Also Published in Inspired Magazine.
The most sacred Buddhist site to the Burmese lies in Yangon, the capital of Myanmar. Gigantic legendary half-lion, half-griffin figures guard the entrance. Respectfully we remove our footwear and climb the covered stairway to the expansive Shwedagon Paya (Pagoda). My husband Rick and I are awed by the ageless splendour of the myriad of pagodas filled with Buddha images and ancient relics.
The mightiest pagoda rises 100m (326ft) from a central plinth. As is customary, we walk clockwise around this behemoth, its plates of gold glimmer in the afternoon sun. The sparkle from the upper-most sections is astounding! What is called the “umbrella” has a variety of over 80,000 jewels and a total weight of 5 tons, of which half-a-ton is gold. Above this is the “vane” with more gems, then the “orb” studded with over four thousand diamonds and tipped with a 76-carat stunner!
Around the circumference, as per Burmese astrology, are planetary posts representing the day of the week one is born. It is Friday for Rick, north in direction, his planet Venus, his sign a guinea pig. My Saturday post is southwest, my planet Saturn, and my sign a “naga” (dragon serpent). We next seek out the nat (spirit) figures. Buddhism suppressed, but never replaced nat worship; these spirits influence everyday Burmese life. The engrossing atmosphere of Shwedagon swirls around us until after sunset.
Myanmar history covers centuries of dynasty rule, British colonization until 1948, then over five decades of military dictatorship wherein the country was sealed off from the outside world. Since then amid significant political changes and internal hurdles still to be resolved, the country has slowly been opening more and more areas to foreigners, making it one of the most sought after travel destinations.
Stepping out of our downtown hotel each morning is akin to swirling to the rhythms of a bygone era. The heart of Yangon (formally Rangoon) is on a grid developed by the Brits with some architectural gems from that time, such as the City Hall and Courthouse.
The sidewalks and alleys are lined with tarps and tables filled with fresh produce, fish still swimming in tubs, just-plucked chickens. In the mix are all manner of other sale items, from clothing to tools.
On some streets makeshift kitchens churn out ready-to-eat delights. Many operate all day, while others such as those along 19th Street spring up each evening, and where Rick and I often join hungry customers on plastic stools to partake in local favourites – ours is grilled tilapia.
Traffic on the main thoroughfares is typical Southeast Asian “bumper to bumper”, yet Rick quizzes me on what’s different and can’t wait to blurt out, “NO motorcycles!” We learn that motorbikes are banned from the capital. Instead peddle bikes are fully utilized. Two- wheelers with big baskets haul product, and three-wheelers with side-cars or seating-behind-the-peddler transport passengers and goods.
Down at the docks long-boats shuttle passengers back and forth across the Yangon River and numerous vessels, both large and small, come to load and unload product. In awe we watch 100-pound sinewy men lug sacks that are their body weight from barges to waiting trucks. A “boss” sits near the truck and hands a stick to each carrier as he passes with a sack; no doubt the tally-method for payment at day’s end.
To market, to market….Rick gracefully accepts our wanderings will include the biggies, such as Theingyi Zei extending over four blocks! Even I am taken aback with the roof-high inventory of textiles and housewares. Jewelry and electronics hold sway in other sections. Towards the back are strange homemade herbal concoctions.
Inle Lake is our out-of-the-capital excursion. The overnight bus to get there is not appealing, so we opt for a short flight to Heho Airport, where a driver with Gulf Travel awaits us.
We are in for a forty-minute ride along a winding highway, passing trucks, oxen, mule and horse-drawn carts. Motorcycles, which are legal here, dart between all of the above. Arriving in the town of Nyaungshwe, we hastily check into the Royal Inlay Hotel, and head straight for the jetty. Our guide Nyee, and boat navigator Al are ready to take us cruising around the 22km long and roughly 11km wide Inle Lake.
Within minutes we pass leg-rowing fishermen! Standing on one leg, with the other wrapped around an oar to paddle the boat, gives the fisherman a vantage point to spot surfacing bubbles indicating a fish, and his hands free to quickly lower a cone net over the fish. He then spears the fish though an opening in the top of the net using a pronged metal device on a pole. Fish to sell or supper for the family!
“Now we come to the floating islands covering a quarter of the lake’s surface,” says Nyee. Hard working villagers tend to vine-vegetables and flowers on these bobbling masses composed of mats of water hyacinth, marsh growth and seaweed, which together form a fertile solid mass that is staked to the lake bottom with bamboo poles. Today we go past rows of tomato and cucumber. Our guide mentions, “On the mainland root crops and fruits like papaya and bananas are grown, and also rice paddies.
We cruise the water lanes between the houses of one village, and stop at a restaurant for a lunch of chicken, rice and strong coffee. Nyee then takes us to a series of small factories where hand labour is the key to exceptional products. At a weaving shop ladies work on hundred-year-old looms turning threads of silk and lotus flower into scarves and other sought after items.
At other stops we witness the pounding of metal into knife blades, timber for boats being cut by lengthy hand-saws, ladies rolling 500 cigars a day. Lastly we visit much cherished pagodas from the Bagan Emperor, one dating back to the 18th century. What a day!
The next morning Nyee is on hand to accompany us to the airport, insisting we take in the city market along the way. The villagers must have been up before dawn to spread their produce and other goods on mats. “Here’s where you get cheap but delicious food,” says our gracious Nyee, who gifts us with a bag of “special for health” dried tea leaves.
Back in Yangon we relish more street life vibes – our enchantment with everything experienced floods our minds. We leave knowing there is much more to see of mystical Myanmar and undoubtedly a country to come back to.