Here I find myself, frayed with 28 hours of sleepless travel, in Shwedagon Paya, the largest stupa in the world, built around hair relics of the Buddha, 2000 years ago, still constantly growing as vistors buy tiny packets of gold leaf for 1000 kyats (about $1) to be added to the 100s of statues, dozens of small pagodas, historical bells and an incredible array of ornate images.
There are shrines for each day of the week, people making offerings for the one of the day of their birth, lighting incense and candles for wisdom, pouring water over the icons for purity and the hope for lives that are cool and smooth. Friday is guinea pig. Monday, my day is tiger. This dragon is, if I remember correctly, Wednesday.
Wandering sleepless, almost soul-less, but feeling incredible peace and calm as some kind of white-tipped swallows dart around at sunset, people kneel to worship, monks poke at mobile phones, and children hit loud long gongs. Hungry and asleep on my feet but experiencing right here, right now, as perfect.
The hotel room is at the top of a Chinese restaurant, at the back end of the hall on crowded street in Chinatown, windowless and absolutely Spartan, though boasting hot water, a new laminate floor and a generous sized bed that takes up most of the room. I have many friends who would have refused to cross the threshold of even the restaurant (Beth!), let alone consented to stay in the room, and my heart did sink a little. But it’s clean enough, and the cigarette smoke smell barely discernible, and I’m in Burma, by myself.
I ate catfish curry and rice and soup and mango and pickled tea leaves for $2 in a crowded open restaurant on the side of the street near the pagoda. The woman who is my guide for the first two days took the leftover catfish home in a baggie for her son.
I have the sudden insight that Myanmar might be a bit like Cuba, the colonial glory of Yangon crumbling after decades of trade isolation, people edging into connection with the rest of the world. Laundry and furniture and the scarecrow fill the balconies of apartment buildings that look like their outside walls could shift downward a few feet at any moment, like hills stripped of trees in flood season.
“There are 70,000 new cars in Myanmar in the past couple of years,” says my guide. I notice recent model hondas and toyotas, part of the bizarre Myanmar traffic system of right hand drive cars that drive on the right side of the road. She sounds proud, then adds “the traffic jams are terrible now.”
My reading has suggested that this is a time of glasnost-like change here, but I am still surprised to see a banner from the National League for Democracy strung openly across one of the apartment balconies, portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi and her father Aung San flanking the ends.
I have rickety, frayed wifi in my tiny hotel room when my jet lag wakes me at midnight, so I write. Posting photos will be more of a challenge.