“Monks get beaten, took away. Some killed. Right outside this Shwedagon. This is the center for all Burmese people. Chinese come, Indians come. This is the center of teaching. And they (the military) did that ten years before. It’s much better now.” – Monk at Shwedagon Pagoda
Saturday was one my one free day with no appointments or music plans set up so I decided to fit in some sightseeing. I woke early and went straight to Bogyoke Aung San Market, less than ten minutes from the hotel. I’ve already mentioned the unique hustle & bustle of downtown Yangon, but on my way to the market I encountered something especially surprising:
Ignoring the dichotomy of KFC next to an ornate Hindu temple, I was simply more shocked by encountering a familiar ‘brand’. In the last 36 hours it seemed the only recognizable brands had been the used Honda taxi I rode in and large Daewoo neon sign on an office building. Almost everything else was a local version of well-known names: Fiz Cola in a red and white can or 8 Mart supermarket with a orange numeral. Has there really been that little penetration of huge Western brands because of the long-running sanctions against the military? And how did the Colonel slip in? I continued walking to the market thinking about what all this meant, (just typing this I feel like blowhard Thomas Friedman, but it WAS fascinating to think of my reaction to being somewhere with all the usual brand names not present..I know I had forgotten how they dominate the visual landscape around us, especially in Japan and the US.)
Bogyoke Aung San Market was immense. I happily lost myself in the jewelry section looking at all the jade (all the shops seem to be run by Chinese or Indians) then another hour looking at fabrics from the northern Karan and Shan states. In one of the winding passages I found these two enjoying a game of Monopoly:
I loved this for so many reasons; their smiles, the location, the fact it is Monopoly in Burmese, the inter-racial friendship kids can have so easily..wish I could have joined the game. Instead I decided to go talk to Super Faisal – Money Changer & Carpet Sale Centre.
I was told Faisal was out and would be back in ten minutes or maybe 2 hours. Which was pretty much the perfect reply. Sadly I would not meet Super Faisal but made a note to change money there next time, if not buy a carpet.
After shopping and a late lunch I walked up to Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest site in the country and by far the most famous ‘site’ for tourists. (Note to anyone heading there: if the hotel staff say it’s too hot to walk, believe them.) I could write a lot about this place but I’ll just let the pictures and videos take over.
I spent three hours hanging out in the Shwedagon grounds, watching many processions like the above, talking to a few monks, avoiding the dodgy ‘guides’. After living in East Asia for so long, being immersed in the Theravada Buddhism traditions of Myanmar was fascinating. The feel of this temple is so radically different to what you encounter in Buddhist sites in Japan or Korea, much noisier and much more of a community environment. Temples in Japan are lovely but very insular and spare, much more suited to the ritualistic nature of Mahayana Buddhism. At Shwedagon there were people chanting and praying everywhere, but also people sleeping, reading, napping..even one young couple holding hands under a tree. This was a space for both religious devotion and more human activities.
In the evening I wandered over to Chinatown for a meal and a walk around. The food was ordinary but the atmosphere was perfect.
After eating I wandered some more and came across this alley with some very loud music coming from speakers up and down the street.
The video is not capturing just how intense this moment was. You could hear this chanting way before there was any sight of the stage at the end of the road, and it was extremely dark. I made my way down the street and found the chanters:
I stopped a young couple passing by and asked them if they could explain what this was all about; in very broken English they explained “Buddhist singing for good things”. Ah, of course. They were chanting Metta.
The devotion to Buddhist teachings among the people here was beginning to affect me. Coming from Protestant & Muslim extended families, yet growing up with staunchly atheist parents and then living in non-religious Japan (or at least, as Donald Richie once said, ‘The Japanese religion is just “being Japanese”‘) I have never had a ‘religion’ nor really lived among people who were devout in this way. At times I had flirted with this and that but never came across anything I could embrace, other than the teachings of Dr. Ambedkar. He remains someone I strive to emulate, though without converting..and anyways, it’s so easy for naive Westerners to fall under the spell of Buddhism without realizing there are always dark sides to all movements. I realized yet again there is still so much to learn…
It was a fun day, but I was eager to get back for some rest and to get ready for a busy Sunday. As I was walking back to the hotel I tried to figure out what it was that was nagging at me about everything I had seen so far. I was well aware of the brutal oppression the people had experienced for the last five decades, and all the impact this had on society, and yet I expected to feel a more joyous vibe as the new president would soon be inaugurated in a (so far) peaceful transfer of power Instead, the people seemed tense and cautious. Everyone that I spoke with about it said they were so happy, and yet, worried..that the military could still void it all at any moment. What must it have been like for these people, to live under those conditions for so long? And as I got lost in thinking about all these serious matters, these two guys brought me back to earth.
Just a couple security guards outside a building, singing some tunes and enjoying the evening breeze. I only got ten seconds on video but it’s enough, I’ll never forget them. ‘Oh my God!’
Coming soon in Part Three: meeting a Burmese Harp master, visiting a CD shop, the Yokozuna Ramen guy, Reggae in Rangoon & more.