March 19, 2010

June 20, 1999

The arrival terminal at Myanmar’s Yangon airport ushers you with resplendent granite, gleaming, spotless floors and high ceilings, efficient people and the FEC. Automatically you get initiated along with the conversion of your dollars to a unique if subversive politico-economic junta.

The taxi man on negotiation of the broad roads and clean culverts Kyats (pronounced chats) you up and shows you a tatty album of endorsements by happy tourists. All quotes for wonderful destinations are in USD. The wife digs her elbow in, flashing kajal  eyes with admonishments and gestures of ‘I don’t like hard sell’.

We check out the Y and other alphabets in the Lonely Planet and try and make off season deals in May all the while speaking two Myanmar words, AC. All rates at hotels are plus or minus Air Conditioning. The government alternates power so every other day there is electricity, which simply translates to every other day there is no AC. The alternate power and democratically elected is under house arrest. There is angst over Aung San Su Chi.

To visit the Shwedagon Paya with its  8,000 plates of solid gold and diamond encrusted stupa, all foreigners have to pay in USD. It is a conspicuous symbol in Yangon of the disparity where opulence is a terrible understatement.

The friendly gentleman in lounji who moonlights as a guide indicates that his pension is $3/month while the hotel bill for a day could sustain him for a year. The moon light bounces with the sodium vapour making Swedagon an ethereal sight.

The leaflet meant for the tourist is propaganda indicating how the military trustees are doing all they can to make the Paya more wealthy. One look at the people milling around the Pagoda propitiating their birth sign icons would indicate a deviated value.

Everyone wants to talk about the political scenario but there is so much looking over the shoulder that chiropractors must have a huge clientele.

2500 years ago the Buddha discovered that desire is the cause of all suffering. The philosophy of Anicha (impermanence), is taught in the Vipassna meditation centres.

Myanmar seems to in a very small space encapsulate influences. There is a large community of Tamil Indians who know no Indian language, they came from colonised India. The British left Anglican and Methodist churches whose gothic spires make dents in the Yangon skyline. The cavernous interiors rattle with a geriatric community.  Post independence certain communities have not found the same favour, job opportunities are chiefly all governmental, private enterprise is difficult to sustain. The expensive Pajeros are driven by the Chinese or those connected to the establishment. The new aristocracy live in plush houses by the lake and no doubt wear olive green with epaulets to work.

The universities known for dissenting voices have been shut down for the last five years. Engineers have become farmers and chemists tour guides. There is an undercurrent of frustration.

The monks form a single file in their burgundy robes and ‘mindfully’ enter the dining hall or go begging in the morning for the only meal of the day.The Ayeyarwady river is omnipresent in Myanmar. Much logging activity happens along it, within it, the rusted ferrys that ply across the delta have their own sub culture. The upper deck has painted rectangles marked on the boards where you can take residence for the journey. People instantly spread plastic sheets and curl up ready for a protracted trip. Rarely, never do you see people complain. There is a kind of resignation that is wonderful and horrible simultaneously.

The Road to Mandalay is where the video coaches ply. A saccharine voice welcomes you aboard Leo Express and promises to take care of ‘your physical, emotional and spiritual needs’. If for just an instant  you thought you were on an omnibus to heaven, the soppy films with predictable endings shown throughout the night at high decibel and compact lady in the seat across nibbling dried jerkin, weeping tears of bathbrick would jerk you back to reality.

Vehicles are right hand drive and are driven on the right hand side of the road. Overtaking is always a nightmare. Skinny, schizoid dogs make lupine gestures  at the cars. Gasoline is black marketed. All along the road there are ad hoc stations with petrol in unsafe containers decanting fuel. The government pumps rationed quotas.

The other side of the river studded with payas, has a couple of fabulous wooden monasteries on stilts. In the adjoining monastery 7 year olds novices are mugging for an exam, the temporal and the spiritual run like an old juke box, drop in a coin and listen to what you will.

Most women and some men wear a paste of tree bark called Tatanka on their faces as a sunblock and cosmetic. In the poorer houses there are no closets with belongings just an altar to Buddha and a place near a window with a grinding stone and ingredients for Tatanka.  The people are indiscriminately gentle, hospitable and alarmingly open with genuine kindness and beguiling smiles who will literally walk the extra mile to be of help. It is obvious how they can be taken advantage of.

The Kuaungh Mudaw Paya whose unique white pagoda is said to resemble the perfect proportions of a queen’s breast, is ironically in a place called Sagaing.

Bagan must be one of the most impressive places in all of Myanmar and  not surprisingly the reason for its bankruptcy. It was a place in the 13th century that stood for conspicuous consumption. Real estate developers created 13,000 payas.  Our young friend and guide, Caesar said he spent a sleepless night thinking of all the places he needed to get us to and where the best angles would be for photography. From atop of one of Bagan’s highest payas he indicated a corner that he says he will never forget, where he and his Canadian girlfriend watched the sunset.

Kublai Khan sacked the city in 1287 and  In 1973 a great earthquake destroyed much of the megapolis. Realising the tourist (read USD) potential of the place the government has begun ‘restoration’ work that would indicate a damaged mind. They recreate new payas leaving man-made cracks to resemble the old damaged structures. Even so, the place has magic and an alchemy of energy that can take you any place you want.

In the Anando Pahto there are 4 standing gold buddhas facing the four directions, three of them have their hands by their sides the fourth one can’t control himself, he has his hands outstretched beckoning, uplifting, a shaft of light neonifies his fingers, a sparrow decides to take the invitation.

Everywhere even in small towns you see signs that indicate ‘country club and golf course’. One wonders if these were accessible to the public at large, Myanmar would have challenges to Tiger Woods.

The people who live outside the inner coterie, like people in that category anywhere in the third world have learnt to toggle a switch in their heads and hearts and find happiness in simple things. The Buddha must smile, but surely near the ostentation of the gold Payas and the rich trust funds must exist only  man’s vanity.

The Kyaiktiyo or Golden Rock monastery has this wonderful rock teetering on a cliff hanger by the hair of the Buddha. The steep hill is partially accessible by Canter trucks driven by manic drivers. People are herded in like cattle on the floor boards in the back . It is a very rough ride to the point of exit, then like punishment foreigners are made to walk the remaining steep incline after paying the absurd USD 6 a piece. It is a surprisingly inhospitable gesture that cannot originate from the anything but hospitable people. The authorities seem at all junctures to inform you that we don’t like you just your USD. Sedan chair carriers poke fun at those huffing and puffing to make the steep grade all the time announcing 3000 Kyats as one makes the steep spiral upwards, the rates keep spiralling downwards till they reach break even point and then without a murmur they disappear. But the top like most mountain summits is awesome, the view is stunning and this, one of the  most sacred sites in Myanmar is fantastic. Pilgrims plaster gold leaf on the rock which is swirling in a morning mist, the sky opens for an instant revealing a nugget so large that it dwarfs the monks around it.

The golden rock paya seemed like a good place to end this cameo visit to Myanmar. The departure terminal seemed like such a departure from the Arrival. Even the staff could not hold the facade any longer. Myanmar seemed to be saying we tried to impress you as you came in but realised that its too much of an act to sustain.

The fact is that Myanmar is impressive, the people are some of the warmest and kindest people I have met. I do know that the Anicha  message of the Buddha is organic with them. Impermanence is the watchword. Generals watch out.