General Articles About Burma

Began, Burma

The Dinner Guest – Began, Burma (Myanmar)

Kipling said, “Burma is like no place you have ever seen.” He was talking about Began. A huge temple complex at the bend of the Irriwaddy River where there are over 3000 temples, some as high as a ten story building.These temples date back to the twelfth century, and cover many square miles. They poke up above the plain, some gold, some white, some a red stone. Most are completely abandoned and open.
I arrived in Began by steamer. It was my intention to climb one of the taller temples and go out a high window and then climb up the outside to get a good view of the plain to photograph the setting sun slapping just the temple tops.
I rented a bicycle and rode with great difficulty along the dirt paths which crisscrossed the entire plain. It was vert hot. I was sweating a good bit. I was alone, I saw no one else. There was a tall red stone temple which stood above all the others and that’s the one I headed for.

Began, Burma

Burmese Temple – Began

All the temples were surrounded by a square wall, about eight feet high. Each one had four gates. North, South East, and West. I leaned my bike against the wall near a gate. I had about 100 yards to cover before reaching the temple. The ground was hot and parched and full of dead prickly grass and plants. It is an important custom among Buddhists to remove your shoes when ever you enter the temple grounds. I am not a Buddhist, But, I respect their traditions. I removed my sneakers and ran across the hot ground, trying to not step on the thorny plants. I reached the temple right at one of the large ornately carved doors.
It was wide open and just inside was a large seated Buddha, eight feet high. He was covered in dust. I passed him and I could just see a stairway before it became pitch black. I found the stairway and groped up it feeling each step as I climbed upwards. I was very afraid that I might find a snake. I’m afraid of snakes. Especially the poisonous ones in Burma.
I probably climbed five stories before I saw light up ahead. I came to a large doorway that lead out to a stone ledge. I Looked around and decided that I could go higher climbing the outside of the temple.
I figured I had about a half hour before the sun set. So, I climbed as fast as I could. I found a good spot. The Irriwaddi was just in back of me and in front were scores of temples, large and small. Two large white ones glistened in the distance. I decided then that I would see them tomorrow.

Began, Burma

Buddha at Burmese Temple – Began

I looked around. Below me was a lean-to hut with a young couple busying themselves around the hut. The woman was gathering small sticks. She took them around to the front of the lean-to and started to build a fire. I watched the small puffs of white smoke rise slowly towards the trees. The husband looked on expectantly. It was dinner time. I started taking pictures of them. When all of a sudden the husband looked up and saw me and waved. I waved back and took his picture. At this point I felt a little embarrassed having been caught. So I raised my gaze to the horizon. Their were yellow parched fields with temples dotted around. In one distant field I could see goats grazing.
A noise startled me. I looked around and here came the husband with a big smile climbing up the outside of the temple. He greeted me with the Burmese word,”Mingalaba” Which means something like “Hey, How ya doing?”. I smiled back, said,”Mingalaba,” and motioned for him to sit down opposite me.
With a big red toothed grin he held up a bag of beetle nuts and offered me some. I took one and popped it in my mouth. He spoke no English and I spoke no Burmese. He pointed to himself and said “Zarni”.I told him my name was “Bill”. I then showed him my camera and pointed to the setting sun and the temples spreading out across the plain. He nodded rapidly several times that he understood my intension. He turned and looked at the sunset and pointed to the beginning of a rising bank of clouds. “Oh Shit” I said aloud. It wasn’t looking good for my sunset shot.
I heard a squeal, and his wife came around the ledge. Her dark eyes were creased in a broad smile. She came directly to her husband and sat up close. He put his arms around her and they both looked at me. So, I took their picture. She said her name was Nanda.
They talked to each other for a few seconds and smiling started to pantomime that they wanted me to have dinner with them. I Glanced at the clouds blocking the sun. I realized that I wouldn’t get my shot, so I happily agreed to dinner.
The climb down was effortless. I kept one hand on the wall to keep my balance in the dark. We popped out into the fading light of day, We went to the nearest gate where I gladly put my sneakers back on. They really felt good. Then we walked towards their lean-to. The fire was just red coals and Nanda immediately left us to gather some more wood.
Zarni motioned for me to go inside and sit down on the bench / bed which ran the full width of the lean-to. There was nothing else in the room except the small fire and a metal grill propped up over the coals. There was no chair. The floor was dirt and the walls were open. A light breeze moved through the room giving some relief to the hot dead air. Underneath the bed was the pantry.

Nanda returned with an armload of small sticks. She got the fire going again. Zarni and I sat on the bed and watched her. He was so excited at having me as a guest that he didn’t know what to do. Everyone was laughing. The two of them talked excitedly back and forth and a decision was made to show me something. Zarni quickly reached under the bed and pulled out a beautiful bone handled carving knife.
He held it out to me with both hands for me to examine. I took it gently and looked at it carefully and told him in english what a fine knife it was, all the while turning it over in my hands. They were obviously pleased at my reaction. I smiled and said excitedly, “Wait until you see what I have.” I reached behind me and pulled out my buck knife. Not just any old buck, this one I bought twenty years ago in Santa Fe. I was just another tourist walking by the indian vendors at the Palace when I saw this knife laid out next to a bunch of silver necklaces. The handle was made of turquoise, mother of pearl and silver. I bought it right then and have rarely been without it.
I handed it to Zarni and he held it up for Nanda to see. She came over and the two of them admired the knife. They were chattering back an forth while pointing to the different stones. I reached over and opened up the blade. What a great reaction, It would have been a superb commercial for Buck.
Nanda reached under the bed and pulled out their one pan and several rather used looking cans. She put the pan on the grate and dug rice out of one can and brown stew looking stuff out of the other and put them into the pan. Then she brought out the dinner ware. There only two plates and their two forks. She set them down in the sand next to the grate and used one of the forks to stir.
Zarni and I sat there carefully watching her. She squatted next to the grate and very confidently watched over our dinner.
It was dark out side now. I am always amazed how quickly it gets dark the nearer you get to the equator. Dinner was ready. Nanda had put the food on the plates. She handed me my plate first, with the clean fork. After she handed Zarni his plate she squatted on the floor facing us.
Here’s the test, they both sat motionless watching as I took my first bite. Dam, it was good! I let out a woop and laughed and told them how really good it was. Far better than I was expecting. They were so pleased. I felt a real feeling of Love for these two. They had nothing and they shared it. They were pure, uncorrupted. Lao Zu would refer to them as the Uncarved Block.
After a very quiet dinner Nanda took the plates and put them into the pan. Then turned and spoke to me. I think she was thanking me for being their dinner guest. I smiled and put my hands together in front of me and gave her a polite bow.

Began, Burma

Bye bye – Began, Burma

I had to think about leaving. But, first I had to find two gifts. I dug around in my camera bag and pulled out a beautiful fan I had been carrying around since China. It was a medium size fan made of white plastic, but moulded to look just like an ancient ivory fan. It was quite beautiful.
When I handed it to her, her eyes got real big and she squealed with delight. Wow, that was a home run. Now what did I have for Zarni? I dug back in to the bag and couldn’t find anything that seemed special. Then I found two very nice ball point pens. I pulled them out and handed them to Zarni. He seemed very pleased. Then he got down and looked on the shelf under the bed and came up with a giant grin and handed me a roll of film. Not in a box but with the tab sticking out the end. I was flabbergasted. And I let him know how pleased I was.
I pointed outside and indicated it was time for me to go. The three of us walked outside. I was glad to see the moon was full. I have to ride about two miles, and I didn’t pay much attention on the way here. They gathered around me and pressed me to come back for another visit. I said I would. We shook hands vigorously, lots of smiles. I felt really good. It was an unforgettable dinner.
I got on my bike and wobbled off into the dark.

— Bill Stanhope

A Weekend Walk in Yangon

A Weekend Walk in Yangon Burma
A Weekend Walk in Yangon Burma
A Weekend Walk in Yangon Burma
A Weekend Walk in Yangon Burma

It’s a gloriously sunny day. Squinting through the window I can make out the magnificent deltas of the Thanlwin, Sittaung and Bago rivers below, looking like hundreds of crooked bony fingers probing into the Andaman Sea. It’s a breathtaking view and I remain transfixed until we touchdown. Myanmar International airport is nothing to write home about and I find it strangely reminiscent of a visit to Tashkent Airport about 12 years ago, but with slightly less rubble to scramble over. That said, the customs staff in this peculiarly cool and airy arrivals hall manage to process the entire flight in minutes and still find time to exchange pleasantries with each passenger.

In most developing countries the newly arrived guest is accosted by hordes of taxi drivers and hotel touts, and Yangon International Airport is no exception. The only difference here is the remarkable politeness of these guys. They accept no for an answer, bid me good day and move to the next potential source of income. It’s a welcome and refreshing change. It’s at this point that I realise that investment in a guide book would have been money well spent. I negotiate with several drivers on the road outside the airport and settle on what seems to be the going rate for the journey to my accommodation.

Most taxis will take either Kyats, US dollar, British pounds or Yen. Dollars can be exchanged at the official money changer booth in the airport, presided over by a crusty old guy with a sinister appearance, where you will get about 450 kyats to the US$1. If you can wait and change money once you’re in Yangon itself you will get 1000 Kyats or more, a much better deal. Be sure to have a few dollars, British pounds or Yen with you on arrival though, just to get you away from the airport, and don’t forget to check that driver is happy to accept whatever currency you have.

As with most taxi drivers across Asia the one who drives me to my chosen accommodation is a Manchester United fan, and even has a brand new Wayne Rooney shirt in his cab, kept neatly folded in a plastic wrapper; apparently a much a prized possession. I haven’t the heart to tell him that I think Rooney, though a talented footballer, is a butt-ugly, foul mouthed thug in my humble opinion. I settle with just telling him that I support the Magpies and he embarrasses me by knowing more than I do about their present struggle to keep from relegation. I really didn’t expect an Yangon taxi driver to be so knowledgeable about the English Premiership; it’s quite a revelation.

I stay at the Classique Inn which is a lovely privately owned guest house nestled amongst the diplomatic residences along Golden Valley road and a short walk from where Aung San Suu Kui is held under house arrest. I arranged this accommodation online prior to my arrival and can strongly recommend their fast and courteous service. They charge US$30 per night for a double room with en-suite and breakfast and for a further US$2 they throw in a dinner too. Once there I change US$75 at a rate of 1100 kyats/US$1 and get landed with a gargantuan pile of the local currency that won’t fit into my wallet and has to be stuffed into an airmail envelope. A short taxi ride with yet another Man U supporter and I am in downtown Yangon, after a brief stop to change a deflated tyre for an inflated but bold one. The taxis in Yangon are almost exclusively white, Japanese, at least 20 years old and right hand drive; odd in a country where they drive on the right hand side. In fact most of the private vehicles are right hand drive also, not just taxis. Presumably a sign that they get most of their vehicles as second-hand imports from a country that drives on the left.
 
My aim is to explore Yangon on foot. Hot as it is, the climate is much more suited to walking than Bangkok and the traffic a great deal more pedestrian friendly. I walk for hours through busy streets, crammed with locals in sarongs busying to and fro, through markets with colourful displays of exotic fruits spread out on the floor, garment merchants selling material in all patterns and designs, sarong peddlers, men selling cheap plastic toys, book sellers and street tobacconists. Someone is selling something on every street, under every tree and on every corner. I try to install a new film in my camera but have a problem. I find a camera repair shop with far too many assistants for its clear lack of customers and try explaining my problem to a young guy at the door. He shares the dilemma with a few of his colleague and then collectively they refer it to a evil looking bearded guy perched on a stool at the other end of the shop. He takes my camera in complete silence, fiddles a little and then solves the problem in an instant. I ask how much but he just slowly shakes his head and throws me a knowing wink. All his underlings are suitably impressed by his performance with the foreigner’s camera and can’t stop smiling.
 
Everywhere I go there is an aroma of some kind in this city of fragrant streets; scent, food, tobacco, incense, pleasant and exotic cooking smells. Filthy canals and open drains don’t seem to be in as much abundance as they are in Bangkok. Yangon is in no way a romantic city and falls well short of being even picturesque at first viewing but it has a certain charm that, mixed with the friendliness of its people, is quite intoxicating. I read somewhere that Yangon was once the ‘garden city’ of SE Asia. Though it is undeserving of such a flowery monika at present it is easy to see that it would have been quite a place in its heyday. On this first day I already want to return and learn more about the country, wishing my stay wasn’t so short
 
The buildings are generally old colonial with modern cheaply constructed units dotted between them, and here and there more recent multi-storey monstrosities. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of colonialism the resulting architecture is surely an asset to any cityscape. Unfortunately even some of the colonial buildings that are still in use have been sorely neglected and look tired and miserable. It’s a city in need of a sympathetic makeover.
 
Busy as the streets are I can’t help feeling alone. Foreigners are scarce and once away from the absolute centre I’m soon aware that I’m the only white face around. At no point do I feel in danger or the need to worry, even when sauntering through the most run down areas of town or when, as on several occasions, I’m stopped from taking photos or going down certain streets by armed soldiers and police.
 
Several hours of walking and I have the town pretty much sown up and retire to the 20th floor of the Sakure Tower for refreshments and to view the city from above. The crumbling buildings look even worse from up here, roofs caved in on many of them. I was right about the makeover. The view reminds me of Cairo where you suddenly go from city to desert. Yangon is similar, but with considerably less pyramid. Stretching before me is the chaos of Yangon, right up to the river which acts as a buffer between city and nothingness. On the other side of the river is nothing, just open plains littered with the occasional cluster of trees.
 
I’ve been wanting to visit Yangon for some time and my first impression of it is favourable. I think you know if you’re going to like somewhere the moment you see it, and arriving in Yangon with no pre-conception of what to expect I am pleasantly surprised by what I find and know straight away that I like it. It’s a step back in time and is, I imagine, similar to Bangkok in the early seventies, but it has charm and the people are truly warm and welcoming. More than once I’ve been stopped by strangers for a quick handshake and to wish me well, leaving me wondering if I’ve just been the victim of a scam or theft of some kind. In fact it is just a refreshing and genuine attack of politeness and good manners from a people only too happy to see faces from outside grace their streets. Without exaggeration almost everyone I’ve made eye contact with has smiled and or said hello. The true ‘land of smiles’ if ever there is one.
 
Another taxi ride, this one with a chirpy Liverpool fan, and I’m back at the Classique Inn where the staff serve a fabulous local dish for dinner incorporating a wholesome vegetable soup, spicy chicken pieces with vegetables and a simple caramel nut dessert, all washed down with local beer and served alfresco on a quaint little patio beneath a large coconut tree that dangles heavy coconuts perilously above my head from about thirty feet.
 
I intend to go out and explore the Yangon nightlife but get sidetracked by the staff of the Classique who are keen to talk about Myanmar and all it has to offer. Later an American girl arrives fresh off the plane from Bangkok. She’s one of many foreigners I’ve spoken to who is visiting the country for a three month spell of meditation and we talk late into the evening over a several beers. Despite her best attempts I remain unconvinced as to the usefulness of spending three months sat cross-legged and going ‘ohm’ whilst depriving yourself of beer, fags and all your favourite food. Despite our differences of opinion we get along fine, though I decide it’s time for goodbye when she claims to have a ‘spiritual connection with the people of Myanmar’. A bold claim for someone who has only been in the country for a few hours.
 
Breakfast alfresco on the patio at 6.30 sharp and then I walk down to the famous Shwe Dagon pagoda. The original pagoda is said to date back some 2,500 years and contain 8 hairs from the Lord Buddha given to a couple of brothers from Myanmar on a pilgrimage to the north of India. Not being one for temples and pagodas I visit Shwe Dagon mainly because I had been told that it was a must for any visitor to Yangon. It is. As pagodas go this one is definitely the daddy. Built on a mount there is quite a walk up, barefoot, until you reach the base of the pagoda. But it is worth it. Standing more than 90m high from its base, which is greater than 420m in perimeter and in the region of 50m above the surrounding city, this golden ‘winking wonder’ dominates the surrounding complex of smaller pagodas, statues shrines and Tazaungs. Sarong clad locals are in abundance; praying, relaxing, meditating or simply, as it appears, chewing the fat with friends. There is a truly pleasant atmosphere and I would have stayed a while longer had I not been on a strict time frame due to my lunchtime flight.
 
From Shwe Dagon I continue north-east and make my way to Nga Hat Gyee, on the recommendation of one of the staff at the Classique, to view another temple and several hundred monks learning about meditation. Meditation appears to be quite a popular pastime for both locals and foreigners alike. At Nga Hat Gyee I’m told there is a Brit in residence who has been meditating now for six months solid, and for free. I politely decline an offer to meet him and continue my walk. I can’t imagine what I could possibly talk about to a guy who has been meditating almost exclusively for six months.
 
From Nga Hat Gyee I head south taking in the picturesque Kan Daw Gyi Lake and then along Zoological Garden Street, past the Aung San Stadium and back to the downtown area. It is in the area of the stadium that I am the victim of a money changer scam. Keen to change the pile of Kyats I still have left back to dollars I fall for the sales patter of a money changer and follow him back to his ‘shop’, a small, sweaty, hole in the wall affair populated by several of his countrymen. There’s a great deal of pushing and shoving, a fair amount of bullshit to distract me and I’m down 10,000 Kyats with nothing to do about it. We continue the transaction with the remainder of my money and I leave, somewhat pissed at myself for letting this happen. Two of them follow me out of the shop begging me to come back and solve our ‘misunderstanding’. Accepting my loss I suggest where they can put their solutions and move on. They hassle tourists in the area around the stadium and look Indian. Avoid at all cost or take extreme care.
 
Yangon is not for those addicted to the creature comforts of modern 21st century living. The streets are not awash with luxury shopping malls or American fast food retailers; though they do have a local equivalent complete with golden arches called Mac Burger and a doughnut shop that looks remarkably familiar. You’ll have trouble getting a mobile on an overseas network to work and your options for nightlife are somewhat more limited than Bangkok, Singapore or even KL. That said, it is a great place to visit to experience that something a little out of the ordinary. As for the moral argument about whether or not to visit just think about the people. Do you think they really want to be isolated? It’s easy enough to visit Myanmar and limit the amount of money you actually throw into government coffers. If you visit major government tourist attractions, fly with MIA or use the state transport system and hotels you’ll be contributing to the system and arguably prolonging the hell. If, on the other hand, you organise the trip yourself and use only privately owned accommodation, private taxis for transport and avoid anything with state involvement the only money you’ll be giving the government will be the US$10 airport tax on departure. One thing is for sure, the people of Yangon clearly welcome visitors to their country.