#1 Myanmar (Burma), Feb. 8, 2003

Here I am again on a two month trip to Myanmar. It was a long way to Southeast Asia—12 hours to Tokyo and seven more to Bangkok, my first destination. I stayed at a most charming hostel called Suk 11. From there I took the Sky Train to get around—like a subway only up, not down—above the tree tops so I really got a view of Bangkok.

I was here about 20 years ago and it has really changed. I think the Sky Train is new since then. The traffic was terrible then and it still is now, but the cars are new and spiffy compared to the old jalopies of yesteryear. Also the taxi fleets were then tuk-tuks; now they are air conditioned cars which are new and well kept. Sign of the times—next door to my hostel was a clinic. The sign in the window read, “General Checkup, VD Check, Blood Testing, AIDs Testing.” Prominent signs in my hostel read, “Absolutely No Drugs” and “No Visitors in Any of the Rooms.”

I visited a few of the Bangkok ‘sights’ which looked the same—still dramatic, colorful and gaudy. Wat Pho still has the huge reclining Buddha whose feet are nine feet long and whose soles are covered with rows of pictures done in mother-of-pearl. I also had a look at the Royal Barges Museum which I hadn’t seen previously—an amazing series of boats, all gold, colorful and dramatic with fanciful carved bows demonstrating that the kings are incarnations of the Hindu god, Vishnu. To see them on parade coming down the Chao Phraya River must be a spectacular sight.

The second part of ‘getting around’ was by boat on the river—a main thoroughfare in this town. Boats run like buses on the river; you can get off and on, and since many of the landmarks (Buddhist Wats, the Grand Palace, and other old important spots) are along the river, this works well for sightseeing. It’s also blessedly cool in this hot, humid city. On view are the many new skyscrapers juxtaposed with the Buddhist wats and traditional riverside buildings.

I was only in Bangkok for three days, just long enough to get my visa for Myanmar, which used to be Burma, and an airplane ticket to Yangon, which used to be Rangoon.

On Friday my plane arrived in Yangon after dark and on the way downtown in a taxi (old and smoky) I saw some of the tall gold spires of the Buddhist payas, beautifully floodlit. The cars are mostly, but not all, in the British style with the driver on the right side. Interestingly, unlike the British, here they drive on the right side of the road.

Almost all of the men in the street were dressed in a longyi with a shirt—a longyi being an ankle length ‘skirt’ made of a tube of cotton material, folded over and tied at the waist. Many of the people had some beige colored powdery paste smeared on their faces, which is considered beautiful and good for the skin.

Yangon definitely has its own special ‘look’, the buildings looking quite old, tropical and colonial, in some ways like it’s 50 years ago. Also along with its seedy British colonial architecture, Yangon has many Buddhist stupas, elaborate Christian churches, some Hindu temples and a few Muslim mosques, making it, I think, quite a unique Asian city. While it has a population of 4 million, it doesn’t seem like that as the traffic is not too bad. There are many trees and the central streets are quite wide.

I visited the Sule Paya, a very old Buddhist stupa in the middle of downtown. It was busy in the early morning, with many worshippers bringing flowers before kneeling to pray. The shrine is said to house a hair of the original Buddha. There were many Buddhist monks about, and later on my walk I met a long line of them (100?) following behind flag bearers and somebody hitting a loud gong. They were going on their rounds for the day to gather food and money. They do not eat after 12:00 noon. All males are expected to take up the life of a monk for at least two years—some make it their life.

On Saturday I moved to another hotel which was cheaper and had much better vibes. It also had a colossal buffet breakfast, included in the price with many ‘standard’ foods, such as fresh fruit, eggs and toast, but also many exotic dishes that were a wonderful treat. Although I arrived to check in at 10:30 AM, I was offered breakfast which I ate (again!). Luckily it’s on the 8th floor (no elevator) so that must use a few of the calories.

In the afternoon I visited the Bogyoke Aung San Market to scope out the arts and crafts (reportedly from all over Myanmar) but it is so huge I never could find the right section. I finally gave up and got a taxi to take me to the National Museum which was very big and somewhat exhausting, but did have some fine exhibits such as the ‘Lion Throne’ (gold on the gold) and some old Burmese musical instruments.

Got another taxi to take me to the Strand Hotel to rest and refresh. This British Colonial hotel was built in 1896 by the same folks that built Raffles in Singapore, and though it is more low key, it did evoke an era, or at least what I think that era was like.





Naturally I had a gin and tonic in the bar, even though the sun was not yet over the yardarm.









Next I visited the Botataung Paya, another Buddhist stupa.




The original was bombed by the Allies in ‘43 but rebuilt after the war with a ‘hollow’ interior—you can walk through sort of a maze of mirror chips—bizarre!

A bicycle rickshaw took me back to my hotel—

a little scary in the middle of some fairly heavy truck traffic, but all’s well that ends well.











So far I like Myanmar. I’ll be in Yangon for a few more days as on Monday I need to apply for an extension on my visa—they only give 28 days in Bangkok, and I will need more than that. I hope this reaches all of you. I will send it to my daughter and she will pass it on. I can’t access my hotmail in Myanmar.


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