I came late to Rangoon.

Everything was already there:

a city

of blood,

dreams and gold,

a river that descended

from the cruel jungle

into the stifling city,

and its leprous streets

with a white hotel for whites and a gold pagoda for the golden.

Rangoon 1927, Pablo Neruda

IMG_8309 (600x800)IMG_5304 (599x800)Yangon was where I started and ended my journey in Myanmar.  I usually feel a little overwhelmed at first when I’m in an unfamiliar place, and Yangon was definitely overwhelming.  In the taxi from the airport to my hostel, I noticed the dilapidated houses, the local buses with no glass in the windows or doors in the doorways, and people getting soaked in the monsoon rain.  In the evening, I wandered around the streets near my hostel.  I walked by little street food stalls set up under plastic awnings, serving up food that was a mystery to me.  I tried to avoid the puddles and stray dogs that were everywhere.  I didn’t have the courage to cross the road because there were no pedestrian crossing points.

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IMG_8398 (800x600)I spent a few days in Yangon before I left Myanmar, and I really enjoyed it because I had gotten more used to Myanmar.  Taxis are cheap (no motorcycles though), but I really liked walking around the streets looking at the shops and the buildings, as well as visiting particular places like the Shwedagon Pagoda and the National Museum. My technique for crossing busy roads was to find someone who looked like they were about to cross and I’d follow their lead. It rained heavily sometimes, but it wasn’t the constant rain of Mandalay or Bagan, so if you waited for a while, it would stop and the sun might come out. Sometimes the streets flooded and we had to wade calf-deep through the murky water.  I had bought a pair a chaco sandals before I went and they were a great investment – I could wear them walking through water (and mud in Bagan) and not have to worry about them coming off my feet.  Once, a betel nut seller was sheltering near me from the rain and I could see him making up the little parcels of betel nut, lime and tobacco wrapped in a betel leaf.  Just like in other south-east Asian countries, these are chewed by many people for a buzz, leaving their teeth and lips stained blood-red and covering the streets with red splashes when they spit.

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IMG_8478 (800x598)The Sule Pagoda is another famous site in Yangon, and it marks the centre of the city, with most local buses starting or ending there.  The Lonely Planet recommends a walking tour of the city’s colonial buildings, starting from the Sule Pagoda, and Yangon definitely has a unique representation of its historic buildings.  Many other Asian countries’ architectural heritage has been lost due to war or destruction in the name of modernity, preserved as a relic of the past for tourists, or renovated to serve a different purpose.  All of that has happened in Yangon too, but the sheer amount of buildings that have been left as they are, to deteriorate with time and weather, is quite unique.  Pagodas and monasteries are the only Burmese structures that survive from pre-colonial times, but due to natural disasters they have been rebuilt, and because their religious significance is more important than their historical material significance, they have been renovated over the years.  Thanks to the Yangon Heritage Trust, founded by Thant Myint U historian and author of The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma, more attention is being paid to the state of Yangon’s architectural heritage.

IMG_8400 (800x599)IMG_8401 (800x592)The building above is the City Hall, that was begun in the 1920s and has kept its original function.  It is unique for the tiered roofs on the corner towers and over the main entrance, as well as ornamentation that incorporates traditional Burmese iconography such as peacocks and serpents, that were taken from the architecture of Bagan.  In 2011 its light orange exterior was repainted to its present lilac.

Aya Bank below was formerly the Rowe & Co. Department Store, known as the “Harrods of the East”, built between 1908-1910.  Rowe & Co. had been in Burma since the British take-over in the 1860s and occupied various premises around Yangon until it moved into this specially-constructed building in the beginning of the twentieth century.  It stayed in business throughout Burmese independence until it was nationalized by the army in the mid 1960s.  It was used as the Department of Immigration until the government moved to the newly built capital of Naypyidaw in 2005. It was badly damaged during Cyclone Nargis in 2008, but was bought and restored by the Ayeyarwady Bank in 2012.

IMG_8406 (800x591)IMG_8410 (800x599)The brick Queen Anne-style building above is the High Court, built from 1905-1911 and is today only partly occupied since the Supreme Court moved to Naypyidaw.  The Central Telegraph Office below was built in 1913-1917 and is still owned by the Ministry of Communications, Posts & Telegraphs.

IMG_8448 (800x599)IMG_8411 (800x601)The building above is the former Bank of Bengal, then the Bank of India, until it was nationalized in the mid 1960s and became the People’s Bank 8 and then Myanmar Economic Bank 3, of today.  I don’t know if the building below had an important function during colonial times, but it is quite representative of the state of most old buildings that haven’t been restored.  The picture below that shows the back of the Yangon Division Office Complex (formerly the New Law Courts), a massive building whose façade of Ionic columns stretches along the Strand Road, which during the Japanese occupation was used as an interrogation centre and prison by the secret police.  It is now being renovated to become a five-star hotel, despite protests from the Lawyers’ Network.

IMG_8414 (800x599)IMG_8412 (800x589)IMG_8417 (800x600)Perhaps the most famous colonial building in Yangon is the Strand Hotel.  It was built in 1901 by the owner of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and became the place to stay for the well-to-do.  It has an interesting place in literary history because it hosted Rudyard Kipling (who immortalized the name of Mandalay in his poem of the same name, despite never having been there), George Orwell (who wrote his first novel Burmese Days based on his experiences as a police officer in Upper Burma) and Somerset Maugham (who documented his ‘Grand Tour’ of Asia in The Gentleman in the Parlour).  Although, I don’t think that Pablo Neruda would have spent much time in the Strand bar while he was consul for Chile, because he was snubbed by the Europeans for acting too much like a local. I took a break for tea there and wrote my postcards to send at the Central Post Office next door.

IMG_8422 (590x800)IMG_8423 (800x587)IMG_8428 (800x557)The Post Office is a grand building, though with all the rain it seems hard to stop plants from sprouting in cracks in the wall.  I didn’t even have to go inside to post my letters because just in the entranceway there was a little desk with two women who had a supply of stamps and glue, so I bought the stamps and then posted them in the slot outside beside the door.

IMG_8430 (800x600)IMG_8432 (599x800)The building above is the Yangon Division Court, formerly the Currency Department, built at the turn of the twentieth century, and beside it (below) is the former Chartered Bank, now the Myanmar Economic Bank 2, from 1939-1941  It was repainted blue and white in 2012.  This stretch of Pansodan Street has so many buildings from colonial times when it was the best business address in the city.

IMG_8433 (800x600)IMG_8435 (587x800)IMG_8436 (800x598)The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was set up in the 1860s by a Scottish company, and in 1948, after Burmese Independence, it was taken over by the government and it became the Inland Waterways Department.  Across the way, stands the Internal Revenue Department, which was formerly Rander House, built in 1932 by Indian traders from Rander in Gujurat.  The Loknat Gallery Building was once called Sofaer’s Buildings, after the Baghdadi Jewish brothers who ran a successful luxury food and drink importing business.  The brother Isaac Sofaer, designed and constructed the building in 1906, although they only retained the building for ten years until they lost it due to financial difficulties.  Parts of the building are used by the Internal Revenue Department, just like in Rander House, as well as a variety of other businesses, but the building today is named after the Lokanat Gallery, founded in 1971, that was instrumental in developing Burma’s contemporary art scene.  When I went there was an exhibition by Daung Jone and Hlaing Phyo Tun who were in the gallery with their families.  The building is in a really bad state and I was afraid that the stairway would crumble away underneath me.  Note the beautiful floor tiles that were imported from Manchester.

IMG_8442 (800x600)IMG_8443 (800x594)Pansodan Street and parallel 37th Street are home to many book markets and shops.  I sheltered from a sudden downpour in Bagan Book House, where I picked up a Burmese English-language magazine from 1958, Cook and Entertain the Burmese Way by Mi Mi Khaing (first published 1975) and 30 Heritage Buildings of Yangon by the Association of Myanmar Architects (where I got most of the information about the buildings in this post). Interestingly, these last two books are photocopies – the pages inside are photocopies of the original that are bound in a colour cover.  Later, when I was walking down the street, I heard the whirr of machinery coming from one of the buildings and I saw a small printing press spitting out pages to be bound into books.

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The day I was doing my downtown wanderings was Waso, a Burmese Buddhist holiday, so unfortunately the Bogyoke Aung San Market (built in 1926 and known as Scott Market) was closed.  I did however get to see the newly opened KFC across the way, sitting strangely beside a colourful temple.  Another sign of the times is the amount of phone shops with their glossy façades and brightly-lit interiors.  Until recently mobile phones were out of reach for most people in Myanmar, but during my trip it seemed like everyone had a phone they were attached to.

IMG_8471 (800x599)IMG_8467 (800x600)IMG_8475 (800x599)In Bagan I had had such a good time because of the people I was with, so I wanted to try to meet some people in Yangon too. Through Couchsurfing I got in touch with a really nice American girl who was teaching English in Yangon and she went for dinner with me, introduced me to her friends and gave me tickets to a traditional music concert.  We even met up in Bangkok later because we were both there for the weekend! It is really great to be able to meet people who live locally because you get to experience so much more.  I ate some delicious Shan food (from the area of Myanmar close to the Thai border) and saw a concert entitled ‘Gongs and Skins’ that was the result of a week-long percussion workshop involving musicians from various ethnic groups in Myanmar, France, Germany and others.  Some groups experimented with the different musical forms and the different ethnic groups, including some Kachins, were decked out in their traditional finery.

IMG_5285 (800x600)IMG_8463 (800x600)IMG_8492 (800x600)IMG_8489 (800x600)IMG_8487 (800x600)This is my last post from Myanmar and I hope I could do it justice.

Myanmar – Myitkyina, Part I

I spent two weeks in Myanmar in July, following a couple of months of research and getting vaccinated in Japan. Armed with a backpack of necessities for the monsoon season and my eVisa, I took a direct flight from Tokyo to Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, located near the Irrawaddy delta.  I only had a brief glimpse of the city with its street food tents and mobile phone shops, before flying the next morning to Myitkyina in the north of the country.  I had left Burma and arrived in the Kachin State.

A note about the name of the country: both of the English terms Burma and Myanmar come from the Burmese language.  When the government changed the name from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar in 1989, many people didn’t recognize the legitimacy of the government to do so, and continued to refer to it as Burma.  While I was in the country I noticed most people called it Myanmar, and that coupled with the fact that not everyone in the country is or speaks Burmese, gave me the impression that the name Myanmar is more inclusive of all the ethnic minorities as well as the Burmese majority.  I may use Myanmar to refer to the entire country and I may use Burma when I refer to areas where Burmese culture is the strongest.

The Kachin people are a minority ethnic group in Myanmar, although they make up the majority in Kachin State, mainly in the rural areas.  Compared to Japan, where the population is very homogeneous, individual and group differences were much more noticeable.  It was easy to spot people who were of Indian, Nepalese or Chinese descent, but even though I couldn’t tell who was from what group in Myanmar, it was really interesting to see all these strong ethnic identities in such a rural place.  In Myitkyina I saw a Hindu temple, a mosque and a Buddhist temple, but Kachins are mainly Christian, so there were far more churches than pagodas.  I attended a Kachin Mass, given through the Kachin language, alongside ladies with beautiful lace veils and statues of Jesus and Mary illuminated by LED halos.  Every morning I would wake up to the sound of Kachin hymns sung by the neighbouring catechists-in-training.

I was visiting my relative, Sr Mary Dillon, a Columban nun who has been working in Myitkyina since 2002.  I stayed with her for a week, seeing and experiencing places and ways of life far from what I’ve known.  I’ll write two posts about my time in the north, first about the Kachin culture and second about the difficulties that are faced there.

IMG_5083IMG_8011IMG_5210For most of my week in Myitkyina we had typical rainy season weather, it rained heavily in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon, but we did have some sunny spells.  It was a lot cooler and less humid than Japan, which surprised me.  Sr Mary has a real affinity for the Kachin people and culture, and she took me to some famous sights and local places.

IMG_7999We visited the Manau poles in Myitkyina where the Manau dance festival to celebrate Kachin State Day is held on January 11.  Participants dressed in traditional Kachin costumes dance around the poles to a drum beat.  The festival was held annually from 1994 – 2011 during the ceasefire between the Burmese army and the KIA (Kachin Independence Army).  This year it was held again to some controversy because of the ongoing conflict between the two armies and the displacement of many Kachin people from their homes into refugee camps since 2011.  This dance is part of the animist tradition of the Kachins, but all over Myanmar you can find animism living alongside other religions, such as in nat (spirit) houses.

IMG_7941IMG_7944 One day we went north of Myitkyina to visit the confluence of the N’mai and Mali rivers which forms the Irrawaddy river that runs from north to south in the country.  It’s an important, if not very beautiful, spot, and although it was the low season, we saw quite a few other local sightseers.  The nat house and pagoda above are dedicated to it, and there is a plaque explaining its importance for the Kachin people.  Nowhere is safe or sacred from controversy however, as at a site near the confluence, construction on a Chinese-funded dam has been halted since 2011.  Communities of local farmers and fishermen have already been relocated from their villages to prepare for the flooding the dam will cause, just so the government of a country with regular power-cuts can export energy to China in return for political support.

IMG_7940IMG_7922IMG_7928IMG_7943IMG_5085IMG_5155IMG_8012IMG_8066I went along with Mary on her errands and I loved traffic watching.  Fortunately Mary was a slow and safe driver because many of the other drivers weren’t.  Most of the traffic was made up of trucks of various motors and sizes, and motorbikes.  It was common to see passengers hanging off the back of full trucks or a five-person family on a motorcycle.  I saw many young couples on the road, with the girl elegantly perched side-saddle on the back of the motorbike.  In the picture below, the guy in the middle was serenading his friends on the guitar.  And in the photo underneath, you can see a typical petrol station – a little wooden table with petrol decanted into empty whisky bottles.

IMG_8027IMG_8065IMG_8005IMG_8008I was very glad to have someone to show me around in terms of eating and drinking, and my first refreshment stop in Myitkyina was ‘Fuji’, a juice-shop/restaurant run by Chinese protestants, which was to become a regular pit-stop during my stay.  I loved the yoghurt drink so much that once I drank two in one sitting.

IMG_5079IMG_5089IMG_8024IMG_8077I savoured the deliciously cheap fruit (coming from Japan where it’s so expensive), and I tried rambutan for the first time.  I was very happy to have people to order for me and just enjoy what showed up at the table – rice wrapped in banana leaves, grilled whole fish, spicy salads, and Kachin rice wine (nothing like Japanese sake).

IMG_7925IMG_7927IMG_7961IMG_8056I was fascinated by the style and fashion in Myanmar.  Of course people wore western clothes too, but I was surprised that the majority of people I saw wore longyi, a cylindrical sarong that men wear tied at the front in a knot and women wear wrapped around to the side.  Different ethnic groups have different patterns or variants in how it’s worn.  A typical outfit for a Burmese man would be a chequered longyi in a dark colour, worn with a collarless white shirt.  For a Burmese woman, you can see longyis being paired with a separate blouse, or a tailored outfit of a longyi and matching top, usually fastened to the side, Chinese-style.  Plus the obligatory flip-flops.  Pictured above is the traditional make-up called thanaka, made from ground bark, which is applied to the face as a yellow paste.  As well as being a cosmetic, it is supposed to act as a sunblock.

Mary had taken me to the market to look at the longyis and Kachin goods.  I really like the Kachin designs, they are so colourful and striking, they remind me of Aztec patterns.  I bought a purple longyi as a rectangular piece of material, and we brought it to a seamstress to be sewn into a tube and have a black waistband attached.

IMG_8053Another day we went out to a centre for local youth where a fellow sister of Mary’s was working.  Beside the centre was a workshop where longyi with Kachin designs were being woven.  I was amazed when I saw how they were decorated because although the design looked embroidered, it’s actually woven in as the longyi is being made.  Over the workshop there was a storehouse with finished longyi.  I couldn’t help myself and bought two more because what better souvenir than these beautiful textiles from a local business.  Just like Sr Mary, I have a big appreciation for the Kachin now.