Schooling in the Chin villages

The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark.

Thomas Paine

img_2966 I’ve visited quite a few schools in Asia and they consistently take my breath away. I am always astounded at conditions in rural Asia and that anyone learns to read and write at all. But they do. According to UNESCO, the Youth Literacy rate in Myanmar is 96 percent. Youth Literacy is defined as young people between the ages of 15 to 24 who can read, write and understand a simple statement about everyday life.

 

img_9845How teachers teach and children manage to learn in some of the poorer schools is astonishing.

 

img_2976The schools in the Chin villages were amongst the poorest I’ve seen and quite a shock after the International schools in Asia where I consulted every winter for twelve years. International schools were originally set up to educate the children of ambassadors and executives of large companies who were working overseas and would eventually return to their country of origin. There is a network of these schools all over the world and nowadays they serve not only the children of traditional expatriates but also the children of the wealthy in the host country. The facilities themselves are stunning and the resources available to teachers and students simply amazing.

 

img_2949In the first Chin village we visited, the school for the teenagers (I am loathe to say high school) was a hut in the centre of the village. It was easy to identify by the number of flip-flops lying outside – and by the noise.

 

img_2948The hut was alive with the buzzing of teenagers. Algebraic equations were on the chalkboard but Algebra was clearly the last thing on their minds. There seemed to be no adult in charge: whoever had demonstrated the equations was no longer around.

 

img_9847The students were sitting or kneeling in Myanmar-style on the floor, in front of desks that were very low to the floor. Most students seemed to have paper and pencils but no other resources, except the chalkboard with the mysterious equations, were evident.

 

img_2963The school for younger students was at the end of the first Chin village. It was a substantial building but I felt sorry for the young female teacher trying to instruct children who seemed more interested in fixing their hair than in learning.

 

Collaboration - Myanmar-style

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The children were a cheery bunch – but a handful for one young teacher to work with. There was only paper and pencil as resources for learning and none of the visual aids – computers, smart boards, TVs or the rest of the paraphernalia – that western teachers have access to.

 

img_9870In the second Chin village, the senior school seemed more orderly with a teacher writing the exquisite Burmese script on the chalkboard. He also went round and sat with small groups of students while they worked.

 

img_9874The Burmese or Myanmar script was developed from a southern Indian script in the eight century. Originally the script was square-shaped but rounded letters developed in the seventeenth century as a result of using palm leaves to write on: straight lines would have torn the leaves. It is a syllabic alphabet, which means each letter has an inherent vowel.

 

(I previously came across a syllabic alphabet when I was teaching in the Eastern Arctic forty odd years ago.   Inuktitut, the language of the Canadian Inuit or Eskimos as they used to be called, is written using syllabics).

 

screen-shot-2016-07-31-at-5-20-00-pmThe Burmese alphabet consists of 33 letters and twelve vowels. It is written left to right and no spaces are required between words. It is a tonal language and diacritical marks are used in the written language.

The translation is as follows:

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This is what it sounds like.

 

And here is a short video that demonstrates the shapes of the letters with their sounds.

 

One advantage of a syllabic alphabet is that if you know the language and learn the orthography, you can write anything you can say. This is definitely not the case with English and its haphazard (almost) spelling.

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I enjoyed my visit to the Chin ladies but left thinking that if Education is the route to a more prosperous life, as we are so often told, what will become of the younger generation. School seemed so inconsequential to many of them. Most seemed destined to be chained to life in their village with its round of chores to support a subsistence level of living.

 

img_9867And so I found yet another reason to be glad I was educated in Britain on the heels of the 1944 Education Act, which ensured that all children, irrespective of social or financial background, got a fair shake at an education.

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Chin ladies with tattoos – Lines before their time

My body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story.

Johnny Depp

Chin lady with tattoos
Chin lady with tattoos

The trip on the Lemro River was interesting  but it did feel good to get out and stretch my legs. The path to the village where the ladies with the tattoos lived was flooded with bright mid-day light and soon I was wishing I was back on my plastic chair in the boat. The trees at the end of the path gave welcome shade.

 

Path to the village
Path to the village

From the river, the village looked deserted but, as in most of Asia in the middle of the day, the villagers were sequestered in any shady spot. Even the children were staying out of the noontime sun.

Walking into the villages is like stepping back in time. There was no evidence of any of the conveniences of the modern world that we take for granted.

 

 

Village house
Village house on stilts

The houses, on stilts so air can circulate below and also provide shade, were all made by hand and of local material. They seemed to be made of mats woven from palm leaves. Much of life is lived out-of-doors, usually under the house for that’s where it is cooler.

 

Weaving on a waist loom
Weaving on a waist loom

Some kind of Chin telegraph had announced our arrival for the ladies were busy at their looms or displaying their wares. The traditional craft of weaving has endured and there were lots of pieces on sale.

 

Weaving on a loom
Weaving on a loom

I had been a bit nervous thinking about taking photos of their tattooed faces and desperately wanted some close-up shots. The light in Asia is nearly always a problem, especially at high noon. It is an additional problem when the contrast between the light areas and the dark are intense. Most cameras, even very good digital cameras, have a problem when the dynamic range is too large: bright highlights are easily blown with washed out colours and details are lost in the dark areas.

 

Portrait of a Chin lady

Portrait of a Chin lady
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But I need not have worried: the ladies were gracious. They were quite happy to pose and, as I got more confident, I asked them to move into better light and so there would be a better background. One even closed her eyes and motioned me to take a photo of the design on her eyelids. She was so sweet that I did as she asked but with an internal shudder. All I could think about was how painful that must have been.

 

Eyelid tattoos
Eyelid tattoos

Girls were tattooed at about the age of nine. Whether this was a puberty rite or a cosmetic treatment, I don’t know. It was done with sharp thorns from a plant and the ink was a mixture often involving soot. A woman in the child’s family, often the grandmother, did the tattooing.

 

I thought the women all looked extremely handsome and that the tattoos (lines before their time) hid the inevitable ravages of Old Father Time. Showing their tattoos, along with selling their weaving, has become an income generator for them.

 

Myanmar style sun screen - thank
Myanmar style sun screen – thanaka

The Burmese government outlawed tattooing in 1960 so nowadays young girls content themselves with applying circular patterns with thanaka.   Thanaka, made from the bark of a tree, is a much less painful option. The bark is powdered and made into a paste, which is yellow. Women, men and children use it as a sunscreen.

Boy with thanaka sun screen

You will see more children in the next post as I write about schools in the Chin villages.

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Life on the Lemro River

Rivers are roads that move, and which carry us whither we desire to go.

Blaise Pascal

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There is nothing quite like river travel especially on a small boat chugging up some backwater in Asia. So off I went with three other adventurers (fellow travellers I met in Mrauk U) to visit the tattooed ladies of some Chin villages in northwestern Myanmar.

The tribal nature of much of Asia is truly revealed in northern Myanmar where the modern political division of the land into states parallels the cultural reality. The Chin state contains half a million Chin people, said to be of Mongolian origin. It is a mountainous state with little infrastructure as the ‘roads’ around Mrauk U so vividly demonstrate. Much of the travel is by boats on the river. It is also economically poor although rich in tradition and culture. It is a place that most tourists do not venture and many villages are isolated.

Mark U and the Lemro River
Mark U and the Lemro River

 

We endured a bone-rattling, tuk-tuk ride of about half an hour from Mrauk U to reach the Lemro (also spelled Lay Myo) River. The pastoral scenery was stunning in the blinding, early morning sunlight. We bounced over rocky roads passing fields, bright yellow and ready for harvesting. In the distance, mountains rose in serried ranks, blue and hazy in the early morning mist and the smoke from cooking fires.

Bone-rattling roads

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The boat was relatively shady and we each had a plastic chair with a back to it: not the hard wooden bench of some of my previous river jaunts.

Boats on the Lemro River
Boats on the Lemro River

We spent a pleasant couple of hours chugging upstream watching life go by, largely unchanged for centuries – except for diesel motors for the boats.

Boat with diesel motor
Making waves – with a diesel motor

Life on the river and on its banks unfolded before our eyes. It is almost a medieval scene (except for the boats with diesel engines) involving the daily round of chores that subsistence living requires. We passed seemingly deserted villages, yet the evidence of occupation was revealed in the tidy and prolific vegetable gardens along the banks.

In other places there was a hive of activity with both men and women hauling sacks (perhaps of rice) down the riverbank and into a waiting boat. This was a reminder that the Rakhine state, full of meandering rivers, is second in rice productivity to the Ayeyarwady delta.

Loading a boat
Loading a boat

And as always at rivers in Asia, women were washing clothes or dishes. Some were solitary but others worked with a friend, children in tow. While the mothers did the laundry, the little ones skipped into and out of the water.

Eventually, we arrived at the first of the two Chin villages we were to visit and saw first hand one of the cultural traditions – older women with tattooed faces. But that will have to wait until the next blog post.

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Mrauk U – The Forgotten Kingdom

The stones here speak to me, and I know their mute language.

Heinrich Heine

I’m on the dock in Sittwee with my two companions bright and early only to discover we have two hours to wait. The locals are also waiting – swaddled in winter coats and hats. Even though I was already sweating, it was the cool season for them.

I need my hat to keep me warm

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I was really looking forward to the boat trip from Sittwee to Mrauk U. I had visions of hanging out on the deck taking interesting photos of life on the Kaladan River.   I should have known better. The boat was long and barge-like sitting low in the water. But at least the narrow gangplank from jetty to boat was relatively easy to navigate with hands clutching me to ensure I didn’t fall in the water.

Boat to Mrauk U

Inside, the seats, three in a row on each side of the central walkway, were so low to the floor that it was impossible to see out of the windows. Even if the seats were higher, it would still have been impossible to see out. The windows were covered with dark blue curtains – to keep out the sunlight – which every self-respecting Myanmar wants to avoid. In any case, the focus of the locals is not on what is happening outside the windows but on what is happening on the screen at the front.

I sat as far away from the screen as possible and as close to the door (read escape hatch) as I could manage. I wanted to avoid what I suspected would be the typical Asian movie – very loud and with much grotesque violence. But I need not have worried. The Myanmars are into gentler stuff. The movie seemed to be about a man who couldn’t get his act together to claim the girl of his dreams and so appeared a buffoon – much to the amusement of the rest of the passengers.

So, why Mrauk U?

As Sir Edmund Hillary said, when asked why he climbed Mt. Everest, ‘Because it is there.”

Palm trees and pagodas

And Mrauk U has been there for a very long time: even Myanmar Tourism describes it as ‘the forgotten kingdom’. The kingdom of Mrauk U was founded in 1433 by King Min Saw Mon. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was a well-known port with ships from Europe and the Far East able to sail seventy kilometres up the Kaladan River from the Bay of Bengal in order to trade. At one stage, the kingdom controlled half of what is now Bangladesh as well as a large portion of Myanmar. As the city grew to 160,000 people, they expressed their gratitude by building temples – many temples.

A surfeit of temples

Many of these temples have survived, and while the site is not as large or as imposing as Bagan, it has its own charm. Temples of this bye-gone era litter the landscape and you will need to walk across threshing circles and vegetable gardens to reach some of them.

Threshing area

The usual upside-down bell-shaped stupas are much in evidence but many of the buildings use this familiar Buddhist design in unusual ways.

Temples surround the village

Stupas in concentric circles

The first temple I visited was Shitte-Thaung Pagoda where you pay your archeological zone fee of approximately five dollars. It’s well worth it. Shitte-Thaung was built in 1535 and is reputed to be home to eighty thousand Buddhas. And, no, I did not count them.

Shitte-Thaung Temple

Like many temples at Mrauk U, Shitte-Thaung was built on a hill and looks like a fortress. The temple has a main stupa with four smaller stupas, one in each corner. Inside the temple is a main prayer hall containing many Buddha images. A long dark passageway, said to be one hundred metres long, leads from this room into the inner temple. It contains many sculpted figures depicting ordinary Rakhine people as well as scenes from the Jakarta tales (stories of the Buddha’s life). There are also scenes of Hindu deities including Indra on three elephants. At the centre of the temple is the room that contains Shitte-Thaung’s principal Buddha – three metres high and made of gold.

Close to Shitte-Thaung is Htukkenthein temple built in 1571 and looking like a bunker.

Htukkenthein Temple

It is very dark inside and a very long corridor spirals to an inner chamber. I felt like I was circling the innards of an ammonite. There are 140 arched recesses in the walls, each enshrining a stone image of the Buddha. Surrounding the Buddhas are sculpted figures of ordinary people said to have sponsored the construction of the temple. The passageway ends in a five metre high inner chamber shaped like a dome. Daylight from above illuminates the Buddha figure.

Many of the temples are well within walking distance of each other but I wanted to see Koe-Thaung, the largest temple in Mrauk U.

Koe-Thaung lies a couple of kilometres from the village so I hired a horse and cart to take me there. It was a rough ride over roadways that were substantially more rock than anything else.

Koe-Thaung, the temple of ninety thousands Buddhas, is huge and is surrounded by terraces covered with stupas. It was built in 1553. There’s a very appealing interior passageway, dark in some places and light in others where the sun floods in through collapsed walls. The walls are covered with small Buddhas carved into the rock face of the walls. Much larger Buddhas seated on pedestals line the passageway. It’s a glorious, mysterious sight – enough to send shivers up your spine. Such devotion – and much merit – to carve ninety thousand Buddhas

But temples aren’t the only attraction to Mrauk U. The village itself presents a kaleidoscope of ordinary people going about their daily chores. You don’t need to see the friezes in the temples – you can watch rural Myanmar unfold before your eyes. A family cooking their evening meal in the lane outside their house, an old woman curled up on a bench at the end of her garden watching the world go by, a woman drawing water from a well – all are indelible scenes. And all around the village, frequently interspersed with the temples, you can see farmers taking care of their crops.

And then there is the market. It’s very busy – full of life and colour – as people from the surrounding rural areas come to the big smoke of Mrauk U to do their shopping.

There was plenty to keep me busy in Mrauk U but I could not leave the Rakhine State of Myanmar until I had seen the Chin ladies. The Chin tribe, one of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, used to tattoo the faces of young girls as a sign of beauty. When I visited Mrauk U in December 2014, only seven of these ladies were still living.  I had to see them.  And this involved a trip in another boat.

Click on the image to see more photos.

  Photo essay on Mrauk U

Mrauk U

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Sittwee – the back of beyond

Travel, like dreams, is a door that opens from the real world into a world that is yet to be discovered.

Guy de Maupassant

One of the delights of travel for me is to visit remote places. Sometimes getting to a place is as interesting as the destination itself. I knew Mrauk U would be interesting (ancient capital of the Arakanese kingdom, now know as the Rakhine state) but I wasn’t expecting Sittwee (also spelled Sittwe) to engage me as much as it did. To get to Mrauk U, you have to take a boat from Sittwee, which is close to the border of Bangladesh. To get to Sittwee involves a long (possibly twenty four hour) journey over typical Myanmar roads (full of potholes) or a short (but expensive) flight from Yangon. I opted for the flight not so much to avoid a road trip but because reports of whether you could actually do it were so variable.

Sittwee is situated on an estuarial island at the confluence of three rivers (Kaladan, Mayu and Lay Mro) that empty into the Bay of Bengal. When Mrauk U was the capital of the Arakanese kingdom (1430 to 1785), with a population estimated to be 160,000, Sittwee was a small fishing village. The British captured the Arakan area, now known as the Rakhine, during the First Anglo-Burmese war (1825). They promptly moved the capital to Sittwee, which was much nearer to the coast and therefore more accessible. Because of its location, on the trading route from India to the Far East, it grew into an important port. But time changes everything. By the time I reached Sittwee, it had the air of the back of beyond, where you might meet an old Colonial Southeast Asia hand around any dusty corner. And Sittwee had seen plenty of foreign nationals come and go over the years. The Dutch erected the unusual clock tower in the eighteenth century, a reminder that the Dutch East India Company was actively trading in the area.

Dutch clock tower

 

Nowadays, the town seems unprepossessing, sleepy almost – until you reach the market. Close to the clock tower, which stands on the broad and dusty main street, you turn right and follow a much narrower street. It rapidly becomes busy – people working on the street or in buildings that open onto the street. When the street becomes clogged with people and traffic – a special form of vehicular conveyance known all over Asia as a rickshaw – you know your destination is nearby.

The usual guidebook advice to tourists is to go to a market early in the morning. This is usually good advice – you are guaranteed all kinds of action. I arrived at Sittwee market in the mid-afternoon. Most of the vendors (women mainly) were relaxing and chatting to neighbours while last minute shoppers straggled by. The ladies chopping and selling chickens were more than happy to let me take photos. As the ‘real’ work of the day had ended, they also enjoyed looking at what I showed them on the LCD screen at the back of the camera. No one spoke English but their delight in seeing themselves on the screen was palpable. It wasn’t long before they were directing me to take photos of their friends in the produce area and of the ladies on the sewing machines.

Wandering in this market requires care: it is large and very messy underfoot. I was glad I was wearing solid sandals with soles that gripped strongly. It was quite wet – much water is sloshed over the floor to remove the fish and chicken entrails as well as the detritus from the fruit and vegetables.  It was a labyrinthine market and I kept walking onwards away from the street. When I emerged at the other end, I was on a pier that overlooked the Bay of Bengal. It was a most glorious sight, a wood block print from an old history book but in colour. The late afternoon sun, golden and brilliant, burnished an assortment of boats that could easily be harbouring pirates ready to storm ashore with knives grasped between teeth and cutlasses swinging at their sides. The light reflected from the shimmering blue sea was blinding but gradually the scene before me settled into one of late afternoon commerce – men in small rowing boats waiting to take ‘shoppers’ with all of their goods out to the larger boats anchored in the bay. Viewed from the vantage point of the pier, Sittwee looked like a classic tropical outpost – all palm trees and tin roofs – just waiting for Somerset Maugham or Joseph Conrad to drop by and sip a Scotch or gin as the brilliant sun slipped into the sea.

I spent a long time on that pier, watching the people come and go, but eventually I wandered back into the market, said goodbye to the chicken ladies, and found my way back onto the street.

The street in front of the market seemed just as busy as when I’d entered but I managed to maneuver myself around the rickshaws and avoid the little pick up trucks waiting to carry people home. I walked along the street that ran parallel to the Bay of Bengal, which I could see shining in the gaps between buildings. I also found the dark side where people cast their garbage into the sea and the sea gives it right back.

I found an area full of large sacks, which I realized contained rice. The area around Sittwee is the second largest area growing rice outside of the Ayeyarwaddy delta. Sittwee is such an important hub for the rice growing and exporting business that the government has been talking about building a deep-sea port. It would probably make life easier for the people – no more hauling rice sacks on their backs – but the rice market would lose much of its charm. Someone like me, with a camera and a penchant for out of the way places that time seems to have slipped past, does not always welcome what is deemed to be progress for the people who live and work there.

Sittwee is very photogenic and on my way back to my hotel, I came across a troop of Thai photographers from Bangkok, draped with a wide assortment of serious Canon and Nikon gear. They, like me, were en route for Mrauk U. Sittwee was so entrancing that I’d forgotten it was merely a staging point on my way to the ancient capital of Mrauk U. As the sky darkened, I joined a Swiss woman I met on the plane at a local viewpoint for a beer and a chat. We watched a spectacular sunset over the Kaladan River where it empties into the Bay of Bengal.

The next morning, the two of us, along with a German guy who had also been on the plane, rode in the back of a truck and were deposited at the boat dock fifteen minutes before seven a.m., the time at which we had been assured the boat would leave. We waited and waited, along with everyone else, because the boat wasn’t leaving until nine. But even that was interesting.

For a place that started out looking like the back of beyond, Sittwee turned out to be quite a little jewel.

The Market on the Bay of Bengal

Photo Essay

Click on the image to take you to a photo essay developed with Adobe Slate

A market on the Bay of Bengal

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Shwedagon Pagoda – A beautiful winking wonder

Architecture is a visual art and the buildings speak for themselves.

Julia Morgan

Buddhists like to build their scared places at the top of a hill. I’m not sure why. Maybe, it is because each step upwards expiates our earthly sins and carries us closer to a purer state in which we can enter the sacred spot. Kiplings’ ‘beautiful winking wonder’, the Shwedagon Pagoda, sits at the top of Singutarra Hill, which is 167 feet above Yangon. There are four covered walkways with steps that climb the hill; at the top sits a splendid stupa covered with gold plates.

On my first visit in 1999, I carried my karma step by step, up the 167 feet to reach the terrace via the least used walkway at the eastern entrance. I had stayed near Kandawgyi Lake and this was the closest entrance. On this visit, I went looking for the western entryway because it has escalators. (The other walkways now also have lifts but I am claustrophobic and prefer escalators.) All taxi drivers in Yangon know where the Shwedagon is located but not all know where the escalators are. My taxi driver took me to the southern entrance (on Shwedagon Road). Before I dismissed him, I hopped out and asked one of the parking lot attendants to see if we were at the correct entrance. We weren’t. He directed the taxi driver to the western entrance, which seemed a long way round and definitely too far to walk in the late afternoon heat.

Shoes must be removed at the bottom. You can leave them with a minder but I took mine with me in my backpack because I was not sure by which walkway I would descend. Unlike my first visit, where I plodded up the Singuttara Hill, I floated to the top on the escalators and stepped out onto the marble terrace still warm from the rays of the late afternoon sun.  I was immediately in a magical and exotic location.  Gold everywhere.  Pagodas and Buddhas in vast quantities.  And people galore.  The Shwedagon is a shrine that lures Buddhists from all over Myanmar and all corners of Asia.  It vibrates with a quiet peace.

The Shwedagon is the most sacred pagoda in Myanmar. The stupa rises 325 feet above the terrace and is covered with golden plates, not merely gilded with gold leaf. The spire or hti that seems to pierce the brilliant blue sky is covered with a multitude of precious gems. It’s an enthralling place in which to spend several hours, marveling at the architecture and at the devotion of the people. The setting sun burnishes the pagodas and shrines surrounding the central stupa. There are so many Buddhas and all quite beautiful in their own way. I often wonder how the people decide to which Buddha they will pay their respects, for choose you must as there are Buddha statues to last you a lifetime.

As the sun sank, the orange of the sky was matched by the glow of the lamps being lit on the small wall that surrounded the central stupa. Clearly, a temple festival was taking place. The mood was calm and joyful.

Shwedagon Pagoda is an exotic and beautiful place with almost a cacophony of architectural styles. Yet the shrines and pagoda continue to whisper in my memory long after the escalator deposited me at the bottom of Singuttara Hill. It gleams softly in my mind’s eye whenever I think about Yangon – one of the most entrancing Buddhists sights in all of Asia.

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Botataung and Birth Day Buddhas

“Let the site tell you its secrets.”

Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language

 In Myanmar, the sacred is intertwined with everyday life. Sacred buildings, gold and white, rise from the landscape, a testament to the Buddha’s teachings. And the people weave their spirituality into their daily life. It’s not uncommon for families to head to the nearest temple at day’s end to enjoy a quiet time together as well as practice their devotions.

Boatmen on the Yangon RiverI like to go to temples in the late afternoon and early evening so I can see the ordinary folk pay their respects to the Buddha. Botataung Pagoda in Yangon, borders the Yangon River where Strand Road intercepts Botataung Road in the east of the city. It’s an area where ordinary working folk live. At day’s end they leave their occupation and head to the pagoda.

Botataung Pagoda

In Myanmar, a pagoda or paya is the name for a temple complex consisting of a central stupa, which is a white or gold upside-down bell-shaped structure that houses a sacred relic – usually a hair of the Buddha. The stupa is a closed structure and sits in the middle of a marble platform, surrounding which are various other structures where the people can pray and present flowers and candles to Buddha statues.

 

Botataung is unusual in that you can go inside the central stupa and see the golden receptacle that houses the Buddha’s hair.   There’s not much space inside and everything is covered in gold. The devout touch the shrine gently, say a prayer and quietly file out.

Entering the Stupa Slideshow

Hover mouse over image to see caption

The marble slabs surrounding the stupa were warm to my feet at the end of the day. Two little girls were sitting on the marble, waiting for their mother who was pouring water over a Buddha statue.  The elder of the little girls was teaching her sister to pay respects to the Buddha. Hands are placed together, touched to the head and the heart and the head is touched to the floor. The little one was a quick learner but her sister got distracted.  She wanted to copy her mother and pour water over the Buddha.

Learning to be a Buddhist

Click to see images and mouse over to see captions

In a pagoda, Buddhas that represent the days of the week surround the central stupa. Buddhists pour water (as a sign of respect and for good luck and good karma) over the Buddha that sits at the corner for the day of the week on which they were born.   You might be expecting to find seven Buddhas but there are actually eight because the Burmese split births on a Wednesday into morning and afternoon. I’m not exactly sure why but it has to do with the ancient Burmese calendar that has eight zodiac signs for the days of the week.

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One friendly fellow, noticing my interest in the birth day Buddhas, came up to me, pulled out his smart phone and offered to find my day of birth with an app. I’m not sure which of us was the more surprised when his app only went back to 1950!

Days of week Burmese

Still, the encounter did make me curious so I consulted the oracle known as the Internet and now I know my birth day was a Tuesday.  Next time I go to a pagoda, I will head to the southeast corner and look for a Buddha with a lion statue.

You might also enjoy my Children of Myanmar images on Flickr

Children of Myanmar

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Yangon Circle Line

“Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.” ― Paul Theroux

I’ve always enjoyed travelling by train, probably because I equate it with independence. At the age of eleven, my mother, full of fear and trembling, took me to Piccadilly Station in Manchester and put me on a train to Carlisle. She ensconced me in a ‘Ladies Only’ carriage with strict instructions to change at Carlisle and catch the afternoon train to Kirkcudbright (Scotland). It was a trip I had made with my mother and sister many times – to visit my grandmother and other Scottish relatives my mother had left behind when she married my father, an Englishman, and settled in Lancashire. I knew the route like the back of my hand, including spending an hour between trains in the ‘Ladies Only’ waiting room in Carlisle.

Not quite the stuff of a Paul Theroux journey by train but exciting for an eleven year old wanting to fray the cord that binds and tethers. Even then I wanted to see the world.

I have no idea if Paul Theroux has ever travelled the Circle Line in Yangon – too short a journey (28 miles), seats too hard, no restaurant car and no table so he could make his notes on what he sees and what people say. The line, a narrow gauge railway built by the British in the 1950s doesn’t go anywhere – merely round in a circle through the outskirts of Yangon. The whole trip takes about three hours.

Yangon Circle Line - map
Yangon Circle Line – map

The main railway station in Yangon is centrally located but I took a taxi, as it’s quite a long walk from the usual tourist haunts. I found the ticket office easily (signs in English) and paid for my ticket in local currency (kyats), a very modest 10 cents instead of the one US dollar that tourists were charged previously. This trip is often described as a commuter train because it goes through the Yangon suburbs (another misnomer) but you won’t find any briefcases here. You need both hands to haul yourself aboard as the three steps are quite steep but there are handrails.

Finding a seat was easy – just slide onto one of the long benches on ether side of the carriage. I slid into a corner and watched as the other passengers embarked; a few housewives, a schoolgirl, a man with two large baskets filled with bananas suspended from a shoulder yoke and a few tourists. They were joined by a couple of young women, one with bags of attitude for the camera.

Who do you think I am?
Who do you think I am?

We pulled out on time (there are many trips during the day), and although the route is said to serve 100,000 to 150,000 passengers each day, my carriage was almost empty. Disappointed at the small turn out, I sat back and watched the city give way to countryside almost as soon as we had left the station.

A heavy load
A heavy load

After an hour and a half of little action, I was beginning to feel that it was a dull ride with a few people getting on and off at various stops in the middle of nowhere. Then, we drew into a station that I now know is called Danyingon where there was lots of activity. It looked like a vegetable market was laid out on either side of the track, which indeed it was.

Life from the train
Life from the train

Now, I really love markets and thought about jumping off, speaking idly of course as I would have needed to descend the steep steps, a Mount Everest for me, to reach the ground.

Before I could act, suddenly I was in the midst of a melee as women and men, hauling very large baskets and bundles, swarmed my carriage. I retreated into my corner as they settled themselves all over the place, baskets and bundles rising almost to the ceiling. I just hoped that the various bundles now resting on my feet and legs contained nothing unpalatable that could wriggle free. I such situations, I am always glad to be wearing rather stout travel shoes with closed toes.

The train pulled out and much to my surprise, out came knives, string and plastic bags. This motley crew set to work, separating the produce into smaller bunches, which they expertly secured by twisting the string and tying it off. They chatted and joshed each other but worked steadily. I realized that these were the usually invisible ‘middle men’ (and women) of commerce who go to the outskirts of Yangon each day to where the produce is grown and sold and bring back as much as they can carry to either sell themselves or sell to other vendors in the city.

Twist and tie

Picture 1 of 4

Twist and tie

No fingers were idle on the homeward journey and by the time we reached Yangon everyone was packed up and ready to leave. Even before the train stopped, produce was pushed out the windows to helpers on the platform and several valiant ones were slipping and sliding in their rubber flip-flops over the mounds stuffed in the stairwells. I was not in a rush and watched women, smaller than some of the bundles, manhandle them down the steps and onto the platform. Within a few minutes, the loads were removed and I could leave the train. The platform was a hive of activity as the ‘middle men’ (mostly women) organized their wares and a new set of passengers climbed aboard.

End of the line slideshow

Hover mouse over image to see caption

Little did my mother know when she deposited me on the 9:30 a.m. to Carlisle all those years ago that she was preparing me for a great train journey. As someone said, ‘The most important reason for going from place to place is to see what’s in between’. By that criterion, the Yangon Circle Line was a great train journey.

If you like to travel by train, go quickly, as the Circle Line with its busy produce vendors may come to an end. Just recently the Government of Myanmar announced that it intends to build a state-of-the-art wholesale produce market on the outskirts of the city, near Danyingon. There are also plans for a cold storage facility and a transportation centre so the produce can be trucked to China.

Mixed emotions
Mixed emotions

 

 

 

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Yangon Street Scenes

Ganesha and the Mogok ruby dealers

What is it that lures us back to places we have been previously? One of my first walks in Yangon on this trip was to find the Golden Smiles Inn, the guesthouse where I had stayed in 2004, well to the west of where I stayed in 2014. The Golden Smiles Inn was no longer listed in the Lonely Planet guidebook so that should have tipped me off. But I remembered a great wrapped Bodhi tree, alive with Ganesha and other Hindu deities at the foot of which sat the dealers in rubies from Mogok.

Street map of Yangon

Street map of Yangon

Off I sauntered along Maha Bandula Street, round Sule Pagoda, down Sule Pagoda Road, passed Maha Bandula Gardens and headed west along Merchant Street. Shortly after where Strand Road joins Merchant Street, I spotted the Bodhi tree at the intersection of Shwe Botha Street and Merchant Street. There were the little plastic stools and tables loaded with rubies from Mogok but the cracked neon happy face sign that signaled the Golden Smiles Inn was nowhere to be seen.  I walked up and down several times peering into the dim interior of the shops and buildings. This is a busy little spot, crowded with people buying and selling. I skirted the biggest crowd, clearly in some sort of lackadaisical line, and peeked into the building. There was the dilapidated photocopy machine I remembered, jammed into a very small space under the stairs of an entryway to the building that had been the home to the Golden Smiles Inn.

 

I slipped passed the line and climbed the stairs to discover that the Golden Smiles Inn had morphed into a Christian chapel!   It was locked so down the stairs I went, passed the muddle of people wanting to have copies made and out into the street. I looked up. Under the rash of electrical wires, I could make out the Grecian columns that supported the balcony where I had eaten breakfast all those years ago. The grimy white columns I remembered were now painted cream and the balustrade had a burgundy trim. No sign of the backpackers’ laundry that hung in dismal heaps above the heads of the breakfasters.

 

A little frisson of sadness fluttered through me. But at least Ganesha and his friends the ruby dealers were still in their place. I wandered off, satisfied that my memory for places was still intact.

Streets of Yangon Photo Essay

Click on the image to take you to a photo essay developed with Adobe Slate

Streets of Yangon

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Yangon: City of blood, dreams and gold

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 10.40.02 PM

Rudyard Kipling, the bard of the British Empire was right when he wrote:

‘This is Burma. And it is unlike any land you know about’.

He could equally have said, ‘And Yangon (Rangoon in his day) is unlike any city you may have visited’.

Pablo Neruda, Chilean consul in 1927 described it as a city of blood, dreams and gold. Both Burma and Yangon certainly have a past that is liberally sprinkled with blood, dreams and gold. The story of the country and the city are material for a Hollywood blockbuster and is ably told by Amitav Ghosh in The Glass Palace.

The Glass Palace

The Glass Palace starts off in Mandalay as the British conquer Upper Burma (1885) and tells the rags-to-riches story of Rajkumar, a poor boy from India. It follows three generations through to World War 11 and takes place in Burma, India and Malaysia. It’s rather a grand sweep of the history and geography of an interesting part of Asia. In addition, the reader learns a lot about the social mores of the times, about the last king of Burma and about Yangon at the height of the teak trading business.

 

Yangon is certainly unlike any other Asian city I have visited in my fifteen winters of wandering most of which are huge with glass, steel and concrete modern buildings in the central business district surrounded by the more interesting (to me) ethnic quarters of the people who settled there, usually Indian and Chinese.

Yangon is large (about five million) and although it does have Indian and Chinese quarters, they merge imperceptibly into each other and overflow into the central commercial area. Fortunately, glass, steel and concrete buildings are still in short supply even in 2014.

Yangon, or Rangoon as it was called in the days of the British Raj, is situated at the confluence of the Yangon and Bago rivers. It’s a flat city, and would be perfect for walking except it is hot (very hot) and the streets are straight and long (very long). But walking is the best way to see the old colonial buildings, of which Yangon has the greatest number in Southeast Asia.

IMG_3644-EditDagon, as it was called in the early eleventh century when it was founded, was a small fishing village that grew up around the Shwe Dagon pagoda. This most beautiful pagoda (temple) was built on a small hilltop between the sixth to the tenth centuries by the Mon people. During this period, the land we now call Myanmar was a fragmented set of warring factions. The Mon people settled in what the British referred to as Lower Burma, the southern part bordering with Thailand. Further north lived the Bamar in what the British referred to as Upper Burma.

In 1755, Alungpaya captured Lower Burma, which was ruled by the Mons.   Alungpaya who lived near Ava (one of the ancient capitals not far from Mandalay) became king and renamed Dagon as Yangon. The British captured Yangon during the first Anglo-Burmese war (1824-26) but returned it to Burmese administration after the war. The British were still interested in Burma as an adjunct to India and seized Yangon and Lower Burma in the second Anglo-Burmese war of 1852.

As most of Yangon had been destroyed by fire in 1841, the colonial masters set about rebuilding the city as a Victorian hymn to commerce. The new city was laid out on a grid plan, aided by the flatness of the delta region around the two rivers. Upper Burma was captured in the third Anglo-Burmese war (1885) and Yangon became the capital. Shortly after (1889), Kipling stopped off from his ship for one night on his journey from Calcutta to San Francisco and ate dinner at the Pegu Club, the exclusive haunt of British officials and army men. Burma was probably one of the wealthiest countries in Southeast Asia at the time. Teak from the forests of Upper Burma and rice from the Irrawaddy delta (now know as the Ayeyarwady) were shipped out of Yangon. Yangon became an important commercial centre in the later Victorian and early Edwardian periods and the colonial buildings that still abound in the city are a testament to its importance.

Strand Road

Many of the grander buildings are located along Strand Road, which runs along the river.  This would have been the centre of commerce in the old days and many of the buildings reflect this.  It’s still a pretty busy area of the city.

Democracy Monument in Maha Bandula Gardens

 

Another centre for old colonial buildings is around Yangon City Hall where a striking red clock tower announces the High Court Building.  Close by is Maha Bandula Gardens where you can  see the Independence Monument that celebrates independence from the British in 1948.

 

The heart of this old colonial city is, fittingly, a revered temple, Sule Pagoda.  It sits in the middle of the road and the vehicles flow around it, a unique oriental take on the British roundabout.

Sule Pagoda

Architecture of Yangon

Slideshow – Hover mouse over image to see title

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