A Trip Back In Time

Trip Start May 30, 2005
Trip End Sep 30, 2006

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Flag of Myanmar  ,
Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Flying from Bangkok to Yangon/Rangoon you have to set your watch back 30 minutes, they also say that you need to set your attitude back 40 years.

The 'International Airport' was very interesting as it was in a bit of a delapitated state, it appeared that it was undergoing major rework, how long this work has actually been going on is another question. I managed to cadge a free lift into town courtesy of the Guest House 'Holiday Inn (2)'. All I had to do was to look at their room and decide if I wanted to take it, I didn't and they were remarkably nice as I walked into town from there (of course this was made easier since the other six freeloaders in the minibus did end up staying there).

On first sight Rangoon looks like many other run down asian cities, battered up bangers running up and down the road, open drains that make sure you watch where you're walking and hundreds of people milling up and down buying nik naks from vendors that line the streets. While a huge number of the population have a distinct South East Asian look about them there is also a large percentage of the population that look Indian. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly India has a huge border with Myanmar on in the North West, secondly, both were occupied as part of the British Raj and through this a huge migration of people took place leaving an effectively displaced ethnic group here. I've asked a few ethnic Indians where they're from and they almost always answer that they're from Myanmar but have Indian parents, it appears that they're right at home here!

The people are amazing friendly. It's not actually physically possible to sit on your own for more than two minutes before someone comes up to talk to you. Usually it's to ask where you're from and to chew the cud with you for a while. Also, it's very common for people to ask "Change Money?", this is because loads of people want to change their hard earned volitile kyat (pronounced chat) into more stable currencies like the US Dollar. And of course local tourists need the local wonga for simple things in life such as eating! It's beneficial for the tourists to get involved in this as well since the 'official' exchange rate is about half of what you'll get on the black market. I did have a slightly disturbing experiance while walking down the street one time when a big fat man approached me and started in the usual manner "Change Money?"
"No thanks, I have enough just now"
"Bus Ticket, Train Ticket?"
"No thanks"
"You want food, water?"
And then as I was walking away Bubba shouted after me "Massage sir, maybe I get you massage"
Get me out of here.

The skyline of this city is also amazing, they build pagodas like the brits build churches, except the brits don't then cover their buildings in brilliant gold leaf. There is a pagoda called 'Sule Paya' right in the center of downtown which practically glows down the long wide streets of Rangoon. The 'Garden Guest House', where I'm staying, is right next to the pagoda and gives a great opportunity to view it at various times of the day. One of the first things that I did here was to visit the Pagoda, At the entrance to all religious areas you need to take off your socks and shoes (if you're mad) or Sandles (for the sensible) and carry them about with you. As usual I got talking to this group of three locals. I ended up chatting to them for ages. In the end one of them, Min Thu, invited me along to visit his English class the next morning. I wasn't keen as I said that I didn't want to stand up in front of a class of people as I don't know how to teach anything. "No problem" he said, "you can just meet the teacher and maybe talk to a few of the other class mates". Ok then, I'll do it.

The class ran from 7:30 - 9AM and I'd arranged to turn up at 8:30. I met Min Thu at the entrance and he took me up. I met the teacher briefly who then gave me a microphone and led me to the stage at the front where there was a high Dave Allen/Val Doonegan type chair for me to sit on. I looked out at about 100 expectant faces and gave a big gulp. It was now too late to protest, I'd been had. I introduced myself and gave a brief description of where I came from before the floor was open to questions. It wasn't too bad, every student asked how long I'd been in Rangoon and many asked the same question about my family which suggested that many of them weren't even listening to me (or couldn't understand me - more likely!). The most gaulling question came from each of the students, "Is there anything you'd like to ask me?", ermmmm? Usually I'd just cop out and ask where they came from and how long they'd lived in Rangoon.

After the half hour ordeal I managed to escape the clutches of the English class and make it across the road into a tea shop with Min Thu. He said that he didn't have anything else to do today and would be happy to show me around Rangoon, it'd also give him a great opportunity to practise his English, sounds great, let's go. One coincidence with this guy is that he's practically the same age as me. He said that he was born at some time in April '75 on a Sunday but didn't know the exact date due to Myanmar changing to the Gregorian calendar at some point in the 80's. Anyway, First up we headed to a rather large reclining Buddha. He was able to explain quite a lot to me which was quite impressive, he seems to know a great deal about it. After this he suggested that we head to the Shwedagon Pagoda, this is perhaps the best religious site in the whole of Myanmar. It sits atop a hill allowing it's central pagoda to shine over huge areas of the city. Within the complex there are numerous smaller temples and shrines each of them would probably be worth a visit in their own rights. The area is the size of a couple of football pitches and would take quite a while to just aimlessly wander around. The complex is naturally free to locals as it's a religious complex but they charge 5 US Dollars for tourists to visit, fair enough. We had to go to the ticket stand for me to pay, I had to fill in some details about who I was and where I was from. After I completed this I turned round to see that Min Thu had an official "Tourist Guide" badge and was wearing a white tunic that singled him out as a tour guide. I even found out later that the tunic was his own and he'd been carrying this around with him all day. I smell a rat. I think I've been duped, nevermind, he's a nice guy and I'll happily hang around with him for the rest of the day.

The Shwedagon Pagoda really is fantastic, I was fortunate to visit on a cloudy day so the marble floor wasn't up to foot scortching temperature. We wandered around and Min Thu did his thing, which was at times interesting and at times tedious, I think that I'll come back here when I return to Rangoon at the end of my time in Myanmar in order to just enjoy the atmosphere of the place and allow myself to just watch everyone milling around doing what they need to do.

After the temple we had a quick lunch and discussed what we could get up to in the afternoon.
"Would you like to go to a big vegetable market?"
"Not really", actually pigs will fly first.
"How about seeing the White Elephants and the Monk that died 30 years ago but hasn't decomposed".
Now you're talking mate, "Are the elephants in a zoo?", I didn't want to visit a zoo here.
"No, they have their own special place"
"Are they well looked after?", I didn't want to encourage the keeping of animals in inhumane conditions.
"Like Kings" he said, "Like Kings"

Well, if I were a king here I'd been volunteering for abdication. On first glance while walking up to them they looked great, nice big pink albino elephants majestically standing there. On closer inspection you saw the chains around their legs which were perhaps only 5 feet long. This gave them no space at all. They could barely even reach the elephants that were standing next to them. "See look, they get all the food they want and get to go for a walk every evening for an hour. I don't know why they don't just stand still rather than walking back and forward like that?". It was sad, it was just a big prison for them and the older one was definetly showing signs of madness as suggested by his rocking/walking back and forward. I explained to Min Thu that I didn't like it and why not, hopefully he'll not bring other tourist here.

After this we headed off to the dead monk, which perhaps surprisingly had a better deal than the elephants. In one creepy corner of a temple there was this old battered building that we entered. This was more like a haunted house than a shrine to the dead. We climbed the creaky steps and into the old dusty room containing the corpse. He was enclosed in a glass case in the middle of the room. At first glance he looked a bit strange as many believers had stuck gold leaf onto his body and his visible head. I can definitly say that the cadaver still had its skin and you could still see perfect details such as his high cheeck bones and throbbing blood vessel in his head. Ok, so it wasn't throbbing but it was creepy here. As I was taking pictures the wind whipped up outside and then the torrential rain came down, as if his spirit had come to show his displeasure at my picture snapping. Or perhaps it's just the rainy season here in Rangoon.

After a long hour's bus ride back into town I had some more tea with Min Thu. Although it hadn't been agreed beforehand I felt that he deserved a little 'present' for his time and information for the day. I just hope that he goes about it in a more open manner in the future, or maybe he won't if this way pays better.

If anyone has any questions about Myanmar or any other country that I visit then please ask them. I'll endevour to reply personally or add the answer to one of my updates. If required I'll even do some on the ground research if required.

Also, You may or not be aware that Myanmar has a really bad record of human rights. I'd rather not write about my findings on this matter while in Myanmar, but once I'm back in Bangkok I intend to write an entry to inform you of what I learn, so while the entries will be very light hearted as a whole, they will only tell one side of the story. And mum, when you read this don't worry, this is probably one of the safest countries in the world for tourists. More info on this at the start of september.

I've decided to head to Pyay next on my trail through Myanmar, a small town with a great Pagoda which rather convieniently breaks up the journey to Bagan nicely. From my understanding there won't be any more internet acess until I get to Mandalay in about a week's time, so this will be the last update for a little time. Have fun.
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