Burmese Daze

Trip Start Aug 21, 2003
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Trip End Ongoing


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Sunday, February 15, 2004

Alright fellas, we're back in action. You can blame India's electricity instability for our apparent procrastination in writing an entry. The power craps out here at least 5 times a day; now we are in Delhi, where they've achieved nearly constant power flow.

Burma - what a place. We arrived in Yangon at night, the capital city, fresh off a flight with Biman Bangladesh Airlines. Hopscotched through the bureaucratic bullshit; it was much easier than we expected seeing as we were entering a military dictatorship. We spent our first full day in Yangon trying to escape the sweltering heat - that night we hopped on a bus to the ancient city of Bagan.

The plains of Bagan have to be one of the most magnificent things we have ever seen. At one time there were around 14,000 caramel colored temples rising out of the land, as far as the eye can see. The early history of Bagan remains shrouded in mystery; all historians know is that the temple building craze began around 1044, after King Anawrahta came to power, and lasted for around 250 years. The theory goes that the king was disappointed with the degree of his subjects' devotion to Buddhism, and in order to rejuvenate the practice of this religion, invoked a building frenzy of monuments, each one of which (that we saw, anyway) contains several Buddha figures. More than likely the King was building temples for selfish reasons - to achieve merit that would make up for his less than pious activities. Building temples is one accepted way, in the Buddhist religion, to "go to confession" and repent for your sins. Today only about 3000 of these temples remain over a 42 sq. km area; finding an empty temple, climbing to the top in the glow of the last of the sun's rays, and gazing out at the multitude of temples extending in every direction makes you feel as though their existence is endless. There is no place in the world like Bagan. We spent 3 days exploring the area on bicycle, pedaling from one temple to the next, and never ceasing to be amazed. We felt as if we could stay and explore forever. The landscape in which the temples reside is absolutely flat and desert-like, with trees, cacti, and shrubbery covering the land here and there. The grounds are kept by herds of hungry goats and cows, aimlessly guided by old cheroot-smoking herdswomen.

From Bagan we took an overnight bus north to the city of Mandalay, a dusty, sprawling, polluted mess of a place. We didn't do much here because of the sheer toll that the intense heat and heavy pollution took on our bodies' energy. Moreover, Lauren got sick again and stayed in the room, which had a TV and bathtub, for most of our time there. The one and only highlight of our stay in Mandalay was seeing a performance by a theater troupe called the Mustache Brothers. They are internationally famous because in 1996, one of the brothers, Par Par Lay, and cousin, Lu Zaw performed for Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, in celebration of Burma's 50 years of independence. Par Par Lay spoke his mind about the current political situation in Burma during the performance, and was thereafter tortured, sent to a hard labor camp, and imprisoned for 5 years. He was released early due to international attention to his case. There are around 50 theater troupes in Mandalay; most earn good livings working at weddings and festivals. The Mustache Brothers, however, have been forbidden to perform at these functions, and so spend their evenings entertaining tourists and informing them of their plight.

From Mandalay we headed back to Yangon, to begin planning our trip to India. For a capital city, Yangon is extremely rundown and seems to exist in another time. The whole country is completely free from western influence and so many of the traditional ways of living have been retained. Even in Yangon, almost all of the men still wear the traditional longyi, basically a long wrap skirt. The men hold hands and the women wear rotten tree bark powder on their faces to lighten their skin. The betel nut is the flavor of addiction here, and the sidewalks are stained blood red to prove this. Hordes of people wander around aimlessly at all times of the day as if they had nothing to do. Vendors line the sidewalks shouting their wares to the passersby. There is a constant clamor of noise and activity. The buildings are crumbling and the sidewalks buckled with potholes and missing sewer covers wide enough to swallow a man. For being such an oppressed society, the people are remarkably happy and lighthearted. To us this was most evident at dusk, when the city seemed to come alive as children and adults flooded the streets for makeshift soccer matches, hacky sack circles (with basket woven balls), and neighborhood socializing. Although most Burmese citizens are not actively fighting for the country's freedom and are smart enough not to talk about it, you can sense a fiery energy in their eyes and can see that they are patiently waiting, not for a revolution, but for the day when justice prevails. At times this yearning was expressed to us, most memorably by the daughter of a Burmese woman and a British colonial officer. Her name was Ethel, and we met her right before we were to leave for India. She was very animated and insisted that we come again; in the middle of a crowd of people as we said our goodbyes, she looked all around, thrust her old wrinkly face between ours, and quickly said,"and don't forget to pray for my country."
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