Saturday, March 19, 2016

My Trip to Burma: We return to Yangon for a glorious, unguided afternoon.

Our last morning in Mandalay.  Rough night for my partner, Mark, though.  The very spicy tomato dish we had for dinner last night at Too Too caused heartburn that kept him up half of the night.  A handful of Tums and a couple of Rolaids finally did the trick and he got a few hours of sleep.  We headed upstairs for our final breakfast.  I can’t eat “Asian” food for breakfast.  Fried rice, egg rolls, vegetable stir fry…  not at 7:30 a.m.  Today they had little pancakes, which were pretty good.  Again we had a nice chat with the kindly hotel manager.  We told him we visited Pwin Oo Lwin yesterday. He said he attended boarding school there from the age of 12 to 20.  Marn had told us that the town was known for their fine boarding schools.   

Our driver was waiting for us in the lobby.  True to form, he drove like a madman to the airport, getting us there 30 minutes earlier than anticipated.  We went to our gate and waited, with many others, for our flight to Rangoon.  In Burma, the public address system is a guy shouting out your gate number, followed by a swarm of humanity.  At 10:45, our flight time, an airport worker shouted out some numbers, and everyone rose and rushed the gate.  We got to the gate and were steered back, saying that this was not our flight.  We went back to our seats and watched as everyone boarded the plane except for me, Mark, and four other people.  I don’t know where all those other folks were headed, but I’m thinking, there’s no way that there’s only six of us flying to Yangon.  Two of the others looked American, and they were holding boarding passes from our same airline, AIR KBZ.  I asked where they were going, and they said Bagan.  Now I’m worried.  Did we miss our flight? Are we at the wrong gate?  There was no one there even to ask.  Then, after a few tense minutes, a KBZ guy signaled for us to come through.  We all got on a bus, and were soon joined by about three others, and nine of us were taken to the plane.  Our flight to Yangon was stopping in Bagan first.  And yes, it was just nine of us on the plane. 

The flight from Mandalay was pretty short.  The view from the plane was neat.  The farmlands below gave the landscape the appearance of a patchwork quilt.

We checked into the Grand United 21st Downtown hotel, the same one we started with in Yangon at the start of our trip.  The room was a little better this time, sunnier with a nicer view.  

We had the rest of the day to ourselves, and since our hotel was on the outskirts of Chinatown, we explored Chinatown a little bit. Many big cities have a Chinatown, and Yangon is no exception.  Covering roughly the area south of Anawrahta Road between Shwedagon Pagoda Road and Lanmadaw Street, it’s the home for many of the city’s Chinese-descended residents. This is a pretty fun part of town.  Two main sights in Chinatown are the Guanyin Gumiao Temple and the Kheng Hock Keong Temple. We checked out the Guanyin Gumiao first.  This temple attracts mainly a Cantonese crowd.  The tiles interior is nice, with red tables containing incense pots, flower vases, and nicely lit shrines.

The open ceiling in the courtyard gave a nice airy feel.

I loved these colorful doors.
I invaded this woman's privacy by photographing her while she was praying.  Hey, it happens.

 The next destination was the Kheng Hock Keong temple a few blocks away.  The stroll there was great, as it took us through a crowded Chinatown market with really tempting street food. Check out the street scene here.  Love it!

Spotted this cute little cat on the street outside a clothing stand.

We arrived at the Kheng Hock Keong temple next.  This temple is more flamboyant.  It is dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu, attracting mainly Hokkien and Hakka worshippers.  

The central alter has an image of Mazu, flanked by Guan Gong, the god of war on her left, and Bao Sheng Da Di, the god of medicine, on her right.  

 Mark checks out his fortune.  Each reed contains a fortune.  You shake the can back and forth, and one reed ends up sticking out further than the others. Eventually it falls on the ground, and that's the one with your fortune.

After that, we hit Little India.  This neighborhood in downtown Yangon has nebulous boundaries. It is spread out over several streets and received the name during the British occupation, when many Indians and Bangladeshi Muslims migrated here. It’s a real melting pot, with mosques and Hindu temples, rustic little houses, and colonial style buildings. A large Indian food market, the Thein Gyi Zei, attracts people having lunch, buying food and selling goods.  This is what a proper Burmese bazaar looks like: a chaotic crush of stalls, shoppers, sacks, boxes, bikes, trash, rodents. Total mayhem. 

The market is divided between two parallel buildings separated by a pedestrian alleyway that hosts one of Yangon’s biggest and busiest vegetable markets.  Here, we're in the alleyway.  The building on the left has the clothing market.  The one on the right has the spice market.  The alleyway itself, well... see for yourself.  

Yep, people walking by, their feet just inches from the food you're considering purchasing.

 How nice.  A guy smoking his cigarette while peddling a variety of chicken feet.  Oh, those things in the bottom right corner?  Severed chicken heads. How appealing.

This kitty seems unperturbed by all the chaos.  Well...her ears are back.  Maybe she IS perturbed.

 We went inside into the spice market.  Unlike some of the other spice markets we'd been to, this one was very cramped and not as clean as the others.

We crossed the alley and went into the clothing market in the westernmost building.  Again, very tight quarters, the place piled high with endless stacks of material. You could barely move!

After the Indian market, we continued to stroll the streets of Little India.  Spotted this pretty cool temple, the Sri Kali Hindu Temple.This temple was built by Tamil immigrants during colonial times. This incredibly vibrant temple is painted in all colors of the rainbow and covered from top to bottom in depictions of Hindu gods and goddesses dancing, standing, playing instruments and twisting and bending in all kinds of weird poses. Indians come here to pay their respects to the fearsome mother goddess Kali, whose black image sits in the temple’s inner shrine, surrounded by shrines to Shiva, Ganesh, Lakshmi, and Karthik (more commonly known as Murugan). Several Hindu festivals are held each year, but among the most famous is the Murugan Festival, which apart from colorful processions also features ritual self-mutilation. 

 Here's another Indian temple, with an even more colorful exterior.  Amazing.

We continued walking through the city and came upon the easily missed Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue. It was constructed from 1893 to 1896.  It served colonial Rangoon’s thriving Sephardic Jewish community from Baghdad and India.

Before WWII, there was as many as 2500 Jews here, although most left either during the wartime Japanese occupation of later, following Ne Win’s military coup of 1962.  The synagogue lost its last rabbi in 1969.  There are now fewer than 20 Jews in Yangon; most of the congregation is overseas visitors.  The synagogue was closed when we were there.  They're open from 9:30 to 12, and we missed it.

The gold-railed bimah (platform from which the Torah is read) is lovely, flanked by a pair of menorah lamps, a nicely decorated ceiling, and high arches supporting a pair of wooden balconies (for women) on either side.  It looks like I took these photos from inside, but I didn't.  The synagogue was closed.  Outside was a bulletin board with photos of the inside.  These are photos of those photos.

Two tourists came by while we were there and asked if they were open, and I said no, that the sign on the door says open from 9:30 to 12:00.  The woman said that according to her guide book, they opened again from 4 to 6.  It didn't say that on the front door, but maybe her guidebook was right.  Perhaps we'll come back later, if possible. 

This is the view, out onto the street, once you walk through the front gate and turn around.

The synagogue will have much more significance later in the day.

 We hit the street again.  It was sweltering.  There was a very popular outdoor stall that was selling cold drinks.  Everyone was clamoring for one.  Mark got the brown one.  I got the fluorescent green one, which looked like a glass of antifreeze.

 Not sure what flavor my green drink was, but man oh man, it was terrific.
We headed north, to check out some colonial buildings we missed on the first day.  We headed up an alley that specialized in electronics.  I was amazed that stores like this could stay in business.  It was basically just piles and piles of junk.  I couldn't help but wonder, who the hell is buying any of this stuff?

 I made a mental note not to visit this dentist.  Ever.
We continued strolling the city, mainly around Pansodan Street, and gazed at the colonial architecture.  Check out the buildings below.  Impressive.

By now it was 5:00.  Mark said, "Let's go back to the synagogue and see if they are indeed open from 4 to 6."  I didn't think we'd have enough time, but he said we should give it a try.  I wasn't sure why he wanted to go back so badly, but he insisted, so I said okay.  Our day was winding down anyway, and the synagogue was on the way back to our hotel.  

We got to the synagogue at 5:20.  Alas, they were closed.  It was really hot, and we had been walking all afternoon, so we sat on the steps and rested a bit.  Mark then commented about how lucky we were to be able to travel like this, and I agreed.  Then he mentioned that it was nice traveling with me because we get along so well, and again, I agreed.  When we travel, we're totally in synch.  Never a cross word between us.  Like two peas in a pod.  

Then, he reaches into his backpack, and pulls out a small box... and proposes marriage!  Right there, on the steps of the only synagogue in all of Burma.  

I was shocked!  And elated, of course.  We've been together 16 years, and yes, one day we knew we'd get married.  But there had been no formal proposal.  To do it on the steps of the synagogue in Rangoon was pretty slick.  Something I'll remember forever.

We headed back to the hotel after the synagogue and made plans for dinner, to celebrate.  The streets were really bustling, and it was a blast being out there experiencing it. 

We found our way to Kosan restaurant.  Just our luck, we managed to get the lone table on the small balcony that overlooks the busy street.  Perfect.  We ordered pina coladas (80 cents each. Seriously.), and some pork for Mark and a burger for me.  Entire meal was about 6 bucks, and was fabulous.

The view over the street was pretty entertaining.

We leisurely strolled back to the hotel.  The streets were insanely crowded.  After about six blocks, I realized: my shoulder bag was gone.  I had left it on the seat at Kosan.  In the bag was my guidebook, and my camera, with the memory card containing about 5000 photos of our entire trip.  

I was wearing sneakers, but Mark was in flip-flops and couldn't really run.  I raced back, in 88 degree heat, through throngs of people, in a panic.  I finally reached the restaurant, and without even stopping to explain myself, just dashed upstairs to the balcony.  

No one had used our table since we had eaten.  There, hanging on the back of the chair, was my bag, resting quietly.  I grabbed it and went back down.  Mark arrived just as I came back down.  What a relief.   After a 6 block dash in 88 degree weather, I was sweating like a madman.  I checked my Fitbit.  My heart rate was 136.   We grabbed a drink on the street and slowly, calmly walked back to our hotel, ending our stint in Rangoon, in what had to be one of the most memorable nights in my life.  

Tomorrow: our final city, Bago, and then we fly back home.  


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