Travel Tales: Full moon rising over Yangon

As Myanmar heads into polls, the closed country is opening up more to tourists as well. In 2012, the annual Shwedagon Pagoda festival was celebrated for the first time since 1988 when the junta banned it. Here's what it felt like.

Amod Chopra April 01, 2012 10:49:57 IST
Travel Tales: Full moon rising over Yangon

The airplane banks to the left over the rice fields. It swoops down over the pagodas surrounded by simple looking homes and makes a smooth landing.  I enter the airport hesistantly, unsure of the reception that lies ahead.  It is after all one of the most closed countries in the world.  The arrival hall is a large glass enclosure.  It doesn’t help my feeling of vulnerability.  The people behind the glass enclosures are pounding on the glass and waving excitedly to their returning friends and family members.  Tonight is the 2600 th full moon anniversary of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.

I step into the immigration line with trepidation.  They don’t look upon scribes, including weekend hacks, too kindly here.  The female security officer breaks into a big smile on seeing Karam (my 3 year old).  I hear that the military junta is attempting not to project the same same intimidation they once did.  This is after all the new Myanmar.

It is a blistering hot day in Yangon.  The old Toyota attempts to race towards the town.  I realise I am roasting through the air conditioning.  As I sweat through my designer linen pants, I envy my guide and driver’s longyi.  The Burmese are so practical.  They have adapted well to their climate.

Travel Tales Full moon rising over Yangon

The Shwedagon Pagoda is so central to the hearts of the Burmese.Reuters

It seems the entire city is preparing for the Anniversary party of the pagoda.  I am excited to have made it for this full moon night.  But some things aren’t meant to be.  Jet lag sets in. An afternoon siesta turns into deep sleep right through the full moon party and into a 3 am breakfast search.

The next day finds the disappointed family at Feel restaurant.  Contrary to the strange name the food was very appetizing.  This restaurant was packed with locals.  Well, there aren’t very many tourists here so all the good restaurants are packed with locals. We went up to a counter where the food was continuously getting filled and served.

We picked our main dishes from an assortment of river fish, chicken, pork, river prawns and vegetables cooked in various styles.  Then we picked the sides: soups, salads, cooked vegetables, pickles.  The jumbo river prawns and the Burmese fish curry were excellent.  The focus of the meal was on the sides.  They were the absolute highlights.  I relished the fact that the main portions were in line with dietary needs.  That also means they were small for western appetites.  Outside the restaurant there was a long dessert counter.  I stayed away.

The staff was so helpful.  They took Karam and disappeared.  They entertained him while we ate. He came back with a banana in one hand and a toy in another.  Capitalism was finding its way into life here.  The restaurant’s entrance was lined with rice bags, which they were selling, on one side and longyis(lungi) on the other.  The Longyis were probably there in case you were wearing designer linen pants.

The restaurant had a vendor outside with a cage full of about three-dozen small birds.  The birds fascinated Karam.  He kept trying to stick his finger in the cage.  I was hoping for a Darwinian lesson but his mother pulled him away.   These birds are sold outside the pagodas as well.  To get a good blessing you purchase the birds and release them.  Wait a minute, isn’t somebody catching the birds in the first plac? His karma must really be in the toilet.  Personally, I think the  Buddha is frowning on this whole cycle.

The Shwedagon Pagoda is so central to the hearts of the Burmese.  As we make our pilgrimage to this dome plated with gold, the vendor booths being dismantled serves as a memory of our missed full moon party.  We take solace in the fact that we had missed the crowds.  However it seemed like the entire city was still here.

We join the river of people flowing around the pagoda.  The air is filled with the smell of incense.  It soothes our senses as it descends upon us.  It seemed the monks and families from around town were here to socialize as well as make offerings.  They were laden with lilies and jasmine flowers, candles and incense.  They would stop off at different altars to give their offerings.

Let me throw something trippy at you.  You don’t get a family name here.  Your name is based on your horoscope as in the day and hour that you were born.  I would be named Monday the lion.  Pretty cool!  Well your name also guides you to the altar around the pagoda where you would make your offerings.

The evening comes to a close with the consolation full moon rising above the gold plated pagoda.  I turn around to see Karam playing with his fan club.  He hasn’t spent an evening like this in our isolated world in California.  Come on son, it is time to go.

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