A Week with the Burma Babes
It took a lot of personal conviction to go to Myanmar. Trained in political sociology in the United States, one just did not visit Myanmar if one was politically correct. Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement has been ruthlessly stilled by the ruling military junta and Aung San Sui Kyi has been under house arrest since 1990. Indeed my first apprehensions were further pronounced by the fact that I was traveling to Myanmar with five other women that I did not know. We met in the Bangkok airport, having been introduced to each other via email by an American woman who lived in Jordan. We were then a bunch of women from different countries, living each of us in a second country, off to Myanmar with plenty of misgivings.
By the time we arrived in Yangon, we had dubbed ourselves the Burma Babes and had exchanged enough information to know that really the world is a very small place.
Dianne our French Canadian friend (“Dianne” must be pronounced the French way she insisted) had already appointed herself the life and soul of the group, while Kathy from Jordan was going to be the de facto leader. Rosemary, June, Janet and I were glad to be corralled and marched.
Arriving in Yangon, I was struck by the fact that the immigration desks were manned by young pleasant women sitting behind low counters, none of the surly armed junta I had anticipated, behind barricades. Our tour guide, a young breathless woman in a traditional longhi (long skirt) and a man (the tour manager) were standing past the immigration barrier to greet us and take us out to the parked vehicle. In a totally forgivable mistake, they had not anticipated that six women would have at least six suitcases (large) and accompanying hand luggage. But pile into the van we did on top of the luggage amidst groans and laughter and we were delivered to our hotel. The Kandawagi Palace hotel was grander than was expected, with nicely appointed wood paneled rooms with a view of the lake. A safety deposit box in the room took away one of the serious apprehensions I had about being a tourist in Yangon and losing all my personal belongings.
Our first destination was the Bogyoke Aung San Park which was just outside our hotel. Our tour guide, Sandra, had her English practiced to an art form but her pronunciation would have us looking either amused or befuddled. She had a particularly funny way of saying “rail” for “royal” and“bellis” for “palace” and considering the number of royal palaces we passed, we burst into laughter at every turn. A walk through the park and several photos later we were taken through the charming 19th century-feel downtown area to the beautiful octagonal Sule Pagoda. Being in the middle of the busiest streets it was little harrowing as we were accosted by a number of beggars demanding dollars. We were intrigued by the yellow clay-like patches that were it seemed smeared purposefully on faces, especially on women. These we found later were a combination of sandal wood paste and bark and were a sun block-cum -disinfectant. Soon the 6 Burma Babes had their faces suitably plastered as well; we agreed we looked like extra-terrestrials but certainly happy ones. A walk through the Aung Sang market (formerly Scott Market) gave us an interesting flavor of local wares and we bargained mercilessly over rubies which we knew were no cheaper here than anywhere else in the world. There was a dearth of craft shops except for one upstairs which we discovered by accident.
We saw some glorious stupas and pagodas in Yangon, the most spectacular in size and magnificence of course being Shagawan Pagoda which is a sprawling mix of stupas and spires in a gold, white, dark green and dark red, with the famed gold covered stupa in the center. We were there at sunset and the warm evening glow reflected gold off the stupas, while there was a cool breeze wafting. The main platform is inlaid with marble and I would think would be very hot during the day. As you walk around, you discover various resting places. I was struck not only at the amount of devotees at the little shrines, but also at the number of monks who freely floated through the compound, sometimes praying, sometimes just sitting at the zayats (resting places) and chatting to passerby with ease and abandon quite different to other Buddhist countries in the region.. One intriguing aspect of Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar (unlike its neighbor in Sri Lanka) is that it has integrated comfortably with certain aspects of Hindu-Brahmanism of the original traders, with ancestor worship and with ancient nat (animism) worship that had preceded all else. This was evident in the worship of ancillary gods and animals in the little stupas to the 37 primary nats that were interspersed around the golden pagodas. We were told by our guide that we had to go to the stupa that stood for the day of the week in which we were born and then pour as many cups of water as our age onto the shrine, Considering that we were all past middle age (!), there was much water pouring and accompanying merriment. We hoped that we did invoke the necessary blessings needed for our advancing ages!
We had to make a detour to have tea at the famous Strand Hotel, known from British colonial times for the genteel class. We sat in the high ceiling lounge and sipped our tea, imagining the glorious colonial days when the rooms were cooled with hand pulled fans by Indian turbaned waiters. The National Museum just across from the Strand Hotel we avoided, having made a unanimous decision that we Burma Babes were going to concentrate on history that was “living”. .
One of the major fortes of our team leader Kathy was that she was a connoisseur of food, while Dianne, coincidentally, was a photographer of food. Our first lunch was at Panaga Restaurant recommended by Ms Elly, an interesting Burmaphile, and a single Dutch woman who visited Burma and never left. She had told us to order a green tomato salad and a winged bean salad, both of which were delicious, tangy and different.
The evening meal was a testimony to Kathy’s splendid research. We dined on French food at the opulent Governor’s Residence. The old colonial bungalow, situated on stilts in a lotus pond, was something to behold in lamplight; old Japanese red, yellow, white umbrellas were part of the lighting that cast a romantic glow while frogs croaked in unison in the water. This was I think the only time on the trip that we took out our good clothes and dressed up for dinner.
We had to be up at 4 am (something that was already becoming the norm) to take our flight to Mandalay. The guide books had already warned us that we were not to expect much in Mandalay but having been of the generation that was brought up on Rudyard Kipling, we were not going to give up our one chance of being “on the road to Mandalay”. We were met by our guide, Macan, speaking much better English than our previous guide (though she did say “pakora” for “pagoda” giving me visions of Indian fried food). We were taken, tired and drooping after our early morning flight, to a local Buddhist monastery in time for noon day prayers and almsl. Hundreds of tonsured monks clad in deep red/orange filed past us with eyes on the ground and begging bowl clasped for their only meal for the day. The younger monks – sometimes as young as 7 or 8 years old – were having a hard time being quiet and an even harder time sitting still while the chanting was going on. We quietly made our way to the kitchen area and were amazed at the size of the cooking vessels and the amount of rice and vegetables that had to be cooked to feed the 800-strong religious order.
That evening we were taken to see the world’s largest book, an amazing collection of white little temples at the Kuthodaw Pagoda – 1780 of them in all – housing the Tripitika or the Buddhist canon recorded in Pali script on marble slabs. While the sheer magnitude of the undertaking was awe-inspiring (they say it took 2,400 monks six month to recite the full text), the complex was badly maintained and we were dispirited to see the number of little kids begging in the premises. We left hurriedly and raced up Mandalay hill to reach the top (unfortunately with hundreds of European tourists) and watch the sunset across the dry plains. This is definitely a popular tourist site and well developed with covered stairways and 1729 steps (groan!) right to the top. The trick is to linger past the sunset hour as the tourists lessen and there is a lovely cool breeze that wafts up to the top.
Dinner that night was in a restaurant called The Irrawaddy Dream and sure enough we sat on a raised platform by the muddy Irrawaddy and dined on a tamarind leaf salad and some succulent meat dishes while the mosquitoes had a tasty treat of our toes! The food was served on traditional dark brown and black lacquer plates which we admired.
We were up again the next morning at 4 am (did I say we were getting used to this?!) and went to the dock to take the south bound Pyay Ferry as we were going to Bagan by boat. The boat we boarded was not like we had expected. We had been told that we should take everything from food and water to toilet paper for the 10 hour trip to Bagan . We were pleasantly surprised to find reclining airline seats in the interior cabin and a large dining area with tables and chairs. The Burma Babes opted to monopolize one whole area of the dining area when it was discovered that cold beer was on the menu. The ten hour trip was thus pleasantly spent and we got into the languid mood of the slow, meandering river, read and even slept. The boat stopped twice and women and children waded, sometimes neck deep, with all their clothes on to sell fruit and colorfully woven fabric to those on the boat. The Irrawaddy river is Myanmar’s life line and the center of its rice culture and we were happy to traverse some part of its 1,350 miles by boat.
I think one of the highlights of the trip for me and certainly one that will remain in my mind’s eye was approaching Bagan by water while the sun was going down on the horizon. The entire plains, studded with pagodas of all sizes and shapes and as far as the eye can see, was bathed in golden light. Bagan (also known as Pagan) was the old capital and now though deserted, has to be one of the most remarkable religious cities of the world. Between 1057 and until Kublai Khan’s forces over ran the area, some 13,000 temples, pagodas, kyaungs and other religions structures were built on this vast plain. Now seven centuries later, 2,217 of these temples and pagodas remain.
Our guide, a man with impeccable English and who we dubbed immediately “Mr. Handsome,” put us on horse drawn carts for our trip to the hotel. This was again one of those sublime moments, trotting past the silhouettes of several pagodas as the moon began to rise higher in the sky. The next morning we went to the Shwesygon Temple, Bagan’s greatest temple and the center of prayer and reflection for the Theravada Buddhist faith. But that day, far from quiet reflection, hundreds of people had brought food and money as alms for the monks as it was the annual temple festival. Some of the most intriguing gifts were “money trees” of paper cash made into beautiful patterns of trees and then gifted to the monks. The young monks or novitiates were proudly walking around with the decorated cash and were happy for a photo opportunity. As this festival only happens once a year (in the Myanmar month of Nadaw, or November), we were extremely lucky to have chosen that day for our visit. It is said that the festival is popular because nat (spirit worship) was combined with Buddhism in the pagoda’s construction and so people from the rural countryside come as much to worship the 37 nats contained in a small hall to the southeast of the pagoda as the Buddha.
Tired but satiated, we then visited the Ananda Temple whose whitewashed edifice (with stunning magenta bougainvillea in front) stands out on the plains. Completed in 1091, it is considered the masterpiece of Mon architecture. However the condition of the temple reminded us of the long periods of anarchy and neglect in Myanmar.
Our lunch was at the Green Elephant Restaurant, beautifully situated by the river with sand banks in front and mountains forming a blue backdrop.. We decided on the Burmese “set menu” with chilies and pickles ordered on the side. Indeed all of us found the food in Myanmar to be quite mild and had got into the routine of asking for extra chilies. This was a little unexpected given the centuries of Indian influence. Perhaps also as a (misplaced) gesture to the tourists in the hotel, it was rarely that we were served kaw swey or the famous Shan Sticky Rice Noodles for breakfast. The Burma Babes were simply not into toast, jam and breakfast cereal and after politely accepting these in the first two days, we got into the routine of telling the hotel that we would in fact like a traditional Burmese breakfast. In the subsequent days we slurped our spicy chicken broth and noodles with great delight.
Our hotel in Bagan, Thirpyutsaya Hotel was a Japanese joint venture and the nicest we stayed in both in terms of its spectacular location and comforts. The hotel was right by the river, with large lawns in front and back and individual cottages as rooms. Our night meals were served on the lawns with candlelight and a wonderful local dance performance. It is evident that Myanmar’s tourism ministry is trying hard to improve the hotel infrastructure in the country and attract visitors despite the US embargo on traveling there. Certainly the French and other Europeans did not seem daunted by the travel restrictions. .
The next day started early (was there any other way?!) to take the hot air balloon over Bagan. Imagine the trepidation, coupled with excitement, capped with awe as we floated above the temple-studded plains as the sun rose over the horizon. A magnificent ride was made more special by the French guide and the champagne breakfast!
We had decided that a visit to the Abode of the Gods, Mount Popa, was in order. I was not keen on the climb as I had heard of the monkeys that had made their home on most of the stairs up to the temple and their aggressive antics when confronted by tourists. So I opted to stay below and nurse a cold drink at a local restaurant while the others bravely did the climb, along with Mr. Handsome our guide who had a large stick which he was happy to wield. I was relieved to hear when the others got back that there really was not much to be seen at the summit other than the shrine to the Mahagri Nats. A better idea and one that we pursued later was to drive up to the new Mount Popa Resort which gave a spectacular view of the funny-shaped Mount Popa (which means “flower in Sanskrit) from afar. The resort itself I would recommend for anyone wanting a quiet holiday in a scenic setting. Just ask for cottages 701 or 801 which have the best views!
The next morning, early of course, we were off to Heho and the South Shan State, by plane. Our guide Evelyn was there to meet us. She had by far the best English skills and we thought it quite strange that the further we got from Yangon the better the English skills. Evelyn was in her early 60’s and thus we discovered the secret to her success. Those who had been to schools during the British period (1886 to 1945) and immediate post colonial times, had the best opportunities to study English. The young people today are dying to learn English but there is a real paucity of English teachers, even in the capital cities.
We took a bus to the dock, stopping on route at a quaint old monastery over run by cats. The priest there had trained a cat to do some circus like tricks and this was it seemed quite a tourist attraction. At the dock, we got onto two long canoe-like boats and sped off on Inle Lake, one of Myanmar’s major tourist destinations and certainly worth seeing. It was lunch time and the sun directly overhead but the water itself was blue, beautiful and placid. Our boat ride was 45 minutes long at top speed before we got to the Hotel Lake View. A nicely appointed hotel again, with an interesting lobby full of antiques chess sets and old burma teak dowry chests. Yes, each of our rooms had a view of the lake. Famished we got back on the boats and sped further down the river to a large restaurant on stilts over the water. We felt infinitely better after dining on stuffed fish, a Shan specialty. We then went on to see a silk weaving factory, a temple and another monastery all built on the water. The return trip at dusk was again one of those exalted moments – sitting on the boat as it glided over the water which now was a translucent glass- like color and the water and the horizon seemed to merge. The only interruption to this perfect view was the occasional fisherman who trawled using large bamboo nets, like cages. What was most intriguing was that the fisherman paddled his boat with one foot around the long oar, thus leaving his hands free to wield the large cage-like net.
We actually had time to watch the sun rise over the lake the next morning and a warm haze spread over the lake while we had coffee. Mid morning we boarded our two boats, and sped off to the market (which was on land, disappointingly not a floating market) which takes place every five days and where the different ethnic tribes come to sell their wares. Myanmar has several tribes and racial minorities and is of course bordered by China, India, Laos Bangladesh and Thailand, a fact very evident in the crafts. Despite the blistering sun, we happily walked and bargained and took pictures with any of the tribal women willing to pose with us. Our shopping spoils included several woven sarongs or longhis, tribal jackets in red and black, silver bangles and in my case, a lovely antique wooden chess set.
We had lunch at a restaurant called Anne’s Place which had come recommended and proved to have the best stuffed fish, Pao style. We took a further boat ride to see a handmade paper factory (one of those visits that are de rigor for tourists) and then to see the floating gardens where the villagers actually grew vegetables on the water for their families.
We left Inle Lake the next morning (very early again!) to return to Yangon. We had a spare afternoon and decided to visit a fascinating glass factory, which literally had the whole compound strewn with shards of colored glass, almost like a modern sculpture. Just when we thought we had chanced upon something outside the usual tourist route, we were told that John Glenn the astronaut had already visited! That evening was our last and we relaxed back at the hotel, sipping wine and reminiscing on our perfect trip.
Myanmar had given us more than food for thought. Myanmar’s pro-democracy activists, students and Buddhist monks have been muzzled. Aung San Suu Kyi the Nobel Peace winner has been under house arrest for the last 17 years and not allowed to participate in the political process though she won in a landslide victory in the 1990 parliamentary election. The United States and other countries have denounced the military junta and advised its citizens not to travel to Myanmar. But I want to make an appeal. Tourists going to Myanmar do bring valuable foreign exchange and help not only those in the cities on the main tourist routes but also ancillary crafts and services in the rural areas. Contact with the outside world in the form of tourists brings information important to a people thirsty to find out about places and events across the globe. While we were there students talked to us about what TV and the internet meant for them and the slow but strong inroads made by technology in their society. Myanmar’s fascination for all us might be the fact that Myanmar has managed to survive the last 150 years relatively unspoiled because of its involuntary isolation. But I visited Myanmar and know that we should visit and that more and more people who visit will also force about change.
After all, one of the basic tenets of Buddhism is that nothing is permanent and everything is in a constant state of change.