25.01.2010 30 °C
What to expect of a place like Burma?
Ramrod-straight lines of military police everywhere? Shuffling citizens, with broken hearts and averted eyes? Bodies still floating in the delta?
None of the above, as it turns out. The international terminal of Yangon airport is clean, modern and slightly empty-feeling. Almost startlingly so, in fact. Most of our fellow travellers on this head-spinningly early flight from Bangkok are not grizzled NGO workers or carefree globe-trotters (like us), but Chinese, Thai and some European package tourists. Blonde-haired couples tote blonde-haired children in strolleys.
Not what we expected, frankly. But then we leave the terminal and everything is a bit more reconcilable – the humid air hits us like a swampy wall, the buildings look like they have been gently fermenting in the heat since, well, 1962, and the cars on the road would be an interesting study in vintage Toyotas and Datsuns if it wasn't such a thrill ride being in these rust buckets.
Our taxi driver, Win, speaks excellent English (as do many of the people we meet over the next week – despite English no longer being taught in schools) and is well informed on the world – relentlessly grilling us over our travels. The conversation remains apolitical – as do most conversations we have had with most taxi drivers all over the world – but our minds are fizzing away, looking for a political undertone in every statement. We do later on manage to talk a little politics with a couple of people, but not just yet.
Yangon is an intriguing place – a mix of old colonial buildings, beautiful Burmese-style teak houses and general dilapidation. And so many interesting faces on the street! Burma is the major land link between China and India, as well as having borders with Bangladesh, Thailand and Laos, and it shows in the faces of passers-by – we quickly lose track of the number of different-looking peoples. We don't see much of this capital in all but name on this visit – just one temple and a bit of organising.
Ah, well, did I say just one temple? Actually we went to the Shwedagon Paya. Not heard of it? No, we hadn't either, until we bought the LP Burma on a whim. But, having been there, the fact that the entire world hasn't heard of it perplexes me whenever I think about it.
Imagine a huge, conical spaceship, about the size of a football field. Imagine it were made entirely of gold, and shone with a radiance that outshone anything your tired eyes had ever seen. Imagine it were placed in the middle of something like a square kilometre of other temples, altars, Buddha images, bells, statues, ornate umbrellas, halls and prayer rooms. And imagine that everything was covered in gold. Everything. And then outlined with flashing LEDs. And topped with a fistful of the biggest diamonds, rubies and sapphires in the world. That pretty much sums up the Shwedagon Paya. Especially at night.
I still can't really believe it's real. Just to labour the point, I haven't retouched these photos in the slightest, not even the levels.