It was as casual as it was rewarding. The first time we entered Myanmar coincided with the release day of Aung San Suu Kyi, The Lady, as the Burmese like to call their savior.
The people of this shackled country, already gentle and warm, lived then a renewed hope and gave long smiles that the urge to sell the services of guides, handicrafts, souvenirs, whatever, did not seem to affect.
Like the population of Myanmar, Suu Kyi had been kept, for most of the last twenty-one years of her life, under the corsets of the military regime.
Neither international pressure nor the Nobel Prize status acquired in the meantime shortened the sentences to which she had been sentenced.
At the end of the afternoon of November 13, 2010, we passed, in a taxi, right in front of the avenue that leads to his house. The entrance was blocked by the army but we soon learned how the liberation had gone.
The taxi driver could not hide his joy and resorted to acceptable English to express it: “You look younger than ever. It can't have been just my impression.
When I saw the images on TV, I was moved by her beauty, by that suffering dignity that we have always been used to…”
Naypyidaw: The Emergence of the Ghost Capital of Old Burma
Eight years earlier, the military government had once again upset the people it oppressed with another of its crazy decisions.
About 25 construction companies were contracted to build a new capital from scratch.
Among the Burmese, the belief became popular that, as with many other decisions by military dictators, an astrologer would have warned Than Shwe – the former leader of the Junta – that a foreign attack was imminent.
The warning triggered the process of moving away from Yangon and the sea.
Two gigantic military caravans ensured the transport of government ministries and army battalions to the new capital. The hasty change led to a shortage of schools and various other essential infrastructure.
So, while government workers were already working in Naypyidaw, their families remained for an endless time in Yangon.
The new capital assumed itself as the biggest urban aberration in Southeast Asia. In exotic and decadent Yangon, since then, little or nothing has changed.
Yangon (or Rangoon): Wandering through the True Old Capital
We fled from the clutches of a terrible jet lag.
From the top of one of the tallest buildings in the city, we admire its assorted houses.
Made of aged buildings, browned by age and by the rust of the tin roofs, in the style of those in Havana or Calcutta, but from which new colored examples stand out here and there.
We went down to the ground level of Sule Paya Street.
In the middle of the low, we strive to exchange dollars at the best possible exchange rate, never the one that appears in international and official tables.
Soon after, we give in to our anxiety and immediately go to the spiritual heart of the city and one of the most impressive Buddhist temples in the world.
The taxi drops us off at one of the many entrances to the great Shwedagon Pagoda.
We are on sacred ground and, like all visitors, mostly local believers or Burmese pilgrims, we have to enter barefoot.
Shwedagon Pagoda: The Buddhist Core of Yangon
Inside, the white mosaic floor radiates the strong light of tropical latitude, and the golden glow of the enormous bell-shaped stupa overshadows any other view.
We quickly adapted to the new light and admire the spirituality of the place.
Around it, dozens of faithful direct their prayers to the majestic symbol, alone or synchronized in large groups.
Monks meditate or socialize with each other and with believers in mini-stupas or harmonious sets of Buddha statues.
Later in the day, female faithful volunteer as sweepers.
They form popular cleaning brigades, walk around the stupa lined with raised straw brooms, and leave the temple immaculate for the next day's devotees.
We left the temple to its religiosity and explored other parts of the city. We soon understand that what makes it even more special is the way it integrates into a dense and contrasting urban setting like that of Yangon.
When the sun starts to set we are strolling along the shores of Lake Kandawgyi.
There, we are surprised by the Burmese architecture of the Karaweik floating restaurant, inspired and shaped like a mythological bird with a similar name and a melodious chirp.
The Shwedagon Pagoda soon regains our full attention. The sun's ball increases in size and falls over the horizon. Then it melts into an even more exuberant twilight.
Gradually, the twilight gives the lake a resplendent reflection of the supreme temple and the Karaweik restaurant, both golden, both lit up against a slightly tropical background under a warm sky dotted with small magenta clouds.
And even when night falls, the huge stupa doesn't stop glowing in the near-darkness of Yangon.
A Cosmopolitan City where Asia Meets
The next morning, we set out again to discover the city that blesses. Yangon appears in a fertile region of the delta of the homonymous river, in the center of Myanmar.
The more we walk through its damp streets, the more we have the sensation of being in the vicinity of India – which is true – and facing a work of those that was halfway through.
Decrepit buildings succeed each other as private residences or headquarters of ministries. Sometimes interspersed with recent office towers and Hindu temples with gopurams (ornate towers) more eccentric than anything else in the vicinity.
Together with the dozens of golden stupas, they form a fascinating urban disorder that shelters the intense life of more than five million people, including Burmese, of the India, Chinese and other South Asian nations.
Around the large covered market building in Bogyoke Aung San, where everything is sold and bought under the blazing sun, side businesses are as or more spontaneous and abundant than in New Delhi or Bombay.
A young palmist reads a lady's hand, installed on her mobile bench, no more than the box of a van marked with large posters that explain the meaning of each line on the palm.
Markets and Businesses for Every Taste
In the immediate vicinity and all over the place, betel nut vendors keep the stock up to date with the many consumers who frequent their stalls, half-walled with magazines, posters of models and Burmese film stars.
Another of so many streets, this one with shadows lost between centuries-old mango trees and the shutters of windows each in its own color, houses folded clotheslines, a forest of telephone cables and on the asphalt a dazzling street market.
Furniture and ready-to-crack fried crickets, vegetables and fruits of all kinds and fried eggs are displayed in a large form filled with holes to receive them.
We walk through this frenetic market through a large part of downtown Yangon, passing by the Botataung pagoda, the many monasteries around, with time to peek at some majestic colonial government buildings.
We only stop at the pier of the muddy Yangon River where part of the population takes boats to Sirion and other villages on the other side, and another relaxes to practice sports or socialize next to the riverside scenery.
Chauk Htat Gyi: New Pagoda, Another View of Burmese Buddhism
New day in Rangoon – as the British settlers preferred to call the city. We dedicate ourselves once more to Buddhism, in the inner parts of the city. We passed the terminal of the old woman train station.
We take a taxi that drops us off at the door of Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda.
More than the interest of the pagoda itself, here inhabits a reclining Buddha 65 meters long and 16 meters high.
“I will go with you and show you everything and take you back to the center. All together I make an irrefutable price!
The promotion of taxi driver Nyi Nyi Win leaves us disarmed by what we gladly accept. We ended up admiring the superlative Buddha.
As a special favor to the newly hired guide, we also visited the interior of the adjoining monastery where he himself lived when he was little and socialized with the spiritual leader of the community and several other monks.
Including one who is patiently shaved on the outside with a classic shaver.
Only Nyi Nyi speaks English. “the monks of this monastery played a very important role in one of the religious revolts against the regime” he informs us with undisguised pride.
In April 2012, Aung Suu Kyi was elected to the lower house of the Burmese parliament. She was chosen as president of Myanmar in 2015.
Six years later, (2021), the strong men of Myanmar have taken over the country again and face the fury of the Burmese people with tear gas and bullets.
The hated military regime maintains its headquarters in the official but surreal capital of Naypyidaw.