Going, Going, Yangon

Jennifer spent the next few days in bed. Fortunately, she’s a reader, and was able to dive into a couple of books, while eating as much as she could. Her stomach pain slowly eased up, and she began to look better, and gain weight. The desktop in our room doubled as a kitchen cabinet and medicine chest, cluttered with packaged foods, drink containers, utensils, meds, and scribbled notes. Despite significant language barriers, we’d established a rapport by now with the staff downstairs, who’d been aware of my illness, and now Jennifer’s, and were concerned. The wife of the manager worked very hard all day and night to keep the Mayfair Inn clean, including our room. She and Jennifer would exchange tearful goodbyes at the end of our stay.

There wasn’t a lot for me to do for Jennifer while she recovered, save for keep the food coming -especially those with a banana flavor, her lifelong favorite. But I often stayed close by, and got to know our neighborhood pretty well. One day I enjoyed searching out a shoe repairman to fix my belt. There were many to chose from, sitting on the sidewalk, near piles of used shoes. He had a couple of weathered wooden boxes that were a jumble of tools, threads, wires, fasteners, leather strips, and glues, and his big hands rummaged through them as needed without his even looking. He cut, hammered, sewed, pulled and punctured, while advising, fitting, and selling shoes to other customers. Ten minutes and $1 later, my belt was ready.

Jennifer and I could no longer tolerate the local food. In fact, our appetites didn’t fully recover for a couple of weeks more. So we became regulars at Bar Boon, and Jennifer checked in with the doctor next door on occasion. Next door to her, Bogyoke Aung San Market is one of Yangon’s attractions. Its a vast, covered market hall with 2000 stalls of Myanmar handicrafts stacked to the ceiling, creating a maze of narrow passageways. We particularly liked the lacquerware that we saw all over Myanmar, but didn’t want to add any bulk to our day packs -until now.

In our final days, we were selective with our destinations. One that surprised us was the Botatung Paya, and the nearby jetty. We were again mesmerized by watching a large team of men carrying cargo on their backs, this time unloading from the boat, and walking a long distance to the truck(s). The steel bridge they crossed was a popular spot for games. Older men sat in a circle on the ground, around lines drawn in chalk. Nearby, amother circle of younger men played chinlon: hacky-sack, but with a larger, rattan ball. In the small bay, colorful, wooden canoes ferried people across the Yangon river to delta villages. And a small group of boys climbed down the embankment to get a closer look at a cluster of puppies, left on their own to forage among the reeds, and to play endlessly.

Not far away, outside the Paya entrance, a long row of stalls sold traditional arrangements of coconut, banana, and flowers in gold cups, as offerings for inside. I drew some attention by kicking a soccer ball back and forth with a young man, keeping it away from a playful dog. The Paya is said to house hair relics from the Buddha, escorted from India over 2000 years ago. Unlike most stupa, this one is hollow, and you can walk through its gold-leaf-coated maze. There are halls and courtyards filled with beautiful artifacts and shrines, and a pond with small and gigantic turtles plodding about. And we met a very interesting man, who sat us down and spoke about what he’d seen in his 89 years (he looked 70). He was educated, intelligent, vigorous, and spoke perfect English. He’d seen a lot happen since the 1920’s, and was quite worried for Myanmar. Primarily, he felt it was unwise for the government to stop teaching English to the majority of its students. English is the world’s language, he said. Either you speak it, or you become too isolated to prosper. As we left, he advised us to stay calm in life; to not over-react -to anything.

The most popular destination in Yangon is the Schwedagon Paya, the mother of all temples in Myanmar, and one of the most memorable sights in Southeast Asia. The grounds are large. Four, long, impressive, covered walkways rise up to its base from all 4 directions. The ginormous, central, bright, golden stupa is 322 feet tall, and is surrounded by a village of smaller stupa, halls, chambers, courtyards, shrines, temples, banyan trees, and visitors with their mouths agape. We stayed 5 hours, starting in the afternoon, then through a sublime dusk and into the night, exploring its endless nooks and crannies. I enjoyed it tremendously, however, there was an aspect to this paya -and to many others that we’d seen throughout Myanmar, that I found odd: on the walls directly above many of the various Buddhas and deities, are modern, animated, flashing, circular, electric light effects that seem entirely out of place with these ancient relics. My guess is that this is an effort to represent some sort of spiritual power or energy emanating from the heads of these deities, but to me, they seemed like a cheesy and distracting holdover gimmick from 1973.

On our final day in Yangon -and Myanmar- we went our separate ways for a while. I found a few blocks in particular that were worth strolling through slowly. It was an unusually shaded, Muslim neighborhood. Groups of men sat on small plastic chairs, around small stone-cutting machines, examining gems through small lenses, selling and buying, and trading. Women sat behind long flat tables with trays and cases of gems and minerals. A bit further away were the sign makers. Men used pencils and carbon paper to transfer designs onto fiberglass panels, and then cut them out using little old-school saws. Another entire block was made up of optometrist offices. Another was where the chess players were. Later, I caved in and opened my hand to the palm reader I’d been passing for a week. A small crowd gathered, while he earnestly described what the creases in my hands and the length of my fingers meant, and thumbed through a very worn book to translate my astrological particulars. My future looks promising!

As planned, Jennifer and I met up at another favorite spot not far from our hotel, the base of Independence Monument, in the Mahabandoola Garden Park. This pretty, block-long public space was ground zero for several pro-democracy rallies of the past -and the violent clashes that often followed. Once again, I met Mimi, a 20-year-old Myanmar woman who befriended me a few days earlier. She and Jennifer were pleased to meet each other, and we all talked for a while before we had to go. I wondered what sort of future Myanmar has to offer Mimi, and her generation.

Unlike her, Jennifer and I were free to board a plane and fly away, which we did, the following morning. Our 6 weeks in Thailand and Myanmar were varied, challenging, intriguing, very memorable, and now also over.


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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Matt Colonell
    Jan 02, 2014 @ 06:47:09

    Another great post, Matt. So glad that you and Jen made it safely back to Bali and are recuperating. Thanks for all the time and effort you put into your posts — it is wonderful to be able to share in your adventures!


  2. Matt
    Jan 04, 2014 @ 04:33:00

    Thanks Matt. I’ve come to really enjoy writing the posts, and capsulizing our experience(s). Thanks for reading along.


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