I love animals.
I don’t like to touch, feed, play or cuddle with them. Hell, I don’t even like being near them.
I love them from a distance.
But I love them, nonetheless.
So that sleepless night when, lying in my dorm bed at the Sleep-In Hostel located in the busy 9th Street of downtown Yangon, I read about the two white elephants, I knew I had to pay them a visit before I left the city.
The book that I was reading was a pirated copy of the 2011 edition of Lonely Planet- Myanmar that I had purchased from one of the roadside stalls that surround the famous Bogyoke Aung San Market.
This was my third day in the city, and I was already falling in love with it. There seemed to be a strange sense of simplicity and calmness hidden beneath the hustle and bustle of the city.
Every morning, I would get up early, pick up my camera and just start walking. The roads around downtown Yangon are surrounded by beautiful colonial buildings. I would walk to the beautiful Sule Paya, which was at the center of the city, see people heading off to work or shopping for vegetables at the nearby market. After a cup of coffee and some bread at a nearby tea house, I would set off to explore the city.
Markets of Yangon are what markets are supposed to be like. They are an assault to your senses in the nicest way possible. They are crowded throughout the day, but they really come alive in the evening when plastic tables are laid out in the sidewalks and the food vendors start serving out dinner. Chicken, shrimps, prawns, beef, pork and everything else in between.
The one thing that always surprised me while strolling around the city streets was that people did not look oppressed. They all looked happy and smiling faces were not hard to find. Yangon had looked a lot different in the YouTube videos I had seen before the trip.
It was a welcome surprise.
Anyway back to the pirated book.
That night as I read on, I found an interesting section on page 39 which detailed how the white elephants were brought from the countryside to Yangon in 2002 and were considered lucky charms for the country. They were kept in “an unmarked park” near a temple named Hsin Hpyu Daw which was located on the other side of the city.
Now this book was published in 2011, so I had doubts if the elephants were even alive, and even if they were, there were chances that they might have been moved somewhere else.
The best thing about travelling alone in a foreign country is sometimes even the simplest things like taking a train to go to a park sounds like an adventure. You build it up in your mind like it is a quest into the unknown. Not knowing the place. Not knowing how to get there. Not knowing the language. You think about all the new places you will see and the people you will get to interact with.
Going to see these elephants sounded like an adventure. A treasure hunt!
(Even though it actually wasn’t.)
“This is silly. I am not going to the other side of the city to search for a couple of elephants that may not even be there.”
“But what if they are still there?” Screamed out the optimistic part of my mind. “I have never seen white elephants. And even if they aren’t there, I’ll get to explore a different part of the city.”
Optimism always triumphs over pessimism, and early next morning, I hailed a taxi to the Yangon Central Railway Station.
All I had to do now was to ask someone which is the nearest station to the Hsin Hpyu Daw temple and I’ll be set. It wasn’t as simple as I thought it would be because as it turns out, to ask someone about a certain place, you need to correctly pronounce the name of that place.
How do I pronounce Hsin Hpyu Daw? How does anyone pronounce a name like that?
No one at the station seemed to know English either. I stood at the ticket counter, trying my best to pronounce the name but no one seemed to understand me. I must have stood there for about 10 minutes, trying out different possible pronunciations of the name and just when I was about to give up…
..I finally cracked it!
The official nodded his head, spit out gross betel nut juice from his mouth and handed me a ticket.
I needed to go to the Insein railway station.
Taking the circular rail route is the best way to travel in Yangon, if you are not in a hurry. The circular route takes you around the city and its sub-urbs before returning back to the central station. The route has more than 30 stations and it takes about three hours complete the whole circle.
I was lucky enough to catch the air conditioned train. The seats were comfortable and it wasn’t very crowded. As the train left the station, dark clouds started to move in and it started drizzling.
We passed busy markets, quiet houses, shops and lush green farms. The train would stop at every station and people would trickle in and out of it. I do not know if it was the air conditioning or the rhythmic sound of the train, but I soon fell asleep.
Thankfully, I woke up just before our train reached Insein.
The rain had subsided but dark clouds were still hovering around. After asking about ten people, an old lady, with a generous amount Thanaka smeared on her face, finally understood…
She pointed to the road straight ahead and said “White Buddha”
“No.. I want to see the white elephants.”
“Yes, white Buddha” She kept repeating and pointing at the road.
The rain started pouring in again and I decided to wait under a shade just outside the station, close to the busy road. Trucks and cars sped through as people walked along the edge of the road, covering their nose with their hand to avoid inhaling fumes. Strong iron fences ran along the road, guarding the buildings, and gardens that stood beyond. Insein looked like one of those places that you pass by everyday on your way to work, but never care enough to explore.
Half an hour or so later, I decided that there is no point standing around and as much as I would like to explore Insein on foot, it was not going to happen any time soon. The sky was getting darker and the rain was getting heavier.
So, I hailed a cab and asked him to take me to Hsin Hpyu Daw. He didn’t understand me at first, but a passerby helped me out by explaining it to the driver in the local Burmese language. May God bless that dude. I was getting soaked in the rain.
Hsin Hpyu Daw turned out to be way more beautiful than I expected it to be. Stairs led up to the main hall where a big idol of Buddha, made of pure white marble, was kept inside what looked like a giant glass box. People sat in front of the idol, with folded hands and closed eyes. Prayers were being played on the speakers that were installed on the walls all around the temple. The marble courtyard outside the main hall presented a beautiful view of the parks all around. The rain was reduced to a light drizzle as I walked on the wet floors of the courtyard, wondering which one of the nearby parks was home to the elephants. The cool breeze and the rain was a great respite from the heat that we had been experiencing for the last few days.
I asked a man who was strolling in the courtyard, probably taking a break from all the heavy duty prayers going on in the main hall, if he knew where the white elephants were. He pointed to a park across the road and gave me a smile and a thumbs-up.
I soon found out that the white elephants of Hsin Hpyu Daw were actually quite famous and most people visiting the temple make it a point to visit the elephants as well. So, it wasn’t at all like I had found a hidden jewel.
But still, I was excited!
The excitement increased when the coconut vendor outside the park told me that there were three elephants and not two.
(Or maybe he was trying to sell me three coconuts for the price of two. I don’t know. Can’t really be sure.)
Due to the rain there were puddles of water and mud everywhere along the path leading up to the elephant enclosure and my boots splashed through them as I walked briskly with a great sense of anticipation. Drum rolls were playing in my head.
This is it !!
I reached the visitor’s gallery and saw the elephants standing about 100 meters away in their enclosure. A man was quietly sweeping the enclosure with a broom as the elephants stood, their legs were tied with iron chains. All the three elephants were quietly chewing on the grass or whatever it is that was put in front of them. The drum rolls in my head was replaced by pin drop silence.
What the f***!!
Now, when you think of elephants, you picture these big tough creatures moving majestically at their own will. Creatures that are kind yet have the power to scare away the most vicious predators. It disappointed me to see them tied like goats waiting to be milked. They looked malnourished and weak.
Not surprisingly, I was the only visitor in the gallery. There were framed pictures around the showing leaders patting the elephant, and feeding them bananas. Yangon did not seem to care much for its lucky charms anymore.
The rain started again. This time quite heavily.
I bought a cola and a packet of chips from the food stand, manned by a boy who was busy playing games on his cell phone, took a seat with the best view of the elephants, and listened to the sound of the rain drops.
I wondered why they were called white elephants in the first place, when they were actually pink.
And I don’t want to sound like a racist, but the third elephant was black.