Burmese Short Stories – Scenes from Myanmar

Portrait: Burmese woman gardener, Yangon, Myanmar

A elderly Burmese woman gives me a gap-toothed beetle-nut grin as she pulls weeds in a public park in Yangon. So many people still perform hard, physical labour with no early-retirement, but are never-the-less ready with a smile! (11September2012)

It was a “simpler” time …

I visited Myanmar late in 2012, with photographer Karl Grobl from Jim Cline Photo Tours and local guide Mr MM. The country had just opened its doors to international tourists, and was on the brink of change. Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest, and was still locally and internationally revered. 

But not all the current troubles are “recent”: when I visited, our planned trip to the Rakhine State was aborted following the violent conflicts (8 June 2012) between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhines.

Even without that portion of our tour, the two weeks we spent in Myanmar was a richly rewarding experience, about which I have posted many times (see: Ursula’s Weekly Wanders: Myanmar). 

I think of the country often: the golden beauty of Schwedagon Pagoda and other Buddhist temples around the country (e.g.: Bago, Bagan, and the Sagaing Hills); the iconic images of sunset silhouettes of the wooden U Bein Bridge or the leg-rowing fishermen on Inlay Lake; the unique lifestyle around Inle Lake (e.g.: “Life on the Water”, “Indein Village”, “Handicrafts and Tribal Colour”“Thaung Tho Kyaung Market”, and “Tomatoes!”); the heat, confusion and noise of the colourful fresh-food markets (e.g.: Bago, Bagan, Nyaung ShweMandalay,) and the flower markets of Pyin Oo; the profusion of purple-robed monks, novices, and pink-clad nuns going about their daily prayers and study (e.g.: “Light the Way”, “Lining up for Lunch”, “Morning Alms”Nyaung Shwe“Mandalay Temples”, “Sagaing Hills”, Mingun, Bagan); the mystical calm of the Bagan stupas (see: “Living Landscape”, “Dawn to Dusk”, “Heat and Dust”); the unique gold craft, lacquerware, marble carving and marionette making; the ancient architecture (“Kingdom of Inwa”); and most especially the shy smiles of the people everywhere, as they go about their lives (e.g.: “A Burmese Village”, “Riding the Ring Train”Mingun, Pyin Oo Lwin, Mandalay).

When I first arrived in Yangon, it was raining – the kind of relentless, unremitting tropical rain that W. Somerset Maugham described so well in his stories of Southeast Asia. The pounding on the roof was deafening as the waters streamed down the colonial iron lattice-work on the windows of my hotel and bounced back from the pavement below. 

At the first available break in the weather, I ventured out and met my first smiles. 

Golden statue, Kandawgyi Lake, Yangon Myanmar

Golden Statue
Washed clean by the tropical rains, a golden statue rises out of the parks around Kandawgyi Lake, near my hotel. (11September2012)

Karaweik Hall or Palace, on Kandawgyi Lake, Yangon Myanmar

Karaweik Hall
Myanmar’s ornate architecture is unique and distinctive. One of Yangon’s newer landmarks (completed in 1974), the gilded Karaweik Palace, is modelled after the Royal Barge used in the past by the Burmese Kings. Shaped like the mythical Karaweik bird, the restaurant complex looks like it is floating on Kandawgyi Lake. (11September2012)

Elderly Burmese woman writing, Kyakhatwine Monastery, Bago, Myanmar

Writing a Letter
We visited the Kyakhatwine Monastery, Bago, to watch the monks line up for their last meal of the day (Lining up for Lunch). The lay people around the monastery were as interesting as the monks themselves: this elderly woman was hunched over her work when I approached her. (12September2012)

Elderly Burmese woman writing, Kyakhatwine Monastery, Bago, Myanmar

Total Focus
Her total focus as she painstakingly copied the text she was writing was palpable. 

Elderly Burmese woman holding a poster of AAung San Suu Kyi, Kyakhatwine Monastery, Bago, Myanmar

For “The Lady”
The old woman proudly told me that her work was for “The Lady”. Everywhere I went, I saw revered representations of Aung San Suu Kyi. In spite of the current ambivalence about her outside Myanmar, I doubt very much that her image is at all diminished among every-day Burmese(12September2012)

Flowers of the Cannonball Tree - Couroupita Guianensis, Myanmar

Flowers of the Cannonball Tree – Couroupita Guianensis
These unusual flowers are usually only seen in Hindu and Buddhist temples. (13September2012)

Flowers of the Cannonball Tree - Couroupita Guianensis, Myanmar

Cannonball Flowers – Couroupita Guianensis
The hooded flowers are said to look like the sacred snake, or nāga, and the tree resembles the one (Shorea robusta) that Maya was holding onto while she was giving birth to the Lord Buddha.

Burmese woman at a loom, Mandalay Myanmar

Lady at the Loom
In a hot, dark room in Mandalay, women sit working large looms. (14September2012)

Portrait of a Burmese woman at a loom, Mandalay Myanmar


Burmese hands at work at a loom, Mandalay Myanmar

Hands at Work
The silk lace that the women are making is complex: requiring different coloured threads and a great deal of concentration. (14September2012)

Burmese hands at work at a loom, Mandalay Myanmar

Silk Shuttle

Burmese novice on a bench, Heho Myanmar

Novice on a Bench
Monks and novices are everywhere in Myanmar; …

Portrait of a Burmese Novice, Heho Myanmar

Burmese Novice
… this particular novice is sitting outside a barber shop in Heho. (20September2012)

Burmese barber cutting a man

The Haircut
Inside the small shop, a man is getting his hair cut.

Burmese barber cutting a man

The Cut
The barber pays attention to his work …

Burmese Novice in a barbershop mirror, Heho Myanmar

Monk in the Mirror
… while the novice watches.

Detail: Clippers of a Burmese barber cutting a man


Mirrored reflection of a Burmese barber cutting a man


Burmese barber cutting a man

The men are a study in concentration …

Portrait: Burmese barber and his customer, Heho Myanmar

Barber and his Client
… until the cut is finished, …

Portrait of a happy Burmese customer, Heho Myanmar

The Happy Customer
… and they show off the finished product. (20September2012)

Burmese man making dough, Nyaung Shwe Myanmar

Making Dough
You are never far from freshly-made food in Myanmar! (23September2012)

Sticky buns on a griddle, Nyaung Shwe Myanmar

Sticky Dough on the Griddle

Burmese boy on the Ring Train, Yangon Myanmar

Young Boy and his Mother
It is the people that make travel special; the open face of a young boy on Yangon’s Ring Train brings my trip full circle – pardon the pun!

As I said: when I visited, the country was on the brink of change following the 2010 election of a nominally civilian government. Clearly, however, not all the anticipated transformations have worked out as positively as some of us had hoped. The election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party in 2015 has not eased the ongoing ethnic conflicts.

To the Future (text)

The generous, gentle people that I met all over the country belie the current news headlines. I can only hope they can work out a positive way forward.

Pictures: 11-23September2012

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