Saturday, June 29, 2013

Myanmar: initial impressions and first thoughts!

We were a little nervous about venturing into Myanmar for several reasons. Is it really the right thing to do? Can we afford it? Do we really have enough mint-conditioned US dollar bills to survive without being able to use ATM machines? Are we really up for the difficult challenges and hard travel involved? We needn't have worried on any account. Things have changed since our guidebook was written and as in all developing countries at a rate of knots. We decided to spread the money we can afford to spend around among the smaller independent businesses rather than spending exclusively with government travel operators so the moral dilemmas about not coming are not so compelling, while simultaneously trying to live on a smaller budget. We will definitely have enough bills and the ATMs are now dispensing Kyat anyway. It is not that difficult and, well, so far the more harrowing journeys are still before us.

From the moment we touched down we felt good: not the least reason for me being that it was turbulent and scary in the latter half of the short flight, but also because it smelt like Asia of old. From the onset in that first taxi ride from the airport we were delighted.  Myanmar seems like Asian fusion to me. There are elements of several cultures: Chinese, Thai and Indian being the most striking but they are all infused with a uniquely Burmese flavor. I guess if I knew my history better that wouldn’t surprise me but it did.

The Chinese traders of gold in the flashy red shops, the street side fresh vegetable markets groaning with produce and their wily business sense are infused with a mellowing Burmese attitude we discovered yesterday in Chinatown. It is near impossible to discern who is who in terms of heritage but I have never heard less Chinese spoken in a Chinatown before and we have been to a good number around the world as we are automatically drawn to them and always end up loving it!

That quintessentially Thai way of presenting fruit in such an appealing and instantly edible way, the quick, easy, genuine smiles and child like delight in the simplest things as well as the face-painting and Buddhist devotion all instantly take me back to Thailand but here they are still somehow Burmese not just a copy. 

The pan chewing, selling and staining of public streets, the henna red hair of the men, the delicious curry, fried snacks and sweets of many of the street stalls, the lilting Indian accented English, and the many Hindu and Muslim places of worship located in the same neighborhoods also project a similar atmosphere to India but still it is not the same.

There is a cross-cultural feel with pan vendors having Chinese faces and Indian street stalls selling noodles and Burmese dishes. There seems to be no animosity and a great deal of not just tolerance but acceptance, harmony and goodwill.

We delighted in seeing the ever-changing vendors pedal their wares on the circle train loop around Yangon yesterday. Pineapples, pan, stuffed tofu with chilli, donuts with sugar and condensed milk, bananas, and noodles were among the few I could recognize but there were more that I couldn’t. Not all on sale was food and 2 shoulder poles of hats and a variety of Buddhist magazines were also available. That is to say nothing of the bags, basket loads and bundles of fresh vegetables going home with their buyers. The vendors mostly carry their goods on their heads and then plop down on the low stool, they carry with them, in front of each customer, once they have indicated that they will buy. One needs to be quick to make a purchase as the vendors swap carriages at each station and they are only a few minutes apart.

 The 3 hours was a wonderful insight into how and where the real people live and the other passengers were as keen to understand us as we were them. The sheer awe on the faces of the children and elderly as we sidled by the airport runaway was a joy to behold. Once we had past the taxiing planes other passengers crowded around to see if I got any decent snaps and a few gave me the thumbs up. The train was excellent entertainment and great value for a $1 fare even though we suspect that was five times the local rate if not more.

There are many other influences from across the Asian continent too. The ever-present remnants of colonial buildings in decrepit and decaying states, lives lived on the streets, the jumble of washing hanging from barred windows in tiny apartments and the construction, demolition and general chaos of all roads and footpaths to say nothing of traffic that does as it pleases most of the time, remind me of Kunming and many other Chinese cities in the 1980s. The style of clothing for both men and women also bears striking similarity to many other parts of Asia. The food is definitely fusion in some instances but also pure and authentic cuisines in others. The Burmese certainly have their own fresh and tasty dishes and a wide variety of fresh produce from which to create them.

The Buddhist nuns here also seem to play a much more prominent role than in other Asian cultures. 

Here so many men still wear the traditional attire, whereas elsewhere we have been in Asia it is predominately the women who continue the traditions. Last night’s monsoon dinner show us just how versatile those “longyi” wraps the men wear are. As we sat at our outdoor table under the awnings, the skies opened up.
Our little umbrella was no match for the torrential downpour and the one the restaurant offered soon supplemented it. We managed to finish our meal without it floating away but eventually relocated to a slightly better protected table and watched all the men adjust the length of their “skirts” to accommodate the flood waters under the tables and across the road and footpaths while the women just became as soaked to the skin as we were. Just as we had laughed our way through dinner they too giggled their way home and appreciated the cooling and purifying effect.

Today's visit to 14th century Shwedagon Pagoda, the iconic Budddhist symbol of the nation was serene and calming. It is truly a haven of spirituality and a source of national pride. One cannot help but be moved by the beauty and devotion so obviously enshrined in the site and the people, who have protected, restored and revered it for so long. 

Things are looking good for the rest of our 3 week stay and the travel adventures will no doubt shed more light on this very charming, welcoming, playful and respectful culture.

1 comment:

  1. How wonderful, thoroughly enjoyed reading and look forward to the next instalment!