Travel–Myanmar’s Mellow Melancholy

By Matthew Bamberg / Oct 7, 2005

The city of Yangon is 5.5 million people strong. Inside the airport terminal there were only a couple of wooden tables and a few people manually checking peoples names off of hand written list–no computers, no counters, and no duty free shopping. The military personal didn’t seem as menacing as I thought after reading several articles about the government; in fact they didn’t carry guns, and were quick to smile. We were immediately greeted with the huge smile of our guide, Myn Min, a young, good-looking guy who took care of every governmental interaction to travel through Myanmar. He wore a burgundy longhi, which is a long tube skirt that is tightened around the waist, a starched white linen shirt, and a Nehru jacket. He greeted us in very proper English.

My first perceptions of Myanmar were that was fifty years behind the rest of the world. It was also very clean, lush, green, exotic, and completely different from any place I had ever been. On the way in I saw carts being pulled by horses and oxen, Chevorlet buses from the 50’s brightly painted and filled with smiling people, and gold plated Chedies, (Buddhist towers, with a bell shaped bottom, and gradated round spire topped with a gold crown incrusted with jewels and small bells which tickle in the wind. Along side these Chedi’s were Buddhist temples with gold leaf roofs. The lush city was surruonded by mostly low-rise buildings from the British colonial era. If you look at the city skyline all you see are millions of tree-tops, and gold Cheds sticking our from the middle of these trees.

The Burmese people were very pleasant and the service at every venue we visitied was impeccable. So incredible that by the end of our tour we longed for rude, inattentive, and bad service. We traveled to many temples, colonial buildings, and markets. We visited a village across the river. We crossed the river on a fifty-year-old steamer jammed with people. We, of course, traveled in first class, which consisted of the empty upper deck with child size pink plastic chairs. The village was clean and beautiful, but basic. There were lines of bamboo fences and teak frame houses on stilts. We visited the public school (a modern structure that our guide has said was built by the Japanese). During lunch the parents would bring their students hot food and eat with them. People need to pay to go to the public schools; if they can’t afford it they may attend Buddhist schools for free. All of the students seemed polite and well behaved, wearing green and white uniforms.

I learned to say the Hello Blessing, “Ming cala ba” and went chanting it though the village to everyone I met. Needless to say the people were delighted and replied in kind. Our guide told us the people we passed were amongst themselves chanting,
“Did you hear that? The foreigner said “Ming cala ba!” I had bought pencils, pens, and crayons for the kids to pass out in the villages as per the Min Myn’s suggestion. They were delighted and we attracted quite an audience. At one café they were playing American dance tunes recorded in Myanmar language. I started dancing and pretty soon the whole café was smiling and dancing with me.

Next we traveled to a Buddhist temple and monastery. There was an inclined Statute off Buddha 87 feet high and as long as a football field. Our guide had been a monk a couple of times, so he was able to take us inside of the living quarters of the monks. There were 400 monks at this monastery. The compound was lush and green with teak wood bungalows all around it. We entered one bungalow; there was an altar in the entrance and then a big room where each monk got a space to sleep in. There were several monks there in their orange robes. We went to the back to the bungalow to meet the head monk. He was sitting on an old cast iron bed, in an orange robe with a big smile on his face. He was eighty-seven years old and had a calm, brightness, and sense of peace about him that id difficult to explain. He asked us where we from, said he was too old to travel, so we needed to be his eyes to the world, and then gave us a Buddhist blessing.

A note on monks– all Buddhist are monks or nuns for a period of time when they are young, and many revisit to re-center themselves at various times of their lives. The Buddhism has a profound effect on these people and their culture. There is sense of peace, kindness, and conscious amongst this culture and it’s people despite the awful government. Next we visited another 1,000-year-old temple. When we arrived Matt was tired. We saw several old monks sleeping under temple entrance pagoda, so of course being pooped, I joined them. They were rather amused and accommodating. I then toured the temple with the guide; he explained the religion to me. We looked at his backward calendar and found out that I was born on Friday on the day last great Buddha, whom we call Siddhartha. We made and offering to Buddha by rubbing gold leaf on one of the statues of him, and ringing an 2,000 year bell three times to share the blessing with others.

The Mandalay Zoo

By far my favorite day was the day we went to the zoo. I love third world zoos because they don’t protect stupid people. You can get really close to the animals and if you are stupid enough to mess with them, you get bit, that’s it lock-stock-and-barrel. By the elephants we met a young Buddhist monk about 8 years old. He was from Mandalay and visiting one of the monasteries in Rangoon. I shared the bananas I had bought to feed the elephants with him. He was delighted, and gave us an infectious smile from ear to ear. We became instant friends, and there was this strange, strong connection and camaraderie between him the three of us, my guide, my traveling companion and me. He took us on a tour of the zoo. He knew the zoo very well, because he spent every day there while he was visiting Yangon. This young man was very, very old. It was a very magical and opened hearted experience spending the afternoon with him. We parted with a strong sense of connection and friends. We also really liked our guide and the feeling was mutual. We went about the city singing his favorite Shirley Bassey songs.

Next we flew to Bagan on an old propjet. Bagan is a World Heritage Historical site because it of temples, and Chedies. There are four thousand left of the original 13,000 buildings ranging in age from 800 to 2 thousand years old. The Bagan area is drier than Yangon and has rich red soil. As we flew in you could see this temples and Chedies from the air. We stayed in a beautiful resort named Sakura on the river near by. We had a teak wood bungalow and there were 37 acres if lush and colorful gardens. They had an Olympic style infinity pool. While swimming in it you felt like you were in the river. The food at the resort, as everywhere in Myanmar, was excellent. They grow everything fresh with only natural fertilizers. They are excellent cooks and food is an important part of their culture. We toured the temples, by car, horse drawn carriage, bicycle, and foot for two days. Matt took hundreds of picture. Thank god his camera is digital and he bought his computer to unload the images onto. The Chedies and temples are very magical and exotic, I felt like I was on the set of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. I met our guide’s 87-year-old grandmother at one of the temples we visited. She just happened to be visiting. She was a treat, stunningly beautiful with a brilliant twinkle in her pale grey eyes. Our guide explained she did what ever she wanted to, and would often take off on foot or jump the local village bus to visit around the village.

Next we flew to the famous city of Mandalay. We visited the royal palace, temples. and parks. Two experiences stood out, at the top of Mandalay Hill a monk quietly told me that their government had killed thousands of citizens and asked if he could help. It was strange being in this closed off militaristic place. You really didn’t feel or notice the military or government presence as a tourist. There we very few military people around, they didn’t carry guns, were polite, and friendly. They also seemed relaxed, rarely standing at attention, often smoking, and sleeping. We attended a wonderful traditional Marionette show. The marionette master was 75 years old and a delight. We bought several hand made Marionettes, so I needed to throw out clothes to carry them.

We traveled to a wonderful, ornately craved teak wood monastery about an hour ride outside of Mandalay. It was over 800 hundred years old and still being used. School was in session and they allowed us to take pictures. It was fascinating to see all of the young Buddhist monks in orange robes reading and writing in this old building. The countryside was beautiful, lush, green, and filled with exotic temples, palaces, and Chedies.

After Mandalay we flew to Inle Lake in the Shan state. It is 3,000 feet above sea level, so the weather is temperate. We took an hour car drive and then a 30-minute boat ride on a long, narrow wooden boat, through the reeds, and across the lake to our resort. Matt was beginning to have his “where the hell have you brought this time feeling”, finally we arrived through a canal to our resort. We were greeted on a wooden dock with a welcome guava and green tea drink, and porters for our luggage. Welcome to Fantasy Island. We proceeded along a long dock, surrounded by lotus flowers, butterflies and other plants. We came to the resort; it was otherworldly, beautiful, elegant, and peaceful. Acres of gardens, teak wood bungalows, first class food, and a spa. AH! Lake Inle is surrounded by high green mountains, which are too steep to build on. The only buildings are gold leafed Chedies and temples. People have built several villages in the lake by sinking pilings into the bottom of the lake and building fairly large and elaborate houses on top of them. They have made floating gardens out of bamboo platforms covered with dirt and fertilized with the plants they had drudged up from the canals in the marshes. First we visited and old teak wood monastery, named the “Jumping Cat Monastery”. The monastery was built on stilts in the middle of the lake so we arrived there by boat. At the monastery there were many cats that had been trained to jump through hoops, as demonstrated by the monk residing there. There were also six large Buddha’s made of gold and marble sitting on different altars. Next we visited a silk weaving village, which was also in the middle of the lake. They hand made silk cloth starting from the silkworm cocoon, to spinning it, dying it, and weaving. They did very refined and detailed work. It is interesting in Myanmar that most people’s clothes are made of cotton and silk because these are the only cloths the made there. Matt chased butterflies and Ming cala ba’ed his way through the village, much to the locals’ amusement and delight. At night a monk would chant over a loud speaker to the whole village. It was beautiful, however unfortunately he had a bad cold and would occasionally gag and cough in the microphone!

We traveled back to Rangoon for a night and flew to Bangkok. We both glad to see a newspaper and have Internet again. Myanmar is very rich country in terms of natural resources, foods gold, oil, gems, and teak wood. Unfortunately the government is anti technology, so they don’t have the ability to take advantage of these resources.

The people we by far the best part of Myanmar. Despite living under a despotic government
They are genuinely open hearted, kind, generous, and quick to smile. There is a Buddhist proverb that explains, “from the mud grows the lotus”. Perhaps this is the case with these people.

TIP: When on a journey far, far away, invest in a zoom lens for your digital photography, a telephoto that is at least 300 mm so you can photo the rainbows and hippos that work the frame (buy work, I mean having the main subject of the picture take up a sizable amount of the frame). The new Digital Canon Rebel XT (350D in Europe) comes with a detachable lens, which you can take off and replace with a compatable zoom lens from a film camera. Great for capturing Myanmar’s art and culture.

About the author

Matthew Bamberg

Matthew Bamberg has provided photographs and written articles for various Southern California newspapers and magazines, including The Desert Sun and The Press-Enterprise. More recently, Matt has been teaching at UC Riverside while also authoring several books like the Quick and Easy Secrets book series (Cengage), Killer Photos with Your iPhone (with Kris Krug and Greg Ketchum, Cengage), the 50 Greatest Photo Opportunities in San Francisco (Cengage) and Digital Art Photography For Dummies (Wiley).