Saturday, April 27, 2013

Gold Is Where You Find It - Myanmar

Young couple in Longees
Before the Pagoda
First off, men in Myanmar (Burma) wear skirts. Seriously. They are called “longee” and they are the national dress for males. Women also wear the same wrap around ankle length skirts. They are either belted or knotted at the waist. It doesn’t beg for the same curiosity as Scottish kilts, but I’m told by our guide Tink that they are extremely comfortable and cool.                                                                                    

You might say Yangon (the original and now the revamped name for the city Ragoon) is a gold mine. Everything, it seems, is painted gold and even the fabric in my room at the hotel is gold (a bit gaudy for me but Jimmy Carter stayed in this room when he visited.): it’s all about the Buddhas. Buddhas are golden in every pose, stance, recline, and thought. Some even wear gold cloth or quilts sort of like a Virgin Mary is dressed in blue and white in a Catholic situation.  

The eccentric enormous Pagodas glitter with gold from every angle of the city. The golden Padauk flowers hanging off their trees; and menus taut golden tofu, which is the Burmese substitute for French Fries. Prices are also golden here. A square meter of space costs 1000 dollars. The government owns just about everything so it has the power to move people out when they want to start a project, like a new enterprise with China to mine copper in the north. (Twenty thousand farmers were told to move on from their life long homes to make way for the new mines.) Then there is the incredible golden lady Aung San Suu Kyi who tho confined for 15 years to house arrest won a Noble Peace prize for fighting for rights of her countrymen, who when they protested the horrific rise in the cost of living, monks were beaten and many gunned down in a public demonstration.                                                                                             
Spirits speak to the young
Parade of gold Parasols

There are tall golden parasols carried to shade over young children dressed in ornate golden gowns - boys and girls alike - preparing for their first departure from mom and dad to do their Buddhist obligation in a monastery for a few weeks. (A boy must go when he is between 7 and 12 and then later when he is in his early 20ties. A girl only has to do the early one.)  There are white gold faces on women and men and children, a kind of 2000 year old makeup tradition called Thanakha from the tree of the same name for beauty and for health, which looks like a smudge or a square of yellow on their cheeks or forehead. 

And if you really want to invest there are natural gold pearls, not cultured ones, offered along with fine jade, blood red rubies and other natural pearls found off the beaches of Myanmar at a few high end shops aimed at tourists (mostly French and Indians.)  Burmese still have not forgotten the golden visit by President Obama and how that opened the door for the return of the American tourist. Hotels are packed. And souvenier shops sell framed photos of Obama and Lady Aung San Suu Kyi together. 
Washing with the Tuesday group

If you really want to be impressed by gold, visit the  National Museum where the Lion Throne of the former King Theebaw and Queen Supayalat stands in golden glory. It takes your breath away, especially when you see the ornate costumes the young King and Queen had to don to greet their subjects bringing gold to their gold sitting spots. At another warehouse-like structure held up by steel frames is the largest reclining Buddha on earth,  wrapped in a gold and crystal robe, 70 meters long, her head (I refer to this Buddha as a “her” because it has such a feminine demeanor, smiling with passion and compassion for all who bow to him) resting on her hand, and apparently the best Buddha footprint discovered. There are 108 signs on the soles of the two pink feet, so out of sync with reality, it becomes spiritual. 
royal barge

And one last gold thing is the gargantuan royal barge which sits permanently in the lake here in Yangon, although there are two more that actually travel in other parts of Myanmar. This golden barge is anchored with monster heads and tails and was supposed to be used to take the royal family from town to town where people could acknowledge them. Now the one in this city is a popular restaurant.

Yangon is a divided city - the busy, old, crowded unappealing part along the harbor streets where many remnants of old British architecture still stand and in need of repair; then there are the long curving, flowering flame tree and teak tree lined streets that wind through the enormous walled grounds of military and government buildings and the golden Pagodas and private homes. Traffic is a nightmare because, get this, no motorcycles or bicycles are allowed. Therefore cars are often perpendicular when they should be going north or south and people think nothing about causing a jam. We were in one for about 20 minutes because someone was trying to cross traffic and others got in the way. There are seven million inhabitants in Yangon, so you get the problem.                                                                                                                                     

Along the roadways are little oasis under canopies where men, mostly, and young couples sit on plastic stools (child size) at plastic tables and have tea or lunch of “mohinga” (a rice noodle soup with fish, lime and banana flower) or “ono koswe”, a yellow noodle soup with chicken and coconut milk. These are the real thing in Yangon. For lunch at the Padonmar Restaurant I tried fresh tea leaf and ginger salad (filled with peanuts, scallions, garlic, dried tiny shrimp, sesame seed and lime.) Have you ever had fresh green tea leaf in a salad? Tasty.
Note makeup

So to get back to detail, the early move was to the Shwedagon Pagoda, which, in so many words, makes St. Peters - Rome look like a doll house. Never ever have I seen so many spires, so much gold, so much mosaic glass reflecting even more gold and green, and white stupas and Buddhas after Buddhas in every size, shape and position, smiling and feminine most of the time, but drawing the prayerful full of hope and everybody barefoot, please. There are so many “chapels” and each one full of action. Monks wrapped in rust colored robes sat on ledges of steps to watch what was going on.

Buddha footprint
 Why this pagoda? It’s one of the holiest sites in Buddhism and at the tallest point in the city. And it houses actual relics from the four Buddhas who have appeared in history: 8 hairs from one’s head, a walking stick, a brown bathing robe, and a water dipper. The story goes that at the end of the previous world, five lotus buds sprang up on the hill of this pagoda and from each rose a sacred bird carrying a sacred yellow robe which symbolized the coming of the five Buddhas who would guide the next world toward Nirvana. Four have appeared , the fifth, Maitreya, is still coming and it will mark the end of the cycle.  There is more to this tale: two Burmese merchants traveling with a caravan of 500 carts could not get their oxen to move. They were stuck to the earth. A nat appeared before them with news of Buddha’s enlightenment and so they went to pay homage to him, bearing rice cakes and honey.  So pleased was the Buddha he plucked 8 hairs from his head and told them to enshrine them on Singuttara Hill with other Buddha relics. They sought help from Thagyhamin, King of the Nats. A pagoda was built. In 260 BC Ashoka, a great Indian emperor and disciple of Buddha found the then small pagoda completely submerged in jungle. He cleared it out and built the Shwedagon Pagoda in its first form. It has been added to and expanded over the centuries to occupy the huge space and height it does today.  Just so you know it, my guide told me the mother of Buddha dreamed a dream that a white elephant had visited her and next thing she knew she birthed Buddha; sort of has a touch of our Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit. White elephant statues abound in this pagoda.
reclining Buddha 

important feet 
Today a few young boys and girls, decorated to the hilt, with complete family in tow (I’m told grandparents have a special interest in this day) as the youth are initiated into the Buddhist religion by leaving home and spending some time in a monastery with the monks, where they learn new eating and sleeping habits and a bit about respect and faith. Also at this Pagoda, young marrieds wanting to have a child stop at a special Buddha to offer lotus flowers and lanterns for that. And then there is the sort of zodiac area where 8 spots have been designated for the birth day of the week, and it is your duty to stop there and pick up a silver cup, scoop water from a huge bowl, and wash the Buddhas squatting there. I apparently was born on a Tuesday, (our guide Tink had looked it up) so got the Tuesday slot and it was crowded. Candles are lit, incense is flowing, and jasmine leis are being hung around the Buddha statues neck. The heat was blasting down from the morning sun. It was already about 90 degrees at 10 a.m. 
looking for babies
Myanmar people are friendly, thankful, and graceful. They eat three meals of rice a day. It is against the law to own a gun or violent weapon. They are particularly protective of the head, and so don’t touch anyone’s. Youngsters need to give a slight bow passing the elderly (I received a lot of smiles and “hi”s) and also should not tower over them when talking. Hey, marriage is easy. If a man and woman are recognized as a couple by seven houses to the left and seven to the right of their homes, they can marry. Monks aren’t required. The person performing the marriage must have had a long marriage himself and blessed with many children, although nowadays 3 children are the limit for economy sake.


Anonymous said...

Yangon may be the best place you have visited so far-happy people, good food, gold everywhere, gold pearls, fine jade, blood red rubies, and natural pearls. W0W! If you can find an elephant to ride, you may even change your plans and stay in Yangon longer.
Don't know why the children in Yangon are bowing to you. You are far from being elderly and probably have more energy than most of them.
Are you going to meet with Lady Aung San Suu Kyi while you are in Myanmar? That would be very special. Hope it works out for you.
The fourth playoff game is in progress at the Grind House. With three minutes left in the 2nd Quarter, the Grizz have a one point lead.
We miss you.
Love you,
Geraldean and Judge

Anonymous said...

Good news!
Game four just ended. The Grizzlies won 104 to 83.
Randolph, Gasol and Conley were terrific!
Geraldean and Judge

Anonymous said...

audrey, Judge and I agreed your blog is a so much more than a travel log. It's a history lesson, a story, a cultural journey all in one. Glad you are safe and enjoying the beauty of the East.

Nancy and Robert

Anonymous said...


Myanmar sounds like the "place to be." Lol. I can imagine myself there viewing the rich history and in particularly being in awe of all of the gold surroundings, statues and jewelry. I imagine my favorite would be the natural gold pearls. Please take care and I can see by looking at your many pictures that you are enjoying yourself!

Love and prayers,