A Teapot on Every Table

While a cow and goat sacrifice festival (Hari Raya Haji) went on in Kelantan, I took a trip to Myanmar/Burma for a few days with a fellow Fulbright friend.

Before I continue, let’s settle whether it’s “Myanmar” or “Burma.” Myanmar is the formal name used in written documents and Burma is the colloquial name. Burma was used during British colonial rule and is also the name of the ethnic majority, the Bamar. The military junta renamed the country “Myanmar” in an attempt to distinguish itself from its colonial past and to emphasize the supremacy of written over colloquial language. The name Myanmar has stuck with the international community because of its recent use, and is used  by the UN and President Obama. Though “Myanmar” is commonly accepted, the use of “Burma” typically shows disapproval of the country’s still unpopular and troublesome government. For that reason, I’ll use the name Burma. While there, I heard the country’s residents call it by both names.

Burma had its first free elections in November of 2015 after almost 50 years of military rule. There are still armed struggles between Buddhist and Muslim groups in northern Burma, but the southern areas are safe for visitors.

We flew into the largest city and former capital, Yangon, alternatively known as Rangoon. It is unclear how the city’s name became connected to the infamous, Chinese take-out treat—the crab Rangoon.

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Yangon at night.

We got into a taxi and were surprised to see that cars are driven on the same side of the road as in the U.S., but the steering wheels are on the right side. Instead of always being closest to the median, the driver operates the car from the sidewalk side.

The busy streets of Yangon were lined by evening food carts and restaurants with little plastic stools set up around tables, each one with a shiny silver teapot. There were few other westerners around. I was delighted that no one tried to sell me anything. Rather, locals smiled easily as I walked past.

The next day we went to the Shwedagon Pagoda. According to legend, it has been a sacred site for 2600 years. But over the last 1000 years the pagoda has become what it is today.

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One of four entrances to the Shwedagon Pagoda complex.
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The Shwedagon Pagoda.
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One of the many smaller, more intimate shrines within the complex.

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The pagoda complex was alive with worshippers. Groups of men and women in simple grey shirts and pants prayed near the towering golden dome. They swept a patch of the tiled ground, stood with their hands above their heads, then bent their bodies in half and kneeled, placing their foreheads on the ground. Some people wore garden-type gloves and continued their motion of worship by sliding their whole body onto the ground until they lay completely facedown.

Burma is famous for its textiles, and it shows. Set against the simple grey clothing of the worshippers, young couples promenaded around the complex. They dressed colorfully and meticulously, with perfectly tailored ensembles of hot pink, deep blue, and forest green highlighted in the hot sun by abundant gold and silver. Each couple held a bouquet of fresh flowers.

A lack of infrastructure makes getting around Burma difficult, but luckily there are a lot of bus companies. I took a night bus north to a mountain town, Kalaw. We stopped at a rest stop in the middle of the night. A young waiter helped me understand the menu and brought me one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten. Named after the ethnic group, Shan, shan noodles are an exquisite mixture of saucy meat, ground peanuts, fresh beansprouts and cilantro and lime, and a hearty serving of chili. It may seem similar to (the also delicious) Pad Thai, but only in form. The flavor is unique and wholly divine.

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The same superb Shan noodles on a different occasion.

We arrived in the chilly mountain air at Kalaw. After the sun came up, we took a trek with a local guide through green tea and ginger fields growing on impossibly steep hillsides. We trudged through the Colorado-red paths on the high jungle walks, stopping to take pictures a little too often at each overflowing, verdant vista.

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Our guide was a young woman who grew up in a village a few hours drive from Kalaw. She was very open to answering our questions. I asked her how her everyday life has changed since the end of the military dictatorship and rise of the new government in 2011. She said that she and many others have been thankful for the exponentially higher living wage. She was also happy to be able to speak about the government openly. People used to disappear or go to prison for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. She said she’s never been to still-warring northern Burma, but occasionally meets people who flee to the south to find better work.

We hiked up and down several small mountains and through a few isolated tea-growing villages. A man and woman were drying their freshly picked tea leaves on tarps in the sun. I bought some and stowed the little plastic bag of leaves in my pack.

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After the tea leaves are harvested and roasted, they dry in the sun for several days. The tea farmer in this picture was busy flipping and mixing the leaves so they dried evenly.

On the way down from the last peak, we got into a conversation about dating and marriage in Burma. Burma recently gained access to western media when it was freed from military rule. Our guide told us that, eager to be involved in the outside world, a lot of young people in Burma started to practice western-style dating and living together before marriage. Though there’s more access to the media, there is still apparently very little sex-education in Burma. The change to western dating and the lack of information about birth control has caused a lot of unwanted pregnancies, and recently there has been an outbreak of young women killing themselves from shame.

Our guide was recently married and explained to us in great detail about traditional Burmese weddings, which sounded to me like playful occasions. The wedding is carried out by the unmarried men and women in the village. The men stay up all night doing the cooking and the women decorate. The wedding is officiated by the head single man in the group. After the official ceremonies are done, the gags and pranks ensue. One involves the bride and groom pretending to buy overpriced mangoes from their friends. In another, the groom holds up the blindfolded bride as she tries to eat an orange hanging from the ceiling. In a particularly scandalous prank, a paperclip is pinned somewhere on the bride’s clothing and the blindfolded groom must find it with his hands. Finally, the bride and groom must bite into a small treat at the same time.

I hope the political situation in Burma improves and that the treasures within this country can be known to the rest of the world. Maybe within the next few decades the name Burma won’t evoke images of war and human rights’ violations, but of golden pagodas, flavorful noodles, rolling hills, and jolly pranks among friends.

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