A day in YangonDecember 15, 2014 • By Kelly Glynn
Thank you for everyone’s concern. I did not run off with a Shanghai husband and forget to tell you but my advanced sightseeing pace along with the early mornings and the limited wifi made for some challenging times to write.
Where I last left you, I arrived in Yangon without my suitcase and a 12-hour travel day through Beijing. I thoroughly enjoyed overspending in the markets and later regretted buying so much pink and maybe too much in general. Many of you have commented on my outfits. It seems I’ve had to make allowances for the climate changes and while layering in China and Mongolia was necessary. The humidity and soaring temperatures finally caught up with me in Yangon.
Welcome to Burma or is it Myanmar? It depends on where you live. While many of us still refer to Myanmar as Burma, the country is officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. Burma is actually the Anglo-Saxon name given by the British but both names are derived from the name of the majority ethnic group Bamar/Bama (Burma or Burmese) or Myamah (Myanmar).
Myanmar’s population is 51 million with about 7 million people living in Yagon, the country’s biggest city and its former capital. It remains the commercial and financial center. Myanmar borders China to the north, Laos and Thailand to the east and shares the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea Coast with Bangladesh and India. Witnessed by the faces of the people, Myanmar is a little bit of all its borders but 68 percent of the population is Bama/Bamar. Around the third century BC, the Pyu organized into city-states in what today would be the Yunnan (Southern China) near the Yangtze Delta region. The Pyu is considered typical or the old Burma race.
Myanmar is knows for it’s teak wood, precious stones (ruby, sapphires and jade), natural gas, silver, gold, uranium and tin. It’s a rich country but 26 percent of the people live in poverty. Unlike its neighbors, Myanmar’s poorest do not experience starvation since so much of the land is ripe for farming. The life expectancy for men is 65 and women 68. This differs for those living in the countryside. Their healthcare system is horrible. When walking around, I noticed a dilapidated public hospital in a former colonial building. The windows open, robes hanging from the rafters, it looked anything but sterile. My guide indicated healthcare is one of the country’s biggest problems that even with private healthcare it’s difficult to obtain medicine and doctors are poorly trained and lack sufficient education. Smoking and spitting are not as prevalent in Myanmar but 34 percent of the men smoke and 16 percent of the women and 13 percent of the population is diabetic due mainly to a diet rich with rice served three times a day.
Yangon, also known as Rangoon during British occupation, means “City of Strive.” It served as the military government capital until March 2006 when the capital was moved to Naypyidaw. It’s a mix of colonialism and deteriorating buildings with busy alleyways, lush vegetation, a few lakes, many parks and an active port on the Yangon River. It’s a bustling city with jammed roads and people hawking goods and food on nearly every corner. Many foreign embassies reside in Yangon and hotels are springing up to accommodate tourists and businessmen. Foreign investment continues to grow with China, Thailand and Singapore leading the pack but McDonalds and Starbucks cannot be far behind.
In 1948, the British granted Burma independence after more than 60 years of colonization. The county experienced a type of democracy although fractioned and only slightly unified from 1948-1958 but in 1962 a military coup took place and a corrupt and inhumane military dictatorship controlled the country until 2011. Even now it’s been a slow road to independence as most of the military influences the government and business. There will be another election in 2015 and the people are hopeful this will be positive step in the right direction.
The United States issued economic sanctions against Burma from 1997 – 2012. According the Treasury Department’s Executive Order, “the Office of Foreign Assets Control determined that the Government of Burma (ruled by a military junta) had committed large-scale repression of the democratic opposition in Burma and declared a national emergency with respect to the actions and policies of that government.” It goes on further but the most obvious sanctions were against the banks and the mining of jade and rubies. The mining conditions were deplorable and jewelers from China and Korea were purchasing these gems at lower costs and the money went directly to the military not the Burmese people. One article I read said, “Burma’s modern history has been marred by persistent human rights violations, ethnic strife, cronyism and failed Soviet-style economic management that has resulted in widespread poverty.”
In early November, President Obama visited Myanmar on his Asian trip, the second visit of his presidency. He met with Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San, a prominent leader who orchestrated independence from the British in the 40s. Unfortunately, Aun San never tasted that freedom as he was assassinated. When Aung San Suu Kyi started to speak out against the military government, fearing she would incite the people, the military placed her under house arrest where she remained for 16 years. Aung San Suu Kyi represents the National League of Democracy and is very popular amongst the people. In 2006 — likely fearing her power and determination–the government changed the Constitution which now prohibits people running for president from being married to non-nationals. She was married to a British citizen who has since passed away to cancer and yet the law stands.
The City Center of Yangon is beautiful but sadly falling apart. It needs an influx of money pronto before the grand colonial buildings turn to rubble. You can just imagine the splendor of these buildings in the 1860s as they are juxtaposed with shoddy storefronts and local people who either don’t see their significance or believe they represent a time of British dominance and would rather see them fall. Faint signs of the city’s past remain – a Bengali mosque, a Chinatown without a gate but Mandarin characters abound, a synagogue, a city hall converted to a bank and the Strand Hotel.
About 86 percent of the people practice Theravada Buddhism, a more strict and conservative branch based on the teaching of the oldest recorded Buddhist texts. Consider it a type of orthodox religion. It is not unusual to see monks begging for alms on the streets and in some of the restaurants. Monks cannot take money from people so locals are usually seen giving tea, rice and other food. The rest of the population practices Islam 3.2 percent (mainly near the Bangladesh border); Christianity, Hinduism and Judaism make up the rest.
It’s hard to walk very far without seeing a statue of Buddha in a restaurant, building or even on the park grounds but one of the coolest, largest, most feminine Buddha’s I’ve ever seen is the reclining Buddha. The Buddha is propped up on one hand having a meditative rest. It’s feet together and parallel with footprints outlining the lives of Buddha. This designer created one sexy Buddha.
At the heart of Yangon, stands a glorious Buddhist temple knows as Shwedagon Pagoda or the Great Dagon Pagoda or the Golden Pagoda. Shoes and socks off again, I needed to navigate pebbles and bird crap but it was well worth the inconvenience.
Along with my guide, I watched the sunset from atop the platform of the pagoda. It’s truly a magnificent site and is considered the most sacred Buddhist pagoda for the Burmese, as it’s believed to have relics of the four past Buddhas. There are hundreds of shrines surrounding the main or golden stupa. Diamonds, rubies and sapphires cover the crown or umbrella of the stupa. The very top diamond bud is tipped with a 76 -carat diamond. The entire structure glows in the sunlight and at night it shines brighter than any city skyline. You could spend an entire day there and still miss something. There are bells, dragons, ogres, and thousands of Buddha’s. I was there on a Friday and hundreds of people were worshipping the Friday “birthday” Buddha.
The Burmese people eat rice with every meal. There are mild curries with dried catfish, chicken, pork, beef and vegetables. They love peanuts and sesame oil as it’s grown in many of their backyards. My favorite item so far is the picked tealeaf salad made of roasted sesame, roasted peanuts, fried beans, fried garlic, tomato, cabbage, and spices. It’s zesty yet mild and hearty and delicious. I am also a fan of the avocado shake (avocados are in season now). Who doesn’t like a creamy mix of avocado, sugar and condensed milk? No wonder I skipped dinner after downing a glassful. I probably consumed two avocados. The Burmese food is greatly influenced by Chinese and Indian traditions and “typical” Burmese food is probably more a mix of its borders with some Western British influence thrown in here and there.