Now it’s Myanmar, not Burma

Back from a long trip to Myanmar, and boy was it a doozy, definitely breaking it into several posts and will likely not attach pictures as they’re all already on Facebook.  Never having been to Southeast Asia before, I went at the behest of my college classmate and fellow traceur (practicioner of parkour) Chan, who has lived half his life in the country, and without who’s language abilities I would have been mightily lost.  I’ll try to insert tidbits of historical and cultural information where appropriate as well.  And we’re off!

So first of all for those of you who don’t get the reference in the title, listen to this song.

So most of you are familiar with Myanmar as Burma, which was the name the British gave to the place when they colonized it.  It comes from the Bamar, the dominant ethnic group of the region and the rulers of the old Burmese empire after they subjugated the other ethnicities.  Myanmar is the Burmese name for the country, and they finally started using it a while ago.  How did Myanmar cease being a British colony?  The father of Aung San Suu Kyi (that famous Burmese woman you’ve all seen at some point) Aung San was a great general who when Japan was going through its imperialist phase invited them into Myanmar to help drive the British out.  The Japanese unfortunately proved to be a lot worse than the British and Aung San turned right around and helped the allies beat Japan down during WWII.  He managed to convince the British to grant them independence after the war and was all set to unify the over 100 minorities that make up Myanmar until he was assassinated in 1947 which threw the country into the turmoil its been dealing with on and off for the subsequent years.  Despite various military coups, the country just held its first open democratic elections a couple of month ago when the National League for Democracy (Aung San Suu Kyi’s party) took pretty much every seat they had access too and hopes are high for reform.

Onto my trip!  So I got in Friday afternoon and was greeted with one of only two unique Burmese dishes, coconut noodles.  Flat thin noodles covered in a coconut curry and served with soy bean crisps, still one of my favorite things I ate there.  We then went to the Shwedagon pagoda which has been around for over 2,000 years believe it or not (in some form) and it was absolutely stunning. First of all it’s a massive gold-plated pagoda, secondly its surrounded by a bunch of other statues, shrines and some of the most enchanting architecture I had ever seen.  Seriously, it was so unreal and beautiful I felt like I was in a video game ( a common theme of the trip).  Due to shorts not being allowed, I also got to wear a basool, the traditional lower garment that practically all people in Myanmar still wear to work.  It’s basically a big circle of cloth that you wear by tying.  The only difference between male and female versions are the patterns and where you tie it (in the front for men, on the side for women).  Here’s me modeling one.

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The next day we were up early and Chan’s uncle drove us out of Yangon to various Buddhist caves.  Some really cool Buddhas etched into the rocks and more statues inside.  The inside part was important too because wow was it hot as hell (I chose to come during a heat wave which made parts of the country inaccessible because the nice waterfalls and lakes I would go to see isn’t there right now. Ah well, there’s always next time.

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After the fourth cave (which included a boat ride) we got to the base of mount Zwegabin which is one of the holiest mountains in Myanmar.  Here’s the picture I took of it as we passed it earlier in the day.  At the time I noticed the pagoda and satellite dishes on top and wondered, “wow that’s tall, I wonder how you get up there?”

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Soon I would know exactly how.  Chan’s uncle intended for us to just look around the base, but on Chan’s offhand suggestion we decided to start climbing.  This was the first of several bad decisions, as although it’s only about 725m tall, it was 4:30 meaning the sun would set before we had the time to make it up and down (which we failed to consider).  Secondly, in Myanmar they practice Theravada Buddhism, the sort practiced in South and South-east Asia in contrast to the Mahayanna school from which all the East Asian sects including Zen and Tibetan stem, think of it as the Catholic-Protestant split.  The split occurred a long time ago as the Mahayna’s felt Theravada was too restrictive and wanted to be able to reach enlightenment through good deeds and such and not just self-improvement.  Ironically, Mahayana is now was more ritual focused than Theravada.

However, one of the customs that Theravada has that Mahayana does not is the rule against wearing shoes on holy ground which led to our second bad decision. We saw some shoes at the base of the trail (staircase) so Chan asked a barefoot local if we needed to take our shoes off for the whole trail.  He said yes so we did.  Thus began the most Hobbit experience of my life.  725 vertical meters on pointy rocks and dirt path barefoot.  We finally got to the top to find that only the pagoda at the summit was considered holy ground.  Going down was much more painful than up unfortunately too.  This was compounded by the consequences of our first bad decision, which meant we were in complete darkness before we made the half-way point down.  I had a flashlight, but we were about to get lost when five or six Burmese guys pointed us to the correct path.  They stayed with us going down and one kept behind me to make sure I didn’t get left behind as I tried to protect my wounded feet.  I was really touched by their hospitality and willingness to help, and Chan said they helped restore his faith in his countrymen.  We also would have gotten pretty lost if it weren’t for them so that was a lucky break.

I don’t regret the decision though.  Makes a damn good story and I got to see one of the most beautiful sunsets of my life.  Zwegabin is pretty much the only mountain for miles, which means I got beautiful views of the surroundings, green green green everywhere, absolutely everywhere.  And then that sunset.  Red and gold with rays reflecting off the pagoda.  Had we planned ahead we could have slept overnight in the monastery there like the European backpackers we passed and watched the sunrise, but we didn’t know.  Next time.  A nice plate of Thai noodles and a cold Myanmar beer awaited me at the bottom.  The noodles was great and spicy.  Had I not been exhausted I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the beer, it was yet another generic lager, but at least it had the decency to be 5% alcohol unlike the water they have here in China.

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Spent the night in a hotel and then hit up the Golden Rock, a sight so inspiring it’s said to cause anyone who sees to to instantly convert to Buddhism.  Didn’t happen with me, but you never know.  Also at the top of a mountain, this time we decided to skip the 10 hour round trip hike and take a truck up, which was almost as intense as the hike would have been.  They’re repurposed industrial trucks retrofitted to fit about 30 people in the bed on benches that take you up a windy, rising and falling concrete road through jungle scenery that looks kind of like Jurassic Park at speeds much faster than is probably advisable.  And damn was it fun.  Chan described it to me beforehand as a rollercoaster and he was pretty much right on the money.  Anyway, the Golden Rock was pretty impressive, as was the huge town that’s been set up around it.  See below, thank you physics and the crazy ways in which you work sometimes.

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These kinds of balancing rocks are actually a pretty common sight.  What makes this one so special is that it was allegedly placed there by a half-dragon sorcerer king and is held up by a single hair from the head of the Buddha.  (First picture on this post I didn’t take btw).

We then drove back to Yangon and promptly went to bed as my memory serves.  All in the space of two days, more next time!  For those of you who stuck around this long, the state of my feet after the mountain trek.

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