|Mingalerbar (hello) from Myanmar! We are four days into our five week trip so far. The first two cities we visited have been Yangon and Bagan.
We cannot be in Myanmar without commenting about the international outrage directed at this country for the "ethnic cleansing" actions that took place in the Rakhine State of the Rohingya people just last fall. As a tourist, we have not felt any threat to our safety. In fact, the local people are very gentle and genuine. They practice Buddhism very devotedly and therefore this is reflected in how they conduct themselves in public and most certainly in the pagodas and temples. Violence is not part of their DNA. What is happening in Rakhine State is unacceptable and yes, mass killing in such a public manner must be punished. We have been told by our guides that it is not about religion but more about a community purposefully defying the laws of the land which has now created this international incident. The government in Myanmar is very complicated--the military is equally if not more powerful than the elected government. The actions taken in the Rakhine State against the Rohingyas were made by the generals in the military. There is a great sense of frustration that the perception of their country is held in such low regard, barbaric in fact as the use of "crimes against humanity" allegations are being made about them and since they are so poor already, international retaliation in the form of trade embargoes or withholding aid can only hurt the people further. Their hope is that the town of Bagan will soon be a designated UNESCO site in 2019 to bring positive attention to this region. They are such lovely people, kind and patient and most of all, fiercely proud despite their lack of financial resources.
Burma was originally named by Colonials and even though they had declared their
independence in 1958, it took quite some time for the elected official to reclaim their country by changing it to Myanmar, meaning "fast and strong" in 1988. Correspondingly, Rangoon was renamed Yangon. The Monks in this country are highly regarded. You can differentiate them by the colour of their robes, orange for Thailand and brown and red for locals. The women wear pink. One of the customary clothing items worn by both men and women is called a "longxi". It is similar to a sarong however, a little more finished. We noticed that more men and women in Yangon were wearing more western clothing, like pants and shorter skirts, but in the towns and villages, the locals wore longxis exclusively. Other than this was tradition, this practice was very practical as you must cover your legs when entering a pagoda as a sign of respect, so the longxi fulfilled this requirement. Of course the womens' longxis were way more fashionable!
The colour of license plates on vehicles also have significant meanings; black--private, blue--tour companies, green--NGO's, red--taxis and school buses and white for dignitaries. In 1962 they changed from left handed to right handed driving on the roads. The cars are split between steering wheels on the right versus the left so it does create a fair bit of confusion on the roads. We found that you take your life in your hands walking across the roads as they are not pedestrian friendly. The average monthly salary for blue and white collar workers ranges from $180 to $200 US dollars per month. KYAT is the local currency and 1000 KYAT = $1 USD. Even with such a low standard of living, these people are happy. We rarely encountered any beggars.
Things we have observed between Yangon and Bagan so far. Yangon is much bigger and busier and you notice a difference when you try to move around the city mid-day. Traffic is congested making it very challenging from getting from point a to b. However, our lovely guide Nilar said, she's not aware of any accidents involving cars or pedestrians so they just have their own unique system. Yangon has a feeling of a city that is becoming modernized with new construction growth but at the same time still has the historical attraction with all the pagodas and yet very poor neighbourhoods exited, too. They have seniors' home called "Day Care for the Aged". Bagan by contrast feels very rural and offers a small town charm. Our guide in Bagan, who is a father of 3 and likely around 50 years old, does not like the change he has seen in recent years. He feels it is getting dangerous with all the traffic in the city which for a large part is motor bikes. Having private guides is a great way to travel as they really provide you with personalized knowledge of the history and culture of the cities and country.
Our hotel in Yangon was really nice. The breakfast buffet was likely the second best we have ever experienced, the first was in Singapore. When a restaurant offers foods ranging from congee, noodle soup, bacon and eggs, waffles and yogurt it makes a great start to the day. Upon departing Yangon, we were surprised to see a modern domestic airport terminal.
We visited many pagodas in Yangon and Bagan--the tallest, the oldest, the biggest, the most sacred and still there were still thousands we did not visit! The architecture of the pagodas is really amazing. Many of them were constructed in the 11th and 12th centuries without the use of metal or wood. They were constructed of bricks and minimal amounts of mortar and the average length of time to build one was 10 years. What was really impressive was how they construct the arches by placing the bricks both vertically and horizontally. They were built to last as they were able to withstand significant earthquakes in 1975 and 2016 with minimal damage.
Bagan is a city of 50,000 people, although it feels really small and quaint, and over 2,000 pagodas. The country side is peppered with them many of which are not visited anymore. We started our day by visiting a local market which is open 7 days per week. They sold a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, fish, chicken, pork and rice. The market included places to grab a bite to eat if you desired. We had the pleasure of visiting a number of pagodas and each of them offered unique features. Many of the pagodas are being restored after many years of neglect. We also visited a local monastery which is home to 126 young male orphans. They are housed, fed and schooled and all the food is donated by local farmers. The generosity falls in line with their faith in "paying it forward". Be kind to people today and be rewarded in the future. The children lost their parents to civil war and natural disasters. Our last stop of the day was watching the sunset on the Irrawaddy river which was so romantic :).
Day two in Bagan started with a roadside stop were the locals were making alcohol, palm fruits and palm sugar treats. We had a snack and a small sample of their alcohol products. The next stop was one of the highlights of the trip so far. We visited a rural village of 350 people. The village was comprised of dirt lanes, chickens, pigs, cows and small huts and no running water. We brought pens, note pads and Canadian flag pins to give to the children. We started with handing out the pens and paper and putting on a pin to the first 3 children we encountered, then two more and all of sudden they were coming from all corners of the village. Once we had provided the pens, paper and pins to all the children we were walking back to the car and two young boys aged five years old came running up to David and held his hand. One of them was quite taken by his Garmin watch and the fact that things happened every time he swiped the face or pushed a button. Our next stop was Mt. Popa resort which provided us with a chance to get some exercise. We climbed the 777 steps to the top of the mountain and of course back down. Along the way up we encountered vendors selling both food and merchandise but the abundance of monkeys was a main attraction. The view from the top was spectacular.
Day three was spent on a boat cruise on the Irrawaddy river which departed Bagan at 5:30 am and arrived in Mandalay at 7:00 pm. A quite relaxing day which provided us with an opportunity to see both a stunning sunrise and sunset, many waterfront villages and of course, many many more pagodas. We were able to read, nap and play numerous games of cribbage over the 14 hour excursion before arriving into the city of Mandalay which has a population of 1.5 million people.
Thank you all for following along with us on our AMAZING AMAZING adventure! We've been on a whirlwind tour since we arrived in Myanmar, except for the 14 hour cruise up the Irawaddy River but without WIFI, we could not get onto this site. We will update you on our day in beautiful Mandalay and Chiang Mai in our next post.