Saturday, 11 February 2012


27th - 29th Jan 2012

Shwedagon Paya (Temple ). Rangoon
The early morning taxi ride to Calcutta airport passed through some grim knee-deep rubbish-strewn outlying slums with low-life and mangy dogs warming themselves around roadside open fires ....just to give me that final taste of India. The check-in procedures through Calcutta International Airport were well up to expectations. A grim beaurocratic time consuming ( nearly 2 hours ) performance during which my passport and documents were inspected no less than nine times and overweight suitcase re-packed and then twice through a security scanner and I still had to pay an exorbitant price for being 3 kg over the miserable 20 kg baggage allowance ( they must be playing to Aussie Rules here ). The airport itself is a sorry excuse for an international airport with pathetic facilities and very scruffy. They tell us that it is being rebuilt, hence the poor facilities, but there was little sign of activity in that direction. I seem to develop a mild form of Tourette's Syndrome whenever I am forced to use international airports ( as a passenger ). I find myself swearing and cursing, not always under my breath, at everyone and no-one in particular. Equally worrying, nobody seems to notice.
It was only a 1.5hr flight to Rangoon and I arrived at 1245hrs (L). The airport here is clean and modern and the officials were welcoming, smartly dressed and smiling. No fuss. I was met at arrivals by a very pretty young lady, Miss Hnin Wai, with whom I had been planning, by e-mail, my trip. She was delightful and helped me change some of my hard fought-for dollars into the local currency ( spelt 'khat', but pronounced 'chet' for some reason'  ) of which, at a decent rate, there are 835 to the US$.
Chauffeur driven to my hotel, the Asia Plaza downtown Rangoon, I was immediately impressed by how  clean, bright and ordered the city streets appeared ( in comparison with India that is ). I also noted that they drive on the right side of the road ( the wrong side ) unlike their neighbours India and Thailand who sensibly drive on the left. They changed from left to right under orders from the 'SLORC' government in 1974. No hassle or mad rushing crowds and it all looked remarkably pleasant with modern vehicles and quite smart shops and offices. I can only conclude that Indians, whose poor are no worse off financially than most of the Burmese poor, have lived packed together with shit up to their eyeballs for so long that either they don't notice it, or don't care.
Booked into the hotel and, again much to my pleasant surprise, they had Wi-Fi, and it was free! ( if remarkably slow ). So, I'm now in Burma the 'Golden Land'.

The next morning I was met by my guide ( left ), a charming chap whose 'nom de tour' is Clement ( his real is Khin Zaw ) and our driver, a cheerful lad called Joker. These two, indeed most of the blokes around these parts, wear 'cocktail dresses' called 'longyis' with their shirts and jackets. A sort of Burmese sarong equivalent. Very smart and practical. Longyis can be worn long, or short or even rolled up and made into shorts for football.
We started off a Rangoon city tour by visiting the enormous Vegetable Market at the far western end of Strand Road. Some of the roads and streets have maintained their British names, most have changed to Burmese. Clement referred to the city as Rangoon and the country as Burma....maybe just to humour me.

The vegetable market is notable by it's sheer size. It covers the area of at least six football pitches and sells goods grown from all around the country. It is open 24 hours a day and serves all the resale shops in town. The hundreds of trucks delivering the goods often come from 600 miles up country, with one driver apiece, and do the return journey after day's rest. I noticed that most of the knackered looking driver's mouths and teeth were stained black/red from chewing betel nut; probably to keep them awake on the road. Right: Some cabbages being off-loaded.

The city is large, low-rise and well spread out. It is all relatively clean and tidy with many 'green' areas of parks, lakes and gardens. The old part runs alongside the busy port area on the Rangoon River. There are still a few old colonial buildings to decorate the place such as this ( left ) the old Customs House. No motor-bikes or scooters are allowed in the city centre. Apparently they were banned after a senior minister's car was rammed by a motor-bike some years ago.

Before I witter on further, I think it is necessary to mention and explain the 'Stupa'. This is the bell-shaped edifice central to Buddhist temples. Regardless of whether you take an interest in religion or not, it should be mentioned and explained because, apart from anything else, Burma has more Buddhist temples per square mile than you can shake a stick at. It is the most enthusiastically Buddhist country ( maybe Tibet and Bhutan come close, but I think they might be a different variety of Buddhist ) in the world and they have a super abundance of extremely ornate, expensively decorated and remarkably impressive Buddhist temples each accompanied by its respective Stupa, or many more than one in most cases. It is impossible to tour Burma without being compelled to visit a selection of these. Right: A diagram of the typical Stupa. Enlarge to read and memorise all the various parts that go to make up the traditional design.

I remember cynically commenting on the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic ( supposedly housing one of Lord Buddha's molars ) in Kandy, Sri Lanka, and mentioning that we might well see some other odd body parts of his Lordship being revered elsewhere. I was not wrong. Here in Rangoon is the Botataung Paya ( temple ) which is also known as the '1000 Leaders Temple', and in which reposes an equally revered relic; a strand of Buddha's hair! I nearly guessed correctly earlier. I000 military leaders, so the story goes, escorted this strand of hair from India to Burma.

It is kept safely ( out of sight ) in an elaborate ivory and gold, solid gold, casket here ( right ). Visitors are expected to pop a bank note through a slot as they peer in. Out of view below the photo is a sunken floor which is piled six feet high with bank notes and this cavern is emptied weekly, or more often. The financial collections in Buddhist temples put even American TV Evangelist con-men to shame. Everywhere you go, at all points in these temples, there are multiple collection boxes and they fill up rapidly. Queues of people, including the very poorest, contribute non-stop around the clock in some places. Their next life ( reincarnation ) depends on it.

The stupa of this temple is gleaming with gold; gold leaf at the bottom and on all the interior walls and 1 ft square gold plates further up. I'm afraid you are going to get very bored with seeing gold stupas and temples and Buddhas here, with lots of diamonds thrown in, but I was rather flabbergasted at the opulence of these places. It is what Burma does to the extreme and I doubt anywhere else gets within a distance of it. Lots more to come, so brace yourself ( or turn off ).

After building the Botataung Paya they paid tribute to the workers and their families by putting  these sculptures of local children in the temple grounds. They are actually quite charming and make a refreshing change from more bleedin' Buddhas.

Burmese ladies, and some gents, wear this make up called 'Thanakha' on their cheeks ( left ), which is made from the bark of the thanakha tree. It is a traditional facial decoration and very fashionable still.  Indeed most girls and ladies wear it , but it originated as a practical and effective type of facial sun screen.

This bronze Buddha, amongst many in the grounds, was donated by the famous Burmese film actor Chau Hing. I'm sure you've heard of him. He did not star in Ben Hur or any of the Bond films. It is the done thing for wealthy people to donate Buddha statues; the bigger the better. There are hundreds of them in varying sizes on shelves and in alcoves throughout most of the many thousands of temples and pagodas.

A more famous Buddha statue in this temple complex is this one, again gilded bronze, which was taken from the temple by the British when they got rid of the last Burmese King, King Thibaw, in 1885. It was exhibited at the V&A museum in London until being returned in 1951. So we do give some things back.

Next stop was the gigantic 'reclining Buddha' ( right ) at the Changhtatgyi Paya. It is 68 metres ( 221 ft ) long and also has lots of collection boxes and people praying in front of it.
By the way, we were well into the shoes on/ shoes off routine visiting all these places. The British, when they ran the country, made themselves very unpopular with the Burmese by refusing to take their shoes off when entering Buddhist temples. Considering they probably wore expensive, smart, highly polished Messrs Lobbs' lace up boots and shoes, I have a sneaking sympathy for them. It's no big deal if you only wear flip-flops. I dislike wearing flip-flops.

Left: The 108 symbols carefully carved on Mr Buddha's feet are all decoded as representing some auspicious Buddhist phenomena or other. There is a large board on the wall opposite detailing what all these symbols represent. The whole Buddha story is beginning to go well over my head.
I was persuaded to buy a Burmese walking stick ( $5 ) in a local shop nearby. I had made my mind up previously to refuse to buy anything, but the Burmese are so charming. I don't need a stick. I didn't even want a stick, but I bought the damned thing anyway and it is too long to go in my case.

Right: The daddy of all the Payas in Burma, the Shwedagon Paya. The word 'shwe' means gold in Burmese and features widely in regard to Buddhist temples here, and lots of places, buildings, ships and hotel names too. It is not the biggest temple in either height or area but it is by far the most flamboyant and intrinsically valuable. Don't forget the 'schwe' word. You'll hear it again. And again.
All Burmese Buddhists are expected to visit this place once in their lives. This photo ( right ) shows a new initiate to the temple being carried and followed by his friends and family three times clockwise around the central stupa.

It has been added onto and reconstructed in part following earthquakes but has essentially been in it's present form ( left ) since 1769. It is decorated with and contains enormous amounts of gold and diamonds. It is truly astonishing in it's flamboyance. To give you an idea; the outside of the main stupa is covered in gold leaf at the bottom and has an estimated 20 tons of gold plates screwed on the upper area.

Left:  There are 2000 carats of diamonds implanted under the 'umbrella' and on the 'vane' which can ( just ) be viewed through a telescope in the grounds and there is a diamond of 280 carats ( invisible ) held in the 'bulb' on the top. Not content with that there are, reputedly, 60 tons of gold bullion stashed inside the 'bell'. I mean, this is incredible! It is more gold then the Bank of England has ever held in it's vaults. Actually, after that insane ex-Chancellor of ours, the 'Mad Broon', sold off our ( British ) gold reserves at  rock bottom prices, I probably have more gold in my teeth than is now held by the Bank of England. Anyway, the 60 tons is continually added to as the temple scoops in money from wealthy donors and the public ( and tourists ). You can guess how much I contributed.

The main stupa here is surrounded by 68 gold-leafed mini-stupas and the whole thing is surrounded by over 100 elaborately decorated and bejewelled pagodas and pavilions ( as per right ) on a 12 acre site.

And this is only the most fabulously endowed temple in the country; there are thousands of other gold embellished stupas and temples around. The wealth that is contained and invested in, and donated to, these temples is astronomical. I can't even begin to make an estimate of their intrinsic worth. All of this just sits there as some sort of 'good luck charm' it seems. It appears to satisfy the customers however.

All the while most of the population and tens of thousands of monks prostrate themselves in front of the multitudinous Buddhas country-wide and chant and pray as if their present lives, but more importantly their next, depend on it. They certainly don't seem to begrudge the wealth contained therein. There are also some weird wild-eyed beardy characters in ragged robes who also pray and chant like mad in the temple grounds either solo, or hold court with a group of followers, and are known as Alchemists ( I thought they made gold out of lead piping or something; maybe they do ). One tried to give me his business card! I never fully gathered what turns these crazies on. As you might have gathered from all of the above, Burma has a vast 'in-house' supply of gold, schwe, from it's mines up north.

A meditating monk. That is what they do when not eating or sleeping it seems. I suppose it passes the time; eventually.
I can never quite understand the Buddhist point of being 'reincarnated' as, maybe, someone better in the next life if you cannot remember what you were in the previous one.

We had an excellent lunch at a rather touristy cafe ( good steak sandwich ) and went on to see a few of the more 'earthly' sights. OK, I was encouraged to pop in to the Chinese version of a Buddhist temple, Kheng Hock Keong ( right ), in China Town and here we didn't even have to do the shoes-off routine. I think because the Chinese wear more substantial footware ( hirey porrished race-ups flom Messrs Robbs? ) Mr Clement was keen to give me a good run around all the sacred spots it seemed. I don't think I've seen the last of them somehow.

 Left: A good example of the Thanakha fashion. Most of the girls plaster it on.

There are some very impressive old colonial areas and buildings about the place. We passed by what was known as  the Mount Pleasant area on a hill in the centre of town. It looks most attractive with some tasteful and expensive looking residences. It almost retains the old British look and, I was told, the remaining colonial style residences are much sought after by those that can afford them.

Right: Probably the most impressive looking building in the city down near the river is, to my eyes, the old British Secretariat which is hardly given a mention in the guide books. It is a vast 'grand' 19th century Victorian Gothic style complex of offices with pillared passageways, colonnades, turrets and towers. I think it was the place from where Burma was administered by the British Governor, although in those days the country was effectively under command of the Government in India. It is, sadly, almost derelict although I was told there are a few offices still in use. It is also fenced off with wire mesh outer and iron-barred inner barriers. No entry, and even difficult to see inside. The photo was taken by poking my camera through the wire mesh. It has the dates 1889 - 1892 engraved on the top frontage; probably when it was built.

Left: Fortunately I could get a better view of it from the roof terrace of my hotel. I sincerely hope the powers that be renovate this place and don't, and I have a horrible suspicion that they will, pull it down to make way for glass and concrete office blocks.  Nobody can tell me they don't have enough money to do it, vis-a-vis stacks of gold and loot in the temples!

Right: We went on to have a look at the busy river dockside. There are still remnants of the British days such as the port administrative buildings and disused coal yards. There is now, amongst all the hundreds of smaller ship and boat moorings, a container port.

Left: Also on Strand Road down here is the impressive Strand Hotel. Very smart, and expensive too. Looking at old photos of this area, on display inside the hotel, it is noticeable how elegant these colonial buildings were, and indeed still are where they exist, but in those pre-WW2 days the surrounding streets and area were elegant too. The surroundings have gone considerably downhill since, if nowhere near on an Indian scale. I also noticed that several of the presumably wealthy ( western ) customers using the hotel looked remarkably scruffy too in T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops. I must admit I was not much better dressed, but then I only called in for a drink and a look-see and I certainly wasn’t wearing shorts!

Lots of places, stadiums and streets, have the name Aung San given to them. As you may be aware, General Aung San was the Burmese military/political leader who lent his support to the dastardly and cruel Japs when they invaded the country in 1942 and evicted the British. He then switched sides to support the British when they were recapturing the place. He knew which side his bread was buttered. He then led the Burmese National Party, or whatever it was called, and is credited with securing Burmese independence ( although without British control of India it would have occurred anyway I suppose ). He was assassinated, outside the Secretariat buildings, in 1947 and became a national hero. He was also responsible for producing, amongst other offspring, the redoubtable Mrs Michael Aris, aka Aung San Suu Khi, who is now free of house arrest and able to contest elections due to be held this April. 
That was a day and a half in Rangoon. So much to see and do and, so far, everything has been most efficiently organised by Miss Hnin Wai and her tour company. Incidently, I was previously under the impression that visitors to Burma had to have a tour itinerary booked in advance including a letter of authority. This may have been the case but is not so now. If you wish, it is easy to get a visa without any pre-organised travel plans. You can just turn up and do your own thing. I have the next few days on my own individual ‘tour’ which at times involves pre-paid guides. I think this may be a more economic and efficient way of seeing the sights but may feature a few too many temples and Buddhas for my liking. We shall see. 
Next off on the train to Bagan ( or Pagan ) one of the ancient Royal capitals of Burma. So far so good. 

The flag.

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