I'd stopped to take a photograph of local men playing a game of chinlon, with a cane ball, when our otherwise relaxed guide, Mrs. Kyi Kyi, ushered us away. "The party's headquarters are here, we must not linger." Earlier, she not only dissuaded us from tarrying near the barricade outside Aung San Suu Chi's house, but also wouldn't use her name, always referring to her as "the lady," because "even walls have ears."
That was just over a year ago. Although hundreds of other opponents are still awaiting release, the ruling junta has succumbed to external and internal pressures and freed Suu Chi.
Relic from a bygone era
Myanmar's essence is that of a teenager experiencing a prolonged childhood enforced by draconian parents. Whispers arrive of her neighbours' free ways, their adoption of western comforts and lifestyle and she awaits her moment.
For now, Myanmar has six digit phone numbers and the mobile network does not reach beyond the border. There are no ATMs, very few credit card facilities. The internet is censored, sometimes even the mail. There are very few foreign visitors, so notes are seldom exchanged.
On the streets, blue jeans are a rarity, people wear tops with cotton longy wrapped around their waists and the women pretty their hair with scented flowers. Small street kitchens, hawker stalls and tea shops are where people huddle close, share meals and words. Myanmar cuisine is varied and delicious. It surprised me to see how many vendors, rickshaw pullers and merchants read their books as they waited for customers. The people smear their faces with a wood paste called tanakha. What might seem rather clownish make-up to us, is an effective skin protector to them.
The Buddhist path and the earning of merit in this life is a pre-occupation. Barefoot monks and novices do the rounds early in the morning; housewives have enormous pots of cooked food ready for handouts. Impressive gold clad temples, pagodas and shrines are everywhere, contrasting with often dilapidated streets and ageing buildings. The exquisite Shwedagon Paya in Yangon is filled day and night with worshippers. They release birds from cages, clad images of Buddha with squares of gold leaf and bathe idols with cupfuls of water.
Glimpses of Indian influence
Several people I met, spoke of their desire to make a pilgrimage someday to the birthplace of Buddha, Bodh Gaya, in India. There was much that reminded me of India. The ubiquitous Nat (from Sanskrit Nath) shrines are a relic of pre-Buddhist religion. Redented temple architecture is redolent of Hindu influences and many classical dance themes emanate from the Ramayana and Jataka stories. The wearing of sarongs, similar to our dhotis and lungis, use of turmeric in the cuisine, betel stained mouths and counting in "lakhs" were some of the things that roused familiarity.
As we left the land of rubies and teak, of rich natural resources, which are in the hands of a few, what played on my mind was how, despite hardship, tyranny and inequalities, the ordinary people manage to conduct themselves in the most elegant and dignified manner.