Sunday, May 6, 2007

Maybe now it's Yangon, but to my Granddad, it's Burma

And I'm a Brit, and apparently we still don't recognise it by any other name, although some say it has been Yangon, Myanmar since 1996.

Today was sort of a pilgrimage for me, you see, my Granddad fought in Burma in WWII, and there is an Allied War memorial 19 miles out of the town centre, where the shuttle bus drops us off. My Granddad used to tell my Mum stories about crawling through the jungle on his 21st Birthday in Burma, and I'm also aware that he lost many friends there, so you can imagine I was determined to get to the memorial.

My Granddad fought in Burma in the Egypt Lincolnshire regiment, has the Burma Star medal and is still a member of the Burma Star Alliance. He could travel there (with a carer even) for free, to see the memorial and revisit the place, but right now he has a poorly lung and so it was up to me to walk in his footsteps, whilst taking pictures of the new things Burma has to offer since he was last here.

We got the first shuttle in the morning from Thilawa Port, and the next 12 miles (or 40 turbulent minutes) were truly extraordinary. I have never seen a place like this.

Our guide Eddie (his friends say he looks like Eddie Murphy!) made us laugh, but as we drove through the surrounding rice paddy fields, we saw some of the thinnest cows, goats, pigs and young boys I have ever seen. You can see them wading in the water in the distance of this shot. Eddie told us the cows are not milked, they are used just for their meat, which as you can see in this picture, is negligable.

In the town, children waved, men wore skirts (long, like sarongs but tied in a very particular way, this is absolutely commonplace as you can see) women carried huge loads on their heads, and monks walked around with food pots which you could put food into. Apparently the monks eat only breakfast and lunch, they have no evening meal, and live off these donations.

This is public transport in Burma. People cram into these vans from the 1950s, and hang off the back for dear life in order to get to their destination. Also extraordinary are the big terracota pots of water with a huge stopper and a cup on top, at the side of roads every mile or so, for public consumption I imagine, as their is no running fresh water supply for most people.

Once at the Trader's Hotel, on the corner of Bogyoke Aung San Road and Shule Pagoda Road, we got in another taxi, with a lovely friendly driver (you have to look for taxis with a black label for tourists, other coloured labels like red, blue, etc. are for other types of people eg. monks) for the war memorial. It was, again a fascinating journey.

The memorial and cemetary, in Htauk Kyant, is dedicated to the Allied soldiers who died in the Burma Campaign, and is home to 27,000 stone graves.

Some of the headstones, like this one, bear no name, but others have names, dates of birth, regiment, age and messages from their families inscribed on them. This was my Granddad's regiment.

Eric noticed that there were also Canadian soldiers buried here.

The memorial is altogether peaceful and beautifully maintained, with a different plant for each stone and a beautiful lawn all around. There are various inscriptions on the arc of the stone terrace behind the cross, and a covered walkway with hanging vines through the cemetary.

We sat on a bench, where I took this picture, and had a little cry. 27,000 lives lost is an awful lot of families left heartbroken, but to see them all out in front of you, row after row of casualties of war, was an extremely sorrowful sight.

We signed the guestbook when a man who worked there ushered us over to it.

We got back in the taxi, here's our driver, and headed back to the Trader's Hotel as a point of reference. On the way, we saw this perfect-looking boy, in some kind of ceremonial wear. We think he was being christened (of sorts!) or involved in a "becoming a man" type of ceremony in Hindi faith. Look how proud his father is behind him.

Back at the hotel, we made a tactical decision not to join up with the crew tour, lose out on $19 and figure it out alone because we were too late to make it back to the ship. Instead, we walked around Bogyoke Aung San market behind the hotel. I bought some wonderful beads and a blanket for my family, handmade and so cheap. A friend of ours bought a string of pearls for $17, real freshwater pearls, AND they were re-strung for her. There was also jade, laquerware and teakrosewood boxes on sale for $2-$3. This woman is making sugar-cane juice, putting the sugar cane sticks through a mangle-type thing to pulverise and extract the juice from the cane.

We changed some money into Kyats ("Chats", the exchange rate is 1,200 to 1USD, and the largest note is 1,000) and headed to the Strand Hotel, built by the Sarkies brothers (of Raffles fame) in 1896 and opened 1902, for lunch. Our taxi was possibly the oldest, most ready-to-konk-out car I've ever been in.

I bought some postcards from this persistent young girl. Other children cried around me because I'd given my custom to someone else. Many people wear the makeup she has. It is from a paste, and you can buy it in blocks at some stores. As far as I can tell, it is not a religious custom, it smells fragrant and is also worn by both men and women (men just their faces, women can wear it all over their bodies) because it keeps the wearer cool.

It is extremely interesting to note the extent of British colonial rule and influence throughout our recent ports. Eric is part of this, as a Canadian, but even he was surprised by some examples, such as our tour guide telling us "this square used to be known by it's British name, Victoria Park, but not now."

The Strand also had a wonderful faded elegance, Victorian frosted glass with arched windows and original frames let in the light at the bar. Even the cocktails and peanuts felt old, as was the selection of glasses, with old port and sherry flutes behind the bar, and pigeon holes for bills. Not a computer screen in sight, although this is one of the only places in Burma where you actually can use a credit card. Eric, as you can see, was pleased. In most places, the Myanmar government has issued a no credit-card, no cash machine law.

We sipped our Strand Sour and Strand Crush, and then went to lunch in the adjacent dining room and had a great falafel curry salad. It was $9 for the food, $6 for the drinks.

Feeling tipsy, we got another taxi to the Kan Daw Gyi Lake and Karaweik Palace. We paid 300Kyat to get in to the park, which was relaxing and had a great lake view with the Shwedagon pagoda in the distance, as you can see, and then another 1000Kyat to get into the "palace". Although it's only $1, I feel as if we got ripped off. The palace is basically a buffet restaurant, made to look like a golden palace-boat, with a hall on one side where many weddings and functions take place. The carpet was clean, but alas due to the open nature of the building and it's exposed position, it has decayed somewhat, and sparrows have invaded the rafters. The place even smelled bad. Our "tour" with a man wearing a badge who ushered us quickly around took all of 5 minutes, this was one of the "picture stops." This is another, the swan heads are actually very pretty. I did, however, like this picture which was inside the building, it's Erte-esque. See, I'm creating a dance and music piece with my man, where we use his upright bass and I dance around him, using and imitating the curves of the bass. We think this is the end position (my friend Paul took it during a rehearsal.) This picture, where she echoes the shape of the swan, is exactly what I'm going for.

When we left the palace, built as late as 1975(!) we were given an energy drink called Shark, almost as an apology I think. It was very sickly-sweet.

We were so tired, it really is hot in Burma, but I wore long sleeves because, even though I wear repellent, I'm getting eaten alive by mosquitos or some kind of bugs in these ports! This grass "sofa" was a welcome break, until we discovered the red ant army we were sitting on!

The last place we knew we had yet to visit was the Shwedagon Pagoda. It's a wonder of the world, don't you know! It is thought to be 2,500 years old. Just as we got shoe-less and went in to the Inner wall of the Pagoda area, the heavens opened and rain poured down. It was a short-lived storm, but for the rest of our tour we sloshed around in foot-juice. Nice. As a dancer who needs to take care of her feet from any nasty infection, this was not an ideal situation, but we had fun. Hey look, I'm in this picture!

Their are SO many Buddhas here! It's incredible, I have no idea how many, they're everywhere you look. In this little alcove people were SLEEPING amongst buddhas! In all of these alcoves there are buddhas. Yes, in ALL of them. Some date from as early as 1140, one is from 1792, but some, honestly, look like something out of an amusement arcade. There's even a Buddhology showroom. Buddhology! What a great word. At this smaller shrine, of which there are several, people dowse the Buddha images with water, over the shoulders and head a few times, with small cups and fonts of water provided.

At the very top of the Pagoda, about 100 metres up, is a diamond orb, with a height of 22 inches, a diameter of 10.5 inches, with no less than 4,351 diamonds on it! The total carat of all the diamonds is 1,800, but the apex diamond, a huge rock at the very top that is almonst oblong, is 76 carat! THAT'S WHY IT'S A WONDER OF THE WORLD! Even though, after watching the movie Blood Diamond, my love affair with the girl's best friend has fizzled out somewhat (I think after watching the movie it's practically impossible to tell whether a diamond is truly not a 'conflict diamond'), I did find myself salivating over such a huge piece of bling.

I wish I could've got a decent picture of it, but alas it was just too far up. Apparently at night when you stand at different points, you can actually see the different rainbow colours the apex diamond reflects.

We had tired ourselves out, and ended up getting the 4pm shuttle from the Trader's Hotel back to the ship. I even gave my camera to Eric, and told him that if he saw something wonderful, he had to take a picture of it for my Granddad. He immediately pointed the thing at my tired mug and took this picture. Ah! I slept most of the way home.

1 comment:

Eric said...

In every port and every place I find myself walking ad sharing with the person I wish to be with, every minute of every day, finding more and more that I want to say, I love you, babe, and I'm so grateful we get to live these times together, and I look forward to the next adventures...