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Travel with Hafeez to Myanmar.
“Su-wan-na-poom” means golden land. It is the name of Bangkok Airport. I was on my way to Yangon and had a 9-hour transit. Mulling over such a long wait, I saw an arrow directing towards Louis' Tavern Dayrooms. My spirits were lifted but, on reaching the place, I was equally disappointed. For merely six-hour of back-stretching, the charges were US$110. It was back-breaking indeed!! I returned and absorbed myself in studying the airport. When tired, I sipped coffee from Doi Tung and munched biscuits I had brought with me.
The airport is said to be largest in the world with the longest runway of 4,000 meters and highest control tower of 132.2 meters. Covering an area of 25,000 square-meters, the terminal itself is a massive steel-structure. There was no sign of any brick and mortar. Since the design had nothing “Thai”, the local artists were invited to insert mural paintings, demons from Ramayana and pavilions of traditional Thai homes. Worth seeing is a giant sculpture depicting a scene from mythological tale of churning milk from ocean to get eternal life!!
My plane landed at Yangon International airport at about 7pm. Immigration and custom formalities were brief. Soon I got into a taxi sent by Beautiland Hotel and reached there within 45 minutes. Though the airport was only 15 km away, there was a traffic rush which took a lot of time. Through internet, I had already settled with the hotel at $15 per night plus $4 for the taxi ride. Strangely, the hotel insisted payment in dollars.
Next day, I got up early, had a light breakfast and ventured out. The moment I stepped out of the street, I saw a tall golden stupa resembling an inverted bell. It was quite high, octagonal in shape gleaming in the sun. Unaware, I was staying near this place, known as Sule Pagoda, which in fact is a landmark in Yangon. Sule means “the stupa where a scared hair relic is enshrined.”
The entry fee was two US dollars plus one for the camera. Shoes were not allowed inside. I paid 3 dollars, handed over my shoes to a caretaker and entered in. Suddenly, I found myself in a jostling crowd. Mainly local residents, they had come for prayers with coconut and banana offerings. They were whispering their mantras, their head bowed, their hands joined and raised towards the deities. Some had placed their foreheads on the ground oblivious of the hustle-bustle, others pouring water on the statues
Looking for money changers.
After leaving the pagoda, I went out in the nearby market for changing dollars. I asked the passersby for direction to the banks involved in forex dealings. One pointed to a tailor-shop, another towards jewellery store and still someone to a bunch of people squatting at road-side cafes. Soon I was hearing whispers “change money, best rate” only to realize later that I was already among the money changers. Their bids ranged from 950 to 1050 kyats (pounced chaats) per dollar. Not to be cheated, I preferred to deal with a boutique shop, Green Century (No.223, Anawrahta Street, Corner of 31st Street, Yangon, 250006.) In exchange of 400 US$, four bricks of kyats each containing 100,000 were handed over to me in a plastic bag. I became worried in carrying so much money, so obviously. But the shop-keeper assured me that snatching was unheard of. I believed it as I had hardly seen anyone carrying a gun. Nevertheless, I went straight to hotel, dumped the money in the safety box, checked the lock thrice and kissed the key.
Kandawgyi Lake, Yangon
It was April, start of a long hot summer. The heat was unbearable. It was compounded by the fact that during day, there were power outages. Despite this, I thought it good to spend the midday in my room dashing for a cool shower every now and then.
Well before the evening, I went out on my favorite pass-time: going on foot to a far-off place. I picked up Kandawgyi Lake about five miles away. Though directions were clear, I got a slip scribbled in Burmese and asked for guidance to anyone I came across. This was a good way to meet people and study them. Their faces were yellow, their mouths red with pan-chewing (betel leave), and their dresses: a loose shirt and a sarong which they were constantly wrapping and re-wrapping as if it was a national past time. Their lives difficult, their possession small, their government oppressive but did it stop them to smile. No way.
At long last, I reached Kandawgyi Lake. Paying two dollar as entrance fee, I stepped on a wooden bridge. It was long and straight, occasionally bending to align with contour of the waterline. It was a popular resort and many local and foreigners were jogging or strolling. As the sun was setting, the color of the lake were changing, a glistering image of the Pagoda nearby was dimming in its crystal clear water. With a variety of flowers and large shady trees, the walk was most refreshing. On the other side of lake, I saw a fantastic barge representing mythical Karavika, the legendary bird of the Hindu god Vishnu.
“This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about." - said Rudyard Kipling long ago.
Train to Mandalay
On 5th April, 09, I took a train for Mandalay, about 622 km away. Since the train was to leave at 6 am, I got a wakeup call at 5 am. For one dollar, a taxi dropped me at the railway station. I got a window seat in the upper class paying US $30.
With whistles blown, flag raised, the train moved off. Initially, its speed was so low that some kids easily got on and off. Gradually, it gained a speed of 45 mph. With a wide open window and slow speed, I enjoyed the scenery. The train passed by palms-thatched cottages and sometimes white or golden stupas. Facing me in the front seat was a monk with a dark reddish brown robe. He was apparently well off as he offered me a towel wet with U D Cologne besides a can of Shark, energy drink containing vitamins and supplements.
In broken English, he narrated about his religion. Most Buddhists spend part of their lives as monks. They start at a very early age, around five, as a novice monk. In a ritual, the boy’s head is shaved, a new name given and a brown robe donned. He lives in temple, goes on the daily alms-round and on return shares the food. A novice monk may leave any time and may return later in life. Nuns are also similar to the monks; heads shaved clean, but wear pink and orange robes.
After about 100 km, the train stopped at Bago, a historical town with a turbulent history. During the Mon dynasty, Bago was a fabulous city, capital of lower Myanmar and a major seaport. When the Bago River changed its course, the city was cut off from the sea. It failed to return to its previous grandeur. However, many passengers left the train at this station as it was gateway to natural teak forests, to study timber elephants, to observe wildlife or to have a day trip to the nearby Golden Rock Temple.
Leaving Bago, the train entered in Karen state bordering with Thailand. There were reportedly many armed groups fighting with the government for greater autonomy. Because of security problems, all trains pass the Karen State during the day time. I could see army guards and pickets along the railway. On the other hand, passing through Karen State was very pleasant. The entire route was fertile area with farms of rice, betel nut, ground nut, sesame, peas, beans and coffee. On the way, one could see rice mills, sawmills and timber processing plants. Another 110 km still up, the train touched Toungoo, popular for areca palms, a beautiful houseplant.
Next stop was Pyinmana. It was half way between Mandalay and Yangon. Perhaps, that was the reason for its being initially declared as administrative capital of Myanmar. Later in 2006, the capital was moved to Naypyida or Royal City, just 3.2 km away.
The station is near to Meiktila famous for battle of Mandalay in World War II. Despite logistical difficulties, the Allies were able to deploy large armored and mechanized forces in Central Burma. In a pitch battle under General Slim, Allied Forces regained control of the place destroying most the Japanese forces. General Slim later described watching two platoons from Gurkha Rifles supported by a single M4 Sherman tank overran several Japanese bunkers and eliminated their defenders in a few minutes.
The train reached Mandalay at about 10:30 pm, two hours behind the schedule. When I got out, I looked for a taxi. There was none but a lot of tiny Mazda pickup trucks serving as means of transport. For a sum of three dollars, a driver agreed to take me to Royal City Hotel (27th Street, between 76th and 77th, Mandalay, phone 02-31805, 66559). Since I was tired by the daylong journey, I just went to sleep soon after checking in.
Mandalay is the second largest city and the last royal capital of Burma. Located 622 km north of Yangon on the east bank of the Irrawaddy River, the city has a population of nearly 1 million. There was nothing new except for the change in the landscape from green to brown because of the little rainfall. I just roamed in the markets and parks. There were some South Indian restaurants offering delicious masala dosa and pani-puri.
I stayed for two days just for rest as journey to Bagan was quite arduous. Also, I had a long walk by the Imperial Wall. The wall is eight metres high, three metres thick made of fire-brick backed by earth rampart. Each extends to 2 km; the surrounding moat is 70 metres wide and three metres deep. Unfortunately, it was closed to foreigners at the time my visit. Nevertheless, it afforded me an opportunity to have long un-interrupted walk.
My next place was Bagan, about 400 km away. There were many options: one can fly, can sail or take a train or a bus. I opted for the last and reached Bagan. Later, I continued to Kalaw, Inle Lake and finally to Yangon. But it would be covered in my next travel tale.