Life in Yangon, Myanmar : Golden Field Trips

Myanmar is known worldwide for its gemstones, particularly the magnificent ruby. Traders visit to scoop up rubies, garnet, and amethyst, and during my time there miners in  Kachin State happened upon a 175 tonne piece of jade. It’s a land so poor yet simultaneously, so prosperous.

Its richness extends beyond gems, kind tea couples, Chinese New Year celebrations, and a classroom full of cute kiddos. Golden stupas dot the land, seen from planes circling above like hawks, waiting for monsoon season to clear and give way to a matching golden sun. Towering Buddha statues sit, stand and recline, each with a special story of significance. Several with tales of the True Buddha’s influence on its being. Pieces of hair from the top of Buddha’s bald head have made their way across the land and remind believers of what it is they believe in.

The country is divided into seven states and seven regions, each unique and important to historical and present-day Myanmar. Shan State’s Inle Lake and its infamous fisherman, balancing on one leg while paddling with the other; as well as its tourist-sought trek through remote villages leading from Kalaw to Inle; Mandalay District’s delicately laced palace, white and pure;  Chin State’s tattooed women, their faces covered in black patterns originally intended to spoil the appearance of the most lovely ladies and in-turn turning them into a symbol of beauty;  Rakhine State, where the country’s own indisputable yet disputed genocide against Muslims continues day in and day out; Mon State’s Kyaikhtiyo Golden Rock Pagoda, teetering on the edge of a steep cliff and held in place by none other than a single strand of Buddha’s hair.

Treasures are found throughout the various states and regions of Myanmar. With limited time to explore, I stuck close to home and managed to find an abundance of gems in and around Yangon. I was blessed to be able to share my top picks with the students I spent each day with, and watched their appreciation for art and history reach heights I never imagined.

 

Click on an image to see Yangon Myanmar’s Secretariat Building Up-Close:

 

On the city’s eastern edge, a full block of colonial buildings originally built in 1902 now sits abandoned.  In 1947, General Aung San (Father of current NLD Party Leader, Aung San Suu Kyi) and six cabinet members were assassinated  The yard has been maintained since it was evacuated in 2005, after the government officially moved to the Myanmar’s new more secluded capital, Naypyidaw. Since then the building has faced unprotected exposure to the elements leaving it in a state in which it doesn’t deserve to be.

For the past few years, The Secretariat has been opened one day, July 19th or Burmese Martyr’s Day, in order to commemorate the victims. In 2017, the Goethe Institut decided the main building was to be opened to the public to allow a walk through history and a glimpse at renowned artist Laib’s quirky milkstone and pollen exhibits.

Like hundreds of other anxious expats and locals, I jumped at the opportunity to visit this gem.

I first visited alone, paying particular attention to how the warmth of its intricate geometry added to the coldness of its past. Brick walls and wooden winding stair, glass doors streaked in hard dust blocking overstretched hallways from access, each holding secrets they’ll never tell.

The teacher in me knew this was a place for even the youngest of Myanmar to experience for themselves. With permission from parents, the two Year Four classrooms at my school packed into a group of buses and paid a visit. We were to walk through a history book together.

Fifty students and three other teachers arrived on a sunny morning. I encouraged each to find a hidden beauty in the abandonment and explore the visiting artist’s exhibits. We watched a film about Laib’s quest to find bee pollen, climbed stairs four at a time to avoid putting too much weight on the age-old support beams, and discovered dated bricks used to mend cracks in the concrete floors. Afterward, we sat on the grass outside and drew sketches of the worn facade and unkempt bushes. We had a marvelous time of discovery and amusement. Afterward, we drove past homes where dark mold creeps from corners and previously vibrant paint has turned pastel from the tropical sun.

This was one of my favorite trips and it was just one of several artistic discoveries we embarked on.

 

Click on an image to see a young nun on the train to Bago Up-Close:

 

A nearby art hall hosted bi-monthly exhibits by local artists and I convinced the students a walking field-trip would be beneficial to teach them more about the country’s natural beauty. They sat in a circle around one artist while they learned of her oil paintings of Myanmar’s Mangroves and stood in silence while another explained her audio-pleasing clips taken from drones and microscopic lenses during her significant trip to the Northern country. Soon after visiting, we began a weekly Cinema Club. Each Wednesday, we met in my room, explored different types of photography and videography, and created short clips of still frames, dramas, and comedies.

 

Click on an image to see the Ride to Bago Up-Close:

The visit to The Secretariat was made during our second term together and therefore, was our second major field trip.
The first had a similar beginning.

With one day off from work (I will not call it holiday because I feel that everyday there was a holiday), I handed over 300 kyat and experienced for the first time Myanmar’s well-used train system. Beginning at the centralized train station, just a five minute’s walk from the apartment I called home during the first month, I was jostled and bumped from Yangon to the closest city, Bago – or Pagu as it shows on the map.

At a mere ninety kilometers away, the city took roughly three hours to reach. Past rice fields with men hard at work up to their knees in flooded leaves and patties. Past monasteries with burgundy robes of monks hanging to dry on open balconies. Past lines of young families waiting to cross from one side of the tracks to the other, women with faces decorated by yellow thanaka and men with in plaid longyis.

Arriving in Bago, I stepped carefully through red mud pathways, past markets filled with fresh fruits and vegetables set side by side. Women flicked away pests with paper fans and men carried melting blocks of ice to cover freshly caught fish. I was one of one, the only known tourist in a city lesser known than the nearby cultural capital yet more densely packed with valuable reminders of the area’s strong culture and dynamic past.

A tourist pass allowed access to The Shwemawdaw Pagoda, taller than Yangon’s own Shwedagon, is Golden God’s Temple, the highest of all stupas in the country. I circled the golden marvel slowly, walking counterclockwise past nuns and monks and adolescents reciting their daily prayers. Having approached by passing through a nearby monastery, I ended up following a tall man walking barefoot through the woods. A monk, he showed the same curiosity in me as I did in him, and frequent glances in my direction were quickly diverted as a sign of respect. We walked him in front of me, me in front of him, and side by side around the pagoda’s circumference.

When we left, we did so in a single line, me in front of him.

At the base of the steps, I became distracted by a toddler dressed in blue. Fiddling with an aluminum can, his round eyes cast a spell on me and after Mom agreed, I stopped to take a series of photographs of this love-filled child.

 

 

Click on an image to see Bago’s Mya Tha Lyaung Up-Close:

 

Picking up my pace to beat the setting sun and return to Yangon’s final train home, I gracefully sped past tea shops, clothing markets, and stalls selling watermelon freshly chopped and wrapped in plastic bags.

The city’s iconic Hintha birds, resting one on top of the other for lack of space (or so the tale tells), quietly stood by the riverside. Sitting unmoved as I moved from one side of the river to the other, I made a mental note for my students explore the meaning behind these golden birds. Once I neared the next destination, a monk blind in one eye and led by a bamboo cane, offered to take me to Mya Tha Lyaung. The 53-foot long Reclining Buddha which was once covered by an overgrown jungle, was well-protected by a trio of wild dogs. Arriving at sunset by way of the four seated buddha known as Kyaik Pun Buddha, I marveled at the grand sculpture in front of me: lifelike and spiritual, believable and fictional.

I returned to the train and through a darkness lit by only the moon, found my way home with a promise to return soon.

 

Click on an image to see Bago’s Shwemawdaw Pagoda Up-Close:

 

That promise was kept, and two weeks later the two Year 4 Classes stepped aboard Yangon’s top luxury buses to endure the three-hour ride toward Bago together. In just ten days of classes, we’d researched the history of Bago, the symbolism of Hintha birds, and listened to students’ own stories related to travel, Buddhism, and their individual feelings of admiration for their homeland. We enjoyed lunch on the steps of Bago’s Kanbawza Thadi Palace, originally built in the mid-sixteenth century and since facing arson, heavy looting, and a haphazard reconstruction phase lasting over a quarter century. The students didn’t mind one bit, and admired the Lion Throne, the wooden teak logs, and the joy of walking over a dilapidated bridge more than they would’ve enjoyed any million dollar playground.

In Bago, they saw their own history and explored a piece of land they never before knew existed.

 

Click on an image to see Bago’s Kanbawza Thadi Palace Up-Close:

 

 

Myanmar is a gem of a country. Some of these gems appear in the wide open spaces, and others remain hidden by jungles, lost history, and untold tales.

My ‘someday’ return will take me to those places farther from Yangon’s center. I’ll first explore, then share. Or maybe next time, I’ll go in blind – leaving the adventure of discovery to the entire group’s delight.

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