Monday, October 09, 2006

Burma: An Unexpected Suprise

I got back from a trip early today so I thought I’d post a blog. Also for anyone who is wondering I will post more pics of Vietnam. Last time the computer quit downloading them and I don’t have them handy at the moment.

So far Burma has been absolutely amazing. I would say the people are nicer here than any other country we’ve been to so far. If you look in their direction they’ll always smile at you and their always willing to help, especially the many boys who bought the traditional skirt all the men wear here. The boys just can’t tie it right. Today we were walking through the market in Twante and Matts practically fell off of him. All the women sitting at their fruit stalls were cracking up.
Pulling into port on Saturday night but not being able to get off until yesterday morning was torture. Right around global studies time we noticed that the water around the ship had turned from blue to a milky brown color reminiscent of the river in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When we finally spotted land it was like something straight out of National Geographic. There were bright green rice fields as far as the eye could see. Houses built on stilts dotted the shoreline and men paddling small canoe like boats sailed by. We pulled into port at four. I was in class but I was able to look out our window and see a huge sign tied to a cargo container that read “Welcome to Myanmar Semester at Sea.” This was the first country since Japan that gave us a somewhat warm welcome.
Yesterday I was blessed to be one of 200 people on a city orientation. I actually like going on SAS trips but when the group is huge it gets overwhelming. I was glad when the huge group got broken into three smaller groups and we all went to the different sights at different times.
The ship is ported about an hour out of Yangon. The drive there is really pretty but the ship shuttle only leaves from the ship on even hours and our stop in town on odd hours so it’s hard to get between the two (that’s why I got stuck here this evening). Our first stop on the tour was to the colonial area of town. We got out and walked through the area for about a half a mile and then met up with the bus. I was surprised by the conditions of the buildings. I knew they would be bad, but I didn’t know they would be that bad. I don’t think building maintenance exists in Burma. Water has really taken its toll. Nearly every building is water stained and it pained me to see such beautiful old buildings with plants growing out of every crack.
Next we went to a tea shop. It wasn’t that exciting and nothing happened so I will leave it at this mention. After the tea shop we went to the NATIONAL museum. Their national museum was equivalent to 4 stories of high school gyms with partitioned. I was amazed that so many precious old artifacts were left right out in the open for people to touch as they pleased. Overall the museum wasn’t to interesting either. I’m glad we only spent 20 minutes at it.
Before lunch we made a stop at the Scott Market. Now, if you read my Vietnam blog you will have read about the glorious Ben Tanh market, I honestly liked the Scott market better. It was amazing. Art, jewelry, fabric, teak, jade, they had everything. I exchanged some US money for Kyat (national rate is 450 kyat to the dollar, I got 1300 kyat to the dollar J ) and then bought some paintings. I got three water color paintings for $5. They’re really pretty too. I’m excited to go back later this week and spend a deal of time there.
After lunch we were taken to see the second largest reclining Buddha in the world. We weren’t allowed to wear shoes or socks in the building so we had to take them off on the bus then walk out on the dirty pavement until we got under the cover. I honestly wasn’t prepared for what I saw in the building. I knew the Buddha was big, I didn’t know it was that BIG. Since it was laying down I would estimate it was about 40 ft. from where its shoulder was propped up to the top of its head, and it was at least 100 ft long.
The differences between Buddha statues in Burma and Buddha statues in say Japan and China are enormous. In Japan they leave the Buddha’s as they are so if you look at Buddha statues now they are singularly colored, usually bronze, black, or gold. In Burma the Buddha’s look like cartoon characters. He is usually always wearing a gold robe and has pure white skin with black hair and pink lips and nails.
Our last big stop was at the Schwedagon Pagoda which is the holiest Buddhist place in Myanmar. The golden stupa is so big that you can see it on the horizon for several miles. The government also prohibits the building of any skyscrapers near it so that it is the only thing that sticks out.
Again we were made to take of our socks and shoes. We took an elevator up to the level of the pagoda and then were able to break off from the group after we were told to meet up in an hour. First I must let you know that the Shwedagon Paya isn’t just a single stupa (a stupa serves the same purpose as the Chinese and Japanese pagoda, which if you don’t know is holding a relic of the Buddha) but its multiple stupas. So many that I couldn’t even begin to count. There are also hundreds of Buddha statues hidden in every nook and cranny. The main stupa is so big that it took me nearly the whole hour to walk around it. I may have taken me less time if I hadn’t gotten confused (all sides look the same). The day we were there was some special holy day so there was a lot of people, a lot of monks.
I must say I have a fascination with Buddhist monks. I can’t explain why but I just like the watch them and every time I see one I have an extreme urge to take a picture. Here in Burma every guy is required to be a monk for a period before he turns 18 and a period afterwards, so let me just say, there are a lot of monks. I was actually able to talk to one at the Pagoda. He was 20 years old and had been a monk for 6 years. He spoke English incredibly well and he’d only been learning it for 6 months. I couldn’t believe it, but let me tell you I was so fascinated by what he was saying that I forgot to take a picture. What a disappointment.
Id say the highlight of our adventure yesterday was the drive back to the ship. We happened to get on the great bus with broken headlights so we had to drive back to the ship in the blackness of night. I will admit it was scary. We were all picturing the bus flipping over the side of the road. However we must have had a very talented driver because we did get back, just an hour later than originally planned.
Today was a really awesome day. Since I didn’t go on a big trip here I specifically chose day trips that would get me out of Yangon. Twante is a delta town across the river and about 25 miles from the city. We rode on a passenger ferry across the river. It was really crowded and awkward because they whole time all of the Burmese on our deck were staring at us. I think they had even more reason to look because SAS’s camera guy Andy was on our trip carrying his huge camera. They probably though it were movie stars or something.
From when we docked it took us about an hour to get to Twante. The first thing we did was explore a market. When we got off the bus the first thing we saw were baskets of baby ducks. Of course all of the SAS students rushed over to take pictures but it’s sad to think that these cute little ducks are just being raised to be eaten. Later as we walked around the market we saw a group of live adult ducks whose necks had been broken so that they could be sold and eaten. One tried to fly away but it just kind of flopped around.
As we were walking around they muddy streets it was interesting to take in all that was around us (excluding the awful smell). Women were selling flowers and fruit, men sold baskets and clothing. There were donkey carts and dogs all over the streets and little kids wandering holding parasols. At this same time we found out that the Burman airforce really does exist. Fighter pilots were doing test runs right over our heads.
After the market we walked along the canal and up a small road to a pottery workshop. All of the buildings in the area are made out of thatch, including the workshop. Men, women and even kids were all helping to make the pots which came in all different shapes and sizes. One little baby so so cute, he was asleep rocking in a hammock. All of the other kids were cute too. I probably got more pictures of kids today than I’ve ever gotten. Another interesting thing that I’ve forgotten to mention so far is all of the women and children wear a yellow paste on their face. We were told it’s used for sunscreen but I think it has another function as well.
After the pottery workshop we got back on the bus and drove to a monastery orphanage. When we arrived all of the kids (probably around 100) were lined up according to age in different lines. The monk blew his whistle and they would move their arms into different positions and then they started to sing a song. It was cute to watch the toddlers on the end as they just stood wide eyed as the others sang. When they finished we were able to pass out toys and candy. It really brings you down to earth because they say thank you for every little thing and they keep their hands folded by their mouths even after you give them something. After wards we were able to “talk” to and play with the kids. The only ones that really knew English were the older girls so it was hard to communicate with the younger ones. We did kick the ball around for a little while though.

The trip got back at 2:30 so since then I’ve been working on catching up. I’m still on the third day of Vietnam in my regular journal and I have a paper due the day after Burma that I need to to cracking on. Tomorrow I get to go to Bago, a town about 2 hours from Yangon. Since this is only two days worth of adventures I can only imagine what my next one will be like.


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