We have arrived in Myanmar. Our first glimpse as we flew into Yangon was the glinting in the sunlight of hundreds of golden pagodas scattered across the land.
Since landing we have seen so many that I’ve lost count. The pagodas here are very different to Thailand. Forget the image of monks peacefully chanting with serene expressions on their faces. Oh no. Think instead, Buddha statues with multi coloured, flashing LED halos and starbursts around their heads. Think a single monk shouting the scripts of Buddha, and that playing at ear splitting volume from speakers mounted all around the temple. Apparently the readings take place only at this time of year and are almost over.
We had some time to kill in Yangon before our overnight bus to Mawlamyine, so our host, Thane, sent her son and daughter to meet us at the airport. Andrew & Annette showed us around the city a little, taking us to Sule Pagoda and a park that houses the independence monument.
The little that we saw of Yangon was interesting. We were struck by how much it reminded us of Kampala. I guess it makes sense as both countries are ex-British colonies. There is also an interesting mix of clothing. We saw one man wearing the traditional longyi (a kind of sarong/skirt) and a Slipknot hoodie.
Our overnight bus to Mawlamyine was an experience. It took 7 hours and cost £5 each. We went with a company called PTT. They don’t charge foreigners extra but you need to book ahead and they strictly enforce their seating plan – which unfortunately for us meant that one of our seats had no leg space due to a carefully placed fire extinguisher. Just as Leckie explained that he’d be fine as long as the man in front didn’t fully recline his seat, the man did exactly that and nearly broke both of his kneecaps. We were passed by some really fancy looking buses though, so I’m sure there are more premium options available. You never missed the passing of another vehicle as our driver let out a blast of the bus’ air horn every time, and between that and his singing, sleeping was not on the cards.
When we arrived several of the students we will be teaching were at the bus stop waiting for us, despite it being 4am!! They were all very friendly and we look forward to spending the next six weeks helping with their English lessons.
Thane had been a most wonderful host and has made sure that we meet everyone we need to. She speaks of her hopes to bring tourism to this part of Myanmar. For us that means weekly field trips where we will write about what we see. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it!
She is a very respected member of the local community and seems to know everyone. She had been unbelievably attentive and as a result we feel very confident in Mawlamyine after such a short time.
Mawlamyine itself is so friendly. People are very interested in us but also conscious of being polite. Adults steal glances and flash smiles whilst children either sit open mouthed or say hello. Though the odd person is so shocked they nearly fall off their motorcycle at the sight of us. It’s really untouched by tourism here which makes it such a unique experience. Very little signage is in English and no menus have been so far which will make for some interesting experiences I’m sure.
Mawlamyine is a melting pot of different religions with pagodas, mosques, churches, Hindu temples and Sikh temples all within 5 minutes from us. The area we are staying in is very central and it’s a real mix of architecture. There are loads of old colonial buildings that have not been maintained and are beautiful in their state of disrepair.
Something I wasn’t fully prepared for was how modestly the women here dress. I knew that it would be polite to cover my shoulders and have light weight shrugs for that purpose. However upon arriving in Yangon I noticed a lot of glances at my top and noticed that no one wore a neckline below their collar bone. So I’ve taken to wearing my vest tops backwards with the shrug covering the back (originally the front). Genius!
The food so far has been an experience. Leckie is in heaven with all the dishes that keep getting piled in front of us. I am trying everything and finding the odd dish that I like.
Breakfast so far has consisted of fish soup, curry, noodles, spaghetti, fried onion/gourd/chick pea, fried garlic, duck eggs and bamboo. Most come with a healthy dose of coriander which is where my problem comes in. I’m not sure why but coriander just kills me. I swear I’m like the princess and the pea when it comes to that – I could taste one leaf in a whole soup pot. Nonetheless there is still plenty I can eat and I’m far from going hungry as everyone wants to feed us.
It hasn’t been long but I’m already warmed by the Mawlamyine people and very much looking forward to the rest of my time here.