire circumference of the temple complex he asked me if I would like to visit his monastery, as his fellow novice monks would really like to practice English too. He assured me it was only a 20-minute taxi ride; a time estimate I had earlier learned could possibly lead to an hour.
Having traveled in parts of the world where cynicism is a travelers’ virtue, the inner monologue kicked in: Oh boy. Getting into taxis with strangers; no idea where you’re going; nobody knows where you are. Geez, you really hadn’t planned on that interesting of a day. But hey, the holes in the sidewalk didn’t kill you; the traffic didn’t kill you; and the noodles didn’t kill you. Could a 15-year old in saffron robes really be what does you in?
Before I could ponder the possible repercussions and reminisce on the protective advice my parents had sent me off with, we had negotiated the local fare and were in a taxi bound for Thaketa Township on the outskirts of the city.
Upon arrival, we began walking through a neighborhood that was among the poorest I had ever made a conscious decision to visit.
I should clarify that upon agreeing to visit his monastery, I had the predisposed western notion that all monasteries were regal, solemn and adorned with golden statues. Wa Ra La Ba’s turned out to be a tin-roofed shack, located in a village that could best be described as a “shanty town”. I was pretty sure I was the only westerner within miles and I was still wearing a longyi. People were staring and I was increasingly becoming aware that we were being followed.
But then it occurred to me that the stares were not menacing. Far from it; they were simply stares of curiosity. And those people following us, well, they were giggling school children.
Entering the monastery, we were greeted by 6-8 young men lying on mats in neatly organized sections on the floor. Clearly an unexpected arrival, the young men excitedly rose and greeted me. I have not experienced many brushes with fame in my life and my sudden celebrity took me by surprise.
I was then seated on a mat in the corner and surrounded by an increasing number of young novice monks. Each took turns exuberantly asking questions they had clearly memorized from text books:
What is your name? Where are you from? Are you married? How old are you?
Unfortunately, my answers did not seem to bring much comprehension and my best attempt at simple grammar ultimately left much confusion. Still, they seemed thrilled just to listen.
As the conversation stalled, I remembered several pictures of my snowy homeland that I had brought in my backpack. Upon passing these around, the amazed glares interpreted that these could have been of the moon landscape, impressed as they were. I handed them out as gifts and several of them posted them above their sleeping mats with photos of their family members.
I was then asked if I would like to grab some tea (a Myanmar staple) at a teashop down the road with several of my new friends. Thinking ‘why stop with the interesting experiences now’, I agreed, and we walked to the village center once again under the watchful eyes of curious locals.
Sitting on tiny foot stools common place in Myanmar teashops, we discussed the prices of things in America. It became clear to me that a $3 cup of coffee seemed as outlandish and unattainable to them as a $50 cheeseburger would seem to me. The entire time, they expressed their immense gratitude at my presence, not realizing that they were giving me a much bigger gift than I could hope to give them with my simple English language conversation.
Aside from the priceless slideshow of images that I was committing to memory, they were giving me the gift of understanding. Having started my day with fear and aloofness, I now understood that the Myanmar people were a people to be embraced. They wanted to be released from poverty, but they didn’t want to take it from me. The only thing they were hoping to steal from me was my words, perhaps a friendship in the outside world and possibly a means to better their lives. Moreover, I knew that I had not made a mistake by coming here. My friends then insisted on paying for the tea even though my wallet probably held more money than they might see in a year.
After saying goodbye to the group, Wa Ra La Ba walked me down the road to meet a taxi. On the way, he insisted we stop at a roadside stall that served traditional Rakhaing food from the state of his birth. And of course, it was his treat. For a second I considered what this might do to my newly initiated stomach, but then decided that in the spirit of the day I should accept any invitation that presented itself.
After my second dish of incredibly spicy noodles (I later learned were called Ar Pu Shar Pu, or 'Burn Throat, Burn Tongue) that had been dished out by bare hands, I decided I was going to be just fine. My stomach, my personal safety and my state-of-mind; yes, it would all be just fine. It was at that point that I made a conscious decision to spend my time in Myanmar embracing new experiences and accepting any and all invitations made in earnest by these wonderful people.
I followed through on this decision over the following three weeks and was lead into some strange and memorable experiences. I did not regret it once.