Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Day 1 -- Yangon

From Singapore, it was another three hour flight to Yangon. By this time Ellery and I were definitely traveled out, but the time went quickly as Ellery fell fast asleep and I chatted with a very nice auditor from Singapore

Arrival in Yangon was very smooth, although everything is still done by hand, so it isn't quick. Despite dire warnings I was able to cash my not-new, $20 bills, although it seemed to take forever and there was a ton of paperwork involved. I suspect most people change money on the black market not to get a better rate, but instead to save time

TinTin (our guide, not the Belgian dog) was there just as promised with the driver. It took roughly 1/2 hour to get to the hotel, where Ellery and I relaxed for a bit and changed out of our less-than-fresh clothing.

Then it was off to a quick few hours sight-seeing, which appears to be all the time you really need in Yangon. The main attraction is the Shwedagon Pagoda, really a large complex of probably 40 buildings and hundreds of Buddhas all surrounding a giant gold pagoda -- one so big that you can see it from the airplane on your way in. Apparently there are incredible jewels at the top, but you cant see them. Surrounding the pagoda, in particular, are seven Buddhas, one for each day of the week. Below each of these seven Buddhas is the animal symbol for that day. And what one does is dowse with water the buddha and the symbol for the day of the week you were born in prayer to Buddha; if you have s lucky number, that's how many times you pour the water. So, we visited Wednesday's shrine, with its elephant, for my birthday, and Ellery's tiger Monday. Anyway, the whole complex is lots of gold and mirrors, and even some neon disco lights around some of the Buddhas (to show enlightenment) giving the whole place a shimmer. Oh, and since it was Aung San Suu Kyi's birthday, there were many people at the shrine praying for her good health.

From there we drove around the city center for a bit. Yangon is pretty much what one would expect - decaying buildings of two main styles - British Colonial and cinder block and cement. Even the few new buildings look old. The cars as well are mostly from the seventies - and most interesting, they have cars with steering wheel on both the left and the right; it seems that whatever could be imported was. (Streets are driving on the right). In front of the buildings are street stalls offering all kinds of food and goods. Most popular are the tea stalls, with plastic chairs arranged along the sides of the walkway. Food ranges from incredible fruits, corn on the cob, fried potatoes, noodle dishes and meat satay.

Like most countries in the developing world, there's lots of traffic, and packed buses and trucks with people hanging out the sides and the back, but there are some differences. No tuk-tuks, no motorbikes, only a few pedal bikes, and no honking. Yes, honking is banned here except for emergencies - in Thailand and India, it's the opposite. So, it's interesting to walk around and not hear the cacophony of car horns.

As for the people, almost all - men and women - wear longhi. Very few people in pants of any kind and what jeans they do have appear to be of the slim, nearly legging style. And everyone wears flip flops; very few covered toes. On their faces, most girls and women wear a tan paste in big circles on their cheeks, made from tree bark. I'm told it is a good sunblock and skin softener, but I think I'll pass.

Back to the sightseeing. Eventually we stopped at a tea house for something to eat and drink. Food here is like a dim sum restaurant - different small plates of soft chewy bao, fried dumplings and pot stickers and the like. Tea is drank heavily laden with cream and sugar, making it pretty unrecognizable as green tea. Afterward, as Ellery was falling asleep in the car and didn't feel well, we dropped her off at the hotel before continuing on to the HUGE reclining Buddha at Kyaukhtatgyi Pagoda. 70 meters long and of recent vintage, this thing was the biggest Buddha I've seen. The feet alone were two or three people tall. Really quite stunning.

From there it was on to one of the two lake parks in the city, Kandawgyi Park, surrounded by a wooden footpath, in the middle sits a replica of the old royal barge which had been destroyed in WWII. Evidently it is a restaurant inside, but the outside glimmers and it's reflection in the lake is beautiful.

Then it was a walk through the city center, passing all of the embassies and government buildings, and the Strand hotel, all left over from British colonial rule. Nothing spectacular; the street scene was much more interesting. We also stopped to make over a dozen copies of our passports and visas on a very old copier; I'm told we will need to give these to government officials along the way.

Finally we returned back to the hotel for some much needed sleep before our 6 am flight (eek!) to Bagan.

(pictures will have to wait - Internet is too slow here)