Burma for Beginners

It was so exciting to arrive in Yangon by ship, the people waved from the banks of the river as if they had never had visitors before.  It was inspiring to go into the capital to meet the natives.  The women and men were wearing longyi (skirts) and they looked so comfortable in the heat.  Women and children also had tanaker wiped across their faces (a traditional sun bloc made of wood) but it took me awhile to find out what it was.

Our first visit to a temple, Schwedagon, was romantic and relaxing.


Families bring babies and children to Schwedagon

Again, the natives were so friendly and inviting, allowing us to join in worship with them.  Thi Thi is our tour guide to this breathtaking Stupa.  The complex is enormous and it takes us a full hour to explore it at leisure. She goes to a great deal of trouble to explain the Buddhist faith and rituals. For instance, the people pouring water over small Buddhas in the hope that their sins will be washed away, an act of purification.


An opportunity to see the golden stupa at night


I was able to visit Bagan the next morning which is in the Central part of the country.  Though known for pyramids and pagodas, it is the people that I enjoyed meeting.  Our tour guide, Zaw, was full of information and such a gentle person.  We had a full daying seeing the sites including a laquerware workshop.  Outside the shop, Ki Ki noticed that I like one of the lacquer boxes she is selling. I now know that an amazing amount of effort can go into making one of these but still only offer her $4 hoping that this is a mass market version. She immediately starts showing me her other wares and insists that if I buy two items she will give them to me for $20. I try to explain that I do not have any more money and she clearly does not believe me. ‘Ask your friends. They will lend you money!’  I explain that I am with the group but travelling on my own, not with a friend or husband.  I think she finally understands and our transaction is completed.

Young child in Yangon wearing traditional Tanaker make-up

In the rural marketplace, a tiny girl that only comes up to my armpit shows me a handful of rice. But when I look in her eyes, I see she is not a child at all but quite elderly. Malnourishment has stunted her growth and she is only about 3 ft. tall. She shows me a few grains of rice in her hand and then points in her mouth. I am on a day tour of Bagan and we have only been given a limited amount of time to visit this wonderful rural market. Plus, we have been instructored in no uncertain terms not to engage with local beggars or impromptu vendors. I push on in order not to lose the group, enjoying the colours of the vegetables and admiring the handicrafts but, all the while, I feel guilty leaving this woman with nothing.

Our tour guide, Thi Thi, in Schwedagon, Yangon

On a later tour, Thi Thi will take my colleagues to a museum near the town centre and nearly break down when she recounts how the regime has had a personal impact on her life. She says the people do not know if this exercise in democracy will work or if the government will simply strip all these freedoms away as they have done before.

Much suffering is hidden in the hearts of these gentle people.