Beneath the surface.
Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
80Trip End Apr 08, 2006
The flight from Bangkok to Rangoon was only an hour, but there was plenty to look at out the window for a change. A huge mountain range marked the border between Thailand and Burma, and as the plane crossed over it limestone mountains rose out of the sparsely populated countryside. Over the small Gulf of Mottama rivers emerged from the mainland like fractals, whilst stupas of brilliant gold added colour to the dry and arid countryside.
Chaos ensued at immigration but once through I met a Brit and shared a taxi with him to his hotel. From here it was a 400 metre walk through downtown Rangoon, complete with backpack, the White House hotel my destination. This is where it all began to sink in. The first thing that got me was the Sule Pagoda, a 2000 year old shrine in the heart of the city serving as both a place of worship for buddhists and a roundabout. Out of the pagodas speakers came a very strange voice speaking in a language I'd never heard. Was it Burmese? No. It was the buddhist scriptures being read aloud in Pali (I think). This was my soundtrack as I wandered through the streets, the smell of betel nut spat on the street and the sight of men clad in dress like longyis and women smeared in yellow thanakha leaving me in complete awe of the place. I'd never been anywhere like it, and at one point I even had to stop and watch the city just go about it's business for a minute!
My first port of call the following morning was Chaukhtatgyi pagoda in the north of the city. The attraction here was the GIANT reclining buddha, bigger than any I'd seen before. After crossing the road to see a smaller sitting buddha at Ngakhtatgyi pagoda I made for Bogyoke Aung San's home. After reading Aung San Suu Kyi's biography of her heroic father I was quite interested to see how he lived. The quaint two story colonial homestead gave quite an insight into his private life, and was well worth the visit.
After checking out the aforementioned sites I made for Rangoon's most famous attraction, the Shwedagon pagoda. The Shwedagon pagoda is over 2000 years old, and the holiest of buddhist sites in Burma. It is the countries equivalent of the Haaj in Mecca, and Burmese people try to visit it at least once in their lives. The pagoda itself is 99 metres high, and visible from almost any point in Rangoon. There was a particularly good view from the rooftop of my hotel actually! The southern entrance was quite magnificent, with a huge covered stairway lined on both sides with small shops leading the way to the main platform. I had to stop for a moment here because the site that greeted me was so incredible. The hundreds of stupas, zedis and buddhas bathed in colour, surrounding the huge Shwedagon stupa, were being admired by Burmese from all walks of life, including a huge number of monks and nuns not surprisingly. It was here that I saw my first buddhist nuns, dressed in pink with an orange square hat. Cambodia was a very buddhist country, but for all the monks I saw there I never saw one nun.
Unfortunately just before sunset and having already spent over three hours at the pagoda I witnessed a rather nasty incident. As I was sitting talking to one of the locals, a layman was dragged up through the northern entrance by two police officers. The man was shouting at the top of his voice and trying to break free. Suddenly out of nowhere four more police officers came running over and proceeded to beat the man to a bloody pulp, without questioning him or the other two officers holding him whatsoever. A crowd gathered, but within a minute or two the six officers dragged the man out of site. I asked the man I was talking to what the man had been shouting about, but not surprisingly he was very very vague in his answer. "No respect" was all I could get out of him. I guess he feared that if he had have told me what the man was shouting about he may have received the same punishment. I didn't push any further.
The following day I went on a short, self guided tour of colonial Rangoon. Before reaching the first of the massive buildings constructed by the British I met an old Chinese man named Khaing. He recommended a vegetarian restaurant in Chinatown, and I agreed to meet him later on for dinner where we had a very interesting conversation about 1000 year old magical monks! I then spent about two hours slowly admiring the many buildings erected by the British. It was a slightly surreal sight, buildings reminiscent of those at home in a hot, humid city with many palm trees around and thousands of people sitting outside selling EVERYTHING! Rangoon onviously hadn't sunk in after two days! I was still taken back by the smells and sights which made the place so unique, and one thing I noticed on this day were the book stalls selling pre 1988 editions of everything, not to mention people sitting and reading EVERYWHERE!
I must say, knowing full well the plight of the ordinary Burmese people, that I found Rangoon a fascinating city. Burmese, Chinese, Indian and other nationalities gave it a real cosmopolitan feel, and combined with the men's longyis and women's thanakha I felt like I was in a city unlike any other on the planet.