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Welcome to Myanmar

An account of my first day in Yangon, Myanmar

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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.

wa ra la ba.JPG

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.

yangon monks.JPG

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.

Posted by john7buck 17:54 Archived in Myanmar Tagged tourist_sites Comments (4)

Back to Myanmar


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In my travels, I met up with a used bookstore owner in Bangkok who is editing a travel book on Myanmar, called From Asia with Love. Sounds saucy! Anyway, he has graciously let me try my hand at travel writing and since I don't think they own the rights to the writing, I figured I would plug some of what I wrote into my blog. Granted, as Vail is getting pounded with snow, I now feel light years away from Myanmar, but here's what I came up with.

An American in Longyi
By John Buckley

To be honest, I’ve never quite been sold on the concept of pants. Sure, being raised in a cold-weather environment in the United States has made them an elemental and cultural necessity, but secretly I’ve always yearned to be freed from their tight, form-fitting shackles.

When I first began reading about Myanmar in preparation for a three-week visit, I was introduced to the fact that upon arrival I would quickly come into contact with women who had a powdery, yellow substance (known as thanaka) smeared on their cheeks and also men who would be wearing a dress-like garment known as a longyi (pronounced lon-gee).

Sure enough, when I arrived at the Yangon International Airport on a hot day in October, I was greeted by the smiling faces of women with thanaka smeared in various patterns across their cheeks and young taxi drivers seeking my business; all of whom seemed to be wearing ankle-length pieces of cloth tied neatly around their waists. I was instantly intrigued.

Having spent my first afternoon in Yangon wandering the chaotic city streets, it soon became apparent that this was not a “costume” adorned by the locals for the benefit of arriving tourists, as one might find stepping off a plane in the South Pacific. The use of thanaka (used as a sunscreen and make-up) and the wearing of longyis were traditional practices that had been preserved in a country that has essentially been cut off from the “modern world” for the better part of the last half century.

Visiting with a longyi-wearing local travel agent in Yangon, I curiously asked about the traditional garment. With a brief explanation of its practicality, the agent then produced a small plastic-wrapped package that contained a neatly folded longyi. With a smile, he offered it to me as a gift, probably assuming it would never see the light of day.

On a visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda, one of Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist sites, I entered wearing a pair of American standard-issue board shorts. As I paid the entry fee, I was asked shyly if I had a pair of trousers to cover my knees in accordance with Buddhist practice at religious sites. I admitted that I did not, embarrassed at my oversight. I then remembered the longyi that I still had in my backpack and asked if it would suffice. The young man looked relieved and told me that it would be much appreciated if I would be so kind as to put it on.

Having told him that I would have no problem with this, it then occurred to me that there was, in fact, one small problem. I had no idea how to go about fastening the circular piece of cloth around my waist.

Attracting a small crowd of giggling locals, I received my first lesson on tying a longyi in proper fashion. The key it seemed (as my new friend got a little too close for comfort) is securing two ends of fabric in each hand before dropping the right hand down to hold the middle firmly in place at the waist. You then meet the right hand with the left hand before encircling the two clumped pieces of fabric in a tight cross section. With a twirl of each wrist, the fabric intertwines leaving each end free for the final tuck motion where the loose ends get inserted into the waistline to hold everything in place.

Feeling slightly awkward at first, I walked the grounds of the Shwedagon Pagoda and began to take to the concept of the longyi. Free-flowing, yet conservative; casual, yet stylish; I felt the need for pants in my life diminish.

longyi.JPG

Later, on a visit to the ancient city of Mingun outside of Mandalay, I received another lesson in the practicalities of the longyi. Having engaged in a rather lengthy tour of the Mingun Paya—the large, unfinished stupa on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River—I was soaked through with sweat. Noticing that the Myanmar sun had begun taking its toll on me my guide asked if I would like to take a “shower,” which in local parlance meant bathing in the river.

mingun_paya.jpg

Though tempted, I did not want to have wet clothes for the remainder of the day and politely declined with that as an explanation. Undeterred, he told me that I could borrow a longyi, as the beating sun soon weakened my resistance. Changing clothes in his modest house, I did my best to reenact the motions of my earlier lesson. I then walked down to the river, doing my best to keep the longyi firmly in place in an effort to not expose myself to the throng of other tourists who were already shooting confused glares in my direction.

Joining another group of elderly woman and my new friend in the water, I spent the afternoon swimming in the river and washing myself with borrowed soap along the banks. Though the unfinished stupa was indeed a site to see, it was that moment in the river that I will remember best - and I owe it all to the longyi.

bathing.jpg

Throughout the remainder of my trip, I would wear my longyi in private, secretly longing for this to become an accepted look for an American. On my way out of Yangon, I purchased two more in various patterns. Now that I am home, I have vowed to friends that I will make the longyi the latest craze in a society that could benefit from loosening up a bit and letting go of their pants.

Posted by john7buck 16:47 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Just Pictures - Myanmar

For those with questions like 'Why is Buckley wearing a dress?' you can also cut and paste to here: http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/john7buck/ for these same pictures with descriptions. By clicking the "m" at the top left, the pictures will get bigger

wa ra la ba.JPG

yangon monks.JPG

kid bartender.JPG

thin win.JPG

U Bein's sunset.JPG

moustache brothers.JPG

jungle water.JPG

eng girl.JPG

eng woman.JPG

Akha lunch.JPG

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field dinner.JPG

farm friends.JPG

rice farmers.JPG

rice man.JPG

smoker.JPG

buck smoke.JPG

Lahu kids.JPG

buffalo.JPG

myanmar friends.JPG

leg rower.JPG

gov.JPG

roof ride.JPG

A Tun.JPG

kids.JPG

monk shoes.JPG

novice monk brooms.JPG

light fest.JPG

longyi.JPG

homeboys.JPG

ox cart.JPG

school house rock.JPG

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Posted by john7buck 16:30 Archived in Myanmar Tagged photography Comments (0)

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