Walking through the streets of Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, I could really see that Myanmar is at a crossroads, both culturally and economically. It shares the bustle of Vietnam, the welcoming smile of the Laos people, the dark past of the Cambodians and the Buddhist mystique of Thailand. Yet, somehow, it felt like what India was thirty years ago. My hotel was on the border between Chinatown and Indiatown, and like in Vietnam, I had to weave my way through the activity on the sidewalk, the plastic stools where men drank tea, the noodle stands and the open aired markets. Everywhere I went people said "hello, where are you from? Where are you going?". But unlike other parts of Asia, where they want to get money out of you, in Myanmar, they genuinely want to know, and help if they can. Men used wooden crates to make their "cheroot", betel nut and chewing tobacco rolled in leaves, giving them that infamous stained red teeth. I sat at a crowded tea shop and watched the activity pass, before heading to the infamous Shwedogan Pagoda, said to house eight hairs of the Buddha. The Pagoda is breathtaking at sunset, as the tower turns crimson and the monks begin their chants. A group of monks came over to practice their english, asking us where we were from and what we do. At the end of the conversation, one monk spread is arms and said, "I wanted to thank you for choosing to come to my country, and welcome to Myanmar." That would be the beginning of a series of welcoming gestures from the burmese people.
After taking in the many cultures of bustling Yangon, I took the overnight bus to Bagan, the city of temples. We pulled into Bagan at 4am just in time to see the monks, dressed in crimson colored robes, walk the town for the morning alms. We were greeted at the bus station in the pitch black with horse-carts, which are, exactly what they sound like. Sitting on a wooden crate on wheels being dragged around town by a horse, I felt as if I had found the wild wild west. At 5am, we took bikes and flashlights and set out to the temples, to find one to climb in time for the sunrise. I dont remember the last time I was voluntarily awake at 5am and at peace enough to watch a sunrise, but I've
clearly been missing out. The sky went from black to purple to a light blue, and then slowly turned a golden orange and pink as the sun began to seep through the valley, illuminating each temple as it went. It was calming, majestic, and even spiritual in its own way. After a day at the temples, a much different experience from the crowds at Angkor Wat, I hopped on a bus to Inle Lake.
Inle Lake thrives with communities of villages that use it as a lifesource. It serves as a transport hub, with wooden canoes lining the canals to enter the lake each day. Villagers go to work by the lake, boats full of children commute the daily route to school each morning and businesses moving goods ship their items over water. It's a source of food, with floating gardens and farms, and fishermen who wake in the early dawn to set up camp in the middle of the lake. Its a religious center, housing floating temples and pagodas. And it serves as a towncenter, with floating markets bringing the villagers together each day to buy food. Craftsmen's stilted stores line the lake, preserving age old professions like blacksmiths, weavers, seamstresses and basket makers. And naturally, each day comes to a close in Inle with a boat full of monks floating by doing their evening chants. I fell so in love with Inle that I chose to ignore the creeping influx of tourist offices and western restaurants starting to surface.
After Inle, I headed for Mandalay, the busy, noisy, congested , dusty city of the north. The greatest part about Mandalay is getting out of Mandalay to the surrounding areas. I toured the Shan State by motorbike and got my first encounter with chinese capitalist? (surely not communist) encroachment. We were heading up a hill on motorbike when we passed a construction site with Chinese signs on it. My driver, a local Shan, explained that they were building an electricity power unit. The Myanmar government sells land inhabited by Shan farmers to the Chinese companies, which move in and force the people out of their homes and off their land. Farther out in the Shan State, where the junction of two rivers create the Irawaddy, the Chinese built a hydroelectric damn. This junction is not only a symbol of national identity and cultural pride for the Shan, but also a lifesource. When the government sold the area to the Chinese, local farmers protested so fervently that they were stalked and harassed by government officials. The Shan State has an ethnic army, built up by kidnapping village children and forcing them into it. But many ethnic states create armies, like the Shan, to protect themselves, and their land, from their own government. The restricted areas forbidden to tourists are restricted by the government because they reveal a very ugly side of Myanmar, with a large opium trade and massive human rights violations.
That was the end of my tour of Myanmar, I spent the last two weeks teaching English at a monastery in Sagaing which requires an entirely new post/spiel about the greatness that is Myanmar.