Culture shock. We haven’t really had any during our travels. But here we were in Myanmar’s former capital of Yangon, walking streets filled with dosa makers, begging monks (a really odd sight) and fortune tellers. People stared, people asked us where we came from and not a tourist was in sight. It was filthy, it was poor and it was real. Yes, we were a little culture-shocked.
You could say it felt a bit like visiting India back in the day, but even in India you would see a Hollywood celebrity image here, or an American soap opera playing there. In Myanmar, there were so few traces of Western influence.
I’m not trying to sound like Christopher Columbus, discovering some new land. People have clearly traveled here before, but at the moment, Myanmar is different than most places. Coming here gave us the best taste of what it was like to backpack 15-20 years ago, especially in the small towns, where we spent half our time.
We had just two days in Yangon, and that time was a swift, intense introduction to the land sometimes called Burma. (Myanmar is the written name, Burma, the spoken.) Nowhere else have we been assaulted with that many smells and sights. Incense to the right, dog crap to the left. We went to markets, ate at traditional tea houses (milky Indian-style tea and samosas!) and indulged in juicy dosas.
We also had our palms read — a total joke. Eaman and I got pretty much the same fortune. We’re going to go Singapore, get a promotion (forget the fact that we are currently unemployed) and win the lottery. But Eaman will apparently impregnate an 18-year-old.
The weather wasn’t great in Yangon, but on our last night, with umbrellas in tow, we booked it to the crown jewel of the city: Shwedagon Paya, one of the holiest sites in all of Myanmar. It’s a gilded wonder — a 322-foot-tall stupa set in a wide complex with an orb containing 4,351 diamonds and a 76-carat diamond at the very crown. Yowza.
Some people hire tour guides on site, but we were lucky enough to be approached by two locals who offered their guiding services for free. They were actually Spanish students who wanted to practice. (Throughout our stay in the country, almost every local thought Eaman was Spanish.) Eaman indulged them as much as he could, but even though we couldn’t give them much, they walked with us and taught us about the temple, even showing us where to stand to see the giant diamond stone change colors.
They were funny guys. One asked us about our travels and if we had been to Cairo. I told him, yes, I had, and his face lit up. To me, it was a trip with my parents. To him, it was a far off land he’ll probably never visit. When we bid adieu to our new friends, I told him I hope he visits Cairo some day. He smiled, said goodbye and walked away. So Burmese — simple, good-natured and too grounded in the reality of his life.
Here, a look at the rest of our time in Yangon:
Procession of monks waiting for alms in the busy streets as seen from the Cherry Guesthouse balcony.
Speaking of our guesthouse, they gave us a giant breakfast featuring a rich and delicious coconut noodle soup.
It is so painfully obvious which buildings get government money and which do not.
Perhaps that money should be spent on mending the sidewalks, hmm? This was one of the better stretches.
Burmese boy playing with my umbrella at the paya.
Poor caged birds at the temple. The worker told us we can release one “for good luck”, and, of course, for a fee. We released one out of sheer pity for the animal.
When in need of a jolt of color, always go to the market.
Hindu temple + pigeons.
More at Shwedagon Paya…
Our guides showed us how to offer a blessing at the shrine dedicated to the day of the week each of us was born. It seems to be special to share the same day of the week with Aung San Suu Kyi — Friday — so, good for Eaman. The ritual involved pouring water on the animal corresponding to your day and a guardian angel of sorts.
And we rang a holy bell.