Saturday, April 23, 2016

Messages From Myanmar #14

Messages From Myanmar #14
24 April 2016

Photo Update Alert:

Hello there… Rodger French here.

By most accounts, the Thingyan Water Festival was a bit more restrained this year, as the authorities put serious restrictions on where groups could set up their pandals (essentially reviewing platforms) from whence they could train their streams of water on truckloads of young people who had begun drinking whiskey early in the morning. (Incidentally, the 2016 Thingyan death toll in Myanmar stands at 35, due primarily to auto accidents and drowning.)

A.J. and I hunkered down at The Shang for a few days, then made for the airport and hastened to a change of scene in Penang, an island off the west coast of what’s known as Peninsular Malaysia. Originally part of the Malay Sultanate of Kedah, Penang subsequently “belonged” to the British East India Company, represented by the locally renown Capt. Francis Light. Later it became, along with Singapore and Malacca, one of the Straights Settlements under British colonial rule. Then… part of the Malayan Union, the Federation of Malaya, and finally in 1963, Malaysia.

[History Buff Sidebar - Having lived in Ghana, South Africa, Argentina, and now Myanmar, a heightened sensitivity to the history and legacy of British colonialism is manifestly unavoidable.]

We stayed in the capital George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and bona fide melting pot of ethnicities. Our hotel, heroically created/restored from the ruins of a row of shophouses, was situated within easy walking distance to the historic city center. Consequently, we spent our days in true gringo fashion, wandering the tropical heat-whispered streets, taking in various museums, Chinese clan houses, temples (Confucian, Hindu, and Buddhist), and mosques, as well as shoppes and restaurants.

[Social Sidebar - A high point of our walking tour was Ten Yee Trading, a classic old tea shoppe, where we were offered tea by the shoppe owner and a friend of his who was there on his lunch break. We had a lovely conversation about many subjects including history, economics, politics… and tea. Naturally, we did not leave empty-handed.]

We also managed a trip to Penang Hill, riding what I daresay may be the world’s fastest funicular to the old British hill station situated some 833 m (2733 ft) above sea level. Decidedly cooler, the hill is popular with locals as well as tourists and offers panoramic views of the city and the bridges to Butterworth on the mainland; vistas which, regrettably, we did not experience due to the tropical haze. Ah, well…

After three nights in George Town, we taxied to the north side of the island and the beach resort of Batu Ferringhi. Not a lot of schlepping on the agenda here, thank you very much; just intermittent trips between our hotel room (with a view of the sea), the elaborate swimming pool (likewise), and the restaurant, with a menu that included nasi lemak (considered the national dish of Malaysia), nasi dagang, and nasi goring; all rice-based, all prepared “not too hot.” All good.

Our return to Yangon was uneventful, notwithstanding that every person in Southeast Asia evidently contrived to arrive at the airport at exactly the same time as we. But, navigating the chaos like a couple of seasoned touristas, we made it back to The Shang safe and/or sound. It was an altogether fine excursion, and - it bears repeating - we feel most fortunate to be in a position to visit such exotic locales. Even in the footsteps of the British.



Saturday, April 2, 2016

Messages From Myanmar #13

Messages From Myanmar #13
02 April 2016

Hello there… Rodger French here.

The “Thingyan Water Festival,” one of the biggest Buddhist festivals of the year, is almost upon us, and the ever-considerate management here at The Shang has issued an official announcement. Permit me to quote at some length their summation of the occasion:

“The festival usually falls around mid-April, the hottest season of the year. The dates of the Thingyan festival are calculated conferring to the tradition of the lunisolar calendar. The celebration this year is a period of five days, from 12 to 17 April. There are ten public holidays during the festival from 11 to 20 April.”

[Occupational Sidebar - When I start my gig at the Embassy on 04 April (having finally received a coveted Super Secret Squirrel Security Clearance and Decoder Ring), I will work for exactly one week and have the following week off, as business throughout the city of Yangon comes to a screeching halt.]

“Throughout the celebration, people splash/pour water at one another as part of the cleansing ritual to welcome the new year. Traditionally people gently sprinkled water on one another as a sign of respect…”

[Cultural Appreciation Sidebar - This is a lovely idea.]

 “… but as the new year falls during the hottest month, many people end up dousing strangers and passersby in vehicles in boisterous celebration.”

[Reality Check Sidebar - Prepare for the possibility of being blasted, whether you’re into it or not, by powerful streams of contaminated lake water through high-pressure devices wielded by people who are very likely shit-faced drunk. Serious injuries (e.g., broken bones, detached retinas) have been documented. In fact, it’s gotten so out of hand that many people make Thingyan escape plans. Anne and I, for instance, have booked a few days in Panang, Malaysia, assuming we can get to the airport.]

“It is believed that on this Water Festival, everything old must be thrown away, or it will bring the owner bad luck.”

[Western Materialism Sidebar - I am aware that I speak from a position of privilege, but for a country with an official poverty rate somewhere north of 26% and a minimum wage of $2.60/day, I regard this as a possibly laudable but not particularly practical sentiment. Besides, I rather like my old stuff.]

Bonus Breaking News (non-Thingyan Edition) - Just in case you missed it, this story from The Myanmar Times.

More waterlogged updates later.