Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Myanmar Part 1 (b) - Downtown walking tour and Bogyoke Aung San market

Golden, delicately spiced curry with a couple of glasses of the locally made ‘Red Mountain’ rosé finished our first day in Myanmar. Sleep came quickly followed by an early rise, and we finished our breakfast before the sun had heated the country too much. Today’s plan was to complete the downtown walking tour detailed in the Lonely Planet guide. We arrived at Sule Paya after a quick 1500 kyats taxi trip. It stands at the intersection of a number of major roads, acting like a round-a-bout guiding traffic around it’s circular compound. Though smaller than Shwedagon, it is as impressive in its own different way. 

Office workers and children on their way to work and school had arrived to pay their respects and prepare for their day. Circumambulating three times, we made our way around slowly so we could see all the Buddha shrines surrounding the central stupa. At one point there was a boat-type contraption connected to pullies that ferried the vessel up little way up to a little temple set into the side of the zedi. Worshippers could place offerings into the boat and then pull the ropes to convey them up to the temple for a special blessing. At each point of the compass, people were chanting, meditating, making offerings and praying as the sun kicked into top gear over the mid-morning rush hour circling outside. Inside was no less noisy, with prayers called out over loud speakers and lots of children playing and yelling much more interested in their games than what their parents were doing.

Putting our shoes back on after we left, we were quick to join a group of students crossing through the peak hour chaos to avoid being run down by a local truck or bus. Next we walked along Mahabandoola road, admiring the many colonial buildings and old Christian church. We met a group of monks out on their alms and I emptied out some small notes from my purse, much to their bemusement. Not sure how many foreigners place offerings in their bowls.

J and I walked toward Strand road down Pansodan street crossing to remain in shade as much as possible. Down the side streets, food stalls and fresh fruit and vegetable stands were busy with locals having breakfast and buying the day’s groceries. One street had many books and stationary where parents with children were buying school supplies. The streets were wide with steady traffic. Busses bellowed out plumes of black smoke while cars and taxis weaved between them. Traffic lights held back small crowds at each corner. We turned left onto Strand road and walked past the plush Strand hotel.

Instead of following the LP walking tour exactly, we kept walking further along Strand road. Even with my trusty umbrella, the sun beat down relentlessly. By now, the back of my tee shirt had large wet patches, while a stream of perspiration dripped down my neck and temples. Having studied my LP book, I calculated the Botataung Paya (or Buddha’s first Sacred Hair Relic pagoda) wasn’t too far down the road from the Strand hotel. Well it really wasn’t. But in 38 degree heat (I’m talking Celsius), it felt like miles.

We arrived lathered in sweat and headed past the entrance to first see the Yangon river. Beside the temple compound, a row of fruit and flower stall holders jostled locals to purchase their goods. Other stands sold drinks and snacks, as well as a few with golden statues and stupas. At the end beside the river, the road opened up into a car-park-like open space bounded by more, mostly closed up stalls. 

On the docks, people were moving goods and supplies to and from various boats. The muddy bank was exposed due to the low level of the river – it was May and the rains had not yet started. Below us, a hive of activity circled around a barge-like boat with its cargo being loaded as it prepared to sail upstream (or maybe downstream).

Sitting near one of the gangways, a trishaw driver was sitting under the shade of a tree, cooling off with a faint breeze blowing in off the water. He was slowly crumbling bread into small crumbs, patiently feeding a large flock of pigeons. A boy walked over, maybe on his way to the dock, triggering the flock to take wing, before returning to continue pecking at their easy meal deal out over the asphalt. It was a simple local scene, but really lovely. 

We made our way to a side entrance of the temple, that was signposted “foreign entrance”. We purchased our ticket from the booth manned by what appeared to be security guards. We turned to remove our shoes but the guard rushed out and gestured for us to go into his booth. “Hot, hot”, he said, pointing to a seat in his shady shelter. Placing our shoes out of the way, he moved them to the side saying “Ok, ok”.

The stupa is different to other ones in that it’s hollow inside and you can walk around though a maze-like passageway, with walls adored with gold-gilt Buddhist symbols. The first thing you see as you enter is the main shrine that contains the Buddha’s hair. A steady stream of worshippers prostrated before it and folded their hands in prayer. However there were no crowds here, and no other tourists were to be seen other than us. Along the sides of the corridors were glass-fronted displays full of gold Buddha statues, relics and other artefacts. One item stuck us as unusual; a hti (the umbrella like, tiered structure usually found on the top of stupas) that was made from old British pennies and ha-pennies. It seemed so out of place.

Amongst the passageways were little nooks or corners, some containing meditating monks or praying locals, but one had a old, wispy haired, thready bearded, fortune teller. He waved me over. “Lucky, lucky” (maybe the only English words he knew). He looked at my hand before rummaging through some papers before handing me a laminated blue card. Mostly hand written, it contained some Pali or Sanskrit writing, a symbol that may represent the body’s chakras, a photo of some random man (which I’m guessing may have been the fortune teller as a younger man), the words “Lucky for 2013 – the gift to be lucky – OK” on both the front and back, with his name, Mr Bodaw, at the bottom. The other side had a series of 4 grids, each with 4 rows and 4 columns with varies sized circles and dots in each square. If anyone knows what this means, please contact me as I’m keen to know. I accepted the card, and placed 1000 kyats in his hand.

We circled through the stupa three times (as much as it is the traditional number to circle as it was because the entrance/exit seemed to blend into to the walls and we missed it - it was quite disorienting). Exiting into the bright morning sun, we were approached by a local guide. He started a friendly conversation, telling us about the stupa and its history, asking where we were from and how long we had been in Yangon. He then gently, without any pressure, asked us if we would like him to show us around the temple (obviously for a fee). J and I looked at each other, and jointly decided why not. I was keen to learn more about the temple and its many shrines. And he seemed very knowledgeable with excellent English.

He lead us through all the pavilions surrounding the main gold stupa. He told us all the facts about all the items (which have mostly disappeared into my mental filing cabinets to which I seem to have lost the index cards). This is where we learned the most about the planetary posts that are found at every temple in Myanmar. Leading J to the Thursday station, he showed us the traditional way to make a water offering. Five bowls of water poured over the Buddha, then seven on the rat figure. He chanted some prayers while bemused J followed his instructions. 
Next, our guide lead us through the nat pavilion. It’s surrounded by a mote-like pond full of turtles and large fish, with a bridge like entrance leading to the shrines of Hindu deities. After telling us about this last temple, we  stood under the shade of a large tree, all of us bathed in sweat, and we thanked him warmly for his guidance. We gave him a fair tip for his assistance, which he was grateful for and we parted with double-hand shakes and many warm wishes.

By now it was hot – really hot – and it was only 10:30am. We needed a little respite after the hot walk to the temple. Before we visited the temple, we had passed a trishaw stand where the ‘drivers’ asked us if we needed transport. At the time we declined. But now hot and bothered, we thought it may be different to hire a trishaw each to take us just up the road to the Strand hotel for morning tea. But when we exited, there were no trishaws or taxis to be seen anywhere. Ok, let’s get back to the main road and see it we can’t flag down a driver. Walking along the road under that baking sun, we tried to flag down a number of taxis until finally one pulled up and agreed to take us a few hundred metres up the road. He must have taken one look at us, red faced and drenched in sweat, and took pity on us. We tipped him well and made our way quickly inside.

Only after we had left did I realise I had been too overheated to take any photos of The Strand hotel. The front foyer had white checked tiles with old dark wood walls, but otherwise quite bland. At the entrance of the dining room, a young waitress greeted us with an English accent and pointed to a free table near the end of the room. Again, it was a nice room, but not as grand or opulent as I had thought it would be. Two glasses of cool water quickly appeared before us, which we quickly drained, as we ordered iced coffee, juice and a second breakfast or early lunch. I took the opportunity to dash to the bathroom to splash my face and cool off. Plush white hand towels were piled up at the end of the bench so I tried to dry off some of the wet patches of sweat from my tee-shirt.

Refreshed and full, we resumed the LP walking tour along Strand road past more gorgeous, but decaying, colonial buildings on our way to Mahabandoola Garden and return to Sule Paya. Many modern buildings lined Sule Paya road near the gardens beside building sites where more new offices were under construction. J stayed in the shade at the entrance of the garden, but I braved the sun with my umbrella to look at the Independence Monument, which is a tall white obelisk, guarded by half lion, half dragon clinthe deities. Dotted around the lush green lawn were short trees sculptured into bulbous topiary shapes. Palms and other large trees provided ample shade for workers to enjoy their lunch break.

Over the other side of the garden stood the magnificent, red-bricked, High Court Building. We learned that restoration plans were underway, but for now it was not open to visitors. Though rundown, it still stood distinctively in Yangon’s downtown precinct. Interestingly, we were watching the TV news channel ‘Al Jazera’ one evening during our trip in Myanmar, that aired a feature story about the building The crew had been granted rare access to the long corridors and open verandas, showing many of the grand rooms, but also pointing out the structural issues that rendered it closed to the outside. I do hope it can be restored and opened for all to enjoy in the near future.

From there, we headed west along Mahabandoola road toward the local shopping plaza, where we crammed in with shoppers and side-walk stall holders on the narrow footpath. There was fresh produce shops interspersed with hardware, clothing, homewares, bags, umbrellas and shoes. And it was crowded, and hot! Thankfully it was shaded from the overhead sun. J and I browsed the kaleidoscope of colours and sights, greeting many wide-eyed stares with smiles and ‘Mingalabars’, which were warmly returned. The LP map shows Sri Siva temple along Mahabandoola road near the Theingyi Zei market, which I failed to find. Instead, I found a hidden temple that was up a set of side stairs that had a row of large golden Buddhas and many local people relaxing inside. Many surprised looks at the foreigner who may be lost met me, but a few closed-palm bows and lots of smiles soon made them realise that I was simply interested in the temple and paying my own respects. It was small and sweltering inside despite the open windows, but a truly local and lovely experience.

Finally we made it to Bogyoke Aung San market through the side-walk markets. From the outside, it resembled Ben Tanh market in Ho Chi Minh city. Certainly the throng of traffic in the surrounding streets was as heavy without all the motorbikes. A pedestrian overpass provided a safe and convenient way to get there without running the risk of being skittled in front of a bus. Inside, J and I were quickly disoriented by all the small passages that suddenly terminated into small streets. 

Towards the back, the narrow passages gave way to a more open area full of jewellery stalls. As we looked at all the shiny gems, I heard the chanting of many young voices, drawing closer. A long line of pink and ochre clad novice nuns began winding their way around the stalls with the alms bowls open for donations. Lead by an adult nun, the girls were arranged by age (or height) from maybe teenagers down to five-year olds, walking single file, chanting. Stall holders placed notes in their bowls as they passed. Another wonderful highlight of our day.

There weren’t too many buyers around, and we were almost the only tourists around. In the north-east corner of the market, we found a restaurant to have a break, a drink, and some lunch. Menus translated into English appeared and we ordered lemon juice, curry and noodles. Our meals were cooked fresh and served with side dishes and condiments. Seeing us westerners inside, a few other tourists came in, probably judging that if we were eating there, it must be OK. For me, as long as the food is cooked fresh, anywhere is OK. For such a tasty and ample meal, we paid just about 6000 kyats. Too good really.

Leaving J to smoke in the shade, I ventured back into the maze of stalls. So many things to look at. But this was day two, and I wasn’t planning on buying up big – yet… But I wanted to buy a Buddha figure. It is the one thing I look for when I travel, trying to find one made in traditional style. Though there were many carved wood Buddhas, I decided on buying a jade one. So poor J had to follow me around as I examined many statues in multiple stalls. It’s all about the face. The workmanship and quality of the jade varies greatly. I wasn’t concerned about the quality - it was more about the price being within my budget and the Buddha’s face looking peaceful with sufficient detail. Each stall offered a price, then counter-price, but I passed them up. Finally, I spotted a medium sized Buddha, with a lovely face, at a stall that seemed deserted. Seeing someone at their neighbour’s stall, the next-door-stall-holder came to speak with me, as they sent a messenger to find the owner. Soon, an apologetic young woman arrived. She quickly told me the price, and then immediately lowered it. I agreed to the price (about $50 which was all I wanted to spend). She was so happy and thanked me profusely. I’m guessing that with the hot season, the tourist numbers had dried up along with their income. The light green statue was wrapped carefully and placed in a woven silken bag. “Che-zu-ten-bah-dai” (thank you – in my version of phonetic spelling).

Sadly for J, my looking-looking didn’t stop there, and I ended up buying another small (and more expensive) Buddha figure, and we both ended up buying longyis. But there was just one more item I wanted to buy today, that I did not see in the market, that I had seen in the side-walk bazaar earlier – a new umbrella. The one I was using was J’s black one. I wanted a lighter colour one to reflect more heat, and also so J could have one to use himself. So, back over the pedestrian bridge and to the stalls over the road. I quickly found a light blue, compact umbrella with many yellow flowers. The stall holder seemed very surprised at my purchase, but seemed very happy to have a foreigner make a purchase at her stall. Other stall holders close by watched as we made the transaction, trying to sell J an umbrella as we walked back to the road.

Exhausted, hot, tired, and relieved of some kyats, it was time to relax. The hotel pool beckoned. A taxi picked us up near the market, and after some initial confusion about the location, he returned us to the Kawandgyi Palace. From there, we dumped our sweaty, smelly clothes for bathers, and jumped into the deserted swimming pool in double-quick time. Soon after, icy cold Myanmar beers were enjoyed, before a very lazy evening with bar snacks and more beer. Tomorrow, our driver was picking us up reasonably early for a four-night excursion to the southern states. I fell asleep in front of the TV back in the room. The next part of the adventure started in a few hours. I could hardly wait.

- K

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