Mingalaba... welcome to Myanmar/Burma

MINGALABAAAA people, which means hello in Burmese! It’s one of only three words i know--the others being “thank you” (jcè-zù tin-ba-deh) and shan noodles, which is what i’ve been eating at least once a day cus its soOoo delicious,. but i try!!! Burmese is not an easy language by any stretch of the imagination but i always make it my mission to at least learn “HELLO” in every place i go and i have yet to meet a Burmese person, young or old, man or woman, country bumpkin or city dweller who hasn’t responded back with a big grin or an enthusiastic wave (often times both!) and a “MINGALABA!” right backkkk.. 

i seriously have no idea where to begin this post because there’s sooooo much i want to share about Myanmar/Burma.. i’m overwhelmed with the amount of topics i want to discuss… there’s politics and history which is intertwined with human rights and the legacy of colonialism… there’s their beautiful devotion to religion which coincides with visits to amazing temples and pagodas.. there’s also an interesting array of different ethnic groups (over 135!) which means lots of yummy foods… great literature from a few of the world’s most famous writers who were influenced by their time in Burma/Myanmar… unique customs and traditions which have been maintained... and of course, my own personal encounters with incredibly kind Burmese people who have been so incredibly hospitable and generous to me and my momm… the country is so incredibly complex but that’s what makes it so beautiful and so special! even the name of the country is up for debate.The ruling military junta changed its name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of a popular uprising. Burma's democracy movement prefers the form 'Burma' because they do not accept the legitimacy of the unelected military regime to change the official name of the country. Internationally, both names are recognised (i will use both in this entry.)

soOo let me try and write this chronologically starting from when my mom arrived because i think that’ll be the easiest way to explain everything… hopefully the wifi will hold up and i’ll be able to post a bit more about my adventures after my mom leaves, which will probably be more off-the-beaten path/human interest focused.. but anywhoseee..  

after flying into Yangon to meet my mom, we went straight to the hotel and made our way toto Shwedagon Pagoda (i seriously can’t remember any of the names of places here cus they contain about a million letters) its an incredibly massive and beautiful structure, covered with six tons of gold plates (alll gold, everythingggg) and on the top is a stupa encrusted with 4531 diamonds; the largest of which is a 72 carat diamond… BLING BLING YALLLLLLL  

Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the most sacred sites in the country, which meant i got to observe some pilgrims making some offerings. For Burmese Buddhist, who mainly follow the Theravada tradition, it is important to know which day of the week they were born, as this determines their planetary post. There are eight planetary posts, as Wednesday is split in two (a.m. and p.m.).  Each planetary post has a Buddha image and devotees offer flowers and prayer flags and pour water on the image with a prayer and a wish… Obama did this when he visited, as everyone liked to remind me at the pagoda when they figured i was from the States. i was born on a Monday which makes me a tiger (GRRrRrRRrrr) 

On top of being a blinged out, religious site, the pagoda has only played an important role in Myanmar's turbulent history. According to Wikipedia, in January 1946, General Aung San addressed a mass meeting at the stupa, demanding "independence now" from the British with a thinly veiled threat of a general strike and uprising. Forty-two years later, on August 26, 1988, his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed another mass meeting of 500,000 people at the stupa, demanding democracy from the military regime and calling the 8888 Uprising the second struggle for independence. 

In September 2007, during nationwide demonstrations against the military regime and its recently enacted price increases, protesting monks were denied access to the pagoda for several days before the government finally relented and permitted them in. Known as the Saffron Revolution, 30,000 people led by 15,000 monks marched from Shwedagon Pagoda and past the offices of Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party.  On September 26, 2007, clashes between security forces and thousands of protesters led by Buddhist monks in Myanmar left at least five protesters dead by Myanmar security forces, according to opposition reports, in an anticipated crackdown. Earlier in the day security authorities used tear gas, warning shots and force to break up a peaceful demonstration by scores of monks gathered around the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Some of you might be like HOLD Up. you just dropped way too much knowledge on us. SO let me rewind...  For those who don’t know much about Myanmar/Burma’s contentious history (including the peeps i mentioned above), the abridged version is as follows

  1. the British conquered Myanmar/Burma after three Anglo-Burmese Wars in the 19th century and the country became a British colony.
  2. The Burma National Army and the Arakan National Army fought with the Japanese from 1942 to 1944 but switched allegiance to the Allied side in 1945. 
  3. Following World War II, Aung San negotiated the Panglong Agreement with ethnic leaders that guaranteed the independence of Myanmar as a unified state. In 1947, Aung San became Deputy Chairman of the Executive Council of Myanmar, a transitional government, but in July political rivals assassinated Aung San and several cabinet members.
  4. Myanmar/Burma became an independent nation in 1948, initially as a democratic nation and then, following a coup d'état in 1962, a military dictatorship
  5. In 1988, unrest over economic mismanagement and political oppression by the government led to widespread pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the country known as the 8888 Uprising.
  6. In May 1990, the government held free elections for the first time in almost 30 years and the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyidaughter of Aung Sun. However, the military junta refused to cede power and  Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest at her home on University Avenue, which she would remain for a total of 15 years over a 21-year period,
  7. A constitutional referendum was held in Myanmar on 10 May 2008. According to the military government, the new Constitution of Myanmar will ensure the creation of a "discipline-flourishing democracy", though one quarter of all parliamentary seats would be reserved for military officers and anyone married to a person who was not a citizen of Myanmar would be barred from running for the office of president. Many international media reports suggest that this provision would have the effect of making opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi ineligible for the presidency,although her British husband died in 1999.
  8. General elections were held under the new constitution in 2010. the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party declared victory in the 2010 elections, stating that it had been favoured by 80 percent of the votes; however, the claim was disputed by numerous pro-democracy opposition groups who asserted that the military regime had engaged in rampant fraud. The military junta was dissolved on 30 March 2011.
  9. Last year (2015) Myanmar held a landmark election which gave the National League for Democracy (NLD)  an absolute majority of seats in both chambers of the national parliament. Aung San Suu Kyi assumed the newly created role of State Counsellor, a role akin to a Prime Minister in April of 2016.

WHEW.. that was a lot of info. Sorry if I melted your brain, but I think it's always important to understand the history of a country in order to contextualize and understand the present day... which i can now resume talking about.. (don't worry there are plenty of pretty pictures if you can't take any more words/knowledge)

ANYWHOSe, after the trip to the pagoda, it started pouring and since my mom was pretty jet lagged we headed back to the hotel… we fell asleep pretty early, but also had to wake up super early since we had a 6AM flight to Mandalay which freaked me out a bit because the airport seemed like it hadn’t been renovated since the 70s and the plane was its bitsy but ohwell, things went smoothly (aka i didnt die, clearly) and we spent the next 3 days exploring the city.. we ended up visiting a couple of pagodas, which, as beautiful as they are, kind of started looking exactly the same after a while… especially after starting out at Shwedagon which is so incredibly beautiful and makes everything seem pale in comparison.. anddd since you're required to take off your shoes every time u enter a pagoda, its a pretty big pain in the ass after you visit the umphteenth temple.. especially when the sun is at its highest point in the middle of the day and your grimacing in pain as your bare feet start melting into the ground. 

there were some other cool things to do in the city apart from visiting religious sites, like climbing up to Mandalay Hill and watching the sunset, where we met some amazing Burmese students who were learning English and wanted to practice with us; watching an alms giving ceremony at one of the monasteries; taking one of the longest and the BUMPIEST (WTF?!) train rides of my life through the Burmese countryside and over the Goketik viaduct  which is a hundred year old bridge crossing built by the British, where we also snacked on dleicious, random food sold by locals on the train and we later hitched a ride back to the city and befriended a local doctor who explained a lot of the current political issues to me; and visiting the beautiful U Bein Bridge, which is the longest teakwood bridge in the world. 

If you haven't figured it out, Myanmar/Burma is one of the most religious countries in the world, with approximately by 89% of the country's population identifying as Buddhist. There are about 300,000 Buddhist monks in Myanmar (Burma) and about 20,000 Buddhist nuns, a striking spiritual contradiction to the existing military force. Every Buddhist Burmese boy between the age of 7 and 13 is expected to enter the monastery as a novice monk for a period of a few weeks to several months. He has a choice to return to life outside the monastery at any time, or he can stay on as a monk, if he so chooses. Many families from poorer or more rural backgrounds take up the chance to send their son to be a monk as it also means a free education.  Monks hold the highest status in society and are highly revered in the country, so its a way to bring prestige and honor to a family.  It was fun and a bit of a mind fuck to watch all the monks and monkettes dill dallying around the streets… laughing and giggling and snapping photos on their cellphones like normal peeps.. MONKS.. they’re just like us (except more holier and they wear different clothes and abstain from a lot of stuff i consider fun.. but just minor details)

anywhose, after Mandalay we went to Bagan which was pretty incredible city filled with so many beautiful temples.  During the kingdom's height between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan . Today the remains of only(?!) 2200 temples and pagodas still survive.. obviously we didn't visit them all but It was uber fun to get lost and explore a few of them... mom and i tried renting an ebike but  since i was pretty traumatized following the last time i was on an bike (aka when i got hit by a car!) i psyched myself out and unfortunately we ended up taking a bit of a spill.. after shedding a few tears, we decided to rent a cab/horse & carriage to take us around.. RIDING DIRTYYyYYy. it was really nice to watch the sunset and sunrise, even though it was pretty cloudy so we didn’t get the gorgeous view everyone raves about (Hi Anna and Jessica!) .. i also hiked up Mt Popa which ws really pretty from the bottom but climbing up meant waddling though monkey shit barefoot, since you can’t enter pagodas with shoes and basically i wanted to die. but it was still an interesting experience and made sure to scrub my feet extra hard that night…

after Bagan we ended up taking a night bus to Inle Lake, where i almost froze to death. its always so strange how the hottest places always OD on the AC. but i digress.. happy to say i survived and even happier to say that Inle became my favorite place so far in Myanmar… i initially was pretty sad because we took a super touristy boat ride as soon as we got there, where we were shepherd around to different workshops to observe them making crafts and then to a shop where some long neck women of the Karen tribe were sitting and posing with tourists,..  i understand its how they make their living... but it always makes me uncomfortable seeing a culture exploited for the benefit of tourist photos. 

the next day without any real plans, mom and i wandered off to the local markett which was really nice… 5 juicy, ripe, and delicious mangoes for $1!!!!!! then we ate at a little shop run by this super sweet lady who made the best (and cheapest) shan noodles nomnom and visited the local winery (who’da thunk!) where we ran into our Vietnamese friends we made in Bagan while watching the not so spectacular sunrise.. we then took a random trip to a small teak bridge where we were invited to hop onboard a canoe by a local who rowed us to his village which was right on the lake… we spent a bit of time with his lovely family and they brought us cookies and tea and kept nodding their heads at us because they couldn’t speak any English and we couldn’t speak any Burmese… but like i always say, smiles are universal :) 

The Burmese people are potentially the sweetest, most kind hearted and good natured people i’ve ever met… there’s something very wholesome and genuine about them… they’re so excited to meet outsiders and strike up conversations without wanting anything in return other than the chance to practice their english and ask you loads of questions like where you’re from, why you chose to come to their country, what you think of the place, etc… not to sound like a cliche, but despite having one of the lowest GDPs in the world (around $1,700), they’re extremely kind and giving.. i’ve dropped my wallet twice and TWICE, i’ve had people chase me down to return it to me, money in tact… it feels pretty refreshing, especially after visiting other southeast asian countries that make you feel like a walking dollar sign..  but i guess that’s what happens to people after being closed off from the rest of the world and ruled by a repressive military regime for decades.. it’s crazy to think that i woudln't be even able to visit this country five years ago... 

Whew.. well i'd like to end on a hopeful note because HOPE IS WHAT KEEPS PEOPLE GOING. and while there are still some human rights abuses and a questionable transition to democracy, Myanmar/Burma has the world’s fastest growing economy… there’s a lot of potential, especially considering that Myanmar has a significantly large youth population: the median age is 27 and about 55% are under the age of 30 and YOUNG PEOPLE ARE THE FUTURE!!!!!

OKAY that was a very long post with lots and lots of info.. hopefully you guys took it all in and if not, you can just enjoy the pretty pictures because literally everything in this country is so picturesque and i just can’t stop snapping…