myanmar day 2…

sheez, i’m starting to really fall behind. it’s my fifth day here, and i’m still writing about day 2!

woke up in the morning and only had about an hour to get some breakfast before i was supposed to meet up w/ my burmese friend. i wanted to go to a real burmese restaurant, but the guidebook didnt show any nearby. when i asked the reception desk, they told me to try New Delhi restaurant which, despite its name, serves both indian and burmese food as well. i walked down there in the stifling heat and got a table. the menu looked like it was mostly indian but had some weird stuff i’ve never heard of that i assumed must be burmese. i called over the waiter to clarify:

“i would like to eat burmese food. which of these are burmese?”


“no, no.. i’m asking… *which ones* are burmese. i want burmese food, not indian”

” we have chapati, samosa, curry!”

“ahh. but those are indian?”


“i dont want indian, i want *burmese*

“ok! what would you like?”

it became very clear that there was no way i’d get any info on what kind of food is on the menu. the language barrier can be so frustrating some times! i ended up ordering something called “chicken toeshay” only to find out later that Toeshay was just a weird way of spelling dosa, a very typipcal indian food. the chicken didnt even come inside the dosa, instead there was a sad looking drumstick in sauce on a different plate. oh well, looks like i’d have to wait before really trying burmese food.

after eating, i scramled back to the hotel to meet up w/ the burmese guy from the day before. we spent some time walking around town, and he showed me several small pagodas and a chinese temple too. once again we talked a bunch about life in burma, what people here do for fun, how life is, etc. i began to realize that i was really lucky to have met this guy to get a good insight into the burmese way of life.

as i mentioned before, myanmar is run by an oppressive military regime, and life here is hard on the people. you cant say anything negative about the government without being locked into prison. whenever he would tell me anything about the government, he would cautiously look around first to see if anyone was in earshot. everyone has to be careful here because they can be thrown into prison for the smallest of offenses. all newspapers etc are censored by the government. the internet is censored by the government. furthermore, economic sanctions imposed by outside countries (to punish the regime) often limit what can be brought into myanmar. schools here dont have computers… even in the universities. as we talked, i mentioned that in america, people can say whatever they want, and they can even say “bush is an idiot” and the government can’t do anything about it. he was very shocked to hear such a thing. talking like that in his country would be unthinkable.

another thing that i found very interesting was just how religious the people are here. for burmese, religion isn’t just a sidenote to their lives, it’s something that touches all aspects of their life and is thought about and practiced daily. one of the things that can bring merit to a buddhist is to donate money to a pagoda. this money is used for the pagodas upkeep and often to add more gold ornamentation to it. people visit these pagodas very frequently and often donate money.

we were sitting inside a pagoda (partially to see what’s inside, but also to get out of the heat!) when an old lady started talking to me very quickly in burmese and was gesticulating wildly. she kept talking and talking though i didnt understand a word she was saying. my burmese friend translated that she was asking me to donate to the pagoda. she said that she lived in a small village far far away from yangon. she sells flowers and earns about 500 kyat a day (50 cents). out of those 500 kyat, she saves about 100 kyat daily. after a year of saving, she travels through burma to a new pagoda that she has never been to yet and donates all the money that she has been setting aside for the whole year. after doing this, she goes back home and starts the process over again, reapeating it year after year. it was such a touching story. i couldnt believe that a lady that only makes about 180$ a *year* still manages to contibute about 30 of it to buddhism.

it was very inspiring and i told my friend that i would like to donate some money too, since the lady suggested it. it turns out that other than just dropping money into a donation box, there’s a very interesting way of donating. you pay someone at this desk, and after giving you a receipt, they put a copy of the receipt ina small box, and then put this box into a statue of a winged horse. they play all this music and jingle a bunch of bells, and then using pulleys, the horse “flies” up to the top of the pagoda with your donation.

as we walked away, my friend told me that donating money to the pagoda will bring me good luck and help ease my mind… and then told me a story about his friend. his friend woke up one morning, with a huge desire to donate to a pagoda. because of some urge, he got together all of his money, to the last kyat, and went and donated it all. when he left the pagoda, he felt really good and wasn’t worried about having just given away all of his money… and then on the way home, he found a gold pot weighing about 4 pounds in the bushes. i found this story a bit hard to swallow, but my friend says that he didnt believe it either until his friend showed him the pot as proof!

eventually, we came up to Shwedagon Paya, the most famous pagoda in all of myanmar. this place encompasses a *huge* area filled with tons of small ornamental structures of many different shapes and sizes. everywhere around you there are glittering golden stupas, intricately colored pagodas, and buddha statues of every shape and size. it took us a lot of time to just walk around the whole thing. i really wish i could put some photos up to show everyone what it looked like, but i cant really upload pictures here.

at most of the big pagodas there are 8 posts arround the pagoda, one for each day of the week (wednesday has two, one for wed morning and one for wed night). each post usually has a small buddha image, something for storing water, and a small statue of the astrological sign for that day. you’re supposed to go to the post that corresponds to the day you were born and pour water on the buddha… one cup of water for each year of your life. my friend showed me where the station was for friday, and i poured 28 cups of water on the buddha image. apparently, now that i not only donated money to a pagoda, but also poured water of the buddha, my luck will *definitely* be much better!

as we continued walking around the pagoda, all of a sudden i saw a huge line of women coming towards us armed w/ sticks! upon closer inspection, it turned out that they weren’t sticks, but brooms and this army of women was sweeping the pagoda. these people weren’t being paid, and they didnt work there… they were just women who had come by the pagoda and volunteered to help sweep. my friend told me that he also often comes by here to help sweep up. so crazy. i couldnt imagine anyone in america just going somewhere to help clean up. it’s unheard of. just another example of how devoted these people are to their religion. also, following the broom ladies, was a huge army of mop ladies who all lined up in a single file. a guy would stand in front of them and then once he shouted some commands and sprinkled the ground w/ some water, all the ladies would rush forward, still in a completely straight line while mopping. too funny! eventually we sat down and watched the sun set over shwedagon paya. during this whole time of walking around myanmar’s most famous site, i still had seen very few tourists. there were some, but very few. it was such a nice change from other countries we’ve been to where toursists are everywhere. i was really overwhelmed by how glad i was to be there and to be in myanmar. it’s such a nice country, luckily still not completely tainted by tourism.

after shwedagon, we went to a tea shop to get some food. i tried this tea leaf salad that is very popular here. it’s a mix of dried tea leaves, peanuts, sesame, and spices and it tastes hella good! the waiter that served us was extremely courteous as all waiters here seem to be. they have this thing here where when they take your money, they take it w/ their right hand and touch their right elbow w/ the palm of their left hand while doing it. i dunno what it is, but there’s something really cool about the way they do it. the one thing that concerned me though was that the waiter was very young. probably no more than 8 years old… and i see a lot of waiters about that age here. it’s sad that the kids here, instead of going to school, spend their youth working at tea shops. apparently, school here is very expensive, so not many parents can afford to send their children there. not only that, but the quality of education is very poor, so even if kids do attend school, they still dont get a good education. the only way to get a really good education here is to hire a tutor to come and teach the kids at home, which is incredibly expensive, especially considering that people here often only make about 2$ per day.

we had spent all day walking and were a bit tired, so we took the bus home. the bus here is pretty hectic. at each stop it kind of slows to a crawl while mobs of people hop on or off. it’s crazy packed inside, and when the ticket collector shouts for money, all of a sudden there are hands everywhere shoving money at him. i dont really understand how the system works. it’s impossible to see which hand belongs to who in the crowd, so there’s really no way of knowing who paid or not. i guess most people here are very honest, so that’s not a problem. actually, i’ve heard that crime here is virtually nonexistant and theft isn’t a problem. because of the way exchanging money works, most toursist are walking around with *huge* stacks of myanmar currency, yet everyone feels pretty much safe.

actually, i think i havent mentioned the money situation yet. there are no atms in myanmar. none. and there are no places that accept credit cards. so basically, you need to bring any money with you that you are going to need while there. this really sucks because no one really wants to carry around a crapload of money, and if you somehow miscalculate how much you’ll need, there’s absolutely no way of fixing it by getting more money. but it gets worse. the official government exchange rate is a ridiculous joke at 450 kyat for 1$.. about half of what the dollar is worth. this is the rate they tell you at the airport, and if you fall for it, you just lost about 50% of your money. at hotels in yangon, you can usually get about 900 kyat for one dollar, a much much better rate. but, the rest of the contry has lower rates than that. so, you may want to be smart and stock up on kyat in yangon to get the best rate *but*, the biggest bill here is 1000 kyat. for one hundred dollars, you get 90 of these… quite a big pile. if you decide to exchange several hundred, where do you plan on storing hundreds and hundreds of bills (which happen to be really large in size as well)?


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