Saturday, December 17, 2016

Myanmar, Day 1: Doha Departure & Yangon Arrival

Friday evening, the three of us left Doha at 8:20PM and flew 5½ hours before landing at our destination: Yangon, Myanmar. Some people are not familiar with Myanmar and recognize the country by its former name, Burma. Even though I was relieved of my scholastic responsibilities by 3PM on Thursday and could leave the country at that time, we couldn't leave then as there were no flights available. So, after school on Thursday, we went to see the new movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them at the Gulf Mall, ate a quick meal at Shake Shack and then went home to open Christmas presents. We wanted to open our Christmas presents so early, because we would be traveling on the holiday, and, even though there weren't very many gifts, we didn't want to lug them around during our vacation. In any case, Vito had customized his letter to Santa this year and held out hopes that the naughty-or-nice guardian would leave something particular under our tree in Doha and also deliver something to him wherever we were in our travels.

There is about a five hour time different between Qatar and Myanmar so, even though the flight was relatively short, we arrived in the morning (which would have made it around 2AM for us if we had stayed in Qatar). I don't remember doing much aside from eating on the plane. We were served a beverage and a light snack shortly after takeoff and then served breakfast just before landingit seemed excessive for such a short flight, but we weren't really complaining. After disembarking, clearing customs, gathering our two suitcases, exchanging US dollars for Myanmarian Kyats (sounds like 'chat') and arranging a taxi to our hotel, we reached our final destination, the Merchant Art Boutique Hotel, by 7:30AM. The few couches in the small lobby were full of guests (I could recognize that four of them were speaking Italianwith their backpacks and luggage who looked like they had also just arrived on the same early flight as us, which wasn't a good sign, and we were really much too early to check in so the room wasn't ready. We asked to leave our suitcases, and, even though both Angela and I had not slept much (Vito had slept for about three hours) we coated ourselves with mosquito repellant and headed out to explore the neighborhood around our hotel.

The location turned out to be quite well-considered. Winding our way through the criss-cross streets and through a roadside market that was readying itself for another day, we stumbled across a small temple, removed our shoes and socks, and entered to look around. It was relatively unremarkable aside from a large pond brimming with gigantic catfish. When we had finished, we climbed a tall hill, a wood-covered and columned stairway lined with vendors, to the entrance of Shwedagon Pagoda, perhaps Myanmar's most famous sight. The high walls were decorated with elaborate and brightly painted scenes carved into wood. We paid the 24,000 Kyat foreign entrance fee (approximately$18) and received a brochure that indicated multiple entrances, one at each of the east, north, south and west entrances.

The stunning central stupaa great, wide, golden, pregnant behemoth around which every other structure crowdedcould be seen from the bottom of the hill and was surrounded by statues and stupas and towers of all shapes and sizes, most of them covered in gold or gold leaf or painted gold, and all of them surrounding the main immense stupa in the center of the complex. The site was an impressive and surreal feast for the senses. Starting with the removal of footwear, which put us in contact with the world in a way that we were not used to, we joined the monks in their maroon robes, the nuns in their pink ones, and the rest of the pilgrims and tourists thronging around the great stupa. We could smell incense and hear bells and gongs reverberating through the complex periodically. People were kneeling and praying, lighting candles and setting out flowers. Many of the stupas, studded with diamonds and other jewels, were crowned with a circular lattice of bells that could be heard tinkling faintly in the breeze.We spent a couple of hours exploringVito discovered that there were numerous bells to strike, and he made it his mission to seek them out. We also learned that there were eight 'corners' around the stupa, and that each of them corresponded with an entrance and at which water could be poured over a representative statue. There were nice Myanmar men (identifiable by the longyis that, incidentally, both men and women worewide garments wrapped around the waist and tied in a knot at the frontthat they were wearing) with laminated cards who could identify anyone's day of birth, so we all learned what the days or our birth and then looked for the respective animals (Angela's animal was a rat, Vito's a tiger, and mine the lion) to bathe the Buddha statue in that location. We were tired and thirsty and hungry so we returned to our hotel to see if we could check in, but it was still too early. The hotel's restaurant was, at least, open for breakfast by then, so we found a table to sit down and eat.

The buffet food was nothing to brag about with the exception of mohinga, a kind traditional Burmese noodle dish incorporating chickpea flour and fish paste among other typical ingredients, which we tried here for the first time. After eating, our room was still not ready. Vito was exhausted and went to sleep on a sofa in an empty lounge next to the restaurant and I waited in the lobby. Angela stayed with Vito, resting herself, and noticed, too late, that Vito was getting bitten by mosquitoes. We were worried about mosquito bites, because we had heard that the prevalence of Dengue fever was higher in recent months due to a wetter than usual rainy season. Anyhow, by about 12PM, our room was finally ready, we settled in to take a nap.

We went out again at around 4PM and, not really knowing what else to do, we went back to Shwedagon Pagoda. We had read that it was particularly beautiful at sunrise or sunset and, having missed sunrise, thought to return there for a walk before looking for 999 Shan Noodle Shop restaurant for dinner.

It was about thirty minutes before closing and the little hole-in-the-wall restaurant was full when we arrived, but the waiters made room for us at a table with another couple so we didn't have to wait for a seat. When space at a larger table opened up, they moved us to that table where two German guys were already eating. The noodles were remarkable and we made small talk with our table mates wishing them a happy holidays when they finished eating and left the table. We were the last to finish and caught a cab back to our hotel. We weren't quite ready for bed, and we went up to the rooftop bar of our hotel, which had a lovely view of Swedagon Pagoda.