Monday, March 25, 2013

Watching "The Lady" and remembering Burma

myanmar botataung outside worshipper
Worshipper at Botataung at high noon
So there I was, channel surfing on a Sunday evening while folding the laundry, filing documents and doing some packing.  Oh, "The Lady" was showing on HBO.  I didn't intend to keep watching but seeing some familiar places, I was mesmerized.  My thoughts drifted back to four years ago, on a solo backpacking trip to Myanmar.  I couldn't remember exactly what made me choose Burma among other Southeast Asian destinations.  It sure wasn't the cost as it wasn't cheap at all (Laos and Cambodia could've been far, far cheaper).  Maybe, it was a fascination with unplugging and disappearing for a week (those times, foreigners weren't allowed to use mobile phones and there weren't many places to even just send an email unlike now) to escape the stress of the office, an overbearing boss and a dead-end job.  It was like spending a blackhole vacation way before the term became popular.

myanmar shwedagon buddhas and monk
Praying among Buddhas in Shwedagon
As Michelle Yeoh went through the emotions of portraying Aung San Suu Kyi, I vividly remember going through the airport manned by the stiff-necked staff in khaki uniforms, all-business, unsmiling, thrifty with words.  Coming out of the airport, I was greeted by the stifling, dry heat; of Yangon traffic dominated by boxed-type Nissans from the eighties and standing-room only, right-hand drive buses, of temples sharing the skyline.  Going through a round of pagodas in the city, I was befriended by a monk who intimated in whispers that the Lady recently paid the compound a visit.  Those days, it was difficult to openly talk to anyone about her, never knowing who you maybe talking to, but this monk did, and even gave me a glimpse of life in the temple compound.  We talked at length about things, including the government's refusal to accept foreign aid in the wake of a cyclone that took a big toll on the countryside.  The hush-hush conversations were perhaps, an added thrill, giving the trip an element of secrecy and danger.
myanmar shwezigon koko
My friend in Shwezigon, Koko

Heading to Bagan on the heels of the water festival, I made a short stop in Mandalay where I befriended a motorcycle driver who not only ate breakfast with me but also made a stopover at the beautiful Maha Muni temple for the sunrise, and helped me get on the right bus to Bagan (as there were no English signages whatsover).  To save money, I stayed in a small house converted into an inn in Old Bagan.  The language barrier became readily apparent when I took a rental van at 4am by mistake and found myself in Mt. Poppa.  The side trip cost me a chunk of whatever money I had, worried that I have only $200 left -- one $100 bill even had a small blot which is a no-no among most money changers (true enough, the staff at the airport refused it when I tried paying for my terminal fee).  But the mountain may have called out to me and it was quite an experience seeing the plains from such a vantage point early in the morning as well as observe everyday life.

I also remember going to Shwezigon Paya and befriending Koko, a seller who helped me out when I was being harassed by the other temple sellers into buying their wares.  He told me to come back the next day at a certain time so I can shoot the alley better (and it was a most helpful advice).  My best friend, Ferdz, went to the same temple about two years later and it was amazing that he can still remember me.
myanmar yangon skyline from shwedagon
The skyline of Yangon then as seen from Shwedagon
I didn't do the usual temple hop in Bagan but focused more into meeting the locals.  While I had my share of some trying to pull a fast one (a lazy cart driver who tried selling me crystals in Bagan or later on, a monk who offered to show me the "mystery" of the Shwedagon stupas but later asked for 25,000 kyats), I met a people who are warm, earnest, willing to help out and only trying to earn a honest living.

Getting back to Yangon earlier than I planned, I recall being roused at midnight at a checkpoint and submitting our passports to soldiers.  Other than that, I also noted with amusement how the overnight buses included a bottle of mineral water (precious in the sweltering heat), candies (literally, a sweet gesture), and toothbrush with toothpaste (very practical) with our fare.  Back in Yangon, I watched the news about the riots in Thailand, a bit worried that I may get stranded in Bangkok on the way to the Philippines. But things really do have a way of falling into place and I got home in one piece.

As "The Lady" came to a conclusion, I found myself moved into writing this piece.  Only God knows when I can come back (last I heard, the opening up of Myanmar to the West has sent prices soaring) but remembering the nats Koko gave me as gifts, I look back at my trip to Burma filled with a fervent wish -- that even with its imminent democratization and opening up to the world, the place wouldn't lose its old world charm.  I pray that the Burmese wouldn't trade their culture and hospitality for modernity's sake, their tanaka for make-up, their long-yis for Levi's and cheroots for Marlboros. The world will be the richer for it.
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