Sunday, February 14, 2016

Yangon, Maynmar: Sule Pagoda

Sule Pagoda (admission $3/3,000 kyat) is one of the biggest landmark attractions in all of Yangon. A pagoda is a generic term for a religious building, and it is typically formed by many tiers stacked on top of each other. This particular one is smack dab in the middle of the city, forming a gigantic roundabout at the intersection of Mahabandoola Road and Sule Pagoda Road. In Yangon, all roads lead to Sule! This was an excellent landmark to keep me from getting lost!

Street view of Sule Pagoda at night.
The golden dome of Sule is over 150 feet (48 meters) high, and it was built by the British as a center point for their street grid in the 1880s. The central pagoda is named Kyaik Athok, translates to "the stupa where a sacred hair relic is enshrined." Apparently is the resting place for a single hair of the Buddha, and it is a sacred location that many locals visit. It's surrounded by street stalls and food vendors, and is quite a popular place to be. 

It's also a very touristy place to be. As I walked in, I was forced to buy flowers as an offering by one of the old ladies waiting by the stairs. It was only $1, so I agreed to the hustle. Be very careful in this area, because people will start chatting with you and offer to show you around for free, only to charge you a crazy amount of money for their assistance and things like gold leaf (if you choose to adorn any statues with it).  I was aware of this going in, and when someone approached me we both agreed to a price for him showing me around before he began showing me around so there were no surprises in the end.

The central pagoda has 8 sides, one for each day of the week.

I promise you, that number is not wrong.

Garuda the Bird King!
In Myanmar, there are 8 day sin every week! Wednesday is split into two days. Each day denotes a particular direction and dictates where a person goes to pray. The day on which you were born is very important to the Burmese because it helps indicate a child's personality. Each day corresponds to a particular animal in Burmese astrology: Garuda the Bird King (Sunday), Tiger (Monday), Lion (Tuesday), Elephant (Monday PM), Tuskless Elephant (Wednesday PM), Rat (Thursday), Guinea Pig (Friday), and Dragon/Naga (Saturday). I was born on a Tuesday, so my animal is the lion and my lucky direction is southeast. According to the horoscope, 
Tuesday belongs to the Mars. You want to do work with some prestige and dignity attached to it. You are a natural self-promoter. Your idealism motivates you to seek challenges and to dedicate yourself to great and worthy causes. You attract people because of your honour and strength of character. In Myanmar it is widespread that Tuesday born have a "sharp tongue"... 
If you want to find out what your Burmese horoscope says about you, check out this site.

The temple was pretty, but not fantastically impressive. Many poor students go to the pagoda in order to practice their English and try to make money by giving tourists a tour of the temple. I was guided around by a student, and he told me about the history and cultural importance of the temple in exchange for a bit of cash. It's how I learned about Wednesday being two days!

I would say that the temple is worth a visit, but the inside is not a must-see attraction. It was interesting to tour around and do the blessing ritual for my Burmese Zodiac sign, but there are other, more interesting things to see in Yangon if you're pressed for time!

I love the look of statues covered in gold leaf.

Notice the LED halo?
As Myanmar becomes more and more modern, subtle changes permeate even the most holy aspects of the culture. One of the things that is increasingly popular is the LED halo around the heads of Buddha statues. Some people love, some people hate it. Personally, I feel that it's a bit garish and cheapens the feel of beautiful holy places. I guess I'm a traditionalist!

In the picture below, you can see a man making merit. To do this, you have to find the corner dedicated to the day you were born. Then you fill a cup with water from the tap (it's red) in the middle, and pour nine cups on the Buddha statue that resides on the top part of the shrine. Next, pour five cups on the statue of your animal (mine's the lion) on the bottom part of the shrine (blessings for your family). My guide told me that it's standard to pour five cups on the animal, but others have said you should pour as many cups as there are people in your immediate family.

While Sule Pagoda itself is a nice sigh to see, simply walking around the neighborhood is also a beautiful sight to behold. The park and nearby buildings are all lit up, and the area was especially amazing because it was drenched in Christmas lights and decorations. Night time is definitely the best time to visit Sule Pagoda!

Night view of Mahabandoola Park.
Right next to the Pagoda, Immanuel Baptist Church lights up the night and offers a view into the diverse beliefs of the city.
I was there a few weeks before Christmas, so the church was covered in Christmas lights.
Very festive!

Such festive Christmas decorations!

Friday, February 12, 2016

Anuban's Chinese New Year (2016)

Hey everyone! Sorry I haven't posted more about Yangon yet, but I have a good reason for that! Monday marked the Chinese New Year, and there have been fun things happening for the past week. Chinese New Year follows the lunar calendar rather than the solar calendar, so it usually falls about a month or two after December 31st. 2016 is the Year of the Monkey, which is characterized by 

On Monday, our school had its own little parade. My school is massive -- there are close to 350 kids in each grade from K1, K2, and 1-6. That means we have over 2,500 children at our school! So when I say we had a little parade, I mean it was kind of a big deal. All of the students were decked out in elaborate costumes and makeup, and of course they had all necessary props like a lion costume and the dragon that always serves as the highlight of the holiday.

So this week I've been busy attempting to learn how to edit together short video clips I took of the event. It turned out better than I expected, so I felt that I simply had to share. The video is below, but if for some reason it does not work, check it out on YouTube!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Yangon, Myanmar: A Rough Beginning

Hello everyone! I know it's been quite a while since I posted -- December has been a crazy month with traveling to Myanmar (also known as Burma), celebrating Christmas (more than once), and celebrating the new year.

By a stroke of luck, I had 10 days free from work in December because our city was hosting a nationwide Sports Week. I chose to travel to one of the few countries in SE Asia that I haven't been to yet -- Myanmar. It's not a well-known country, but it's increasingly on the radar for many travelers because of its natural beauty and unique culture. It's located right next door to Thailand, so I didn't have far to go. The entire country was closed to tourists for nearly 60 years, and opened its doors just a few years ago. As more people visit the country, things are quickly changing. Tourists bring money, which also means changes that are not always good: more restaurants geared toward tourists, vendors selling souvenirs at every tourist destination, people begging for cash just because you're white, and aggressive taxi drivers. That being said, I loved my time in Myanmar. I had a lot of great moments, and a few unpleasant ones as well. There is always some good and some bad while traveling, but it's always a learning experience!

Traveling throughout the country, I visited the typical tourist sites: Yangon, Inle Lake, Bagan, and the new capital city of Mandalay. I greatly enjoyed my time in the country, but got off to a bit of a rough start. I flew into Yangon, which is the southernmost city I visited.

I'll be honest: Yangon is not my favorite. I had a rough beginning 24 hours in the country. I started by trying to haggle with one of the cab drivers for the hour-long drive from the airport into the city to my hostel. Sadly, they were not open to giving me a deal (which is pretty unusual; cabs that run by agreed prices rather than a meter are usually open to negotiations). The drive into the city was a bit terrifying -- there was so much traffic and people were trying to merge into two small lanes in eight different ways. Luckily, the driver got me to my destination safely (but with a bit of muttering about how he needs to start charging more haha).

After I checked into my hotel, I went in search of food. I asked for a recommendation from the front desk, and they sent me to an American style restaurant, which was a bit strange. I certainly did not travel to Myanmar to eat a burger! I walked past the place, and decided to find something a bit more Burmese. I tried to order some street food, but not knowing the names of any kinds of food made it a bit difficult. The first place I tried was a bust. I walked up to a street vendor, and tried to mime that I wanted the same thing she was currently making for a customer to no avail. She spoke no English, so she just looked at me with big, terrified eyes. She tried to flag down a random person on the street to help interpret, but he got distracted by talking to another person. Then she tried to get a guy that was playing on his phone to help. He looked at her, then looked at me, said "no" and continued playing on his phone. Complete rejection.

After this little failure, I was a bit discouraged. But I walked a bit more and saw a place with the names of beers written in English and pictures on their menu, so I sat down at a table. They had no problem helping me, and I had a delicious curry and a beer for dinner. Finally, success! After this I went back to the hotel and got some much-needed shuteye.

The next morning I was off and headed to Mahabandoola Garden.

The Garden was stunningly beautiful. On my walk over there, I took a few pictures of random things I saw on the streets. I sat down to review them and was approached by a young lady trying to sell me thanaka, which is gold powder people use as makeup and sunscreen. I politely refused, but she was incredibly persistent. She sat down next to me to plead with me, which is an unusually pushy move. I finally gave in when she lowered the price by more than half because I just wanted her to go away. As soon as she had the cash, she triumphantly walked away. That was when I noticed that my camera, which I had set down next to me to argue with her, was missing. No wonder she walked away so quickly -- she stole my camera. It was gone. This is the first time in all of my travels that I have ever had something stolen from me, and I couldn't help but feel angry, sad, and mistrustful of all the people around me.

Like I say, Yangon was not my favorite. In my first 24 hours there, people were rude and I had something stolen from me. Most people who have traveled to Myanmar raved about the kindness of the people and the lack of pushy selling to tourists. Perhaps things are changing in this country that has so recently opened its borders, perhaps I just had a spot of bad luck. In any case, the country did not make a great first impression on me, but I did have some fantastic adventures. More coming soon!