#2 Myanmar, Feb. 14, 2003

I’m getting to know a few things about the culture—I notice when the desk clerk hands me my room key, he touches his right elbow with his left hand, presenting the key with his right hand. My guidebook says that is showing great respect—even more than presenting it with both hands. I was already aware that they used both hands in presenting anything—like a restaurant bill or a business card.

Then one morning at the buffet breakfast I asked the proprietor if there would be eggs. He said, “No, because we served watermelon juice.” When I looked puzzled he reminded me of the posted sign in the restaurant saying not to eat these three combinations because they’re poison: 1)eggs and watermelon, 2) lime and milk, and 3) mangosteen and sugar.

The main event in Yangon was to visit the Swedagon Paya—the most elaborate and sacred Buddhist shrine in all of Myanmar. I can’t begin to describe it—a huge gold-clad stupa with the ornament on top set with 2,000 carats of diamonds and one 70 carat diamond plus other gems. In addition to the stupa, which is 300 feet high (like a 20 story building) there are at least 50 other pavilions, one more elaborate than the next. The stupa is covered with new gold leaf every year, in this poor country!

I visited most of the

pavilions and took many photos.




In one case there was a Buddhist monk being venerated by a dozen older people. I pointed to my camera asking if I could photograph the scene. He indicated that would be fine, but before I snapped the picture, he let loose with a big wad of saliva/betel juice (bright red) to ready himself.

It is imperative that all visitors remove their shoes and socks (locals don’t wear socks—only sandals) and since I went early before the marble floors heated up, my feet were only mildly uncomfortable until the end, when they had definitely had enough.

I had planned to walk to the shrine that morning but midway there was a city bus to which I called “Swedagon?” At least 10 people nodded ‘yes,’ so I climbed aboard. The young man sitting next to me was holding a 20 kyat bill (two cents) but the smallest I had was a 200 kyat bill (20 cents). When the conductor came by he waved my bill away and my seatmate indicated that I could put my money away—so I rode free! Apparently that was too large a bill for them to change.

You may know about Aung San Suu Kyi, a woman who received the Nobel Peace Prize for attempting to bring democracy to Myanmar. She was under house arrest for many years, but now is free, although she is not allowed to leave the country. Her father was instrumental in winning Burma’s independence from Great Britain in ‘47, but he then was assassinated at age 32. The house where she was born, which I visited, is now a museum in her father’s honor. It was built in the ‘20s and had much of the furniture in it. There were many family pictures including Aung San Suu Kyi, of course.

Near her house I had lunch in a great Burmese restaurant. It was very modest, full of locals and had a huge friendly wait staff, all bustling about, getting people in and out. A waiter with a little English took good care of me, indicating that I should come up to the serving area and choose which dishes I would want. I chose shrimp curry and mutton curry (small servings) and when I sat down again at a shared table, six other dishes of vegetables, salad, fish broth, etc. were brought, along with rice. I couldn’t finish it all, and with a beer, the bill was $3.25. Some of the locals ate with their hands, others used spoon and fork.

I went to get a two week visa extension as I will be in Myanmar for more than the 28 days that my visa allows, but the clerk said that I could just pay the ‘fine’ of $3/day overstayed when I leave the country. I had read this in my guidebook, but I wanted to be sure that they hadn’t raised the price or disallowed this practice. I do hope I’m not thrown in jail!

A brother and sister that I met over breakfast in the hotel (Chinese Malaysians) told about their invitation to ‘teach’ English to some monks. They invited me to join them, and gave me the address. So one afternoon I showed up at UMA, an English language class making use of tourists for conversationalists. The noise was deafening but even then it was lots of fun. The young monks got to ask me many questions (“What’s your religion?“, How old are you?“ etc.) while I did the same and tried to correct their pronunciation.

The class teacher (not a monk) insisted on calling me ‘Sister,’ which was preceded by quite a sermon on the brother/sisterhood of humanity. Later he brought a piece of paper on which was written, “I’m as happy as larry.” He asked if I understood this. I said that I wasn’t sure as Larry is a man’s name. He still seemed confused. Finally he said, “Well, could I say ‘I’m as happy as a pig in shit?’” Strange. I said, “Yes, that would make perfect sense!”

I had to forgo the opportunity to sing “On the Road To Mandalaaay, Where the Flying Fishes Plaaay” because I took a plane. The ‘Road to Mandalay,’ I’m told, is totally bumpy and the bus takes 16 hours. Mandalay is smaller than Yangon, and ‘easier.’

The morning after I arrived, I hired a bicycle rickshaw to take me around to the sights, of which there are many. I visited the Mandalay Hill, going up in a tiny pickup truck that had 16 people squeezed aboard—but they’re little people.







Then we visited three more payas and two ex-monasteries.









The buildings, or complexes are wonderful, gaudy, full of Buddhas overladen with gold, all venerated by the locals, and must cost a fortune to maintain.







One evening I saw the Marionette Show, a tradition here that goes back to the 11th century. It’s strange to think about ‘what was going on here’ when Europe was in the Dark Ages. The show was fun, and the music was especially interesting with many musical drums and gongs along with an oboe and flute. The next day I went back there to buy a marionette.





More sightseeing—payas, monasteries. At the immense Mahamuni Paya, after I had seen much of it walking, of course with bare feet, I went back out to the entrance to find my rickshaw driver. Surprise! Wrong entrance. There are many on this paya the size of several square city blocks. So walking gingerly, I went back toward the center and out another long hallway and again—no rickshaw driver! By now my feet were getting really sore. So I hired another rickshaw driver (using gestures) to drive me around the perimeter stopping at each entrance until I came to the right one where my rickshaw driver popped up! Well, I’m always a little lost but it all works out in the end. I was glad to put my shoes on again, which I had left with the rickshaw driver.





On the way back to the hotel we were passing the house of the Moustache Brothers, who are a ‘A-Nyeint Pwe’—sort of a vaudeville act. I had planned to go there for their performance that evening. My driver introduced me to Par Par Lay, whom my guidebook said had spent seven years in prison at hard labor for making jokes about the government. He was released in 2001 (when Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest) but is still monitored by government officials. Now the Moustache Brothers can only perform in their home. I was invited in for a moment to listen/watch a DVD—a few minutes of the recent Hugh Grant movie called “About A Boy.” In that movie one of the characters says, “In Burma, Par Par Lay spent seven years in jail for telling jokes.”

That evening I went to their house for their performance. It included a series of traditional Burmese dances and a running monologue (in English) with jokes. To be sure we understood his English, he would often spell a word, or point to it on some boards that he would hold up.








There were pictures of them with Aung San Suu Kyi on the walls. This performance lasted 1 ½ hours, but a ‘real’ a-nyeint troupe performance celebrating weddings, funerals, sporting events, etc., would last all night.






Today I went by boat for 11 km up the Ayeyarwedy River to the ancient city of Mingun where in 1790 a king began building the granddaddy of all payas. By 1819 he had the base completed which was 160 feet tall, when he died. The other 2/3 of the stupa was never completed and what had been built was severely damaged in an earthquake. Anyway, even the base was impressive.



Then there was also the second largest bronze bell in the world. The largest is in Moscow but is CRACKED so this is the largest ‘ringable’ bell in the world. Other stupas rounded out the picture along with a beer, a large lunch, and the boat ride back to Mandalay.

It is utterly amazing to me what percentage of resources here go to religious monuments and supporting the monks. The monuments are everywhere, and for the most part, are well maintained and well visited.

Tomorrow I am leaving Mandalay for Pyin U Lwin, a British colonial hill town. I hope you all get this promptly this time—my last email didn’t ‘go’ the first time and I had to send it again. Happy Valentines Day!


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