Monthly Archives: July 2014

#HallsSEAsia Part Two: YANGON

“You most likely know it as Myanmar, but it’ll always be Burma to me …” J. Peterman

About halfway through our visit to Myanmar, I remembered this particular Seinfeld episode.  My pre-trip knowledge of and exposure to anything Burmese was pretty much limited to that clip.  As we planned out each phase of our summer, we were probably the most nervous about this leg.  The least developed nation of the six we visited with a history of political unrest, Myanmar was an enigma to us.  We had some trouble procuring visas initially and even encountered a bit of difficulty once we got there.   Having lived in Indonesia for a year, we thought we knew a little about developing countries, but Myanmar was different than anything we’d ever experienced.

A few weeks before we left a particular Facebook status caught my attention.  A former University of Central Oklahoma student whom I knew from some international student ministry in my UCO days posted that she had just arrived in Yangon.  I hadn’t spoken with Khing Zar in nearly six years, but we were soon “virtually reunited” as I solicited her for travel advice.  It turned out that our time in Myanmar would overlap, and she very graciously volunteered to be our personal tour guide around Yangon.

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After checking in at our hotel (3rd floor, no elevator, STEEP stairs, twin beds, no hot water), we ventured out for lunch.  We opted to walk to a place David selected from the guide book, an Indian restaurant that ended up costing about $4 total for our entire meal.  Many of the places we visited this summer were somewhat touristy; we sometimes found ourselves in a sea of white faces depending on where we were and what we were doing that day.  In Yangon, this was not the case.  I’m somewhat used to being stared at in Lippo Cikarang, but this was something else entirely.  Everywhere we went in the city we got stares, and very rarely did we see another Westerner.

Beautyland Hotel II
Beautyland Hotel II
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View to the left
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View to the right

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It rained most of the day, which somewhat put a damper on our plans to visit the pagodas Yangon is famous for.  We met up with Khing Zar that afternoon and made a drizzly visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the city’s most revered religious site.  While we visited many, many temples during our “Burmese Days” (Orwell, anyone?), I’m so glad that this was our first.  I don’t know how to describe the magnitude of this stupa.  Even looking back through our pictures, nothing quite captures the effort that went in to creating something so large and ornate.  We climbed the stairs to the base of the spire and immediately were surrounded by Buddha statues.  They. were. everywhere.  Few people were there to observe; most were almost entranced in worshipful prayers or dutiful washings.  This was so incredibly foreign to us.

Shwedagon Pagoda
Shwedagon Pagoda

Khing Zar first pointed out to us a group of women washing a Buddha that corresponded to the day of the week they had been born.  She explained that by washing, in Buddhist thought they were accumulating merit for themselves.  Many people kneeled before the statues; some bowed.  Some people offered incense and some rang bells.  Others repeated mantras using prayer beads, completing one round for each year of their life.

Women washing the Buddha
Women washing the Buddha

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After observing the very ritualistic worship and having limited knowledge of Buddhism prior to the trip, I had a few questions.  It appeared to me that the people worshiping at the pagoda were worshipping Buddha himself.  My understanding of the religion was that Buddha did not intend to be worshipped but rather taught a philosophy of living and existence.  When I asked Khing Zar about this, she understood my dissonance, noting the difference and disparity between the teaching of the Buddha and some modern Buddhist practice.  She compared it to Christians and Christmas.  Her understanding of the real meaning of Christmas and the commercialized American celebration of Christmas are worlds apart in her eyes.

That night was packed with even more culture as we attended a dinner showcasing dances from around Myanmar.  The hair, makeup, and costumes mimicked traditional Burmese fashions, and the dances were quite entertaining.

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Khing Zar also took us to Bogyoke Aung San Market where we picked up some souvenirs and didn’t eat bugs, although they were for sale.  🙂  We did, however, eat goat intestine for lunch and duck feet and raw shrimp for dinner.  Khing Zar’s mother took us out our last night in Yangon and made sure to give us a true Burmese culinary experience!  While Mrs. Win barely spoke any English, her hospitality and generosity were abundantly evident, and our dinner with their family will remain one of our best trip memories.

Market Visit
Market visit (notice the woman napping under the produce)
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We DID eat goat intestine …
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We did NOT eat insects …
Win Family
Win Family

Before heading out on an overnight bus to Mandalay (tickets courtesy of the generous Win family), Khing Zar and her sister took us to the site where pro-democracy advocate and national leader Aung San Suu Kyi had been held under house arrest for 15 years.

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A huge thanks to Khing Zar for sharing those two days with us.  We were able to experience the city in a way no guide book could ever suggest!

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#HallsSEAsia Part One: SINGAPORE

2924 photos. Two thousand, nine hundred and twenty four! This is what I’m left sorting through from five weeks of travel in Southeast Asia, and that’s after all my preemptive deletes. No need to worry; I won’t post all 2924 pictures. 😉 I am realizing, however, that I need about another five weeks to sort and edit and process and write about all the incredible moments and sights. Unfortunately, no one’s paying me to self indulgently share our summer travels, and the people who do pay me to educate children kinda demand I be back in a week. And while there’s so much that needs to get done for school and around the house in said week, if I don’t post at least a few thoughts and pictures now, I never will.

David and I have been planning this trip since Christmas when our brother-in-law got us the definitive travel guide Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. Our school pays for a trip back to the States at the end of our two year contract and every subsequent summer should we stay longer than two years, so this summer was our only real opportunity to travel in this area for an extended period of time. We planned to take full advantage and mapped out a whirlwind tour through Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, with quick bookend visits to Singapore.

While I could write multiple posts about each country we visited, I’m going to do my best to limit myself to one post per passport stamp. 🙂 This is quite the abridged version, but any time you’re in Indonesia, feel free to stop by for some rambling commentary on just under 3000 photos.


SINGAPORE

We only spent one day in Singapore, as we had both been there a couple times before. We do love the city, however, and took full advantage of its first-world-country advantages. We ate delicious Mediterranean food in Kampong Glam (best baba ghanoush ever at Cafe Le Caire) and street food in Chinatown. We did all our last minute summer shopping (sunscreen … new backpack … travel yoga mat) and visited the Asian Civilizations Museum in preparation for the rest of our trip.

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On our first visit to Singapore last summer, we had an interesting conversation with our cabbie on the way in from the airport. When he found out we were leaving the next day for Jakarta, he knowingly made this prediction: “Singapore, it’s like heaven. Jakarta … I think you will cry.” After a year to discover its truth on our own, in many ways our cabbie was right. We (okay I) have shed our fair share of tears in Jakarta, and every visit to Singapore has seemed other-worldly in its cleanness and efficiency in comparison. The public transportation system alone has us singing its praises. In our one night there this summer, however, we got a glimpse of the reality of life for some of its residents and realized that even seeming Utopias aren’t always pretty underneath.

As we were walking back to our hotel that night rather late, I was startled to see a man sleeping on a large raised planter. We quickly noticed several others sleeping on the ground underneath a skywalk connecting two buildings. We saw shopping carts packed full of belongings near people sleeping underneath the shelter of hedges. It looked like a full fledged homeless community. This was a nice part of town. I have never seen people begging or noticed any homeless people during the day. It had been easy to glamorize Singapore as devoid of problems like homelessness and poverty. Amidst the wealth and sophistication of this city, however, lurked a stark reminder of its own need and imperfection.

Our one night in Singapore on the front end and five hour layover on the tail end provided nice bookends to our #HallsSEAsia summer tour.  Stay tuned for post #2: Myanmar!