For those of you who do not know, I just returned from a two week trip to Burma. There have been quite a few times when I wanted to sit with my laptop and pen down this post, but something or the other always came in the way. Today, I have finally managed to find time to write about this amazing country. So please read on.
I am dotted with mosquito bites, have a sore back, a busted up right foot, a blistered mouth (I sound like Daffy Duck!), a bruised knee and it hurts when I turn my head to the right, so excuse me if I sound a bit bitter at times.
It is pretty safe to say that before this trip, I knew nothing about Burma, except for that thin lady with an interesting name who appeared on news channels and papers every other month. Everyone seemed to love her, shower her with awards and compare her with the likes of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.
Turns out her name is Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and is among the most influential people in the world today. She was kept under house arrest for almost 15 years in the past two decades for voicing her opinion about the oppressive military government. And I know all this thanks to a taxi driver in Rangoon who, as we were driving into the city from the airport, pointed to a road to his left and said it led to her house.
“Who’s she?” I asked, from the backseat as a pickup truck full of locals whooshed past, blowing in disgusting fumes through the window, almost making me gag.
With a look of disbelief, he tapped on a picture of her pasted on the dashboard. Yup, she was that same thin lady I had seen on TV.
(She has had an amazing life. Look her up.)
Anyways, I still may not know a lot about the country, but whatever I do know is very interesting stuff. Like in 1990, the military government, in an effort to prove its legitimacy, decided to call for general elections. Suu Kyi’s party National League for Democracy won. But, instead of giving up the power, the military government cancelled the results and put her under house arrest.
Like seriously, WTF!!! Talk about sore loser!
There is also this legend that nine years ago the capital of the country was moved from Rangoon (Yangon) to Nay Pyi Daw because an astrologer told the then head of the military government that he needed to leave Rangoon or the Americans were going to kill him.
Also apparently, a two wheeler was once involved in an accident with the car of a high ranking military official in Rangoon, who then in a fit of anger banned all two wheelers from the city. A ban that apparently still applies as you see very few two wheelers on the city roads.
Pretty interesting, right? It doesn’t stop there. Being interesting I guess, is in the blood of the Burmese people. It is at least when you are looking through the eyes of a foreigner. There are tons of such stories.
I remember on my first day, as I stood in the immigration queue at the Yangon airport, the official behind the counter looked at my passport and smiled.
And as he uttered those words, he sprayed his white uniform with tiny droplets of red betel nut juice. His teeth and tongue were red, and you could see stuff hanging between the gaps in his teeth. Burmese people love chewing betel nuts, and they spit out often. Literally, it is a country full of Mishrajis of Office Office.
Actually, come to think of it, they are like our Mishraji in more ways than one. Burma has consistently been ranking in as one of the most corrupt nations in the world. According to my pirated copy of the Lonely Planet book (2011 edition), it was the 2nd most corrupt country in the world, after Somalia.
(Things have improved a bit since then with the military government no longer in power.)
As I entered the country after getting my passport stamped (thankfully not with gross betel nut juice) and found myself surrounded by men wearing what they call, “lyungis”, the traditional Burmese men’s wear (Similar to Indian lungis) and women with their faces smeared with Thanaka, the traditional Burmese face paint, I knew it was going to be an interesting trip.
I remember reading somewhere that Burma is what Thailand used to be like in the 1980s and I will be damned if it wasn’t true. Cell phones have still not become a necessity and internet connectivity can be best described as dodgy. Even though there are a few malls and skyscrapers around, at times while walking through the local markets or residential neighbourhoods, hearing the hawker calls or seeing the beautiful colonial buildings, you do feel like you have gone back in time.
I loved the city of Rangoon. The train rides are to die for. The circular train route takes you around the city, and you get glimpses into the daily lives of the Burmese people. The houses, the markets, the schools and the shops. In the evening, the beautiful Schwedagon Pagoda lights up the sky with its beautiful golden glow, and devotees fill up the atmosphere with their prayers and chants.
After Rangoon, I traveled to a small village called Nwangshwae on the banks of the beautiful Inle Lake, made famous by its fishermen who have a unique way of holding the oars of the boat. The lake also houses floating villages, gardens and monasteries. I stayed at a lovely place called Joy Hotel that was right next to the main pier, which meant when I stepped out in the morning to search for breakfast, I got to see boats filled with blood red tomatoes coming in from the nearby farms. It was a very pretty sight.
I hired a boat one day which took me around the lake, and to a weekly village market. The velvety blue water, the wooden huts, the fishermen, the beautiful blue sky up above with white cotton clouds, and the mountains in the distance painted a beautiful picture.
And just when I thought Burma couldn’t get any prettier, I found myself in Bagan. The heat was unbelievable, but so were the 2000 odd pagodas spread across the city. Braving the heat, I rented out a bicycle, grabbed a map and went pagoda hopping. I remember this one afternoon, when the heat got the better of me and I climbed on top of this big pagoda, and spent the afternoon hiding in the shade, looking at this incredible 360 degree view of Bagan. Miles and miles of pagodas.
This is what I understood about the history of Bagan. A monk named Shin Arahan from the Thaton Kingdom visited Bagan and converted its king, Anawratha to Theravada Buddhism. Anawratha, whose kingdom was really powerful at the time decided to spread Buddhism by building pagodas. He even invaded Thaton (Ironic!), took away all the important Buddhist scriptures, and brought all its monks and architects to Bagan. He and his successors spent most of the kingdoms’ wealth building pagodas.
Many historians believe, the kingdom’s decline came when the last ruler of Bagan received a threat of invasion from the Mongols. They tried, unsuccessfully, to build strong forts…
King: Mongols are coming. Build some forts..now!
Architects: What are forts? Is that a fancy word for pagodas?
King: We’re so screwed.
…they panicked and abandoned the city. Mongols had a pretty easy time taking over this beautiful city with over 10000 pagodas.
(Around 2000 of them still stand.)
Bagan is absolutely gorgeous during the sunsets and sunrises. As the evening sun slowly hides behind the mountains, climb up on top of the tallest pagoda you can find, see the changing colours of the sky, the flock of birds flying off into the distance, the beautiful Ayeyarwady river flowing endlessly, and hundreds of pagodas spread across the land.
But I think the real beauty of Burma lies in its people. They are undoubtedly the warmest and the nicest people I have ever met. It is impossible, as my German dorm mate had told me before the trip, for a visitor to smile at a local and not have that reciprocated with a bigger and wider one.
And he was right. It happened every single time.
Taxi drivers, government officials, shop owners, and just random locals, you know. Their friendliness, kindness and honesty reflected in those smiles.
The only advice I would give to people visiting or planning to visit the country would be to not be the parents in the Nokia Lumia advertisement, who were so busy taking pictures that they didn’t really see their kids perform.
To experience Burma to its fullest, put away your camera for a bit and make some efforts to interact with the locals because I think that is where you would find the true essence of the country.
(PS: Please note Rangoon is currently known as Yangon and Burma as Myanmar. Why didn’t I use those names instead? I didn’t feel like it!)