“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!