Greetings from Myanmar*! The title of this post refers to the most entertaining cultural habit we’ve observed so far: To get someone’s attention in this country, you make kissing noises at them. Ryan has noted that this is awkward for him when he wants to call the teahouse waiter for the check (because all the waiters here are prepubescent boys).
Speaking of attention, we sure have been getting a lot of it. I guess Western tourists get a lot of attention almost anywhere they go in southeast Asia, but here it’s less, “Hello motorbike where you go?” and more, “Hello!” followed by giggling. People will stop and make small talk with us, and an astonishing amount of the time, they don’t even want to sell us anything. For anybody who’s traveled to the big tourist spots in Cambodia or Thailand, this kind of friendly, curious behavior from locals can seem like a small, strange miracle. You…you just want to know where I’m from? Really?
Obviously, though, not everybody is totally free of ulterior motives when they talk to us. Meet Sai:
He came up to us on our first day in Yangon, saying he was a former monk who still lived at his monastery as a layperson, and he was on his way there, and would we like to come with him? We did a very out-of-character thing and said yes (or rather, I said yes and Ryan looked at me like I was insane). So we all took a local bus out there and he showed us around the place, which was huge, a small city of monasteries and monks. Then he took us to his dark, teak-wood monastery and sure enough, when we started making polite noises about needing to go, he set in about how his head monk was very, very sick and how they couldn’t afford any good medicine for him. So we were like yes yes okay here’s a donation, Sai.
I’m still glad we went with him, though – it’s not like we didn’t see the plea for money coming a mile away, and we actually learned and saw some pretty interesting stuff, thanks to him. For example:
1. While we waited for the bus, Sai pointed to an old, red, boarded-up colonial building and told us about the military snipers who stood at the windows and shot people down on the street during the 2007 protests. Then he pointed to a swanky, high-rise hotel and said, “The security was very good at that hotel! Many people tried to run inside, but they couldn’t get in.”
2. He’s from a village way up north, in a restricted zone. He came to Yangon in 2007 with an invitation to study at university but he can’t return home now, because as a member of the Shan minority he doesn’t have the necessary documents and IDs that he would need to travel back to the restricted zone. This kind of blew me away. Here is an interesting article about, among other things, the ethnic diversity of Myanmar (which I, being an ass, knew nothing about before coming here) and how it relates to national identity.
3. When we saw him, he said he’d just finished teaching a lesson at a local orphanage. He himself was orphaned by the civil war in the border states; he said a lot of the boys he teaches also lost their families to conflict, and many of them will eventually become monks, like he did.
But never fear, we also learned less-depressing things from Sai. For instance, he took us to this crazy concrete bunker where people could come to make offerings to a gallery of nats, or spirits:
There were nats to protect you in the forest, and nats to protect you at sea. The two boy-nats in the photo above used to be princes, killed by the man in the middle (who was then executed by the king). Our favorite nat was this mustachioed fellow, Gojijo:
He was an alcoholic who died after a night of heavy drinking. Sai told us that if you say his name when you raise your glass, he will watch over your party. Seems like a pretty good deal.
And finally, if we hadn’t visited Sai’s monastery, we wouldn’t have met this character:
The second-in-command at the monastery, he demanded to see one of my bracelets and then, after examining it and proclaiming it to be teak, he shuffled over to where we were sitting and hand-fed us some pineapple chunks. Then he chuckled and told us that monks usually only feed babies like that, and so, we were his babies. I guess you had to be there? It was kinda funny.
Yangon was overwhelming in a good way, at first. We stayed in the heart of the city and every time we went outside, the street was a riot of crazy shit we’d never seen before: Moldy, crumbling colonial architecture; men in longyis; faces smeared with golden thanaka; Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Burmese, Indians, Chinese and minority people, all mixed together and weaving through the loud, crowded streets and grinning their bloody betel nut grins at us. We’ve never been to India so maybe that’s why Yangon overloaded my senses, but man. I don’t have any pictures that really capture how bonkers the streets were around our guesthouse. I just wandered around in a sweaty daze, picking my way around the destroyed sidewalks, trying to return all the smiles from strangers.
After a few days, though, Yangon stopped being overwhelming in a good way, and started just wearing us down. The city was sunny and loud; our guesthouse room was hot and windowless; the few air-conditioned cafes were far away and pricey. So we traveled north for about 24 hours to a town called Hsipaw, which has been my favorite place on this trip so far and I haven’t been able to shut up about it. But that’s for another post! Another breathless, gushing post! Get ready to roll your eyes at me as you’ve never rolled them before!
In conclusion, I give you our regularly scheduled gif, of Sule Paya in Yangon:
And I bid you a good day.
*or Burma, obvs. I am not sure where I come down on the Myanmar/Burma debate. Aung San Suu Kyi calls it Burma and so that seems like it should be the end of the argument, but everyone we’ve met here so far – local and foreign – uses “Myanmar” to refer to both the country and the language. Obviously that doesn’t prove anything: Maybe people say “Myanmar” because they’re making a political statement, but maybe it’s just out of habit, or maybe it’s still not a good idea to use the word “Burma” out in the street, despite the recent liberalizations. I have no idea; I haven’t asked anybody about it. Initiating a conversation with somebody about something so potentially controversial seems unwise? And so we’ve been saying “Myanmar” here, which seems like the most appropriate thing to do as foreigners who are not interested in making any waves.