Nishi Malhotra

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Myanmar Memories 1/4 - A Birthday in Yangon

  • Nishi Malhotra
  • Travel
  • March 26, 2021
  • (0)

I wrote this diary in January 2020, when I met up in Myanmar with my son who lives in the US. Since I live in India and we both have busy lives, the highlight of my year always is the week or so when we meet and travel together. This time we were seeing each other after a year and a half, a meeting made all the more sweet by the fact that it was his 28th birthday and we hadn’t celebrated a birthday together in the longest time.

Happy birthday!

At that point I did not know that my life, and soon enough the lives of everyone in the world, were about to be turned upside down. My mother passed away right after I returned to India and while the family was still in mourning, the Corona virus pandemic hit, lockdowns were announced, and everyone was confined indoors, unable to travel, for the rest of the year. 

With the arrival of the vaccine in 2021, while some hope has been restored for most of us, Myanmar has suffered a big blow. A military coup has shattered the peace of this beautiful country, putting in danger the lives of the many wonderful people my son and I met there. I see their despairing, angry, helpless and sad Facebook statuses and my heart breaks – soon, they say, with the internet being shut down in many parts of the country, they won’t be able to communicate even this much anymore. So I’m publishing this diary not just to re-live the good times my son and I spent there, but to honour a friend from Myanmar who recently wrote on his Facebook wall: “Please world, don’t turn your back on us.” 

Myanmar, you’ll always be in my heart and I look forward to the day when I can return to you again.

Here is the diary I wrote:

Day 1 & 2: Yangon, of the “Mere piya gaye Rangoon, wahan se kiya hai telephoon” fame. From the air (flying in from Kolkata in India on a very reasonable fare), the Myanmar countryside around the city of Yangon, dotted with the gold steeples of pagodas that glinted in the sunlight, looked beautiful. I couldn’t wait to land and meet my son, who was flying in from Bangkok after a seven-country tour of Southeast Asia, and give him a big birthday hug. Our flights came in at approximately the same time and we were met by the extremely petite, graceful and efficient Piu, our guide, who helped us exchange money and settle in for the drive to our hotel. Driving from the airport into town we saw huge stately bungalows, broad avenues, and very few high rises – the city, with its old world colonial charm, reminded me of Delhi and Bangalore in the 1970s. 

The Burmese people have a mix of Indian and Southeast Asian facial features – the countenance often covered with homemade sunscreens made of what looks like a kind of sandalwood paste. Most people, especially women, wear elegant wraparound long skirts called longyis - rarely does one see them in jeans or skirts. Many of the men wear longyis too but theirs are styled more like the Indian lungis.

There were plenty of roadside stalls, like in India, selling everything from food to tea to betel leaves. We had three different food experiences later in the day − dinner at a really inexpensive but excellent Shan noodle shop where we gorged on everything from soup to salad to noodles to a whole fried fish for under USD 10 for the two of us; a lovely outing to a Burmese tea shop where people gather to meet friends and gossip over tea (served with condensed or evaporated milk), lots of complimentary green tea of course, and snacks of all hues from ‘samboosas’ to dumplings to even ‘parottas’; and lastly an evening at the fancy rooftop Atlas lounge with the Shwedagon pagoda in the background to celebrate my son’s (from here on referred to as M) birthday. Back at our hotel they surprised us with a lovely blueberry cheesecake and a bottle of Myanmar red wine (really smooth).

A typical Burmese tea house

On Day 2 we visited Scott market, housed in a colonial era building. Aside from cheap clothes and souvenirs, it was interesting to see several dozen shops selling gold jewellery. The Burmese, like Indians, buy a lot of gold jewellery but, unlike Indians, seem to wear little of it. It is mostly stashed away as an investment or put aside for a rainy day one presumes. The country is also famous for mining the best rubies in the world, as well as sapphire and jade, so many shops were selling these precious and semi-precious stones too. I contented myself with buying just a multi-patterned skirt/longyi from the clothes alley.

Colonial era buildings in central Yangon

Although we visited the Chauk Htat Kyi pagoda with the reclining Buddha (and had delicious mangoes with red chilli powder from a pushcart outside), the highlight of our Yangon trip was a visit to the breathtakingly beautiful Shwedagon Golden Pagoda. This large temple complex does not just have various shrines studded with diamonds and rubies but is one of the cleanest and most well maintained temples I have ever seen. We took birthday offerings of lotus flowers (because that’s what M’s name means in Hindi) and said prayers at the ‘Wednesday morning shrine’ (based on the day and time of M’s birth). The Burmese have eight calendar days and there is a shrine devoted to each of those days, with only Wednesday split into morning and evening ‘days.’

With M and our guide Piu at the Shwedagon Golden Pagoda.

Offering birthday prayers at the 'Wednesday morning shrine

The Reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Kyi pagoda

Many Burmese continue to live with their parents after marriage, like Indians do, although arranged marriages are very rare. Our guide, Piu, for example, has a 6-year old boy and her mother helps her take care of him.

Since there are sizeable Indian and Chinese populations in Yangon, it is natural that there should be a Chinatown and Little India in the city. The architecture in Chinatown was interesting -- different from the rest of the old colonial buildings in the rest of the city. M visited the night market in Chinatown, which looked like a lot of fun in the video he took, but he told me I would not have enjoyed because of the smells and sights (I am mostly a vegetarian) there.

Early morning flight tomorrow to Bagan, a UNESCO heritage site.

Hawker at the Yangon Circular train station provides seating for customers.

Yangon street scene

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