Sunday, November 21, 2010

Oh My Buddha (Part 1 of 3)

Myanmar. What comes to mind when you here that name? For some, very little to nothing (I was in that department only eight weeks ago). For others you can make the connection that Myanmar is Burma, but nothing more. Maybe you are interested in visiting the country yourself and have done a painstaking amount of research about Burma. Those people could be wondering is it safe? What about the military junta? After experiencing much of what this country has to offer firsthand, I can tell you it is very unique compared to other countries I have visited.

While I'd like to jump into my adventures in Burma, our story begins in Singapore, early Saturday morning. The date was November 13th; our flight to Yangon, Myanmar (formerly known as Rangoon) was later that day out of Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia as opposed to Changi Airport in Singapore. For those that don't know this already from my blog about this city back in August, Kuala Lumpur is approximately a four hour bus ride from Singapore.

A couple of us left PGP at 4:45 A.M. (I didn't go to sleep that night) to catch an early morning bus from Johor Bahru to Kuala Lumpur then getting on the 4:30 P.M. flight from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Things were going pretty smoothly as far as getting to the bus terminal in good time and leaving Johor Bahru for KL. By this point, our group had grown to ten people, all exchange students from a few different countries: three Americans, three Belgians, two Netherlanders, one Finn, and one Canadian. For the ten of us, it seemed we were going to have a no issue getting to the airport on time, until the bus broke down. I woke from my sleep to hear that we had to get off the bus and get on a different one; I still wasn't concerned about missing our flight. Somehow, though, the second bus we got on must have gone to KL in a very indirect manner because the usual four to five hour ride ended became a six to seven hour ride. Now missing our flight was actually a possibility. We all ran for taxis once reaching KL for the airport, which was an hour from the city, and ended up making our flight to Yangon, Myanmar by the smallest of margins. A nice way to start off the week.

The day we arrived in Yangon was actually a historic/notable day in the history of Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the movement for a Democratic Burmese government and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was released from her fifteen year or so house arrest. Did I mention she lives in Yangon? No we didn't see her, even from a distance, nor any protests of any kind during the entire week in Burma. In fact, since I brought it up initially, the city of Yangon as well as the rest of Myanmar felt very safe. If that isn't good enough for you, then Lonely Planet says Yangon is one of the safest cities in southeast Asia.

After landing in Yangon International Airport that Saturday night, we headed for a hostel near the center of the city. We dropped our stuff off and headed for dinner and drinks. The best part of the night was getting taxis on the way back and having all three cab drivers race each other to see who could get back to the hostel first. The cab I was in had the tiniest of drivers who could barely see over the wheel. At each light we stopped at, he would rev the engine of the vehicle, which must have been made in the 70s, but then would never go as fast as the other two taxis once the light turned green. At night, driving around Yangon offers some great views of the many different pagodas at a distance. This includes the most famous pagoda in the country that we were to see that Sunday, the Shwedagon Pagoda.

This giant structure is not nearly as well known as it should be, standing at over 300 feet covered in golden plates with an assortment of diamonds and other precious rocks at its peak. Our group decided to wake up early in the morning, 4 A.M. to be exact, the next day to catch the Pagoda at sunrise. We arrived at this amazing structure a little after 5:00 A.M. to see many monks, buddhists, and the like all praying to structure. For how early in the morning it was, I was shocked to see so many people up already. It appeared during the week in Myanmar that the people of this country live with the daylight meaning waking up and going to bed much earlier than in Western culture. While there were many people there few, if any tourists besides us, were walking around and gazing at the shear size and volume of the Pagoda. The story behind the Shwedagon Pagoda was built sometime around the 6th to 10th century and is apparently an enshrinement of eight of the Buddha's hairs. Nonetheless, to have all ten of us sit on the ground, barefoot like the Buddhists, and look up this 300-something foot creation was euphoric. We walked around the Pagoda and the other buildings that were part of the structure while enjoying the sunrise for a couple hours before heading back to the hostel for breakfast.

The rest of the day in Yangon was relatively mundane (exchanging money*, casually strolling through markets, etc.) before our afternoon bus ride to the land of many temples, Bagan. This trip up to central Burma was going to be no cakewalk, though. By this form of transportation, it is supposed to take twelve hours to get to Bagan, the former capital of Myanmar. Similar to the bus ride in Kuala Lumpur, everything was going to plan on the ride for the first couple minutes. But it didn't take long before Burmese soap operas were being blasted to full volume on the television. This made it nearly impossible to go to sleep in the tiny and uncomfortable seats we had at our disposal. I even tried blasting my iPod to zone out the awfulness that was the television; even then you could still catch a word or two every few minutes when people were in a quarrel.

The only entertainment I deemed as quality the entire ride was unexpected and I still have no idea to this day why it happened. Early on in the bus ride, some guy gets on the bus, walks to around the sixth row and starts yelling at this guy in Burmese. The guy standing then slaps this dude across the face before continuing on with what he had to say. The victim here didn't even retaliate, despite the fact that this guy gave him a pretty good open hand shot to the cheek. The man standing then left the bus while the passenger looked down in disgrace. A couple of hours later, an old Burmese woman comes on the bus and starts doing the same thing: screaming at this dude before giving the same guy another authoritative slap to the face. Like the first time, no retaliation. This person must have really done something wrong, that's one thing I am sure of. Finally, the real icing on the cake to an awful bus ride was how many people the driver kept picking up. At one point, people were sitting on fold out seats in the aisle because it got that crowded. You can imagine how much of a relief it was when we arrived in Bagan at around 4:00 A.M.

*Regarding exchanging money, Myanmar has a ton of funny and odd rules about this subject. First, when exchanging dollars (USD) into the local currency (kyat, K), the bills have to be new, crisp, and in mint condition meaning no ink marks or creases. Second, the rate the government gives for the conversion is very different from the one you get in the black market (i.e. don't exchange your money at the airport). The rate the black market gives is about 890K to $1 while the government I believe uses a rate of 490K or something of that variety. Finally, it wasn't until last year that the government started to produce 5000K bills, but I only saw three of them the entire time I was there. Why does that matter? Well the next biggest bill, 1000K, is only worth approximately $1. So that means you get to walk around with a wad of cash feeling like you are really rich when in fact its the same amount of money you had before but split up into monopoly money, essentially. The picture seen here is all our money pooled together in kyat after we converted only half the USD we had brought for the trip. Each pillar with a rubber band around it was how much each individual to walk around with (no it did not fit in our wallets as you can imagine).

Stay tuned for parts two and three over the next couple of days!

1 comment:

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    You recommended Singapore instead of Japan or China. So, If you don't mind answer me some of my FAQS :D Because you'll be a great help! Well, first, The National University Of Singapore, is it only on Business? And what are the requirements for studying in Singapore? I mean TOEFL etc? Because English is not my language but I am an Asian. and Lastly, can you tell me some good universities on Media Sciences? I've got loads of questions but i hope you'll answer me back!
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