Excitement overwhelmed my fuzzy, four-hour-sleep-mind-desire-to-sleep. I plotted my route and tied the laces of my walking shoes. Yangon awaited and I was ready to take in all her glory. First thing… I needed caffeine and plenty of it.
Tea houses– Large coffee chains have already descended in to Myanmar, but thirsty to sample Burmese life, I was on the hunt for the quaint tea houses I had read about. It didn’t take me long to find one.
When the British colonized Myanmar in the early 1800s, they brought with them the custom of afternoon tea, social hubs for friends, over a hot brew and sickly, sweet snack. This particular establishment did not reflect the colonial romance of drinking out of china cups though. I pulled up a plastic chair, sat down at the steel table and browsed the laminated menu.
Damn! No pictures and no English. I scanned the room for other patrons, all locals, and realized they were all staring at me with curiosity.
My waiter was amused at my befuddled expression and in broken English, recommended my breakfast menu. God knows what I had agreed to… Bat? Snake? Gall bladder? Fried beetle?
Thankfully there was nothing untoward that tested my taste buds. Traditional tea was served with a dose of sweet, condensed milk and breakfast was served on a tin platter laden with fluffy steamed pork buns and Burmese style sweet pancakes, all for a ridiculously low price.
‘Where you from?’ a girl at the next table whispered to me.
‘From Singapore,’ I half lied. I do live in Singapore but I’ve learnt through years of travelling, that the concept of being a British born Chinese only confounds.
‘Ah! Singapore!’ her friend gushed, ‘Many people from Myanmar in Singapore.’
‘ Universal Studio! McDonald’s!’ their male friend chimed.
Hmmm… It’s a strange reverie… one which highlights the great divide between developing countries and the wealthier nations. We all crave a McDonalds, but we curse ourselves afterwards, promising not to eat the high-cal, processed junk in a hurry. To the Burmese, McDonald’s is ‘Cordon Bleu’… an unattainable delicacy that represents an opening door to liberation and change.
Considerably fuelled, I waved goodbye to my new friends and was ready to explore Bogyoke Market.
The short walk to the market was interrupted by many street stalls. It was a visual feast exploding in vibrant colours. Women sat on their squats, behind their wares of weird and wonderful… Rambutans, mangosteens and lotus seeds intermingled with a mad jumble of antiquities and second-hand bookstalls.
Bogyoke Aung San Market
The market itself is housed in an impressive building with high vaulted ceilings. Unlike other bazaars, this was pleasantly subdued. I strolled the organized aisles devouring eclectic local products… Lacquerware, Mother of Pearl trinkets, intricate wood carvings, marionettes and colourful textiles… a display of Burma’s culture of arts and crafts.
But also on show are Burma’s controversial gems… Controversial because in recent reports by Amnesty International, they are at the centre of severe acts against humanity. Reports state that for the past 50 years, mines have been under the brutal control of the Burmese military junta, where prisoners, including children are subjected to mine in appalling conditions. The USA recently banned the embargo of Burmese rubies and jade; a similar edict was later adopted by the EU, but countries such as China, Thailand, Russia and the Gulf continue to be the biggest traders.
Bogyoke has long been a ‘haven’ for selling rare gems but it is crucial to recognize that the rare pigeon-blood ruby, comes with a history of forced labour, systematic rape of young girls as well as ethnic cleansing. Until trading ceases, slave labour will continue to prosper. It’s a vicious cycle! Simply, don’t buy gems while in Burma.
Aside from the stalls, there are also coffee shops and cheap eateries. Take a break from shopping and haggling, rest your hot sticky self on a plastic chair and cool down on a fresh fruit shake (without ice!). I scoured my map over a light lunch of Mohinga (a fishball noodle broth) and plotted my long walk to Kandawgyi Lake.
I should have thought better than to have burdened myself with my new painting. The tube ended up being a useful walking stick though as I gingerly crossed the many sudden pitfalls in the pavement en route to the lake. I seemed to be the only tourist wandering around the torn-up streets; the heat was ruthless.
Kandawgyi Lake– The walk was worth it… A paradox to the torn-up streets and frenetic bustle of downtown; the grounds are pristine, a picture-perfect postcard.
The 2,500-year-old golden Shwedagon Paya can be seen in the distance now, rising high above the lake. A pair of orange-robed monks traverse the bridge towards it… I want to follow them, to soak in the awe of this wonderful scene but a respite from the relentless sun beckons me to the cool, shaded canopy of a tree.
Besides, sunset is still a few hours away yet and I want to be fully recharged for what I know will be an unforgettable moment… Because as the sun dips below the horizon and darkness falls over the Shwedagon Paya, I know it will be a moment that will stay with me for a long, long time…