Thursday, October 25, 2018

Burma (Myanmar) - Rangoon Reminiscing Part 1: Bus-Cars, Small Arms and a Shwedagon Sunset

Rangoon's Shwedagon Pagoda Compound and a Street Food Vendor Near Scott Market
Over the course of four visits to Burma/Myanmar between 2000 and 2009, I've grown very fond of the city of Rangoon (Yangon), and not just because we have family there and spent the majority of our visits to the country in that city. The former capital of Burma prior to the seat of government being relocated upcountry to Naypyidaw (said to be based on the recommendation of a 'beydin saya', or fortune teller), the city has much to offer the visiting tourist whatever their interests may be, from awe-inspiring Buddhist temples and monuments such as the world-renowned Shwedagon Pagoda (perhaps the most revered religious site in all of Burma), classic examples of British colonial architecture (albeit mostly in various stages of disrepair) from Burma's period of British rule (1824-1948, excluding the Japanese occupation of 1942-1945 during WWII), bustling markets and colorful street vendor bazaars offering endless photo opportunities, galleries for viewing and buying traditional Burmese handicrafts, works of contemporary artists, custom jewelry and some of the world's finest precious gemstones (jade, rubies, emeralds, sapphires) mined in the country's northern region, and venues for seeing Burma's traditional performing arts. 

Rangoon's Shwedagon Pagoda Viewed from the Sakura Residents Hotel on Inya Road


Perhaps some of the fondness that Rangoon/Yangon holds for me is that it was the first large city that I got to experience and get to know in developing Southeast Asia, especially after having first visited, albeit very briefly, Singapore. The city-state of Singapore, known as the 'Lion City', is clean, orderly and ultra-modern with regards to infrastructure, public mass transit, and its icon skyline in the Marina Bay and Central Business Direct neighborhoods. Its rich heritage reflects a mix of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and Arab influences, each contributing culture of which can be individually experienced in the respective ethnic enclaves, owing to the foresight of the city planners to foster harmony between the diverse peoples when the island, then comprised of mangrove swamps and tropical jungle dotted by small 'kampong' fishing villages, was founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles as a British colony and developed into a major trading port. With the diverse array of Singaporean and other regional cuisines to be sampled at its numerous 'intestinally worry-free' hawker centers, food courts and restaurants (which I cover in my blog post 'Makan' Memories of Singapore), all the essential First World amenities a visiting traveler or corporate professional on business could ever desire and English one of the four official languages, Singapore could be considered the quintessential 'Southeast Asia 101' introduction for Westerners traveling to that part of the world for the first time. After having spent the prior full day and evening experiencing Singapore (having left the hotel to begin the day strolling along Orchard Road and through the Botanic Gardens by 8 am, and not getting back at the hotel until around 11 pm after visiting the Singapore Zoo's Night Safari) and just starting to get acclimated to the heat and humidity of Southeast Asia, I was anxious to de-board our Silk Air Airbus A320 aircraft and actually set foot on my wife's home country for the first time, not really knowing what to expect when I got there, but fully aware that it would be far less developed than Singapore despite being the largest and most populated city in Burma.


Rangoon's Maha Bandoola Road, with Sule Pagoda in the Distance



I was already very familiar with the culture thanks to insights gained from my Burmese wife, my brother-in-law who emigrated to the USA after our marriage, and numerous family friends here that my wife and brother-in-law knew back in Burma. Additional exposure to the culture would come from numerous trips to local Burmese Theravada Buddhist monasteries, celebrations of traditional holidays and events by local Burmese community, such as the annual Water Festival or 'Thingyan Pwe' (also celebrated by other Southeast Asian Theravada Buddhist countries at the local Thai, Cambodian and Laotian temples), and the periodic 'soon kyway' house blessings by Burmese monks, which would be hosted for events such as a new home, a new birth, to commemorate one's birthday or the passing of a family member or relative (either here or back in Burma), or simply because it had been a long time since the last soon kyway had been hosted. The upshot of all this cultural exposure during these events and gatherings was not only being introduced to a wide variety of traditional, home-cooked Burmese foods, drinks (including sugar cane and sticky rice country moonshines brought back in small, re-purposed brand-name liquor bottles from the last visit home) and desserts, but also hearing enough of the Burmese language that I learned to speak it at the basic/survival level (which I was looking forward to practicing in real-life applications on the streets of Rangoon).

The 'People's Desires' Signs Seen Around Burma Back in March of 2000


In the run-up to my first trip to Burma in 2000, the country had been undergoing a very slow transition from the former military Socialist dictatorship of U Ne Win, who had taken the country on the path of the 'Burmese Way to Socialism' from 1962 to 1988 (which resulted in its economic and political collapse), to moving in the direction of a government more representative of the people and open to freedom of expression and dissenting opinions. I was keenly aware of the currently political situation in-country and also advised to be very careful about what I said and how I conducted myself while out in public during our time in Burma, as there had been some family involvement in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) political opposition party in the period prior to the nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations that would result in the August 8, 1988 uprising. I was told that, because of my being an American, an extended family member by marriage, and also being able to speak a little Burmese, I would likely be receiving extra scrutiny and/or surveillance from the 'M.I.' ('Military Intelligence' officers or agents, the Burmese government's plain-clothed security officers that keep tabs on the general public or people of interest so as to identify any potential threats to the security and/or stability of the State). Around the time of my first visit to Rangoon, the military was still firmly in control of running the country despite the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party having won the majority in the general election of May 1990, and a Nobel Peace Prize having been awarded to the NLD's leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (the daughter of General Aung San, the national hero whose efforts lead to Burma's independence from British rule, but was assassinated on July 19, 1947 - 6 months before the actual start of independence) as a result of her efforts to reform the government. A brief historical overview of Burma/Myanmar's governance and political environment will be presented at the bottom of Part II of this post for those readers who are interested.


Rangoon River Waterfront at Sunset


As we descended through the thin cloud cover on our approach to Rangoon International and our pilot announced our estimated arrival time, current weather conditions and temperature on the ground on the overhead speakers in a decidedly Australian accent, I began to make out the small white specks of pagodas dotting the peaks of some of the distant hills through the haze. After a banked turn and an increase in descent angle, more details on the ground then came into view, a mix of thick tree cover, open fields dotted with tall palm trees, stretches of rice paddies and a rural home here and there, and the occasional temple or pagoda. At last we touched down in Rangoon, as the Australian accent again returned to welcome us during our roll onto the taxiway, which after a while we would leave and come to a stop on the tarmac surprisingly far from the terminal where, from the view afforded my window seat, a rolling stairway and some airport personnel (some in uniform) were waiting for us. Finally completing our slow walk to the front of the A320's aisle, we stepped into the heat and glaring sun of the early afternoon and continued down the rolling stairs to the tarmac.

Among the uniformed airport staff, a few were airport security officers in brown slacks and long-sleeved shirts with old-school styled matching brown police hats. They wore what looked to be old Smith & Wesson Model 10 revolvers in strong-side waist holsters on their duty belts. Whereas ground crew staff were dressed in generic coveralls, the people that most caught me attention were the Burmese men casually dressed in longyi's (traditional Burmese men's sarongs that are ubiquitous in Burma, especially in the rural parts) and short-sleeved button-down shirts and all wearing sunglasses. They stood slightly on the fringes of the others with arms folded across their chests, seemingly scanning the arriving passengers as if to scrutinize them, and my first thought was that these were some of the 'M.I.' agents that I had be told about. A couple of luggage carrier vehicles comprised of three daisy-chained trailers and three old-looking buses approached us from the direction of the terminal in the distance, and when we were prompted by one of the ground crew members to begin walking over to board the buses which came to a stop a short walking distance from the parked aircraft, the presumed 'M.I.' officers began to shadow us while maintaining their established standoff distance. We climbed into the buses which belched a thin haze of gray smoke that tinged the hot air around us with the scent of diesel exhaust as we made our way to the terminal. 

As we entered the decidedly dated and somewhat dim Rangoon International terminal (which had since been given a major facelift complete with jetways that roll out to bridge the distance between the aircraft door and the gate entrance), the air conditioning provided some welcomed relief from the heat outside. The M.I.'s continued to shadow us as we walked over to get into one of the lines that ended at one of the wooden Arrival and Immigration counters to present our passports with Myanmar Tourist Entry Visa stamps and our Report On Arrival Form that contained our personal information with a passport-type photo stapled in the upper-right and the stamp/signature of the person that processed our forms at the Union of Myanmar Embassy in Washington, D.C., along with our separate Immigration Card with personal information, flight number and the address of where we would be staying during our visit to Rangoon. As we were en route to the counter, a Burmese girl holding up a piece of paper on which my wife's name is written in Burmese walks up to us and introduces herself as representative from the Phoenix company, who will help us with our arrival processing to minimize any potential hassles.


Food Vendors Outside Rangoon's Scott Market


We had been told that Burma still honors that age-old tradition in much of the developing world of accepting small gifts or bribes to 'grease the skids' and assure that transactions (especially those of an official nature) go smoothly and quickly. As such, we each included a carton of Marlboro Red's in our luggage, just in case things did not go smoothly right from the start (a small bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label is also considered to be a very generous and much-appreciated gift). In the weeks prior to our departure from San Francisco International, we would hear about a service offered called Phoenix, which for a cost just a bit over that for a carton of Marlboro Red's, would do some behind the scenes work to assure that the client was quickly streamlined through their airport arrival and processing without difficulties...or bribery gifts. 

(During a subsequent trip to Burma, I would end up paying a USD $10 bribe at the airport as we were leaving the country. My wife had purchased a piece of silver jewelry from one of the vendor stalls at Rangoon's Scott Market that she could not find the receipt for as a female airport staff member checked to confirmed that all pieces of jewelry being taken out of the country had the proper documentation. When the uniformed girl behind the counter told my wife in Burmese that the piece would have to be left behind, my wife asked if there was anyway that she could take the piece with her. The girl's eyes quickly scanned left and right to make sure she was not being observed, then she leaned forward and quietly asked my wife, "Auntie, leht saun pae bah..." ('please give me a gift'). My wife turned to me and asked if I had any money with me, and a quick search of my pocket turned up a $10 bill, which I discreetly handed to her. My wife tucked a corner of the bill between her fingers so that the bill was hidden beneath her palm, and as she placed her hand to just barely hover over the counter, she loosened her finger so that the billed settled onto the varnished wood. Again with a quick left-right scan of her eyes, the young Burmese woman picked up a couple of airport forms in one hand and, as she passed it in one direction over where my wife's hand had hovered over the counter a second before, her other hand passed below the form in the other direction to retrieve the bill in expertly-executed slight-of-hand fashion, after which telling my wife that we were now free to go.)  

The Phoenix rep spoke briefly to my wife in Burmese, and had us hand her our passports and arrival documents as she lead us over to a separate counter that only has a couple of people lined up in front of it. She then motioned for us to wait perhaps 10 paces back from the counter as she continued to the counter and handed our documents to two female airport staff members that were working the counter as she began to speak with them. As the staff members examined our document, they paused to glance at each of us in turn to establish which documents pertain to which person. After our papers were found to be in order, our passports were stamped and our documents were passed back to our Phoenix representative, who turned and motioned us to join her at the counter so she could return our documents and take us to the next counter to pay our USD $10 arrival fee and purchase our mandatory FEC's.


A Burmese 1,000 Kyat Note


A Five FEC Note (Image Courtesy of retirebeforedad.com)


At the time of our first and second visits to the country, Burma required all visiting tourist to exchange a minimum of $200 FEC (Foreign Exchange Certificate), with the exchange rate being 1 FEC to USD $1) upon arrival at the airport. Visitors were also allowed to change their home currency into Burmese Kyats after the minimum FEC exchange, with the official exchange rate being 250 Kyats to USD $1 and the much more desirable black market exchange rate being 1000 Kyats to USD $1. Another inconvenience for travels at that time was that Burma did not honor international credit cards for transactions (as I recall, the Yoma Bank credit card had just become available for use by Burmese in the cities of Rangoon and Mandalay, though very few businesses had been setup to use the card for purchases), nor was it setup to allow the use of international bank ATM cards. As such, Burma was pretty much 'cash and carry', requiring a fair amount of cash in one's pocket to carry them through a 7 to 28-day stay in-country. There was also a limit on the amount of foreign currency that could be brought into the country without having to report it on the Customs form and pay a duty on it., which was USD $2,000 at the time. As we had to cover our expenses for the 5-day stay in Burma that first trip, plus bring extra cash to distribute among relatives as a give, we each brought in about USD $9,000 with us into the country on our bodies distributed among cargo pants pockets (USD $2,000 per person that could be readily shown to the Customs officers on-demand), necklace or below the waistband-type security pouches, and tucked between our socks and the insoles of our shoes shrouded in plastic wrap.

Technically, visiting foreigners could be arrested and fined and/or be imprisoned if they were found to be changing foreign currency on the black market through unlicensed money changers. The thing about changing USD's on the black market in Burma is that the local money-changers are very particular about the physical quality and the denominations of the USD bills that they receive. A crisp, brand new USD $100 will assure the highest black market exchange rate on the street, unless it bears certain two-letter combination at the start of the bill's serial number, as rumors will randomly circulate that serial number starting in AC, BD, CF, etc. are, in fact, counterfeit and will not be accepted. Any bill that has a fold line can potentially be rejected or result in a lower rate of exchange, which has caused us to iron some of our $100 bills in the run-up to our trips. Any bill that has the smallest tear, even if it's only just on the very tip of the corner, will cause the bill to be rejected, especially if the sides of the tear have been taped back together; any smudge, grease spot, light vertical discoloration streak through the Presidential image, pen ink mark or humorous little doodle on the bill is also cause for rejection. It is exceedingly rare to get new or very good condition USD $100 bills from the bank (the best chance of getting new $100 bills from the bank is about a month before Chinese New Year/Tet, at least in the greater San Francisco Bay Area), and I have spent a fair amount of time at standing at various bank counters as the teller and I go through what $100 bills they have to try to find ones that would be acceptable to the average Burmese money changer.



A Wandering Vendor Girl in Rangoon Wearing Thanaka Powder


The arriving visitor cashier counters were located between the row of immigration counters and the baggage carousels, with a bank of what looked to be wooden-framed metal detectors on the far side of the baggage carousels. The cashier counter we were directed to was staffed by two rather attractive Burmese girls in perhaps their mid-twenties attired in uniforms that looked vaguely military, with their fastidiously-applied makeup (including circles of the traditional yellow 'thanaka' powder on their cheeks made by grinding a piece of dried 'thanaka' tree wood on a circular grinding stone dampened periodically with drops of water to form a light beige paste that dries to a pastel yellow color when applied to the skin, and is a natural combination astringent, moisturizer, sun block and beautification make-up) making them look a bit like spokesmodels for the airport. We paid our arrival fees and exchanged our $200 FEC's, then walked over to retrieve our luggage from the revolving carousel designated for our flight. Two of the larger suitcases accompanying us were filled gifts (including multiple cans of Ensure powder and Costco-sized bottles of Centrum Silver) for family members, relatives and close family friends that we would be visiting in Rangoon, and a little something for any domestic helper (normally a Burmese girl in her late teens or early to mid-twenties) that was being employed at home during our visit. Given the then-prevailing poverty and corruption in Burma, an unattended parcel shipped to family members in Burma from abroad could never be assumed to arrive at its intended destination intact, if at all, given the high probability that those receiving the inbound parcels at the airport or seaport may open them and see what could be taken for their own use, or family's use, or girlfriend's/boyfriend's use, or simply sold for cash. 

Thanks to the Phoenix service, we were able to get our luggage and carry-on bags quickly through the Customs inspection with minimal open-baggage inspection. As we wheeled our luggage away from the Customs counter, we were soon met by two relatives near the Arrival Hall exit who came forward to welcome us (I had spoken with them on the phone before, but was meeting them face-to-face for the first time), and then made through the security doors of the glass walled partition that separated the arriving travelers from the family members, friends or placard-holding tour guide that had been waiting to greet them. We then met another family member who, after welcoming us, headed out to bring the car around to the front of the airport for the ride home as we continued towards the terminal exit.

Stepping out of the comfort of the terminal's air conditioning and into the oppressive heat and glaring tropical sun of the early afternoon, coupled with throng of longyi (sarong)-clad and yellow thanaka paste-anointed locals on the sidewalk and the cacophony of their myriad voices shouting out in Burmese to get the attention of their arriving family member or visiting friend, or calling out offers for taxi service to one's intended destination, or a tap on the shoulder followed by a plead for a bit of pocket money, and the heavy scent of automobile exhaust belched from old car, gave my first exposure to Burma beyond relative calm and order of the airport terminal a slightly disorienting, almost fever dream-like quality. Several times, a Burmese guy dressed in simple, well-worn clothing would approach and tap his hands on my rolling suitcase, point first to himself and then to the curb to indicate that he wanted to offer his assistance with my luggage for a tip. I would invariably respond in Burmese, "Khae sah ma'shi bah bu, neh bah zey. Ma-low chin bah bu, kim'myah. Ko-hut-ko low may, kim'myah..." (literally, "That's okay, leave it alone. I don't want any help. I'll do it myself, thanks...") This tended to cause them to recoil back slightly in surprise/mild shock, and then a smile would quickly form with the realization that this visiting foreigner actually spoke some Burmese.

The Levy of Rangoon's Inya Lake That Parallels Pyay (Prome) Road

Food Vendor Stalls at Inya Lake Near the Corner of Pyay Road and Inya Road
Two family cars (right-hand drive models, a legacy of the former British colonial days) soon emerged from the slow flow of one-way traffic and pulled up curbside in front of us, one to take us and our carry-on bags to the family home, the other to take the rest of our luggage. After quickly loading our larger suitcases in the later vehicle, we hopped into the former white four-door sedan, with me being offered the front left passenger seat (a bit of a novelty, and something I had never gotten to do during my one week stay in London back in 1985). We inched our way back into traffic and slowly made our way along the C-shaped half-loop that would take us back to Airport Street. At the junction with the street, a Burmese soldier (or perhaps an airport security staff member?) dressed in light brown khakis uniform with a brimmed camouflage hat stood a casual watch on the corner, with his left thumb looped around the faded sling of a Vietnam War-era M16A1 (as evidenced by the old-school tapered triangular handguard and the condition of the finish on the upper and lower receivers that suggested the weapon had likely seen a fair amount of field use) that hung from his left shoulder, and his right index and middle fingers lightly grasping a lit cigarette that he brought to his lips to take a drag. I was intrigued at the time as generally one doesn't tend to see security personnel armed with select-fire military standing guard at the entries/exits to a civilian airport in normal circumstances (this would change by the time of my second trip to Burma in December 2001, a few months after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon building, plus the resulting crashing of the fourth highjacked airliner into a Pennsylvania field.) When a break in the traffic allowed, we made a right turn and pulled out onto Rangoon Airport Street and made our way towards Pyay (Prome) Road, which we would follow for some distance to the vicinity of Inya Lake where the family home is located.

Burmese Air Force MiG-29B (Photo Courtesy of M Radzi Desa/wikimedia.org)
Burmese F-7M/Chinese MiG-21 (Photo Courtesy of M Radzi Desa/wikimedia.org)




On a subsequent trip to Burma, observation would suggest that Rangoon International Airport serves as a dual-use civilian and military airport, which would explain the presence of military or security personnel carrying M16A1's in addition to old surplus .30 caliber M1 carbines. As we were awaiting our turn to ascend the rolling stairway and board our Airbus A320 bound for Singapore, I would casually look back over my right shoulder to survey the surroundings and notice at the far end of the runway two side-by-side columns of thin dark smoke begin to rise in the distance. We began to climb the stairway up to the aircraft door in a two or three steps then pause-fashion as passengers already aboard the aircraft would momentarily stop to stash their carry-on luggage in the overhead bins. This was to my advantage as with each few steps mounted, I had a better view of the dark smoke rising at the end of the runway. The activity in the distance suddenly became all the more intriguing when two bright points of white light suddenly appeared at the base of one of the smoke columns, follow a second later by a similar pair of lights on the other column, suggesting two smaller jet aircraft (possibly military fighter or ground attack jets?) preparing to take-off in tandem. As luck would have it, I was halfway up the rolling stairs when the aircraft began their take-off roll, and nearly to the top of the stairs when the noses of the two twin-tailed MiG-29 fighters (in sky blue and blue gray patchwork livery) rotated upward and they quickly went airborne, passing by with a loud, authoritative roar that easily overpowered the whine of our A320's idling turbofans. As I watched them gain altitude with a satisfied smile on my face, a bit of movement out of the corner of my eye demanded my attention and caused me to abruptly glance down to the taxiway in the foreground, which to my surprise appeared to be an older MiG-21 fighter jet (which turned out to be the F-7M variant of the Chengdu J-7, a Chinese license-built MiG-21) in jungle camouflage livery slowly rolling by from left to right with its canopy rotated up in the open position. As our A320 later rolled down the taxiway to get in position for our take-off, I would see two more MiG-21's and one more MiG-29 in a parking area off to the right of the taxiway beyond a row of trees and some low buildings.








The Burmese 'Bus-Car', a Common Form of Transportation
The stretch of two-lane road near the airport appeared semi-rural with leafy trees broken up periodically by the driveway to someone's home, or perhaps a small roadside business. The other vehicles we encountered on the road were generally a mix of older model sedans, station wagons and pickup trucks (perhaps Toyota or Datsun-manufactured), and one or two older large open-bed trucks with drab faded paint that made me think of military surplus vehicles (of Russian or Chinese manufacture?) from maybe the 1950's. I then began to see what the Burmese refer to as a 'bus-car', in which an old pickup truck or larger open-bed truck is converted into a bus by welding in side-facing bench seating and a raised roof or canopy, with (in the case of the modified pickup trucks) the rear bumper extended and hand railings added to the roof or canopy's rear post to allow additional passengers to ride by standing on the edge of the bumper (in many cases, precariously securing themselves to the vehicle with a single extended hand and a thong-clad foot). The sight brought to mind the small, overloaded clown cars that you might see in a circus act, though the setup is no laughing matter as many riders have lost their lives as a result of losing their grip as the bus-car goes over a patch of rough road (of which there are many in Rangoon). I do remember hearing a humorous story about one such Burmese gentleman rider cantilevered off the back bumper while wearing a traditional paseo (men's sarong) and following the tradition of not wearing any underwear, whose paseo suddenly slipped down and left him 'hanging in the breeze' until the bus-car's next stop, to the amusement and hearty laughter of his fellow travelers and anyone that happened to see him pass by.

We turned left onto Pyay (Prome) Road, the multi-lane thoroughfare that extends from the Taukkyan War Cemetery for WWII Allied soldiers from the British Commonwealth, 25 km to the north of Rangoon, down to Bogoke Aung San Road in downtown Rangoon, just a few blocks north of the Rangoon River waterfront. The surroundings soon changed from semi-rural to a mix of residential and urban, giving me my first true glimpse of Rangoon. The majority of the people seen in passing were attired in the traditional Burmese paseo or longyi (while longyi is a generic Burmese term for sarong, it more commonly used to refer to a woman's sarong that feature more feminine woven patterns), though some (mainly men, but occasionally younger women) were wearing pants. It was a bit surprising that many were wearing long-sleeved shirts in the heat (some were rolling up their cuff  up to mid-forearm), with white or off-white appearing to be a popular color choice. Some of the older women on the sidewalks carry umbrella to shield themselves from the sun, which is a fairly common practice in other parts of Asia. It soon became apparent that, unlike Singapore, the Burmese have no qualms about jaywalking. Pedestrians (or in some cases, wandering vendors with their wares or street foods suspended from a shoulder yoke or balanced atop their heads) would calmly walk across two lanes of oncoming traffic only to come to a stop on the dashed lane dividing line and wait for a break in the other two lanes of opposing oncoming traffic before continuing their casual stroll to the opposite sidewalk. Surprisingly, at one of the major intersections (perhaps at the junction with Kabaaye Phayar Road?) the traffic light featured a large digital countdown timer (similar to a crosswalk timer) next to the colored lights to let motorists how long they had to way for the light to change to green (I believe that was the same intersection where I saw a restaurant with signage in English that identified it as 'McBurger', an obvious allusion to McDonald's.)


The Ubiquitous Stray Dogs ('Zei Kway') Seen Throughout Developing Southeast Asia

One thing I notice during the drive is the number of stray dogs wandering the streets, trotting across the street when a break in the flow of traffic presents itself, and sometimes lying on the sidewalks and the tarmac. They all tend to be similar in appearance, and perhaps due to random mix-breeding and the tropical heat, the stray 'Asiatic mutts' in Burma are visually the same as those encountered in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam: skinny, short-haired, slender long tail that curves upward. The Burmese call them 'zei kway', or 'market dogs', as you commonly see them hanging around the open markets scavenging for food. They tend to act as though the are oblivious to people that are walking past and around them, but a traveler would be well-advised against trying to walk up and pet them, as they would likely see the action as a threat and bite aggressively in response. Suffice it to say that, should one get bit by a stray dog (or wild monkey, for that matter) in Burma or any country in Southeast Asia, it has to be assumed that the animal is rabid and that a series of Rabies shots be taken. Though the stray dog seem as oblivious to other strays as they do to people, they do sometimes fight among one another, which can get quite loud as the other spectator 'zei kway' start barking their encouragement en mass (one such nearby dog fight during our first overnight stay in Rangoon would abruptly wake us up around 3am).


The Symbol of the Tatmadaw, the Armed Forces of Burma
Burmese-Manufactured Small Arms (Illustration Courtesy of mmmilitary.blogspot)
Burmese MA-4 MK 1 AK-47 Variant (Photo Courtesy of mmmilitary.blogspot)


Further down the road we pass through a stretch of residential homes, one of which lies within a walled compound whose iron-barred gate is guarded by a couple of Burmese soldiers with M16A1's. One of the more intriguing things about my first trip to Rangoon was periodically seeing armed soldiers or security personnel on the streets as we traveled through different parts of the city. The Burmese police force, the People's Militia Units and Frontier Forces are considered auxiliary services branch of the Tatmadaw, or Armed Forces of Burma, which includes the Army, Navy and Air Force.  In most cases, the soldiers and security personnel were wearing khaki fatigues and brimmed hats and carrying either old M16A1's, mil-surplus .30 caliber M1 carbines, the locally-manufactured version of the Israeli  9mm Uzi submachine gun with a fixed plastic butt stock (designated as the BA-93 and BA-94/MA-13, with the latter deviating from the original Uzi  design by using a simplified folded sheet metal body sans the stiffening ribs), or in a couple of cases the older BA-52 'Ne Win Sten' submachine gun (a adoption or copy of the WWII-era 9mm Italian TZ-45, the first of which I would see in the hands of a soldier guarding the Israeli Embassy during a stroll around the neighborhood). 

With regards to the numbers of the old M1 carbines seen, I had been curious if some had been left behind by the US Army at the end of World War II and still kept in service, or if they had been purchased on the surplus market years later. Around 1960, Burma did purchased from the United States a quantity of production ArmaLite AR-10's, which is the select-fire, 7.62×51mm NATO battle rifle developed by Eugene Stoner in the late 1950s and manufactured by ArmaLite, whose design would later be rescaled and modified to chamber the 5.56x45mm cartridge to become the AR-15, and ultimately the M16. Though the M16 never appears to have been officially adopted by Burma, nor purchased from the United States, they do seemed to be used in abundance by the Tatmadaw, or at least around Rangoon. I wondered if the M16's on the streets around town were licensed copies manufactured by other countries in the region such as South Korea, Singapore or the Philippines, surplus from countries that formerly used the M16 such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia, unlicensed copies from Third World countries, or simply purchase from the illicit arms dealers of Southeast Asia's thriving black market. I would later meet and become acquainted with a Burmese official back in the USA, and at one point spend some time with him on the firing line at a public rental range on the East Coast whose inventory included an assortment of submachine guns. During conversation on the drive back from the range session (during which he and a close family friend ran magazines through the Thompson M1A1 SMG, and I through the H&K MP5A2, Uzi and Colt 635 SMG's), I had mentioned that I was intrigued at the hodge-podge of weapons seen fielded by the Tatmadaw soldiers and security personnel. I would learn that some of the older, well-worn weapons seen on the streets were post-skirmish 'battlefield pick-ups' from firefights between the Tatmadaw and the various rebel armies, such as those of the Karen, Kachin and Wa ethnic minorities, in contested 'autonomous territories', or firefights with the private armies of drug kingpins in the Golden Triangle region like the famous Shan warlord and 'Opium King' Khun Sa. This made sense, as photos that I had seen of Burma's Karen rebels in print and online generally showed them armed with M16A1's.

In some instances, the soldiers were seen wearing battle dress camouflage fatigues, load-bearing vests with spare magazines and steel helmets, and armed with a locally-manufactured version of the German Heckler & Koch G3A 7.62x51mm NATO assault rifle (designated the BA-63) or their copy of the Heckler & Koch HK33 5.56x45mm NATO assault rifle (designated the MA-11). I would learn that they also manufacture a version of the AK47 (which almost bears a bit of a resemblance to the Israeli Galil) chambered in 5.56mm designated the MA-1 MKII, as well as the MA-4 MKI variant of the weapon with a 40mm grenade launcher mounted beneath the barrel and forward hand guard. During my last trip to Burma/Myanmar in 2009, I would see a Burmese soldier manning the security checkpoint at the Pazundaung Creek bridge armed with the MA-4 MKI, and in passing glance assumed that it was an AK47 modified to accept an M203 grenade launcher. Later that trip during a visit to Bogyoke Aung San Market (formerly Scott Market), while walking across the pedestrian bridge that spans the train tracks between Bo Yar Nyunt Road and the northeast corner of the market complex, I would see a younger police or security officer holding what looked to be the barrel and fore-end assembly of an M203 40mm grenade launcher (or perhaps a 37mm tear gas or smoke grenade launcher?), with what looked similar to the grip, stock and trigger assembly of an MP5A2 SMG minus the fire selector switch, with an M16A2 leaning against the wooden bench he was sitting on. It was unfortunate that I had been advised before the trip not to take any photos of the armed soldiers or security personnel (which could result in unwanted attention/detention for questioning), as it would have been nice to document what I had seen with pictures.

Burmese BA-52 'Ne Win Sten' Submachine Gun (Photo Courtesy of decimal1.blogspot)


[My most memorable glimpse of the BA-52 'Ne Win Sten' submachine gun while visiting Burma would actually occur 'Beyond Rangoon', a shameless reference to the 1995 fictional movie taking place in Burma. Filmed in Malaysia, the movie was inspired by real people and events starring Patricia Arquette as a bereaved and depressed American physician traveling in Burma at the time of the 8888 Uprising who becomes inspired after witnessing Aung San Suu Kyi - played by Adelle Lutz, an American actress of mixed Japanese ancestry - standing up to armed Tatmadaw soldiers during a nighttime anti-government protest. The movie was generally not well-received by American audience, perhaps owning to its admittingly cheesy acting and dialogue. It was nice to see an actual Burmese major supporting actor, U Aung Ko, and two other Burmese supporting actors in the film speaking their native language. 

After spending with family in Rangoon during that trip in 2006, I did a three-day sightseeing excursion to the Mandalay/Sagaing/Amarapura/Myamyo region in upper Burma. The itinerary included a half-day trip to Sagaing, which lies about 20km southwest of Mandalay on the opposite bank of the Ayeyarwaddi River, and a drive through the Sagaing Hills to visit some of the famous temples and pagoda built along the ridgeline. I had hired the services of a personal local guide and driver, and as we were in transit between two on the temples along the dusty and winding country road, we passed two Burmese policemen sitting tandem on a parked motorcycle, with the officer sitting behind the driver gripping his BA-52 submachine gun by the pistol grip and the loaded magazine with the muzzle pointed towards the ground, with the leather sling draped loosely over his right shoulder. He apparently signaled for my driver to stop, who promptly slowed the vehicle and pulled to the side of the road and then walked back to talk with the officers while my guide and I remained in the car (me in the front left passenger seat, he in the rear right seat to make it easier to turn and talk while en route to our next destination). I exchanged a bit of small talk with the guide while the driver spoke with the officers some distance behind us, though my guide periodically shot glances back in the direction of the three. At one point, he excused himself and requested that I stay in the car while he went back to see what the issue was. After a few minutes, the guide returned and got back in his seat as he quietly chuckled to himself. When I asked what was up, he told me with a smile that there was no real problem, it was just that the officers were looking for a little pocket money, generally referred to as a 'leht-saun', or gift, before letting us go.]

Given that Rangoon was the capital city of a country still run by a de facto military regime, it was a given that some members of the military government would have their homes in residential neighborhoods (which one could gather in passing based on the presence of armed soldiers guarding the gates to some of the houses) and commute into the city center for work with their assigned driver behind the wheel. It stands to reason that some of these commuting officials would be high-ranking officers or other V.I.P.'s that could be considered potential targets for those opposed to the regime, or perhaps lower-ranking/less senior officers looking for advancement by way of a coup. During my first trip, I would get to see my first rolling road block to clear the way for a high-ranking officer's or V.I.P.'s armed motorcade. As I recall, we were in the midst of some late morning or early afternoon sight-seeing around Rangoon, or perhaps returning from seeing one of the points of interest in the more rural regions that lie on the outskirts of Rangoon. I had been again offered the left front passenger seat to be given the best view and opportunity to take photos as we drove through the city, and as we approached a T-intersection, a motorcycle cop traveling from the right side abruptly slowed and came to a stop in the middle of the intersection even with the near curb. Looking in our direction, he held out his raised hand palm-forward towards us as he blew a whistle with the other hand to signal for traffic to stop. After about 30 seconds of waiting, a pair of motorcycle passed by in the same direction, followed soon thereafter in order by a large open-bed truck in drab army green with perhaps 10 to 12 soldiers armed with a mix of M16A1's and Burmese BA-63's H&K G3 copies, two late-model Mercedes with tinted windows, a open Jeep with a driver and an M16-armed soldier seated in the front, and two rear-facing soldiers in the back armed with Burmese BA-93's Uzi SMG copies, and at finally to chase police motorcycles. after the tail end of the convoy passed, the motorcycle cop that had been holding up traffic quickly zoomed off to rejoin the convoy.


British-styled Homes in Suburban Rangoon


A Burmese Pedal Cab, Called a 'Sidecar' by the Locals
We continued down Pyay Road a ways with the scenery alternating between urban and residential, passing some older homes reflecting what I assume to be British colonial design influences, and after getting some glimpses of Inya Lake before it disappears behind the landscaped face of the Pyay Road levy, turn down one of the side streets to the family home, with my wife commenting that the neighborhood looked a lot different from the way she had remembered it, having last seen it some 17 years prior. At last, we pulled into the gated family compound and received a warm and joyfully emotional welcome. I had spent time with my mother-in-law and her sister when they came to the States to stay with us some years earlier, but I was meeting my father-in-law and other family members face-to-face for the first time, having only spoken with them prior on the phone via international phone calling cards sold at convivence store and Asian/South Asian markets, though the calling times for various calling cards - not to mention the quality of the land line connections to Burma - were hit-and-miss at best. After chatting in the living room for a while and enjoying a light lunch of traditional Burmese cuisine cooked by Auntie, we all retired to their 'nei-lay kaan', a general purpose room in which a patchwork of roll-up straw mats had been laid out on the floor that maintained a surprisingly cool and comfortable temperature despite the heat of the day (only two small bedrooms had window-mounted air conditioners), where we continued to chat as we distributed the gifts that we had brought with us. I took the opportunity to change from pants into a paseo (sarong), and immediately came to appreciate the cooling ventilation afforded by the light, soft cotton garment, even though I did opt to buck tradition and keep my underwear on. As the conversation was predominantly in Burmese, I enjoyed the coolness of the straw matting while trying to pick out the general gist in bits and pieces of what was being said in Burmese as the ever-present cawing of crows and the occasional screech of a neighbor's parrot mixed with the rustle of the rustle of the warm breeze through palm fronds provided the ambient background track for what was becoming a lazy afternoon.

I awoke to the continued sound of crows and palm-rustling breeze, to which was added to sound of activity in the other room, with the temperature in the room still decidedly warm despite a fan running and my face feeling the chalkiness of dried perspiration, and both the angle and the quality of the sunlight shining against the tree branches visible through the tilted window blinds suggested I had nodded off for some time. My wife told me that I had been napping for a while, and that I needed to get up as it was late afternoon and now cool enough that we were going to visit Rangoon's Shwedagon Pagoda. The Shwedagon is perhaps the most revered Buddhist site in Burma. I had seen countless photos and paintings of it in the numerous Burmese homes and monasteries I had visited, and had seen a scale replica that had been built of it at the Taungpulu Kaba Aye Monastery in Boulder Creek, CA to house some of the relics (hair and ashes) of the founding abbot, the Venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw, I was looking forward to actually seeing the pagoda in person. Still feeling drowsy because of the fourteen and a half hours' difference between Rangoon and California, I splashed a bit of water on my face and grabbed my sandals (the best and most efficient footwear for Burma, given that shoes need to come off whenever entering someone's home, or visiting temples and monasteries). As we stepped out onto the covered porch to get into the car, the warm afternoon air was tinged with the smoky-sweet scent of burning dry leaves and twigs that had been raked up from one of the family compounds in the neighborhood, or perhaps a local monastery somewhere upwind. This was a scent that I would later associate with Burma whenever I would smell it (especially when during a hot day), as it was as common a smell in the suburbs of the larger cities as it was in the smaller rural towns and villages.


A Roadside 'Laphet Sine' (Tea Shop)



With the sun lower in the hazy sky, the air temperature reached a 'warm but manageable' comfort level that seemed to bring more people out onto the sidewalk as we turned right onto Pyay Road and veered slightly left to follow it through the Hledan Road/Insein Road/University Avenue Road junction, then exit the roundabout about a third of the way around to again veer left on U Wisara Road. Along the way, the view out the window provided passing glimpses of typical everyday life and local culture in suburban Rangoon on a late afternoon: bus-cars stop along the curb to let off passengers (including saffron-robed Buddhist monks) and take on as many new ones as they can possibly fit, if even just a single extended hand and a worn flipflop on an open spot of extended rear bumper; locals sitting at a roadside tea shop's low plastic tables and mini plastic chairs and stools in a variety of mix and match gaudy colors set next to the sidewalk as they enjoy an afternoon caffeine and sugar rush from a cup of 'laphet', a hot, strong cup of smoky Burmese roasted green tea grown in the mountains of Burma's eastern Shan State, spiked with a large overflowing spoon of thick sweetened condensed milk; students walking back from school or after-school sessions with a tutor (which, for some reason, the Burmese like to refer to as 'tuition' instead of tutoring), wearing school uniforms featuring a solid green longyi with their books and school supplies carried in green 'Shan bags' (a utilitarian single-sling woven cloth bag with a narrow strips of decorative tassels hanging from the lower corners, associated with the Shan ethnic minority in east central Burma and commonly used throughout the country by all, regardless of ethnicity) slung over one of their shoulders; occasional wandering vendors with their wares or food offerings in baskets hanging from shoulder yokes or in large baskets balanced atop their heads making their rounds along the sidewalks or waiting for a break in traffic to cross the street; people walking back from the neighborhood market with plastic bags of produce, meat or fish, or heading to or from some destination carrying a set of stacked cylindrical metal food containers by their long, pivoting U-shaped metal handle (something commonly seen throughout Southeast Asia, and sometimes found for sale in select Southeast Asian markets in California); sidecar pedal cab drivers ferrying their passengers negotiate their way through the street traffic comprised mainly of aged vehicle, or recline in their own sidecar parked curbside while taking a break or waiting for their next fare. We made our way to Ar Zar Ni Street and shortly turned right across from Thwaysay Lake to arrive at the Shwedagon Pagoda's North Gate and parking area, where we were able get a parking spot near the tourist entrance that foreigners must use. There they can pay the required USD $5 visitor entrance fee (which I understand is being presently raised to USD $10) and a 500 Kyat camera and video permit fee, for which a small tag must be attached to the camera so that pagoda staff could see at a glance that had paid the fee.


No 'Betel Nut' (Betel Leaf/Areca Nut/Tobacco Chew) Spitting
An Early Morning Betel Nut Vendor Near the Rangoon Wholesale Fish Market
I was told that I should take off my shoes and just leave them in the car, as it was only a short walk to the admission counter just inside the entrance. The tarmac was still quite warm as my feet came into contact with it as I exited the car and slipped my knapsack over one shoulder. Looking down, I noticed a lot of small, dark reddish stains in a splatter-like pattern encircling a similarly-colored pulpy substance near its center. The would turn out to be the chewed, spat-out partial remains of a 'betel nut' package, something that I would later see in abundance in the cities and rural villages throughout Burma, and in some cases would see signs warning against the spitting of chewed betel nut on the premises. 

Betel nut (called 'kun-ya' in Burmese), or rather a combination of betel tree leaf folded into a packet around a mixture chopped areca nut, a small pinch of tobacco, calcium hydroxide paste, lime juice, mint and often other flavorings, is popular in Burma and other parts of South, Southeast and East Asia (Taiwan is famous for its sexy and scantily-clad betel nut vendor girls). The betel nut is consumed by placing the packet between the cheek and gum and sucking on it, or chewing on it like chewing tobacco, with the liquid extracted in the process soon staining the teeth and lips (and anything lightly colored that the juice and the chewed solids are spat upon, as it is definitely not meant to be shallowed) a dark red. The areca nut and tobacco components of the betel nut packet are absorbed into the bloodstream through the oral mucosa (the inside of the lips and mouth) and act as a mild stimulant and intoxicant, though regular betel nut packet consumption greatly increases the risk cancers of the mouth and esophagus, and other diseases such as hypertension and tachycardia, plus can also exacerbate pre-existing asthma. During the following day’s late afternoon sight-seeing around Rangoon, I would get to witness the full ‘kun-yah’ assembly process demonstrated to me at a mother and daughter-run vendor stall at Meilamu Temple. The rather striking daughter (whose lineage may have some East Indian bloodline given her dark skin and high cheekbones which, highlighted with the faint yellow streaks of thanaka powder and framed by the lines her long flowing black hair, seemed to immediately draw one’s attention to her dark brown eyes) prepared the betel nut package for us as her mother looked on, and described in Burmese (translated by my wife) each of the steps performed: the laying of the betel nut leaf flat on a square of aluminum foil the working surface of her small wooden vendor table, the smearing of a paste made from water and powdered calcium-hydroxide on the leaf, the addition of sliced and then coarsely-chopped betel nut in the center of the leaf, the sprinkling of tobacco on top of the betel nut, and finally the squeezing of some fresh lime juice atop the small assembled pile of ingredients before folding up the ends of the leaf to form a small green packet. Upon completion of the task, she looked up at us as if searching for signs of approval for her kun-yah demonstration, and then held up the betel nut package vaguely in our direction as if expecting one of us to take it. My wife told her that we weren’t planning on consuming the fruits of her labor, but rather we just wanted to see how it was done, and that she was welcomed to partake in what she had just produced at our expense. She nodded in agreement and put the leafy-green packet in her mouth and began to work it between her teeth briefly before she took her leave and walked over to an aged and rusting barrel that served as a garbage can, where she bent slightly over the barrel while leaning her head downward to the right to gather her long black hair along the back of her slender neck with the palm of her right hand, then slowly turned her head back to reveal the natural beauty of her graceful jaw line, profile and now somewhat bulged cheek bathed in the fading final rays of a hazy sunset, as she slightly bowed her head and parted her pursed lips to inelegantly let the dark reddish-brown mass of chewed kun-yah trailing a viscous strand of reddish saliva slowly slip from her mouth and fall into the barrel. As she raised her head and lightly brushed the middle finger of her right hand across her full, pursed lips to wipe away any remaining residue, I regretted not having the presence of mind to attempt to capture her kun-yah demonstration finale in photos.

Shwedagon Pagoda Entry Ticket
We carefully stepped around the red patches of betel nut spittle, with the bottoms of my bare feet feeling increasingly gritty and sticky as we traversed the parking lot tarmac to the tourists' entrance and ticket counter. Thankfully, to the left of the stained wood and glass door leading inside, there was a shallow tiled basin area with a couple of water spigots to allow visitors who came in sans shoes or sandals to wash their feet, with a course bristle mat reminiscent of the business end of an outdoor push broom provided to allow for the thorough scrubbing and exfoliating one's wet feet and a quick abrasive drying on the way to the ticket counter indoors. As with most urban and heavily-visited temples in Burma, some cubby hole-styled shoe shelves similar to those seen in a bowling alley were available at the entrance for stashing one's shoes before going in. We in turn paid our USD/FEC $5 admission fees and me the 50 Kyat camera/video pass fee, which I looped through and secured to the wrist strap of my borrowed 35mm point and shoot camera (which, with its larger integral lenses and higher optical zoom, was superior to what we owned at the time), and then remove the backing paper to affix the 'proof of admission fee' (color-coded by day) on my shirt above the left pocket.
The Shwedagon's East Gate Covered Stairway Leading Up to the Pagoda Platform
A Protective 'Chinthe' (Mythical Lion) Statue at the Shwedagon's North Gate Stairway
Located in southwestern Rangoon, the Shwedagon Pagoda (alternately known as the Shwedagon Zedi Daw, the Great Dagon Pagoda and the Golden Pagoda) is situated atop Singuttara Hill and dominates the Rangoon skyline. There are four covered stairway entrances (called 'tazaungs' in Burmese) oriented along the Cardinal directions, each leading from street level up a flight of steps to the pagoda platform on the top of the 325-foot hill and guarded at their base by a pair of 'chinthe', a mythical lion-like creature (related to the Thai 'singha' and the Sri Lankan 'simha') seen at the entrances of temples and pagodas in Burma, Cambodia and Laos that serve as protectors. The covered stairway at the southern entrance features vendor stalls along the steps selling books, good luck charms, images of the Buddha and pagoda offerings in the form of candles, gold leaf, incense sticks, prayer flags, streamers, miniature umbrellas and flowers, in addition to decorative wood carvings, lacquerware and other handicraft-type souvenirs. Given the topography of Singuttara Hill and the course that Ar Zar Ni Street follows in encircling it, the visiting tourist entrance is situated roughly a quarter of the way up the hill from the chinthe-flanked northern stairway (the shortest of the four Cardinal-direction stairways), with the remaining difference in elevation between the entrance and the pagoda platform traversed by an elevator and a covered pedestrian bridge that spans the distance to the edge of the pagoda's hilltop platform and offers an aerial view of the southern stairway and the structures ringing the perimeter of the pagoda's platform. As we exited the elevator at the top and walked the length of the pedestrian bridge, small geckos (called 'ain hmout', or 'home intruders' in Burmese, and commonly encountered throughout Southeast Asia) clinging to the ceiling and walls of the bridge watched our progress, chirping at us with high-pitched kissing noises, some scurrying away as we approached too closely. The long hall formed by the pedestrian bridge, whose floor was covered in a thin, red 'all-weather'-type carpeting, at last opened up onto the Shwedagon Pagoda's platform, and as my bare feet came into soothing contact with the cool, smooth white and light gray marble tiles that paved the platform in contrast to the still-warm late afternoon air, I got my first glimpse of the iconic pagoda's gilded form as it towered over the tops of the ornate pavilions and smaller pagodas and shrine structures in the foreground.

Rangoon's Shwedagon Pagoda



The Shwedagon Pagoda Compound in Late Afternoon
Prayers and Offerings Made at the Base of the Shwedagon Pagoda

The Shwedagon Pagoda, by far the most famous tourist site in Rangoon and also the most sacred Buddhist site in all of the country, stands roughly 328 feet tall and is covered at the higher elevations with solid gold plates and a wealth of jewels (diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires) at the pagoda’s top (known as the umbrella, or ‘hti’ in Burmese) donated by earlier royalty. The pagoda is said to enshrine eight hairs of the Buddha that were brought from India, and its construction dates back to the 15th century. The base of the majestic Shwedagon is surrounded by 64 smaller pagodas, ornately painted and gilded temples and pavilions, various shrines dedicated to the Buddha, and to the other deities and spirits tied to pre-Buddhist animistic beliefs that are still held in high regard by Burmese Theravada Buddhists, upon which offerings of fruit, flowers, incense, bottles of water and such can be made by the faithful. Also around the pagoda's base area numerous bells (some very large and housed in their own pavilions, others hanging in a line from racks out in the open) that are symbolically struck by local worshippers (and visiting tourists alike) as an act of reverence and devotion. Although I had visited numerous shrines, temples and pagodas of the Buddhist and Shinto faiths while traveling solo through Japan back in the late 1980's (particularly during a roughly ten-day stay in Kyoto) and had previously visited a variety of Burmese, Thai and Vietnamese Buddhist temples in northern California, those first moments of gazing upon the Shwedagon Pagoda for the first time were truly a magical experience whose memories I always fondly remember and cherish.


Changing Colors of the Shwedagon from Sunset to Evening
The Shwedagon's Color with the Camera's Flash On
Walking around the base of the majestic Shwedagon that first time was particularly awe-inspiring as we had arrived a little before the sunset to witness the pagoda bathed in the warm reflected hues and the subtle shifting shadows of the day’s fading light, and stays into the night as the dusk sky yields to the darkness and the pagoda, now illuminated from below by spotlights, dominates the night sky with its brilliant yellow-golden glow. During a return afternoon visit to the Shwedagon one trip, we would meet a local college professor who had been making visits to the pagoda all his life, and in addition to possessing a vast knowledge of its history, he also had been able to make unique and interest visual observations, particularly at night, that are not known nor conveyed by the average tour guide. He offered to give us a personal early evening nighttime tour of the pagoda to show us the things that he had discovered over the years of viewing the pagoda from every possible vantage point for a small monetary compensation. We met up with him in front of the pagoda later that day just around sunset to begin a slow walk around its base, learning some new details not provided during our earlier day tours over the course of our first two visits. The particular point of interest that he took the most joy in sharing with us was that the very large precious gemstones that decorate the pagoda's crowning 'hti' (umbrella) reflect bright flares of varying color depending on the observer's position around the pagoda and the angle they view it from. By circumnavigating the pagoda over the course of 90 minutes beneath the night sky and stopping a precise locations, we were able to observe bright flares of blue, green, yellow, purple, red, white, pink and orange (the process earned us more than a few puzzled looks as to what we were looking at while squatting down and tilting our heads to just the right angle.)

Evening at the Shwedagon Pagoda, a Must-Do Activity When Visiting Rangoon
The ornately-decorated pagoda compound was a bit crowded at times in the evening, as locals from all walks of life tend to pay a visit to the Shwedagon with their families at the end of the day as a social outing (which provides one with a good visual cross-section of Burmese society), yet the mood conveyed by the compound is very peaceful. Many had come to worship or make offerings to the Buddha, or to the other deities, known officially as the pantheon of 37 Greater Nat spirits, that pre-dated the introduction of Theravada Buddhism from India, but are still revered and somewhat incorporated into the Buddhist belief system. The unique combination of sights, sounds, smells within the pagoda compound, and the observed acts of devotion by the faithful and interactions between the laypeople of all ages and from all walks of life with the monks, nuns, and the young boys and girls (generally, 7 to 9 years of age) in robes with shaven heads going through their 'shin pyu' novitiation training to briefly experience monastic life as junior monks ('ko yin') and nuns ('phwa ti hla shin') as a right of passage, gave a true glimpse of Burmese culture and made for an unforgettable evening.


As we strolled the grounds of the compound (in a clockwise manner, as dictated by tradition), the warm evening air was sweetened with the perfume of incense and flowers offered by the faithful. The melodious sounds of the voices of young Buddhist nuns chanting prayers in the ancient Pali language mingled with the call of birds and the shimmering melodies of the countless small brass bells that adorn the pagodas, and the penetrating low tomes of larger bells weighing several thousand pounds and housed in ornate pavilions as they were struck three times by the faithful, symbolic of the Three Gems of Buddhism: refuge in The Buddha, refuge in the teachings of The Buddha, and refuge in the monks (“Boda, Dharma, Sangha”). My video clips of the Shwedagon Pagoda in the evening (taken during a visit to Rangoon/Yangon in December of  2006) that appear above provides a sample of the sights and sounds experienced.



Offerings Made at the Shwedagon's Planetary Posts, with a Manotethiha Statue Behind It




















At the eight cardinal direction points around the base of the Shwedagon which are identifiable at night by the flicker of myriad candles lit in front of a circular raised altar containing a white marble Buddha that sits beneath the protective gaze of a gilded nat spirit statue, people came to the astrological ‘planetary post’ that corresponds to the day of their birth to pour water over the Buddha to symbolically cleanse it, or drape a flower garland around the neck of the Buddha statue, as a form of offering. A gilded statue of the animal that represents the astrological sign of the day sits at the base of the planetary post altar. As there are eight cardinal directions and only seven days of the week, Wednesday is divided into two planetary posts representing Wednesday morning (direction: south / sign: tusked elephant) and Wednesday afternoon (direction: northwest / sign: tusk-less elephant). Behind  some of the planetary posts and normally placed at the corners of pagodas or temples to act as a guardian is a statue of a Manotethiha. Also known as a Manaukthiha, it is a mythical half-human, half-lion creature from Burmese folklore whose appearances is similar with sphinx, except that it has two lion bodies connected to a single human torso with the head of a Nat spirit.

At other locations around the Shwedagon, people made offerings to a particular Buddha or nat statue to seek spiritual help in passing an important examination, or to conceive a child, or to help them through some particularly hard time at the direction of a ‘behdin saya’ (psychic), again based on the date and time of their birth. Along the southern large and ornately-decorated stairway halls leading up to the hilltop pagoda compound, the numerous vendor stalls selling temple offerings, Buddha and nat statues, and a variety of traditional handicraft along the stairway conveyed an almost festive atmosphere.

Gilded Buddha Statues Within the Pavilions and Temples Around the Shwedagon

A Reclining Buddha in the Mahaparinirvanasana Mudra Form


Carved Marble Buddha Statues of the Bhumisparsha Mudra ('Earth Witness') Form




A visitor to the Shwedagon Pagoda would be well-advised to have plenty of spare SD memory cards for their digital cameras (or, in the case of my first two trips, ample spare rolls of high-quality 35mm film), not only to capture images of the awe-inspiring pagoda itself, the surrounding smaller pagodas and the ornate exteriors of the pavilion, temples and shrines, but also to photograph the seemingly countless examples of gilded, painted and carved white marble Buddha statues contained within the structures themselves and the open niches built into the exterior surfaces the pagodas. The variation seen in the hand gestures and body posturing of the different Buddha statues seen all hold special meanings and commemorate a few of the important moments in the Buddha's life, and are known as ‘mudra’ of the Buddha statue.

One of the most common mudras seen depicted in Buddha statues is the Bhumisparsha mudra, translated as the earth touching gesture. Buddha statues with this mudra are commonly known as the "earth-witness" Buddha, whereby the Buddha is seated in the lotus position, with his right hand draped over his bend right leg just below the knee and the fingers extended to make contact with the earth (or the lotus throne upon which the statue sits), with his left palm upright in his lap. The gesture is symbolic of the moment of the Buddha's awakening as he claims the earth as the witness of his enlightenment, in addition to the unwavering or firmness shown by the Buddha while he was in the pursuit of enlightenment by meditating under the Bodhi tree. The reclining Buddha, in which the Buddha is depicted as lying on his right side facing west while his head is supported by his right hand, is one of the popular iconographic patterns in Buddhism as they represent the historical Shakyamuni Buddha during his last moments of illness. This position of the Buddha is known as the mahaparinirvanasana mudra. The Buddha is said to have known that his death was approaching while in this position, and asked his disciples to make a couch for him in a bush to make it easy for him to lie down. Although he had attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, as a human being, the Buddha had to leave his physical appearance. This physical demise of the awakened world is termed as Mahaparinirvana, the state beyond Nirvana, hence the name of the mudra form.

One of the historic moments in the Buddha's life was the claim that, after his attaining enlightenment, he gave an important sermon during which the assembled devotees could see a halo of concentric rings of rainbow-colored light appearing around and above his head, and even reflected in the clouds in mist behind him. As this could not be conveyed via a statue employing hand gestures or body posturing, the Burmese (not to mention the Thais, Cambodians and Laotians) honor the moment with halos of multi-colored, concentric LEDs behind the heads of the Buddha statues that are programmed to flash (or rotating, or radially expanding outward) in sequenced patterns. Despite the intent to show reverence for an historic sermon by the Buddha, the visuals come off as a bit tacky or cheesy, somewhat distracting from the mood of awe and wonderment that one hopes to experience in a sight as majestic and culturally important to the Burmese as the Shwedagon Pagoda. Thankfully, the vast majority of the platform's Buddha statues appear sans digitally-sequenced, rainbow LED pinwheel animation. (The flashing LED Buddha halos are a common feature in the main shrine halls of the Burmese, Thai, Cambodian, Lao and Vietnamese temples throughout California, and presumably those in other States with sizeable Southeast Asian populations.)  



Buddha Statue Photographed Seconds Before a Flying Giant Water Bug Headshot

A Giant Water Bug Recovers After Flying into the Back of My Head
Of the numerous times that I had walked through the temples and pavilions of the Shwedagon Pagoda to gaze at and photograph the numerous Buddha statues, by far the most memorable was during one particularly balmy evening as I paused to take a photo of a large gilded Buddha of the Bhumisparsha mudra form draped in a gold brocaded red cloth suggestive of a monk's robe. Having upgraded from a 35mm point and shoot that had taken some nice images during my first to Burma trips to a compact Casio EXILM digital camera, I took a number of shots of the statue from different angles, with and without flash and zoom, etc., glancing at the small LCD preview screen to see what was yielding the best results on the fly. As I took a final shoot with higher zoom and fill-flash to produce a darker, more dramatic image, I suddenly heard what sounded like a large set of insect wings fluttering loudly behind me and simultaneously felt something slap forcefully against the back of my head near the top of the neck. "Ouch!", I yelled as I brought my right palm to the sight of the impact while still holding the camera in my left hand pointed vaguely in the direction of the large seated Buddha statue, and then instinctively brought my right palm around to see if there was any sign of blood. This caused the local Burmese who were in the pavilion with me to turn in my direction and look at me quizzically. Looking down behind me, I saw a giant water bug in an obviously stunned state lying on the mosaic-inlaid green concrete floor, with its wings extended and slightly quivering as they began to slowly retract beneath the mottled beige and brown shell that shrouded them when not in flight. With the wings extended in a V-type fashion, the insect was about the size of my opened palm. By the time I got my camera up to take a photo, the wings were fully retracted. This type of giant water bug is fairly common in Southeast Asia, and are often seen in the fried insect vendor carts along with fried scorpions, large grasshoppers, silk worn larvae and meal worms in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, and can sometimes be found in the frozen section of the Cambodian and Thai markets in California. Seeing that the locals in the pavilion with me were still a bit perplexed about what had happened, I pointed down at the water bug and said, "Eh-tee a'kaun gah chin daw neh gaun tee thwah deh. A'yun nah deh…" ("This bug hit me in the head. And it really hurt...") I got a couple of surprised chuckles for my recounting what happened in Burmese, and had a couple of young boys come over and squat down to get a better look at the water bug.

Young Novice Monks ('Ko Yin')
A Very Young Novice Nun ('Phwa Tee Hla Shin') Chants in Front of the Shwedagon
Monks Relaxing in the Evening at the Shwedagon Compound
Local Kids Visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda in the Evening















The Burmese people are exceedingly friendly and genuinely curious about visiting tourists (especially the children), and over the course of an evening of people-watching at the Shwedagon Pagoda, it's not uncommon to have the locals approach and practice a little bit of English that they know, or request that their children, or the entire family, be allowed to pose for a picture with you (which had happened to me on many occasions in numerous locations throughout Burma).








Offerings Made at a Planetary Post


Boys Performing a Shin Pyu Ceremony to Become Novice Monks for a Short Time


A Local Girl Gains Merit by Scrubbing Tiles at the Shwedagon




A Man Cleaning Tiles on the Shwedagon Gives a Sense of Scale




The Buddha Protected by a Mythical Naga Serpent During a Storm


A Local Boy at the Shwedagon Pagoda
A Boy in Princely Garb as Part of his Shin Pyu Ceremony
As a visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda during the period of sunset through evening should be considered a must-do experience, so too is a visit during the daytime hours, which is the best time to take a guided tour of the pagoda grounds and learn its history, and also offers myriad people and local culture-watching opportunities. One thing that does not settle well with female travelers visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda (and other Buddhist pagodas and monuments in Burma) is that certain sections such, as the lower terrace of the pagoda itself, can only be accessed by males.


Coming next: Part 2: Wandering Vendors, Markets and a Guy's Night Out


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