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May 12, 2008

 

Myanmar: beauty, poverty and lucky birds

 

By Geraldine Soon

 

A Singapore writer's 2007 account of a trip that year to her grandfather's homeland.

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Geraldine Soon/ The Tattoo

The view from the peak of the Sunset Pagoda.  

Ready to take off

SINGAPORE – “Mummy, hurry up!” My mother came scurrying back from the candy store at Changi Airport, Terminal 2, with her arms full of Mars bars for the children in Myanmar.

“Do you think we need more bars?”

“What you have can probably last them a lifetime. Now hurry!”

Always the punctual one, I was feeling rather flustered at the fact that we were running behind by 10 minutes. We rushed to our departure gate, giving our luggage to security for checking, Mars bars and all. As I gave my boarding pass to the flight attendant, I could feel nothing but excitement at the prospect of visiting Myanmar: A once prosperous kingdom, now one of the world’s poorest; the land where my Grandfather came from.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that the flight will be delayed by two hours. We apologize for any inconvenience caused.” So this is what it is like to fly on a budget airline, I thought. I am never going to get to that country.

My mother went off to get more Mars bars. To pass the time, my brother and I played with the travelators. Two hours later, we were on our way to Myanmar.

 Myanmar, Here I Come!

Originally known as Burma, Myanmar got its new name in 1989 which means fast and strong. The country has been ruled by an authoritarian military government since the Japanese Occupation ended.

I looked out of my airplane window and marveled at the immense amount of cultivation that took place on Myanmar soil. There was not a single sight of a high-rise building, just plain, green land. Coming from Singapore where such sights are rare (if not non-existent), it was refreshing to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life to a quiet, less developed but nevertheless peace-loving country.

“Ohhh, my love… my darling… I’ve hungered for your touch…” Wow, “Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers? The song being played over the system at Yangon (which means “peace” in the Myanmar language) airport surprised me, because I was expecting the country to have almost zero Western influence, let alone any other influence, since it was governed by the non-democratic government.

Well actually, I thought as I sat on the bus and looked out at the streets of Yangon, I expected correctly. Even though Yangon is Myanmar’s business capital, I could not spot any McDonalds, nor billboard advertisement for Nike or Samsung. Almost every product sold in Myanmar is locally produced.

Hey, I spot a movie theatre! Let’s see what’s showing… “Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest” and “Miami Vice.” 

Everyone, even the men and little children, wear sarongs. No trousers, no T-shirts – everyone was traditionally dressed. Most interesting was how their traditional costume was a mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay dressing. The sarong is of Malay influence, the buttons of Chinese influence, and the top of Indian influence.

“You are very fair,” my tour guide, a pretty lady named Moon, observed. “I want to be white like you. In Myanmar, every lady uses traditional cosmetics to make ourselves look whiter.”

She was right. Every single lady I had seen on the streets – even some men – had a yellowish-white paste smeared onto her face.

I had never seen anything like this before. The paste is made up of a natural ingredient called sandalwood, which they grind and then mix with water to form the paste. Apparently, it is very effective – it provides not only protection against the UV rays, but it smoothens the skin and is a natural whitener. All for just one U.S. dollar.

And I pay $40 for my SK-II products. What a rip off.

We finally arrive at Grandpark Royal Hotel, which is about as posh as any five-star hotel in Singapore. Neat.  

A Visit to the One of the Wonders of the World

It is a must to have temples included in the itinerary, since Myanmar is a Buddhist country. And boy, were there temples!

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Geraldine Soon/ The Tattoo

Shwedagon Pagoda  

The first we visited is home to one of the largest statues of the Reclining Buddha. No shoes allowed. I left my shoes at the front counter, stepped onto a remarkably clean floor, and there, almost 100 meters long, was the statue of the Reclining Buddha, looking right down at me.

Printed on the soles of Buddha’s feet are little squares with symbols in them. The symbols belong to three different worlds: the animate, inanimate and the World of the Conditioned.

I am told that one of the three real footprints of Buddha was actually found on Myanmar soil! I am stepping on holy ground.

At the temple, there was a small and skinny boy sitting cross-legged against one of the pillars. We gave him our first Mars bar. Then, he started following us! He could not speak, but instead looked at us imploringly for another bar. My brother gave him another, but it was only when we left the temple that he stopped following us.

The next temple we visited is one of the forgotten medieval wonders of the world – the Shwedagon Pagoda. It is absolutely huge. We took almost one hour to walk all the way around it.

When night came, the spotlights illuminated the gold and the whole scene was spectacular! At the tip of the Pagoda is a 75-carat diamond – yes, 75 – and it was found in Myanmar itself.

These were just one of the many wonders I discovered in Myanmar. This obscure country sure has many hidden wonders!

 Off to Bagan – The Land of Pagodas

I had to wake up at the unearthly hour of 4 in the morning to catch a domestic flight to our next stop, Bagan.

Our next tour guide had an interesting warning for us – not to accept cigarettes that the people sell. Well, I don’t smoke anyway, so I did not pay much attention to it. When we stopped by the roadside for a breath of fresh air and to marvel at the sea of pagodas that stretched out to the horizon, a few men approached me with cigarettes in their hands. I took a look and whoa! Opium! I started running to our van and yelling, “Let’s go before we get drugged!”

Apparently, a majority of the people in Bagan smoke opium or other drugs they can get their hands on.

I learned that back in the 11th century, Bagan was a prospering state with much rice surplus. It made everyone so rich that even widowers could afford to build their own pagodas for Buddha. As a result, pagodas sprung up like poppies all over the vast spread of land, and today, there are 2,217 of them in Bagan alone.

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Geraldine Soon/The Tattoo

Bagan market.  

We traveled to an open-air market and before our vehicle had even stopped, hordes of children and women carrying infants had surrounded it. I started to get a little scared. What if they climb into the van? Will they snatch at our bags? I got off the van and was greeted by a little girl no older than four years old. Fortunately, the beggars just stood and greeted us. My mother started giving our Mars bars to the children.

However, it didn’t stop there. The beggars started following us through the whole market! The same children would keep tapping at my arm, at my shoulder, asking for more. As if I was not already swarmed by them, the stall owners also started harassing us, pushing items into our hand and naming exorbitant prices! Oh, did I mention that if you are going there as a tourist, always make sure you bargain with them, and do not accept anything for more than half the named price.

The thing about giving to these beggars is that they are encouraged to think they can thrive on begging from tourists, many of whom visit Bagan. Most of these children were not starving. In fact, a good lot were much fleshier than I am. There were, of course, those who would just sit by the roadside.

We also got monks and nuns begging us for money (they didn’t like the Mars bars), but we did not give them any. Firstly, due to their religion, begging is forbidden, because they have to thrive on people’s charity and goodwill towards them. Secondly, there is no knowing what they would use the money for. 

Ahhh, the Beautiful Sunset!

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Geraldine Soon/The Tattoo  

I had to climb to the top of the tallest pagoda to watch the sun set. Sunsets from the peak of the pagoda are some of the most beautiful.

Don’t look down… breathe and relax, I told myself. My acrophobia and the roughly cut stone steps (that looked like they were going to give way any moment) were not compatible.

When the sun set and after a truly nerve-wrecking experience trying to climb down the pagoda, we were treated to a traditional puppet show.

Myanmar music is really beautiful. Their traditional music is just like their traditional costume – I hear the influences of Chinese, Malay and Indian music and instruments. It may sound a little weird at first,

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Geraldine Soon/The Tattoo

A traditional puppet show.  

because of the cultural fusion, but the music slowly starts to sound like its own – perfectly charming.

I have a lot of fears. Another of my many fears is the fear of puppets, especially those with white painted faces, eerie eyes and blood-red lips. Unfortunately, the puppets that were used looked exactly like that. So when the puppeteer started making rounds around the restaurant for photo-taking with his puppet and came to my table, I gave a loud shriek and fell off my chair, attracting laughs from a few Italian tourists. The puppeteer forced the puppet onto me and I had no choice but to kiss it back and take a photograph with it. 

Mystery of the Disappearing Soap

Our next hotel was located on the waters, away from the land of Heho. It was a one-hour ride on a speed-sampan (a traditional boat) and the night air was close to freezing. My family and I had come unprepared for the cold weather at Heho.

One of the fascinating things about Asia, or Southeast Asia to be more precise, are the many folk-tales, legends and haunting stories that are passed down from generation to generation. They teach us anything, from morals to history and sometimes, to spice things up, a ghost or two. Myths, you say? Wait till you hear my story.

The hotel rooms we stayed in are actually wooden bungalows built on stilts above the water. The lights were dim and every sound was magnified. My brother and I had a whole bungalow to ourselves, and as wonderful as that may sound, I did not think it was a good idea. Third fear: fear of dark, scary places. My mother told me not to worry because she says that Myanmar is spiritually clean.

“Even the dogs don’t bark,” she exclaimed.

That night, just as we were getting ready for bed, there was a frantic knocking at the door. It was our parents.

“Your mother’s bar of soap disappeared,” my father reported. It was strange, because we had only left the rooms to go for dinner. No one could have gotten in. We decided to ignore it and went to sleep.

Early the next morning, my parents went back to their room to collect the rest of their belongings.

“The bar of soap is missing again!” My mother had opened another bar of soap the previous night before they left the bungalow. Housekeeping? We asked the receptionist, but she said that housekeeping was only done in the late morning.

Well, needless to say, my family and I were freaked out. We left that morning. 

Introducing the Karenni Women

Another highlight of the trip was the visit to the Karenni Women. They’re  women with long necks who wear many rings around them.

I had seen pictures of them before in my textbooks, but seeing one in real life was amazing. The length of their necks just strike you dumbfounded.

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Geraldine Soon/ The Tattoo  

The older the women, the more rings they put around their neck. An old Karenni woman, whose neck was almost 25 cm long, greeted us cheerily as we entered the hut. She was weaving a beautifully colored scarf by hand!

The rings are extremely heavy. They actually do not elongate the neck, but they push down the collarbones.

They acted as a form of protection in the old days when the Karenni women lived in the forests where tigers were rampant. The tiger usually goes for the prey’s neck, and then its limbs, so the Karenni women wear thick rings around those crucial areas. However, the rings also act as a form of entrapment for the women. Whenever she has committed adultery, or the husband finds some fault with her, he can remove the rings and the women will suffocate to death as the neck muscles collapse.

Just when I was about to open my mouth to argue for women’s rights, the tour guide told us that the Karenni women nowadays no longer wear rings. While I felt relieved for them, another part of me felt sad that such a culture, like so many other languages and cultures, will go extinct one day, as modernization and globalization take over. 

The Story of a Boy

During my trip to Myanmar, I got the chance to talk to a boy who had just received a Mars bar from my mother. He was about 11 years old, and despite English being his second language, he spoke really good English.

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Tattoo photo

Geraldine Soon and  the  boy with the lucky birds.  

He said he loves going to school because he likes to learn, and get into university so that he can get a good job. He loves the village and its people, where he has many friends, and when he grows up, he vows to come back to help contribute and alleviate the poverty in his village.

Despite the poverty of the country, many children in Myanmar are given the chance to go to school for a period of 10 years before they enter university. Better than money or food is the gift of education, in my opinion. It pulls you out from the vicious trap of the poverty cycle.

He showed me his collection of dollar notes from countries of every kind: Indonesia, Germany, Italy, Korea – countries where most of their tourists come from. He asked for a Singapore dollar note, but to my utter disappointment, I was carrying only greenbacks with me. If I ever go back, I’ll be sure to carry some of my country’s currency.

That was the boy’s only way of seeing the world – through the various forms of currency. He will probably never get the chance to travel out of the country. Censorship is strict in the press and in the media, and access to the internet for the locals can only be found in certain shops. Access to email accounts can be barred (like Yahoo! for instance) and all the emails that get sent out are monitored by the government, so an email may never reach its destination elsewhere in the world.

After a while, he took out a black clay owl, which he calls his “Lucky Bird.” He asked if I wanted it, and of course, I wanted something to remember him by. I bought it from him for $1.50, in U.S. currency. The owl now resides on my desktop, so when I look at it everyday, I am reminded of his worthy attitude and character. 

Home Sweet Home

After the trip, my parents decided from now on to send medical supplies to the local village doctor, who works for free. We may not be able to feed the entire village and pull them out of poverty, but we can provide the healthcare they need so that they may have the fitness to work.

On my last night in Myanmar, I suffered from food poisoning. My entire night was spent going to the bathroom to throw up and I suffered from a fever. Even though I had enjoyed myself immensely and the trip proved to be a real eye-opener, I was glad to be going home to a professional doctor.

The one thing I love most about Myanmar is the people. Despite their poverty (the richest person gets $50 in U.S. currency a month) and restrictions, they have shown me why happiness can still be possible.

The people there are some of the most hospitable I have ever met, and their simple ways and contentment are absolutely endearing. That is a wonder by itself. Democracy may not exist here, but the people here are just happy the way they are.

Click here for a slideshow that includes more of Geraldine Soon's photographs

Click here for Geraldine Soon's take on the failure of Myanmar's military leaders ti accept cyclone aid


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