Afloat in South Asia

Afloat in South Asia
Reclining Buddha; Rangoon

Monday, February 21, 2011

Pagan - Thurs. Jan. 28th

The alarm clock was set for 4:15am - "O Dark Hundred", in military parlance. We had to rise, leave the boat and catch an airplane for the 80 minute flight from Rangoon to Pagan. We had one of the more bizarre airport experiences in modern memory. As our police escort rushed us to the spot right in front of the door to the terminal, we prepared to tumble off the bus. As we descended, we were handed boarding passes and told to proceed through the front doors. Metal detectors screamed as we piled through, waved on by uniformed officials. Another set of authorities herded us through security - again ignoring all warnings of the bombs in our daypacks. We basically went straight through the terminal and onto the runway bus, which took us to our waiting little ATP aircraft. As we scrambled aboard, the props started turning. We sat back and the doors were locked. Time from airport arrival to pushback: 9 minutes!


Why the hurry? Our minders knew we should see the sunrise over Pagan, and they were right.

We settled into the flight and examined the land below as the light came up. Broad rice terraces were consistent with the agricultural empire the Brits had built: Burma used to be the top rice-producing/exporting nation in the world. Now they have to import rice to feed their people. As we approached Pagan, we could see a broad, dry valley with rice lands on either side. This layout was the secret to the survival of 2,000 of the 4,000 temples of the kingdom of Pagan. When the kingdom fell in the 13th century, invaders seized the productive areas on either side of Pagan, but left the arid capital, with its myriad temples, to bake in the sun. This spared the temples the fate of being harvested for their stones and turned into monuments for the conquerors. With the simple straw and mud buildings of the common people melted away long ago, the effect of the 2,000 temples rising from the plain in the middle of nowhere is eerie and gorgeous.

Climbing to the terrace of one of the tallest temples gave us a sense of what we were to explore over the course of a long, wonder-ful day.

The day was balanced by glimpses of the contemporary people of Pagan going about their business. This was undoubtedly part of a strategy to avoid temple-overload, but it was interesting in its own right. Here are some scenes from the environs of that first temple. A woman watering the (meager) plantings on the temple grounds.

A sweeper - this lady was extremely old and very shy.

Here is a local bus full of tourists. By the time it took off, baskets were strapped to the back and people were perched on the roof - no inch of space was wasted.

We went to the local market, where women were weighing (round) eggplants and sorting great piles of shallots. The produce was beautiful, as you can see from these eggplants and cucumbers. I had never seen such huge okra - each pod was about 12 inches long. People were curious about us and, like everywhere we went in Burma, the women wanted to buy our lipsticks (?). The men were after Bryan and others asking to buy their watches - someone offered Bryan $20 for his used Timex! I guess I know what to bring along next time we go...

It was time to get back to the temples. Our next stop was the Shwezigon temple, one of the oldest temples, dating back to around 1000. This striking-looking stupa is ground-zero in Burma's fight with UNESCO, which has denied World Heritage Site status to Pagan. In the 1980's, as part of post-earthquake repairs to the temple, great copper plates were installed and a massive gilding began. In part, the generals of the junta sought to reassure the people that they were good guys (and to gain a bit of merit for themselves).

This, along with the unsupervised (by Western historians/archaelogists/art historians) repair of earthquake damage and the construction of a couple of modern hotels and a museum of archaeology in the area, rendered it impossible for UNESCO to grant the status that would have put Pagan on the must-see map of many people who do not otherwise have the imagination to know about it. Locals are very cynical about the political implications here....

We had time to participate in the local economy a bit before lunch. The trip to the lacquer factory is a staple of Southeast Asian travel. This one was a bit different, though, in that the final product really was a cut above the ordinary. Like many things in Burma, it seems that the modern pace of life has not yet taken over - this means more layers of lacquer, longer drying periods, more careful application of gold and color.
This young woman is weaving straw and horsehair into the base of a black laquer cup that can hold hot or cold water and is flexible! The charm of the carefully crafted "simple people at work" scene was a bit undermined by this set of posters, in Burmese and English....One doesn't like to contemplate.

After lunch at a resort along the banks of the Irawaddy, we went onto the next treat of the day. There are few paved roads into the temple area, but the temples are connected by myriad little dirt trails. Some tourists rent bicycles to explore the temples...others go about in little horse carts. Our driver was named Joe and his horse was called...Rambo.

Joe and Rambo got us up close so we could see the individual temples. Here is one that clearly shows the repairs done after the earthquake in 1975. It may not be an elegant fix, but at least it is clear what was damaged and what was done to hold it together. It is interesting to see the contemporary people living among the temples. You can see the straw dwellings the repair workers build to live alongside their workplaces. Folks around Pagan tend fields of crops such as soy beans and vegetables. They gather firewood and they use their bullock carts to get to the markets when the bullocks are not plowing the fields.

We stopped to see the beautiful Ananda temple, the top of which was gilded by the generals in 1990, as a 1000th birthday gift to this treasured temple. The exterior is stunning and the interior has four huge Buddhas.

While the golden Buddhas were awe-inspiring, the ancient, polished hallways were quietly serene and beautiful. In another temple, we used flashlights to see frescoes done by ancient monks on just such hallways. There were scenes with white elephants and palm trees and the human images looked for all the world like the Hindu paintings in India.

We passed up the opportunity to use this local equivalent of a waterfountain on our way out of the temple complex.

We were headed back to the airport now. The afternoon light was just gorgeous, though, and we begged our busdriver to stop and let us wander around this pottery market, taking pictures, for a few minutes.

The sights were superb, but the people of Burma will stay with us forever. We wish them well and hope to explore a free Burma one day.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Up the Irrawaddy...Rangoon - Wed. Jan.27th

div>Up on the bridge at daybreak in our Clipper Odyssey robes, with hot cappuccinos, watching the banks of the wide, muddy Irrawaddy. Finally the light strikes the top of the Shwedagon Pagoda – we are, at last, almost in Rangoon.

Weirdly enough, we catch a glimpse of what must be The Rangoon Flyer – or the Rangoon Eye – not exactly what we were expecting from this old capital struggling under the shackles of a totalitarian regime!

Even here there are some tall modern buildings……

but traditions are readily visible.

We approach the main dock among the classic colonial buildings.

We dock next to the big ferry pier. A lot of people commute across the river, carrying some amazing packages - 7ft. tall stacks of baskets, building supplies (two fellows had trouble jumping aboard while carrying a big door!), fruits and flowers balanced in flat baskets on their heads. Many people also commute in the flat little boats that run with two-stroke engines, similar to the long-tail boats in Thailand, but without the "tail".

We have hoisted the flag of Myanmar out of respect to our hosts. This is our ship’s first time in Burma and the authorities have rolled out the red carpet. We are amazed that there is a welcoming committee! This sets the tone for our visit – we feel that people are glad to have us in their country.

A Morning Stroll in Rangoon

Much to our delight, we have arrived early and the official formalities have been quick. We have several hours to wander around Rangoon on our own before we get into our official tourist buses. Bryan and I are the first ones down the gangplank. First stop is the Strand, the Sarkies’ hotel built in 1901, fourteen years after the brothers built Raffles in Singapore. My ostensible reason for the stop is to find “AA” batteries for my camera (this was a fail), but really I was dying to see this legendary place. As you can see, the lobby has been carefully renovated – to just about how it would have looked in 1901.

The ceiling fans were active and the chill of a/c was lacking. The elevator rivaled Otis numbers 61 and 62 at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego.

As it was early morning, the lobby music was the gentle strains of this lady’s interesting instrument.

We slipped out the side door and immediately stumbled upon some parked Land Rovers. This one looked pretty settled-in....

The place is full of decrepit colonial buildings. Clearly there have not been resources for upkeep, but the city of Rangoon also suffers from having been replaced as Burma's capital when the generals moved the capital to Napidaw, a manufactured city several hours away. Rangoon's population has dipped from 5 million to about 4 million since this change five years ago.

Having said all this about the physical structures in the city, Rangoon is full of lively, pleasant people going about their lives. The street scene is similar to other Buddhist cities, but Rangoon certainly has its own flavor. Here one of our fellow travellers gains merit by buying a songbird to release. The bird, of course, is trained to fly right back to its cage at the street-sellers home, where it will be pressed into duty again tomorrow. Everyone benefits (the "merit" counts, apparently), but the bird's freedom is illusory.

Buddhist monks and nuns are very evident. Every male is supposed to spend time as a monk at least twice in his life, the first time being when he is about 7 years old.It was surprising to see as many nuns as we did. They have their heads shaved like their male counterparts, but their robes are pink. We were told that the nuns basically exist to serve the male monks - I hope this is not quite true!

The local equivalents of used bookshops were a surprise. There are plenty of old English books around and this stack of Reader’s Digests, dating from 1968-1994, was not unusual. I longed to slip our copy of the recent Time magazine with Aung San Su Kyi on the cover into this pile. I had fully planned to do this when we left the US, but being here and understanding how much trouble that could make for The Lady herself or for anyone found with such seditious literature made me leave the magazine on the ship.

This gent is selling all you need to enjoy paan, a nice packet of betel nut, consisting of a leaf wrapper, lime, seasonings and the nut of the areca palm itself… There are many street vendors offering this delicacy, which is placed in the cheek and chewed over the course of hours. Volumes of bright red spit, dyed teeth and undermined gums are the products of this lovely habit...

The vendors tend to clump into geographic areas. The palm readers gather alongside the park. The stationery stalls are near the law courts. This Mom and her little one run a parkside snack stall. The baby is painted with Tana‘kha to protect her from the sun. This powdery substance is ground from the bark of the sandalwood shrub and is worn by most ladies in Burma.

Every city has its candy stalls…here is one on the move. We saw him as we made our way back to the ship to start our official tour.

The day in Rangoon

We loaded into three modern buses and left the locked enclosure of the port with our police escort(!) This motorcycle was to lead us and another was to follow, with sirens blaring, for our entire time in Rangoon. At rush hour, traffic was stopped for us as we glided through the red lights. Surely this treatment of tourists will not continue for long.

Our first stop was a visit to the HUGE reclining Buddha – the largest in the world (at the moment…)

Bryan could not help noticing that, at 32 feet long, each, this Buddha’s feet were even larger than Teddy’s.

We climbed back onto the bus to go off to one of the larger monasteries in Burma. Here we were to have the pleasure of gaining merit by feeding the monks and nuns – over 1000 of them! Here are the young monks lined up ready to begin filing past our tables, accepting offerings of foodstuffs with their alms bowls. Bryan and I helped distribute packets of lovely little potatoes...

The monks ranged in age from 7 years old to their 60’s, with the oldest coming through the line first (the abbot and a few other higher-ups had junior monks to put the offerings into bags for them – it was clearly beneath them to beg for themselves.) The last two tables had people handing out bottles of Coke and what looked like protein bars. All the youngsters tried to remain very solemn, but it did not always work - several burst into grins!

After the ceremony, we were invited to accept a kindness in return and we rested in the shade with tea and samosas and this wonderful dish – pickled tea leaves served with a mixture of nuts, sesame seeds and coconut. It was delicious!

Next stop: Scott's Market, built in 1926 and named for a prominent British civil servant. It is one of the biggest enclosed markets in Burma. Here is Bryan, poised to jump into the fray:

Almost anything was for sale…
We were having a nice prowl until the place caught fire. Our minders were a bit frantic by the time we wandered back onto the bus, the last to return. The fire seemed to be a lot of smoke and smoulder, but people were beginning to get excited…

The sun was beginning to sink and it was about time to head to the shimmering Shwedagon Pagoda. It has to be said that this is one of the great clich├ęs of Burma…except that it is, truly, awe-inspiring.

We spent several hours taking it all in before it got dark. From examining individual temples within the structure
to watching visiting monks take their photos and to egging on the troop of volunteer sweepers , there was plenty to do and see.

Our guide, Chan, even bumped into his wife there.
She was guiding a small group of French-speaking tourists. Don’t they look like a happy young couple anywhere in the world? This was a key to Burma for us – the Burmese were going about their lives, with the yoke of their regime worn well beneath the exterior layers.

At one side temple, a worshipper did her end-of-day chants.

The sun sank and we had another opportunity to gain merit. The group of us lit 1000 oil pots to illuminate the base of the main stupa – here is Bryan lighting some of the first. Daylight was fading as I went and finally it was – well, just beautiful…

As we left, all of us felt deeply moved by a most amazing place.....

Rangoon evening – at Le Planteur

Our organizers had one more treat left for us today. We trundled along in the dark, tired and rather overwhelmed by the day. Then the buses made a sharp right turn up a hill, past a sign that said “Le Planteur”. This stunning place is an old planter’s house that fronts a garden containing the seating for a truly splendid restaurant. In the dark the lighting casts soft glows on perfect traveller palms and big Burmese umbrellas.

As we sat ourselves at big square tables set for ten and impeccably dressed with white linens and fine silver and crystal, we heard the beginnings of what sounded like the gamelan music of Bali.

Out came a group of local dancers
and a lovely performance was underway culminating in these classic movements.

Meanwhile a delicate tuna carpaccio had appeared on large, square white plates. Followed by a single huge prawn (head on, of course) and then a nice bit of local fish or house-cured ham with local lentils. This was a meal to remember.

On the way out, I cornered the maitresse d’ and charged her with being the Michelle Guarnier (“M” of HK, Shanghai and Beijing fame) of Rangoon. The charming proprietress, Lucia, came with her hubby/chef from Switzerland to bestow this place on Rangoon. The couple agreed that Rangoon is a very interesting place to run a high-end restaurant. I say they create magic. Here they are-

And so, back to the ship to bed. Early call tomorrow (4:15am) to get the plane up to Pagan...