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Yangon (Rangoon)

Wednesday 28th September, 2005

By the time my plane came in to land at Yangon airport I'd already seen a number of the golden stupas - or zedis, as they are called here - that are dotted all over the land of Myanmar (Burma). The airport was tiny - just one room for immigration, baggage reclaim and customs. I grabbed a cab outside, impressed by the English of the taxi touts, who chatted to me and inevitably listed English premier league teams and players - The Beckham, being everyone's favourite, of course. It took a good half an hour to get into town, and I stared through the open window, waving back at those who smiled and waved at me.

I'd chosen the Golden Smile Inn from the guidebook, but was not impressed with their $8 rooms with shared bathroom. I walked to two other places (includind the wonderfully named Daddy's Home), which each had a multitude of steps to get to dingy, overpriced rooms. The sweat was pouring off me, but I remained stubborn, put my pack back on and set off to try a forth option. I walked on pavements that looked like they'd been ripped up by earthquakes, and was struck by the amount of people standing around at stalls, or pushing past each other, in a hurry to get somewhere. Some had very dark skin, and Indian features; there were women sporting bindis, indicating they were Hindus; I saw men with head coverings and beards that showed Allah was their god; most people were wearing longis, the tubular sarongs, ankle-length and tied in a knot in front for men, while slightly shorter and tucked smoothly in for women; often the friendly smiles revealed teeth hideously stained or missing, the trademark of a habitual chewer of betel - the pavements were decorated with numerous red splotches, if further proof of the popularity of this mild intoxicant were needed.

Sule Paya, a Buddhist temple in Yangon, Myanmar I reached Sule Paya, a fair-sized golden zedi in the centre of downtown, and tried my luck at Garden Guest House. The reception was one floor up, and I had to laugh at the sign that read "climbing the stairs helps to improve your general fitness", although it was through gritted teeth. I plumped for a $4 windowless fan room, with shared bathroom right opposite. It wasn't too big, but I found I quite liked it. The sheets were grubby, but the floor was clean...I guess it would really have been better the other way around, but still. I filled out the forms and handed over my passport so the man could check that I'd got the details correct, putting a little tick next to name, passport number etc. as he went. I paid for two nights in advance, handing over a $10 bill, and getting the change in kyat (pronounced cha', with a glottal stop at the end), so I could buy a bottle of water and begin to rehydrate.

As a general rule here, things like accommodation, entrance fees and trains or boats are advertised and must be paid in dollars. The local currency is used for food, buses and other such things. My first job was to get hold of some kyat, as you cannot buy the currency outside the country (it is illegal to import or export kyat), and the exchange booths at the airport work on the official rate, which is not so good; I was going to exchange on the black market. I spotted a tourist as I left the hotel, and quizzed him as to the rate he had got. He'd managed to get 1,248 to the dollar, and told me he'd got that at Bogyok Aung San market from a jewellers there. You get a better rate for $100 bills, but I only had $50s, so took two along.

Just outside the market I was approached by a man who offered me 1,250 straight off - I was surprised by this, and immediately suspicious, but followed him to the shop he was touting for, explaining that I only had $50 notes. I was motioned to sit down, and handed two veritable bricks of money to count, in 500 kyat bills (the largest is just 1,000). I slowly counted, checking that each one was a 500, not some smaller note. When I'd finished checking the first wad I sat on it, to ensure there could be no sleight of hand. Halfway through my count of the second, the lights went out - power cuts are common here - and my heart started to pound as I carefully counted, remaining aware of those around me at the same time. They were both spot on, and the rest of the notes that had been placed on my lap added up to the right amount - just 50 kyat had been held back as it was two $50s not one $100 that I was changing. It seemed to good to be true, but with definite movements I put the money in my bag and handed over my greenbacks, thanked the man and left, watching my back as I zigzagged though the stalls on my way out. I stopped at the nearest cafe to the market, buying an iced coffee, and checking that the money was accepted, that the notes were not fake. All good though - I'd lucked out, and returned to stash my cash.


I wanted to get a sleeper train up to Mandalay, and read that they fill up fast, as there are only a couple of carriages of them on a couple of the trains. I walked to the station, and found the advance purchase counter, and asked hopefully whether they had anything available for Thursday or Friday. Friday was fully booked, but there was one berth free on Thursday; I asked if I could book it.

"Oh no," replied the rotund man behind the counter, shaking his head firmly. "It's no good for you. It's up, near the roof." He gestured with his hand.

"Well that's OK," I said, knowing that the berths are only two high, "I'm sure I'll be fine. I'll have that one, please."

"No, no, no. No good, no good," he insisted vehemently.

"But..." then I remembered reading in the guidebook that it is a cultural insult for a woman to ride on the roof of a vehicle or boat to any male passengers beneath - something to do with us being lesser mortals, I suspect. "Ah, it is no good for me because I am a woman, yes? I should have the bottom one only?"

"Yes," he said, looking relieved. "There is space on Saturday."

Well, what can you do? I asked to book a bottom bunk for Saturday...only I didn't have my passport with me, so he told me I should come back the next day, around ten. I did so, but it was still not plain sailing, as I did not have the exact money - the fare was $33, and I had $35. He would not allow me to pay the $3 in kyat, or give me $2 worth of change in kyat, but sent me away to get change. I hope the train journey is worth it after all that!

Shwedagon Paya, Myanmar's most important Buddhist templeI'd had a look around Sule Paya the day I arrived, but on Wednesday I wanted to visit Shwedagon Paya, which is said to be one of the highlights of the whole country. I decided to walk the couple of kilometres there, not only because I am tight, but also as I believe that you get to see more on foot, especially in cities. I walked out of the downtown area, answering the regular hellos, and found the streets to be less crowded as I moved further out. The pavements were slippery, and underneath them ran sewers, visible through missing paving slabs. At one point a sizeable sewage river flowed in a gully along the edge of the road - or at the very least a river with a lot of sewage in it.

I'd gone a little off course, when I came to a compound where the fence was topped with barbed wire. The melody of "The Green, Green Grass of Home" floated out, possibly from a kareoke machine; an eclectic mixture of popular songs form the West have been covered by Myanmar bands, so it is common to hear familiar tunes with distinctly unfamiliar words. Behind the fence were blocks of housing, which had more of the feel of barracks or a prison than regular flats. Washing hung on balconies, and women stood by their doors gossiping with each other, some nursing infants. The barbed wire continued, and a number of gates I passed were firmly padlocked. I then reached one gate that was not locked, although it was guarded by a man in uniform. There was a sign attached to the gate, with Myanmar script and the transliteration "Cantonement Area".

I continued past the end of the compound, past a sign reading "Relaxation Zone" outside a park. I stopped for lunch, inadvertently choosing somewhere quite posh, though it only cost me a couple of thousand kyat. I could tell it was a cut above as an attentive waiter sprang into action everytime I emptied my small cup of Chinese tea, pouring another from the pot. Once my food arrived, I cringed as another waiter took up position and began to fan away the flies - my own punkah wallah. I thanked him, but dismissed his services.

View of Shwedagon Paya from the top of the steps I approached Shwedagon Paya from the southern entrance, removing my shoes before mounting the first step. The slowly sloping, covered staircase was lined with stalls selling religious paraphenalia. The ceiling was made of fussily carved teakwood, and picutres - some three-dimensional - looked down upon the broad walkway. It was not a bright day, but I still found myself dazzled when I emerged at the top, and was faced by the massive stupa. According to it is not only the highest pagoda in the world (at 98 metres from the base), but also the largest golden monument in the world, and the most valuable building in the world! There is not just one zedi but many, plus all manner of shrines and buddha images all around. Four hours after my arrival I was still finding new stuff that I'd not seen before.

Worshipers kneel on the marbled floor surrounding the main structure, and in many of the covered shrines too, praying to different buddha images. At each of the planetary posts, devotees pour water over the shrines; I found mine and did the same. Planetary posts correspond to the day on which you were born - I was born on a Tuesday, so my planetary post is in the southeast corner, my planet is mars, and my animal sign is the lion. There are eight posts, so Wednesday has been split into two days, either side of noon. If you were born on Wednesday afternoon, then you animal sign is the tuskless elephant, and your planet is the imaginary Hindu planet of Yahu! Once you have located your post, you pour small cups of water over the image; one cup for every year you have been alive, and one for luck (I may have made the one-for-luck bit up, but I think I read it somewhere).

A Buddhist monk I met in Shwedagon Paya After I had been there for around an hour, a monk approached me engaged me in conversation. He was 30 years old, and had first become a novice at the age of 14 (novices are under 20 years old, monks older). We chatted for an hour or more, and exchanged email addresses as he said he would like to meet up again, but I was unwilling to make a definite arrangement. I said I was going to take some photos, and he came along with me for the next couple of hours, and we talked some more. I asked him about something I'd seen the previous day: monks chewing betel. He said that, whilst that was one of the 227 rules that monks should live by, it was not as bad as drinking alcohol. Anyway, he told me, there are only four rules that cannot be cured. One is stealing; another is lying to convince someone that you have supernatural powers; killing a human being; and sexual intercourse, any oriface, man, woman or animal! Apparently Buddha had to specify, as some of the monks in his day tried to get around the rules by having sex with monkeys. Kissing and touching is okay, he told me - and I took this to mean that it is one of the other 227 rules, not a biggie, rather than that it's just generally okay for monks to go around snogging. What a conversation to have with a monk!


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