Myanmar 10/29/2016 - 11/15/2016

Monday 10/31/2016 - Arrival in Yangon, City walking tour, Botataung Pagoda, Reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda, Htwe Oo Myanmar Traditional Puppet Theatre, Welcome Dinner

We arrived in Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon), Myanmar, at 5:10 a.m. We went through the "foreigners" immigration line. They took our photos and stamped our passports and evisas.

One of the arrivals was a foreign woman in a "Bitch, relax!" T-shirt. Really? That's what you want to project when arriving in an unfamiliar culture? We collected our luggage and went through customs. There were ATMs and money exchange counters in the baggage area, but nothing was operational.

When we exited the secured area, we met San Win, our guide, and Genean and Patrick, who had been on our same flights from Boston. We were all pretty wrecked after the red eye flights, so we went straight to our hotel: the Park Royal. It was early enough in the morning that there was no traffic (this is a rarity in Yangon, we would soon learn!) We passed the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda just as the sun was peeking over the horizon.

It took about half an hour to get to the hotel, and San Win suggested that we get some rest, eat breakfast at the hotel, and meet him at 10:30 for sightseeing. We had expected to be able to rest a bit more than that to get over our jet lag, but we didn't want to miss out on the sightseeing.

We checked in to our comfortable air conditioned room and took showers. Craig took a quick nap and I used the internet to tell folks at home we had arrived. There was a helpful pamphlet in the room which used cartoons to give cultural information to tourists: Do's And Don'ts for Tourists. It is definitely good advice to heed to avoid inadvertently offending the locals, such as modest dress, not touching children's heads, not touching monk's robes, etc.

At around 9:30 a.m., we went down to the Spice dining room for a lovely breakfast, including freshly made doughnuts (cinnamon, creme-filled), cheese omelets, sausage, bacon, hashbrowns, coffee, and pineapple juice. There were more adventurous options as well (local noodle specialties, Japanese food, and Indian) but we were jet lagged and didn't want to risk anything with a long and busy day ahead of us.

At 10:30 a.m., we met San in the lobby. I was wearing a skirt which fell below the knee, but he advised that it was still a little too short for a temple visit, so I ran back to the room to change. I appreciated his honesty, as I would never want to wear something which might offend the locals. When I returned, we met Esther and Al from California, who had arrived last night.

Several of us needed local money, so we crossed the busy street (terrifying) to a beauty salon / money changer. You get a better exchange rate by changing US $100 bills, and they must be pristine. We had gotten there just in time, as a huge group of Japanese tourists showed up mere minutes after we did.

Next, we walked through downtown Yangon. We passed by the Sule Pagoda, which was designated the city center by the British when they established Rangoon as the capital of Burma. Distances within town are measured from the pagoda.

We had always heard the words stupa and pagoda used seemingly interchangeably. Genean asked San about this, and he explained that "pagoda" is a more general word for a structure which contains relics. There are two types of pagodas: stupas (which are solid) and temples (which you can enter). Sule Pagoda is a stupa which contains Sri Lankan relics.

Near the Buddhist Sule Pagoda there was a mosque, a Baptist church (Immanuel Baptist Church), and a Hindu shrine. There is religious freedom in Myanmar, though around 90% of the population are Buddhist.

We walked around the city center, marveling at the gorgeous colonial architecture. Some of the buildings had fresh coats of pastel paint, and looked quite stunning. Others were more of a crumbling beauty, with dingier paint jobs and the effects of decades of humidity crumbling their stucco facades, with lush green vines overtaking them. The city was a study in contrasts: ancient vs. colonial vs. modern, Burmese vs. British, pre- vs. post-WWII.

The streets were clogged with cars, since one of the ruling generals outlawed motorbikes in the city. With sanctions eased and economic competition increasing, more and more people can afford cars. The infrastructure can't handle the amount of cars on the roads, and traffic jams are practically constant.

We saw people eating breakfast at vendor stalls on the sidewalk. One woman was selling crickets, and a young local woman smiled at me and pointed to the cricket, saying "good." In theory I would have no problem trying them, but now didn't seem like the time.

We went inside the Central Telegraph Office, where we saw vintage telegraph equipment. Type keys could output English or Burmese alphabetical characters. We walked past the Strand Hotel (closed since May for renovation but scheduled to reopen within the month), which dates back to 1901, and the British Embassy.

We went inside the General Post office, built in 1908 to house a Scottish rice company and converted to a post office in 1930. It is still the largest post office in the country, and it seems not to have changed much since 1930, with counters full of clerks and hardly any machinery to be found (except the franking machine). There were stacks of paperwork everywhere. One interesting thing was a sign / menu advertising "Hometown Product Delivery". Here people can order local Yangon favorite meals and ship them to friends and family who have moved abroad. The dishes looked delicious!

We had known that it would be a hot day when we exited the airport at 6 a.m. and it was warm and muggy. By noon, when we left the post office, the sun was deadly. We had to be sure that we were drinking enough water to remain hydrated. Especially after all those hours on the plane!

We drove in a mini bus to Botataung Pagoda, a beautiful gilded temple. Back in the days when Gautama Buddha was still alive (2600 years ago) two brothers named Taphussa and Ballika traveled to meet him. They gave him gifts and in return, he gave them 8 of his hairs. They returned on a ship carrying these priceless relics. A sea dragon stole one hair, and a customs officer stole another. They eventually needed an army to safeguard the remaining hairs' safe return to Yangon. (This army of protectors inspired the name of the pagoda, Botataung, which means "1000 military officers"). When the party arrived in Myanmar, they first came to this site. One of the hairs was enshrined here in an underground relic chamber, and the pagoda was built on top of it. The other hairs were enshired at the nearby Shwedagon Pagoda.

The Botataung Pagoda was leveled by bombs in World War II. What stands today was rebuilt in the 1950's. However, the bomb damage allowed them to excavate the relic chamber, something that has never been done at Shwedagong. They found the Buddha's hair, and decided that rather than bury it again, they would put it on display inside the pagoda.

They say that the hairs are the only relics which were given by Gautama Buddha before his death, and that the excavation of the relic chamber proves that there was indeed a hair buried there 2600 years ago.

We took our shoes off to enter the pagoda. The entranceway was decorated with murals depicting the history of the relic. The walls and columns were decorated with shiny mosaics. We entered the pagoda, which was shaped like a hub with the relic chamber inthe middle. All of the walls and ceilings were gilded with gold leaf. It was beautiful!

We could peek through a little slot to see the relic in an elaborately decorated chamber. Then we continued through the passageways and saw many offerings people had made at the pagoda. There was also a section which showed actual antiquities which had been excavated from the relic chamber containing the hair. It was amazing!

We exited the pagoda and walked through the grounds. A marble patio connected the pagoda to many smaller shrines. The sun reflecting off the white marble was quite bright as well as hot on our bare feet, and we quickly realized we should walk on the carpeted portion. We went into a temple which housed a Buddha statue originally built in 1859 for Mandalay Palace. People were paying their respects to the statue, leaving offerings which they purchased in a neighboring alleyway which caters to the needs of pilgrims visiting this pagoda complex.

We were all rather tired and hot, so we came back to the hotel at 1:30 p.m. for two hours of rest before meeting Toni and commencing the afternoon's activities. We weren't hungry due to the jet lag, so we skipped lunch.

At around 3:15 p.m., we headed down to the lobby. San was waving to us, and he was standing with a petite woman wearing local clothing. We recognized her from photos - it was Toni. She gave us each a huge hug. It was so nice to finally meet her! We also met U Zaw, who had been traveling with her and would be our guide starting tomorrow.

The rest of the group arrived and we got into the bus. Zaw said goodbye and that he would see us tomorrow momrning at 8:30.

We drove a short distance (but there was traffic, which seems to be a constant problem in Yangon) to Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda, to see the famous reclining Buddha. The original statue was built in 1907, but apparently it was never accepted by the Buddhist population. Its proportions were odd, and it was so large that it couldn't be protected from the elements and was soon very weathered.




The Reclining Buddha circa 1900
from Typical photographs of Burma : Burmese life and scenes
Rangoon: Rowe & Co.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


Despite the fact that the Buddhism practiced in Myanmar forbids destroying an image of Buddha once it is consecrated, it just wasn't working out. They sought permission from the senior monks in the country to demolish it and rebuild it in the 1960's. The current statue was completed in 1967, and consecrated in 1973.

When we arrived at Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda, we noticed a large metal-roofed hangar. As we approached it, we could start to see the enormous reclining Buddha. It was awe-inspiring. With a serene half-smile on his face, he reclines on his right side, with his head resting on his hand. The length of his body is a staggering 216 feet. We felt dwarfed by this beautiful, larger-than-life work of art.

The skin was porcelain white, with heavily made up feminine facial features. The eyes were th emost striking aspect. They were hand-blown glass orbs five feet wide and 2.5 feet tall. The glass artisans who made them kept having failures. The sheer size meant that they shattered during the cooling process. They eventually prayed to the Nats (local spirits which coexist with Buddhism) and they finally achieved success.

The figure was wearing a gilded robe and was decorated with shiny glass mosaic tiles. The soles of the feet were carved with 108 markings representing aspects of the three worlds of Buddhism: the inanimate world, the animate world, and the conditional world. There was a sign which explained each of the markings.

As I studied the Buddha from various angles, I realized that there was a song going through my head...the mantra-esque beginning phrases of "Change We Must" by Jon Anderson. The entire site just exuded a feeling a calmness and spirituality.

We wandered around the complex, which contains over 50 monasteries. San took us into the oldest monastery, a building made of teak wood which was accessible by going down a staircase. We went inside. It was dark and there were several monks inside. It was austere and full of various effigies. There was also a satellite dish outside, which was an interesting contrast between ancient and modern tradition.

Next we headed to Htwe Oo Myanmar Traditional Puppet Theatre. Burmese marionette puppetry (yoke thé) is an art form that dates back to the time of the kings in Myanmar (1780's). It was a way of depicting stories on the stage that may have been inappropriate for actors to perform. It was performed at large temple festivals as well as in the private homes of families which passed down the art of puppetry.

The art form has lessened in popularity since television and the internet have become widely available in the country, and now is only really seen at very large festivals.

Mr. Htwe and his wife Mrs. Oo, though not puppeteers themselves, have sought to carry on the tradition of the home puppet theatre. Their teenaged daughter and son learned the craft, and they also organize performances of the remaining puppetry families. Most of the traditional puppet masters are elderly now, but there are a few younger people who have learned the craft.

The troupe won the Best Animation prize at the Harmony World Puppet Carnival in Bangkok in 2014.

The puppets are made of wood and cloth. They are articulated with rope as hinges. They wear extremely elaborate costumes and are treated and venerated like real people.

Traditional puppet shows can last around 4 hours and usually tell traditional folk tales or about the life of Buddha. This performance, held in Mr. Htwe and Mrs. Oo's home in a small neighborhood, was for just the eight of us, and there were five puppeteers. It lasted around 45 minutes and consisted of short segments giving an overview of many of the different stories. There was recorded music and narration explaining the various characters and tales.

It was amazing to watch, and I often forgot that I was watching puppetry as the puppets (representing humans, mythical creatures, and animals) had such lifelike movements thanks to the skill of the puppeteers. Puppets danced and stomped their feet and flew through the air with acrobatic skill. Zawgyi, the mythical alchemist, pranced around with his magic stick. A horse trotted and was tamed by a human. It was amazing to see this skill so up close and personal!

The 45-minute performance consisted of the following vignettes:

  • Ritual Dance of the Nat-Ga-Daw: Nats are generally martyrs who are revered in an animist tradition. When King Anawratha brought Theravada Buddhism to Myanmar, he merged Nat worship with Buddhism.

  • Dance of the horse: Asvani (A-thar-wani), the constellation of stars shaped like a horse‚Äôs head, was the first creation of the universe. This is celebrated through the dance of the horse.

  • Dance of the Galon-Naga: This dance chronicles the eternal fight between the Galon-bird (Garuda) and the Naga-serpent (Dragon)

  • Dance of the Monkeys: Popular with children

  • Dance of the Demons or Ogres: The royal ogre (Nan-balu) in red and the forest dwelling ogre (Taw-balu) in green

  • Dance of the Alchemist (Zawgi): Zawgi the alchemist uses his staff to perform music

  • Dance Of The Keinera Couple: Keineras are mythical half-human, half-bird creatures. "Keinna-ja" is male and "Kein-na-ji" is female. This couple was separated for one night by a storm, and they were so distraught about being apart that they wept about it for 500 years when they reunited.
  • Myaing-hta: Two lovers in a forest

  • Dance Of Bachelor U Shwe Yoe And Spinster Daw Moe: Comic flirtation between the mustachio'ed bachelor and a spinster





At 6:30, we got back into the bus and drove the short distance to Le Planteur, known as one of the best restaurants in the city. The traffic was horrendous and it took us about an hour to get to the restaurant, which was on the shores of Inya Lake. The building was absolutely gorgeous. The rest rooms had bronze elephant heads for sink fixtures, and the decor was a mixture of colonial and Burmese.

We went to an upstairs private room and had a pre-fixe "French Indochine Menu". It was all artfully presented and delicious: scallop and vegetable dim sum, giant prawns, a choice of seared codfish or beef cheeks (we chose the cod), and a mango eclaire for dessert. The main course came covered with a hammered metal cover. The servers all lifted the covers simultaneously.

It was a lovely dinner where we all got to know one another better. Everyone had amazing travel stories (we were all veteran Myths and Mountains travelers), and we also had a wonderful conversation with San. He was a university student in the 1980's when the universities were closed and students were seen as a threat to the military regime. We started to talk about Aung San Suu Kyi as well, and I was glad to have read about her so that I could contribute to the conversation.

I got my second wind at dinner, but about halfway through the meal Craig was feeling exhausted. On the drive back to the hotel, we passed Aung San Suu Kyi's famous residence on University Avenue (also on Inya Lake). All we could see was the gate and guard shack out front, but it was familiar from photographs.

We got back to the hotel at around 9:30 p.m. and Craig and I fell asleep within minutes. It was the first non-plane sleep I had had since Friday night.




Park Royal Yangon




Botataung Pagoda




Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda




Htwe Oo Myanmar Traditional Puppet Theatre
The sun rises as we arrive in Yangon

The sun rises as we arrive in Yangon

Shwedagon Pagoda at sunrise

Shwedagon Pagoda at sunrise

City Hall, Yangon

City Hall, Yangon

Sule Pagoda

Sule Pagoda

Colonial architecture in Yangon

Colonial architecture in Yangon

Central Telegraph Office, Yangon

Central Telegraph Office, Yangon

Central Telegraph Office, Yangon

Central Telegraph Office, Yangon

High Court, Yangon

High Court, Yangon

Buddha's sacred hair relic, Botataung Pagoda

Buddha's sacred hair relic, Botataung Pagoda

Botataung Pagoda

Botataung Pagoda

Botataung Pagoda

Botataung Pagoda

The Buddha statue in the temple at Botataung Pagoda was built in 1859 for Mandalay Palace

The Buddha statue in the temple at Botataung Pagoda was built in 1859 for Mandalay Palace

Larger-than-life reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda

Larger-than-life reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda

Reclining Buddha, Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda

Reclining Buddha, Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda

Htwe Oo Myanmar Traditional Puppet Theatre

Htwe Oo Myanmar Traditional Puppet Theatre

Htwe Oo Myanmar Traditional Puppet Theatre

Htwe Oo Myanmar Traditional Puppet Theatre

Welcome Dinner at La Planteur: Toni, Esther, Al, San Win, Patrick, Genean, Craig

Welcome Dinner at La Planteur: Toni, Esther, Al, San Win, Patrick, Genean, Craig

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