One does not go to Rangoon to observe a stable, well-run county. I went for its people, its art, its architecture, its food and for its Buddhist culture. It has the largest number of colonial buildings in Southeast Asia today.
For those people who think colonialism was a terrible thing, some of them, including me, grudgingly agree that Burma (later Myanmar) may be an exception. The British seized Rangoon (later Yangon) in 1852 and ruled it efficiently, even if they treated the local population as second class citizens. The Japanese ran them out in 1942. The Japanese occupation during World War II, coupled with the current Burmese military dictatorship, has made Burma into a depressed county with a repressed people.
The colonial buildings are in a sad state of repair. I recall that the ever-hardy tropical plants were able to grow between the ceramic tiles on the roofs. By closing my eyes to half mast, I could almost see Rangoon in its colonial glory. However, I could keep my eyes wide open for the overwhelming glory of the Shwedagon Pagoda which stands about 328 feet tall and is covered, at the higher elevations, with solid gold plates and a wealth of jewels (diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires) – an unbelievably beautiful monument to Theravada Buddhism.
In 1971, on my first trip to Rangoon, I consciously chose to stay in the Strand Hotel – a once grand Victorian-era hotel. It was equally as grand and as beautiful as the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the Erewan and Oriental hotels in Bangkok. Great names frequented them, Lord Mountbatten, Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling, among others. During those days, all served whites only.
Walking into the lobby, the first thing that caught my eye was an elegant glassed-in lost and found cabinet. It was filled with things that must have been there for years – one lace glove, several lorgnettes, several monocles and other Victorian-era treasures left behind by colonial sahibs. At check-in, I picked up my very large key as well as my mail and headed over the marble floors for the elevator (lift). Oops, a sign said it was “under repair” and politely directed me to the stairs, which proved to be very elegant and made of teak.
My room had seen better days but was clean and enormous – big enough for a dance and the highly polished teak floor would have been perfect for dancing. One little problem, no water except between six and eight a.m. Otherwise, flush toilets were not flushible. OK, I can work around that.
I had an hour or so before dinner and started reading my mail.
One letter started out “Hello Baby.” Wow! My wife had died two years earlier and even she had never called me “Baby.” I looked quickly at the front of the envelope. It was addressed to Dr. Joseph H. Howard. I am Joseph H. Howard, but I’m no Doctor. The stamp was missing and, wow! double wow!, the letter had been there since August 16, 1969, two years earlier! The Doctor was due to arrive August 12 and indeed he did. He left on the 13th, 3 days before the letter had arrived at the Strand Hotel.
I was, and still am, flabbergasted! Where else in the world could this have happened? While I had the return address, I didn’t send it to the Doctor for the simple reason that I didn’t want to give it up.
Still experiencing shell-shock, I thought that I could come to grips with this at dinner. At the dining room entrance, I was brought back to reality when I was told that I needed a jacket in the dining room. I was annoyed at this hangover from British colonial rule, especially since I believe that I was the only person in the hotel. Not one to buck authority, especially in a foreign country, I returned in my jacket and began to calm down when I realized that I was the only diner and that I “had staff” and when one “has staff,” of course a jacket should be required. There were at least five waiting on me: the receptionist, the maître d’, the head waiter and two other waiters – for one person.
Two amazing experiences and I had been in Rangoon only about 4 hours. What can top those? Pagan, but in a different way.
I had planned to be in Burma on the first day that tourists were allowed to go to Pagan.
Pagan, the most important historical site in Burma, lies within a major bend of the Irrawaddy River. It is in the most arid part of Central Burma and was founded before the 9th century AD. Today, the archaeological site consists of 2,230 buildings and mounds scattered over approximately twenty-five square miles. Among these structures are 911 temples, of which 347 have conserved to some extent their mural paintings; 524 stupas; 415 monasteries, etc., etc. It boggles my mind to think that Pagan was overrun by Kubla Khan in 1287 A.D.
On my second day, I flew to Pagan. Joining me on the small plane was a gentleman from East Germany – another story.
The local people hadn’t seen a tourist in years. Upon seeing the plane land, they hastily brought out their wares – mostly junk. We both found, however, some old opium weights that cost us about 25 cents. In 2000, in Bangkok, I could have bought reproductions for about $25.
We stayed at the Government House that was a relic from British Burma that consisted of two dormitory-like rooms – one for each sex. We had water but only one towel which we promptly tore into two pieces. Worked fine.
Pagan is one of the major Buddhist sites in Southeast Asia, Ankor Wat in Cambodia and Borobadour in Indonesia being the others. However, it is equally as beautiful and unbelievable and remains as important to me as the other two.
I spent the whole day there in a state of euphoria where time was suspended.
Back to Rangoon. The sights, sounds, and smells of most Asian cities are unfamiliar to westerners and can be a little frightening upon first encounter. Rangoon is no different.
On my last day there, I had a little time to walk the streets. I was met by the unpleasant smell of drying fish, which is a staple in the local diet. Another ever present smell is of the charcoal fires on which many of the hawkers, with their portable stands, were cooking such wonderful things as noodles, chicken crucified on a stick, fried bananas, etc. The sounds included the cries of the hawkers with cries unique to their particular food. The sound of bells, being rung by the faithful at the many temples, was wonderful, with their thin high pitch. The kaleidoscope of sights, sounds and smells were almost more than one can absorb. However, something seemed different on the streets that morning but I was at a loss to identify it. It was a feeling neither good nor bad, just different.
At the Library of Congress, one of my employees, Mya Thanda (later Helen Mya Thanda Poe), was from Burma. While somehow, she had managed to leave the country, her mother Daw Mya Sein, had not been able to. On my third day I had arranged to spend the morning with Helen’s mother.
I must have walked to her house but I don’t remember. Certainly, I didn’t know enough to take a bus. She cried when I gave her my gift of lengths of cloth for 3 longhis and gifts that I carried from her daughter. She was one of the most remarkable women that I ever met. With a Ph.D. from Oxford in history, she had been Burma’s representative for women’s rights to the League of Nations. I met her again after she was able to leave Burma. In our conversation that day, I found why I felt something different that morning. It was the first day that the government had changed the traffic patterns from driving on the left to driving on the right, shaking off another remnant of colonial rule. This meant that all bus doors still opened on the left and riders were now let off in the middle of the street. Daw Mya Sein said “the government is trying to make us forget our empty stomachs.”
Unfortunately, I had to leave Rangoon the next morning; however, I was on my way to another exotic place, Kathmandu.