Myanmar Day 16: A Theim Phyu Feat, Colonial Wanderings and the End of an Awesome Experience

The final day of the tour was a “free” day with no organised events so after breakfast I decided to go on a final wander around Yangon. I had to return late afternoon for the final group event, a meal and drinks on 19th Street, Chinatown.

I left the Yuzana Garden Hotel taking a left towards the Central Railway Station. I’d intended to visit the market Theim Phyu on my first few days but hadn’t made it; it was some 15 minutes walk from the hotel. On arrival I had to dodge young men rushing to deliver great sacks of onions and masses of bananas whilst navigating the usual posse of feral canine friends. Theim Phyu Market is one of the most popular markets in Yangon, still frequented by mainly local inhabitants. It offers fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, pulses, medicinal plants, and clothes amounts other things.

As I sauntered up the narrow pathways I realised I was the only foreigner and a tourist attraction myself, more than one vendor requested a photo with me and rolled into fits of laughter when they viewed the results on their phones. The phones they were using looked liked models of yesterday definitely not SMART, probably re-cycled and maybe the first with cameras :-). The language barrier was as usual surmounted by the smiles and gestures of the wonderful Burmese people. These open air local markets remind me of what we miss in the sanitised world of TESCO and ASDA!

Leaving the market I passed a woman surrounded by around 20 dogs all were bouncing around on their back heels as they danced around her.  This continued as she crossed the road the traffic respecting both her and the feral animals by slowing down.  Once she reached the other side she threw open a large plastic bag which contained a multitude of…fish heads. It was a sight to behold as they feasted and devoured her offerings.

I made my way across the railway bridge and through the streets adjacent to Sule Pagoda, all faded colonial elegance juxtaposed against colourful washing airing to dry. Kids played tag, cats romanced and grey haired Indian men added vibrancy with their henna dyed pates. I digested another plate of the luscious lentil and coriander soup and continued to soak up the electric atmosphere that makes this such a wonderful destination to visit.

Eventually I reached another Chinese temple were local kids were practicing their acrobatic acts in preparation for Chinese New Year. An old lady offered me green tea and her husband guided me around the temple. I’d decided to succumb to the touristic charms of Bogyoke Market and so headed past the Shri Kali Temple and Little India.

Bogyoke is a 70-year-old market, also known as Scott Market, sprawls over a couple of levels along Bogyoke Aung San Road. It’s not an exotic place but is probably the best known tourist market and a definitively pleasant shopping experience, or just a chance to wander around and enjoy the handicrafts, foodstuffs and jewellery while chatting with the locals, or haggling should you spot something you like. There are some 2000 shops here selling anything from Myanmar souvenirs to the famed lacquer ware, Shan shoulder bags, puppets, slippers, gems or jewellery.  I grabbed two t-shirts for $7 and head over the elevated bridge that spanned the railway line stopping at a European style coffee shop on the other side.

Walking North I discovered the mirrored Sein Yaung Chi Pagoda.  The outside of this almost completely unvisited pagoda is covered in mirror mosaic, making it look almost as if it were a mirage. The inside is covered in thousands of tiny Buddha sculptures. A myriad and cosmopolitan array of cats lives in the courtyard. A wonderful discovery on the walk to Shwedagon, this is certainly one of my favourite temples in Yangon.

It was another kilometre for my final destination the east gate of the Shwedagon Pagoda. When I arrived it was approaching sundown and some elderly Buddhists descended from the temple’s eastern gate and settle into chairs before an array of free newspaper offerings that awaited their perusal.  It’s a peaceful scene, and quiet, some apparently will spend hours reading newspapers, one after another. The area east is filled with Buddha “manufacturers” and small restaurants and I nibbled on samosa as I walked up the incline to the main road that would lead me back to the Yuzana Gardens. I had around 1.5 km to cover and it gave me time to reflect on my most wonderful journey around Myanmar. I had started but hadn’t read much of Orwell’s “Burmese days” on this trip.

Published in 1934, “Burmese Days” was Orwell’s first novel, and although it reveals the disturbing effect that his stint as a policeman in various small Burmese towns had had upon him (most famously recorded in his essay “Shooting an Elephant“), it also indicates his compassion for an underlying way of life, the lifestyles along the Irrawaddy, the culture’s religious undercurrents, the refinement and mystery and stoicism of a population that had little or no voice. It also contains without doubt the finest narrative of a traditional slapstick zat pwe dance routine ever committed to script; down to the dancer stirring the two halves of her derrière to a multifarious rhythm.

What was the real extent of Burma’s spell over Orwell? It was explored in detail by Emma Larkin in her book “Finding George Orwell in Burma,” in which she makes a sinisterly persuasive case. Orwell’s trilogy of novels (“Burmese Days,” “Animal Farm” and “1984″), she contends, directly mirror the progress of Burma, a colonial society altered, through independence and the socialist military coup in 1962, into a version of “Animal Farm,” then “1984.” Fortunately, the evolution continues with recent reforms and the 2010 release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, the famous dissident and now opposition leader.

I hope to return one day.

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